Into the Night

night watch

// by Sue Bjorkman

In 1763, nightfall brought the kind of dark our post-electricity minds almost can’t fathom. So when British soldiers conducted the routine Night Watch, they blazed their way with torches.

St. Augustine—at the time one of only three walled cities in North America—was kept tightly secured. By torchlight, soldiers patrolled the perimeter, intent on protecting this strategic asset by assuring every gate was secured, every post and redoubt manned. This was a professional duty, but it couldn’t help looking festive, too.

While not exactly a true British Christmas tradition, the Night Watch evokes holiday images. For this reason, reliving the British Night Watch has been a December tradition in the Oldest City since 1975.

This year’s event, held December 5-6, has undergone an organizational change, but the overall spirit remains. For the first time, the St. Augustine Garrison will produce the event, renaming it the St. Augustine Colonial Night Watch. This change reflects an inclusion of other related colonial militia—Spanish, French and Native American. This cannon-firing, torch-bearing parade and party now exists to illuminate the period between 1739 and 1785.

“The British were only here 20 years but it is a part of St. Augustine’s history, so it needs to be kept alive and uninterrupted,” says historian Richard Coyle, advisor for the St. Augustine Colonial Night Watch.

“What I most enjoy about this is the one-on-one. It’s a chance for people to ask anything about our history,” Coyle says.

Bob Alvarez, St. Augustine Garrison president, believes there’s no better place for it. “We have a 17th century fort as our backdrop. Many of our existing buildings and houses are from this time period. There’s just nothing like it anywhere else.”

The only ‘Night Watch’ south of South Carolina, this is also the only local major event commemorating the British period.

Organizers expect about 300 re-enactors to participate from groups such as the 60th Regiment of Foote and the East Florida Frontier Rangers. Although the British controlled St. Augustine for less than five percent of its 450-year history, their reign from 1763 to 1783 had a “profound influence,” according to J. Michael Francis, author of St. Augustine: America’s First City. “The town expanded in size, and former open spaces were covered with uniquely British-style structures,” Francis writes in his book. St. Augustine served as the capital of East Florida and the 14th colony.

The British wasted little time revamping the formerly Spanish post. They renovated the Government House and established a typical royal colony judicial and taxation system. Crumbling infrastructure, such as the seawall, was repaired. Trade networks were greatly expanded via new roads in all directions, including King’s Road, a 16-foot wide thoroughfare. The St. Augustine Lighthouse—still working today—was raised 30 feet.

“The British period was a very productive period in our history. There were hundreds of farms and plantations established, and emerging commerce. The town’s population swelled to about 8,000 residents, including the Minorcans,” Coyle says.

Numerous crops—sugar, rice, indigo, cotton, citrus—were cultivated for export, while hundreds of slaves were imported to work the fields.

Many buildings took on new roles: the Spanish Hospital became a prison and the Franciscan monastery (currently the Florida National Guard Headquarters) became officer’s quarters. The Spanish Church near the Plaza was converted to a Protestant church, marking the first time non-Catholic services were held in town. It was also the first time local formal education was taught in English.

British families made themselves at home, too, by altering Spanish houses. They added fireplaces, chimneys, glazed slash windows, front entrances and second stories. The merging of British and Spanish structures created the unique “St. Augustine Style.”

St. Augustine became even more multicultural during the British reign, thanks to Governor Patrick Tonyn’s influence. A large Minorcan population (as well as Greek immigrants) was allowed to relocate here in 1777 after a harrowing decade of indentured servitude in New Smyrna. They brought in their own customs from their native Spain and enriched the city’s culture. Their descendants remain a vital part of the town tapestry today.

Among highlights of the ‘Night Watch’ event, Saturday’s Change of Flag ceremony serves as the opening chapter of the British story. The ceremony commemorates the events of July 20, 1763 when the Spanish flag was lowered after they were forced to cede Florida to Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which concluded the French and Indian War.

“The Spanish had lived here for almost 200 years and now they were basically saying, ‘here are the keys to the town.’ This was their home and now they all had to leave,” says Conrad Matt, a member of the St. Augustine Garrison. About 3,000 people—the Spanish, African, and Christian Indian population—soon left the city aboard ships mostly bound for Cuba.

On Sunday, the Change of Flag ceremony is portrayed in reverse, commemorating when the British lost the Revolutionary War and handed the territory back. Other festivities include weapon demonstrations, interpretations of colonial civilian life, and music.

The Torchlight Parade Saturday night starts at the fort and concludes at the Government House where a “Volley of Joy,” musket firing and caroling will commence. Festivities mirror those occurring in 18th century St. Augustine when people gathered to sing, feast, and entertain each other with dramatic presentations. Lanterns were left in windows to make homes look merry and bright and much roast beef and sausage was consumed.

Ah yes, now, bring us some figgy pudding and let the season begin.