Judges for British Subjects in Spanish East Florida

51 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2021 Last revised: 16 Sep 2021

See all articles by M. C. Mirow

M. C. Mirow

Florida International University (FIU) - College of Law

Date Written: 2021


Great Britain transferred East Florida with its capital St. Augustine to Spain in 1783. From the early months of 1783 until November 1785, the province experienced overlapping assertions of jurisdiction during a protracted transitional period. Arriving in mid-1784, Spanish Governor Zéspedes encountered a massive British population that did not leave as quickly as imperial authorities or treaty drafters anticipated. Lacking a legal adviser and instructions from Spanish authorities, Zéspedes asserted Spanish sovereignty through various ad hoc legal innovations. This article addresses his creation of “Judges over His Britannic Majesty’s Subjects” resident in Spanish East Florida. The judges appointed were not trained in English law; British subjects resisted their assertions of jurisdiction, the procedures they employed, and their attempts to provide Spanish justice for their British guests. This episode exposes jurisdictional battles tied to sovereignty in a legally plural, imperially liminal place and moment. It reveals gaps in legal understanding between imperial actors and established prejudices between British common law and Spanish colonial law (derecho indiano) in criminal civil, and procedural matters. This distance was exacerbated by a lack of informed legal experts. British residents yearned for a stable place and stable law as they settled their affairs and departed East Florida. The Spanish leadership responded to these desires with assertions of absolute sovereignty and instances of legal ingenuity such as Judges for British Subjects.

Keywords: judges, legal pluralism, empire, sovereignty, criminal law, enslaved humans, derecho indiano

JEL Classification: K10, K14, K40, K41, N41, N46, N91, N96

Suggested Citation

Mirow, M. C., Judges for British Subjects in Spanish East Florida (2021). 66 Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 1-41 (2021), Florida International University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 21-01, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3759001

M. C. Mirow (Contact Author)

Florida International University (FIU) - College of Law ( email )

2071 Diaz-Balart Hall
University Park
Miami, FL 33199
United States
305-348-8347 (Phone)

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