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St. Augustine 300 Years Ago, Part II

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In 1712 the new governor of St. Augustine, Jose de Zuniga, established trade with the British to get supplies and provisions to St. Augustine. Trading with their former enemies was preferable to starving, even if the English were heathens (non-Catholics.) For the next several decades, a power struggle developed within the hierarchy of St. Augustine, between the royal appointed governors and the local Criollo people who were born and raised there, and knew all the ins and outs of staying in power. The descendants of Menendez had found their niche as criollos and firmly established their power by being in charge of the treasury. A governor newly arrived from Spain was unable to enforce any rule or regulation without the support of the local-grown criollo administrators. In this way, the criollos held the real power.

Second only to the governor was the Sergeant Major, and SM Juan de Ayala was a local criollo who developed his own little empire. Since St. Augustine needed food, supplies, and provisions, he established his own trading business. He was intimately familiar with Havana and trade in the Caribbean, so he used his skills to feed the city. Because he provided what the city wanted and needed, he was able to deflect any criticism for decades. And since he had the monopoly, he charged everything up to five times the price he had paid for the same goods in Havana. Even though it was forbidden to appoint family members to other high offices in town, Ayala managed to appoint someone related to him in almost every position in the city government and military garrison. He was so powerful that he had the favor of the Spanish king, the governor of New Spain (Mexico) and the church. So any treasurer who presented an unfavorable audit of Ayala's abuse of power and profiteering from the illegal trade with the English, found himself in the hot seat instead. One treasurer's unfavorable audit found himself reprimanded by the governor of New Spain and the royal court, who at the same time praised Ayala.

Ayala eventually filled the position of governor (that was normally appointed by the King of Spain) because as Sergeant Major he would serve as interim governor when the post was vacant. Sometimes it would take Spain years to send a new governor from Spain.

But in 1718 Ayala's luck ran out. The new governor of St. Augustine, Antonio de Benavides, started out the gate fast and furious to reform the system and end corruption. Ayala suddenly found himself in prison, and later exiled to Havana.

Ayala was charged with trading with the enemy. All charges of his unethical business practices, selling goods way beyond their value in his store because of his monopoly, or appointing family to positions of power were not even considered. Even his insubordination and near mutiny with the previous governor had gone unnoticed by the court. Probably the charge of trading with the enemy was the easiest one for Benavides to stick on Ayala, and gave him an excuse to remove Ayala from the situation. By this time Ayala was 83 years old, and for years had been accused of being too old to have those high positions of responsibilities. And he no longer had his allies along the local criollo families because his former allied officers in the garrison had married into the rival Menendez family.

We may think that our court system was slow, but Spain was even much slower. The crown had the final decision in the courts, and the crown had a lot of business that was more pressing than corruption in a remote outpost with no gold. Taking matters to the royal court in Spain would take at least a year to get an answer, and that was if it was a quick decision. Finally in 1731 Ayala was exonerated from the charge of trading with the enemy because they rationalized that he did whatever he could to get provisions for the city. Ayala did not celebrate this news, because he had died four years earlier at the age of 92.
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