AMELIA ISLAND AND FERNANDINA BEACH
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
Fernandina Beach is a small, elegant and historic town on Amelia Island, just north of Jacksonville and south of the Georgia border and once a haven for pirates, slave traders and the odd revolutionary. It is estimated that 60,000 slaves were illegally brought in through the island, although the ever-present rewriting of history makes little mention of the fact. It was also here that the first-ever black regiment of former slaves was formed in January 1863, recruited to fight the confederates further north. Out of the frying-pan, into the firing line, poor bastards.
The area has received much unwanted and undesirable attention over the past 500 years, and we added to that when we paid it a surprise visit ourselves this week. It was not unusual 200 years ago to have woken up to see yet another flag flying over the fort. Since its discovery, no fewer eight different flags have flown from the mast, some more than once..
1783 Spanish again
1812 Republic of Florida
1813 Spanish again
1817 Latin American Patriots Green Cross flag (led by that glorious blaggard Gregor MacGregor (an ancestor of the blogger) and his 55 pirate musketeers seized the for for fun (see below).
1817 Mexican Rebel flag - the Spanish kicked out the duplicitous Scotsman but then the superbly named Ruggles Hubbard grabbed it, allegedly for Mexico to confuse the picture still further, arriving on the privateer brig, Morgiana, flying the Buenos Aires flag. Wacky times. But he lasted just a matter of weeks before being booted out.
1861 Confederate flag antebellum
1863 United States - Union forces grabbed the island.
To go back to the European perspective of 'the beginning', in 1562 the French, in the form of Huguenot Jean Ribault, landed but our old friend Menendez, who loved nothing more than the occasional massacre and mass-murder, arrived in 1565 and, true to character, immediately lopped the head off the hapless (and now headless) Frenchman along with about 350 of his Gallic fellows. Later, in 1736. the admirable James Oglethorpe, the governor of Georgia and founder of beautiful Savannah, ordered that a fort be built there to house the Scottish Highlanders and the area saw the British, French and Spanish come and go over a hundred years - Spain took over from Britain as part of the treaty after the American Revolution but in 1821 it was officially handed over the Florida along with all Spain's other territories. But there was more to come...
I want to introduce you to the rascal Gregor Macgregor. He was one of the great conmen of all time. True, he was an adventurer and fearless Scottish soldier, but his greatest 'coup' was to dupe French and British well-heeled dimwits to pour their savings into buying land in the exciting new Central American country of 'Poyais'. In 1822-3. no less than 250 investors set off for their new land only to find that 'Poyais' just did not exist. That dodgy Gregor had invented the whole thing. Unfortunately, half of the poor devils died out there searching for their bit of jungle. Meanwhile, our hero has nipped off to Venezuela, where he lived out the next 22 years. As we used to say in greyhound racing 'he couldn't lie in bed straight'. They should make a movie about him.
The confidence trickster supreme General Gregor MacGregor.
Getting back to Fernandino Beach, this is a fabulously well-preserved hamlet and well worth a visit. It is really just one main road leading down to the sea, lined by old, proud nineteenth century buildings which could tell many a tale. The town once was the home of some bustling docks and so it is no surprise that in the main street is Florida's oldest bar, The Palace Saloon.
It is said that the original owner was a pal of Adolphus Busch, founder of the eponymous Anheuser-Busch empire. Busch, it is reported, travelled all the way from St Louis to oversee the interior design with its mosaic floors, embossed tin ceiling and hand-carved mahogany naked ladies. It was a very respected watering-hole and for a while known as the 'Ship Captain's Bar'.
A railroad started started here and was built right across the state, the first ever trans-Florida rail link. Trains still chug along to and from the docks. See video below.
The southern half of Amelia Island, while very beautiful with fine beaches (see video below), has sadly fallen prey to the avaricious 'gated-community' developers. We drove around a couple, with their pristine avenues of well-manicure identical houses - how anyone finds their way back to their rightful home is a mystery. Some look like a giant syringe has descended from the heavens and sucked all the individuality, personality and humanity right out of them.
On the way back, we skirted Jacksonville, the most populous city in Florida, which from a distance looks like many of the other skyscraper clusters, and headed for Jacksonville Beach, its wide, expansive sands washed by the white waves of the Atlantic Ocean, overlooked (and overshadowed in the afternoon) by the inevitable Florida condo blocks.
So we had a great day. Fernandina is worth seeking out - but if you bump into anyone called MacGregor, keep your money firmly in your pocket.