Family circumstances have just taken me to Florida for a few days. I have to say that without family ties it would not be a destination of choice for me: it’s too bloomin’ hot and humid most of the year – though last week, as luck would have it, the temperature almost touched freezing in Tampa, about the southernmost point (so far) to which the current extreme freeze of the northern and mid-western states has extended.The other thing I don’t really like about Florida is that architecturally it doesn’t have a lot of history – the lovingly preserved ‘historical districts’ are mostly early twentieth- century. The first ‘magic kingdom’ in the state was the surreal palace with Byzantine?/Moorish?/Islamic? domes which now houses the University of Tampa, and was originally the Tampa Bay Hotel, built on the initiative of Henry B. Plant, the railway magnate who first opened central and south Florida to holiday-makers and sun-seekers from the north in the 1890s (before the railway came, Tampa’s population was 720; fifteen years later it was over 15,000). And the second, and more famous, is the Disney complex around Orlando. You don’t bother to distinguish between the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, the Animal Kingdom, etc. – it’s all just Disney, and dare one say it, it’s all stupendously ugly: imagine Newmarket Road, Cambridge (or any other road with low-rise commercial ribbon development), continuing endlessly in all directions across hundreds of flat square miles . . . On the other hand, the bird life along the coast and lake shores is wonderful, and the people are endlessly kind and welcoming.
The parking manager at the Henry B. Plant Museum told us, inter alia, that Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria had stayed at the hotel (though I don’t believe Queen Victoria ever visited the USA?). He also pointed out a huge live oak near the main entrance, under which, allegedly, Hernando de Soto had talked with the local Native Americans when his expedition sailed from the Gulf of Tampa into the Hillsborough River in 1539. This was riveting, as I had brought with me to read The Discovery and Conquest of Terra Florida, by Don Ferdinando de Soto and Six Hundred Spaniards His Followers, written by ‘a Gentleman of Elvas’ who was part of de Soto’s company, and translated from the Portuguese by Richard Hakluyt himself.
The introduction to the 1851 Hakluyt Society edition of the work, by William B. Rye, provides useful background information to the narrative, in particular making it clear how very confusing the various early accounts (almost all Spanish or Portuguese) of expeditions from Mexico or Cuba to the south of the (now) United States were. The conquistadores had no idea whether the land rumoured to lie to the north was one mass or a further sequence of islands; and the difficulty of measuring distances between their stopping points on land, and the lack of accurate latitude readings, combined with the subsequent destruction of almost all the native settlements named in the text, combine to make tracing the expedition on a map extraordinarily difficult.
One thing that is clear is that De Soto’s was not the first western expedition to land in Florida. That distinction belongs to the Spanish Governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon, who was lured to explore by rumours of a mysterious fountain of youth, and may have landed somewhere (again much disputed) on the Atlantic coast on Palm Sunday 1512 – the name ‘Florida’ coming not from the flowery nature of the land but from the Spanish for Palm Sunday (‘Pascua Florida’). De Leon sailed down the coast and past the Keys, before finding a way to turn north against the current of the Gulf Stream and up the gulf coast: the tradition that he came ashore in the vicinity of Charlotte Harbour is made visible in a modern statue in Gilchrist Park, on the shoreline in Punta Gorda – the conquistador strides on to land, his cloak billowing behind him. (He probably features in lots of people’s wedding photos, as he stands conveniently and picturesquely close to the outdoor wedding venue which was our main Floridian destination.)
De Soto’s motive in his expedition was not eternal youth but gold. He had become very rich as a follower of Pizarro in Peru, and he had heard accounts that Florida too was rich in gold – ‘that it was the richest country in the world’. Between 1539 and 1543, he and his six hundred followers – their number continually diminishing through disease and skirmishes with the natives – struggled through swamps and across rivers north over a staggering distance – from present-day Florida through Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. They crossed the river, and probably reached as far as Texas, but De Soto, realising that he was now hopelessly overstretched, decided to retreat, hoping to sail down the Mississippi and regain the sea. He could get no firm information about the distances involved from the natives: he ‘fell into great dumps to see how hard it was to get to the sea . . . and with that thought he fell sick’, and on 21 May 1542, he died. His appointed successor led the men down the river and into the Gulf of Mexico; after 52 days at sea, the 311 survivors arrived in familiar territory in ‘New Spain’. They had found no gold, they were dressed in rags of deerskin and tormented by mosquito bites, but they had traversed and claimed for Spain a huge range of new territory. Equally significantly, they had, by extraordinary ruthlessness and cruelty fully documented in this account, engendered hostility in the native tribes they encountered which would be significant for the future European colonisation of the American South.
Hakluyt’s motive in publishing this account in English should not go unmentioned: in an elaborate ‘Epistle Dedicatorie’ to the Councillors of the Virginia Company, he lists the types of treasure thought to be located in ‘Terra Florida’, from precious metals and pearls to buffalos and mulberry trees. At the time of writing, nobody knew with any certainty where the land of Virginia ended and ‘Terra Florida’ began: Hakluyt urges the Company to send expeditions south into the debatable land where these riches may be found, but warns that the Portuguese narrative confirms that the natives of the region are ‘the greatest traitors of the world . . . as unconstant as the wethercock, and most readie to take all occasions of advantages to doe mischiefe’, so that ‘if gentle polishing will not serve, then we shall not want hammerours and rough masons enow, I meane our old soldiours trained up in the Netherlands, to square and prepare them to our Preachers hands’: a depressing foreshadowing of subsequent English, French and Spanish advances into the region.