The recruitment during the later 1760s of hundreds of Mediterranean contract laborers for the East Florida plantations of Andrew Turnbull provides an excellent lesson in unintended consequences. A mere decade later, economic failure and open revolt among the laborers combined with bitter disputes between planters and British administrators to doom Turnbull’s less-than-noble experiment. The flight of the workers—the large majority of whom hailed from the island of Minorca—to the nearby city of Saint Augustine put a belated end to this unusual experiment in private colonization. The exodus of 1777 also cemented the foundations for the emergence of the longest-lived Catalan-speaking community within the United States.
Cultural and linguistic concerns are the centerpiece of Philip D. Rasico’s study of the Minorcans of Saint Augustine. The general outline of the Turnbull enterprise is a story well known to students of East Florida history. Rasico’s contribution is to provide an updated narrative of this episode, supplementing a generally lean documentary record with original research in Balearic archives. He then carries the story of Minorcan Saint Augustine into the later nineteenth century. In particular, his close reading of travelers’ descriptions and poetic evocations by illustrious visitors like Emerson highlights the widespread (and ongoing) tendency to conflate specifically Minorcan culture and language into a more generic “Spanish” Saint Augustine—a vision which characteristically ignores the extensive internal ethnic differentiation among local Hispanic settlers. The result is a meticulous chronicle of an intriguing community, curiously neglected by students both of ethnic history and comparative linguistics. Not surprisingly, it is in the latter capacity that Rasico makes his most significant contribution. The second half of his book contains an exhaustive analysis of local survivals of Minorcan speech. These constitute a richly expressive lexicon, especially of obscenities and insults, and provide interesting evidence for the continuous existence well into the twentieth century of a specifically Minorcan culture. While plodding and repetitive in spots, this narrative will be profitably consulted by specialists in Spanish Florida and late colonial history. It will also prove useful to students of Catalan philology and of more general processes of cultural and linguistic transformation, perceived both internally and externally.