Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Letter show Turnbull planned colony well
By Marie S. Goodrich | News-Journal Correspondent
NEW SMYRNA BEACH — “The New Smyrna colony just about made it. With a little bit of good luck, rather than bad, it could have been successful instead of a disastrous failure,” Dan Schafer told members of the Southeast Volusia Historical Society at a recent meeting.
Schafer, a history professor at the University of North Florida, spent 90 minutes presenting what he termed a “careful analysis” of letters New Smyrna founder Andrew Turnbull wrote to his partner, William Duncan, in Scotland.
The professor made two trips to Scotland last fall to view the recently-discovered letters and returned to Florida with 250 copies of various pages for study. The copies soon will be placed in the New Smyrna Museum of History.
“One of the things that intrigues me about Dr. Turnbull is how quickly he set up the colony and what he was able to accomplish,” Schaefer said, adding Turnbull preferred the area now known as the Indian River to the St. Johns River because it was “higher, drier and healthier.”
The colony covered 60,000 acres, reaching eight miles north and south from Spruce Creek into Edgewater, as well as eight miles into the interior.
“In 1767, when Turnbull first arrived on the scene here, he hit the ground running, Schaefer said.
Dr. Turnbull had worked for a trading company in the Mediterranean area for many years as a physician and married a Greek woman, later naming the colony established here in 1768 for her birthplace, Smyrna.
But Turnbull’s bad luck started early. A plague struck early in his efforts to recruit workers. There were months of delay in the Mediterranean due to terrible storms, seriously eroding funds put aside for the colony.
Although the arrival of the colonists in Florida had been planned for early spring, 1768, they could not even leave Minorca until April of that year, setting sail with 1,401 people — 540 Greeks, 110 Italians and 700 Minorcans. Some 150 died in passage.
It actually was the end of August 1768 before all the workers were in place and at work in the New Smyrna colony.
“Their arrival came at an awful time with summer heat, mosquitoes and, soon after, a hurricane that would accelerate the death rate dramatically,” Schafer said.
Houses had been built for only 500 people, instead of the 1,250 who came and were living in temporary quarters. Many of the colonists already were weakened by famine before leaving on the ocean journey. Then, a devastating hurricane hit, blowing the roofs off houses and causing flooding.
Another serious problem was scurvy, due to the lack of fresh vegetables. The colony’s governor at the time, James Grant, gave seeds for gardens and in two months, fresh vegetables were being grown.
Half of the colonists died in the first two years. Schafer said the Turnbull correspondence shows clearly how many were sick and how many died and he believes there must have been burials almost every day for months.
“Where are the bodies?” he asked.
Lack of money also was a constant challenge. Bills were mounting up into the thousands for items such as shoes and clothing for 1,000 people, as well as hooks and fishing nets. An important theme of Turnbull’s letters seemed to be, “How can I convince my partners?”
Yet, the colony was successful in many ways. By 1770, there were nearly eight miles of roads, with orange trees planted along each side while magnolia trees lined another street. The main town was due west from the wharf.
There was success in growing indigo and other crops in the early years, despite a drought. The first successful season of indigo netted 1,000 pounds sterling and “everybody was encouraged.”
One hundred acres of sugar cane were planted in July 1770 and, by 1772 — four years after the arrival of the colonists — all permanent cabins were in place, along with 50 major buildings and three wharves. A canal had been dug through the ridge, with others connecting to it. People were at work with plots.
“What he accomplished in that short time was nothing less than amazing,” Schafer said. “They were destitute of every convenience. There was much suffering but the colony still existed.”
Financial reversals, political intrigues and cancellation of indentures all contributed to the failure of the colony. Before leaving Europe, the settlers had signed contracts of indenture.
Turnbull maintained, according to the contract, time served would not be counted until the colonists paid back the expenses, which had grown because of the time spent waiting in Minorca.
What had appeared to be six years of indenture became 10 years, or even 14 or 15 years, according to Turnbull, with all expenses falling on the settlers. Many of the settlers, however, believed they had served the allotted time to earn land and be free.
More disastrous luck befell the settlement in 1773, when there was a horrendous drought. Instead of 27,000 pounds of indigo, it produced 700 pounds, planting three times and not even earning enough to pay for the seeds. The same situation continued the next year.
Schafer cited Turnbull’s faults as “spendthrift habits and an ego,” which came into play when he learned that Gov. Grant was going back to England, leaving the position vacant.
“The end was just around the corner for Andrew Turnbull,” Schafer said.
Despite staunch opposition, Turnbull returned to England for nine months in 1772 to lobby for the governor’s post. But another man — Patrick Tonyn — was given the job.
Schafer said Turnbull and the newly-appointed governor “hated each other with a passion.”
Finally, in 1777, some of the colonists walked to St. Augustine to present depositions to Gov. Tonyn against Turnbull and they were released from their indentured servitude.
Soon after, Turnbull was sued for 4,000 pounds of sterling by the widow of his chief business partner (Duncan) and sent to jail. The colony came to an end when he signed an agreement giving the land to his remaining partners.
“We forget the burden on the guy in charge, from sunup to sundown,” Schafer said. “Many of the things for which Turnbull has been attacked are off the mark, with some sources seeming to run ‘blood red’ as one reads about him. But that is not what is found in Dr. Turnbull’s letters.”