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René Goulaine de Laudonnière

But in France, meanwhile, the Truce of Amboise granted the Huguenots a temporary breathing spell. Unable to forget the allure of the New World with its promise of a Protestant haven, Huguenot leaders began making plans to send out another expedition. Since Ribaut was still imprisoned in England, the leadership of the second voyage to America passed to René Goulaine de Laudonnière, the observant and articulate chronicler of the first trip. On April 22, 1564, he departed from Le Havre with a fleet of three ships. Like Ribaut’s first voyage, Laudonnière’s was essentially military in character. Of the 300 people accompanying him, 110 were sailors, 120 were soldiers, and the rest were artisans, servants, and page boys. There were also four women aboard and, as might have been expected, this caused trouble.

Laudonnière raised the coast of Florida on June 22, then proceeded to the River of May, where the Indians greeted him like a returning prodigal. To Laudonnière’s amazement, they had carefully tended the stone pillar erected by Ribaut two years earlier; more, they had been worshipping it. “Wee found the same crowned with crownes of Bay, and at the foote thereof many little baskets full of Mill which they call in their language Tapaga Tapola,” Laudonnière wrote. “Then when they came thither they kissed the same with great reverence and besought us to do the like, which we would not dénie them, to the ende we might drawe them to be more in friendship with us.”

Laudonnière explored the coast to the north, but turned back before reaching the abandoned site at Port Royal. He decided to make his permanent headquarters with the friendly savages at the mouth of the May River. Here he built a sizable compound which he named Fort Caroline.

Despite the happy homecoming, Laudonnière’s problems at Fort Caroline soon began to accumulate almost faster than he could handle them. Within three months of his arrival he was stricken with a fever, probably malaria, that sapped him of his strength throughout his stay in Florida. Several mutinies broke out. One group of dissident settlers tried to poison Laudonnière; when this plot failed they attempted to blow him up by placing a keg of gunpowder under his sickbed. A short time later, two shallops that the sailors had recently built were stolen by mutineers, who then embarked on a career of piracy.

Laudonnière aggravated his situation by making the same basic error that the garrison at Charlesfort had made: he relied too heavily on the generosity of the Indians. When winter came, the modest granaries of the neighboring tribes were exhausted; the Frenchmen had to forage for roots and bargain with distant peoples to stave off starvation. Inevitably, the Indians rebelled against these constant demands. Under the leadership of a powerful chief named Outina, they finally attacked a French foraging party, killing two and wounding twenty-two others.

With some justification, Laudonnière attributed his difficulties to the lack of support from home. “For if wee had bene succoured in time & place, & according to the promise that was made unto us, the warre which was between us and Outina, had not fallen out,” he complained. “Neither should wee have had occasion to offend the Indians, which with all paines in the world I entertained in good amitié.”

Reports of the unrest at Fort Caroline had meanwhile reached the homeland via a French ship that had called there in the fall of 1564. Distance seems to have magnified the bill of particulars against the unfortunate Laudonnière; he was reported to be living in sin with one of the four women on the expedition and was said to be acting like a tyrant, even trying to set himself up as king.

Jean Ribaut, now out of prison and back in France itching to return to America, was commissioned to lead a third expedition to Florida and take over command from Laudonnière. He left Le Havre on May 10, 1565, with five vessels carrying some 600 soldiers, laborers, women, and children. Unlike the two previous expeditions, this was a full-fledged colonizing effort. Commanding one of the ships in Jean Ribaut’s train was his son Jacques, like his father a captain in the French Navy.

Unknown to the French, there was trouble ahead. Two months after Ribaut left Le Havre, a Spanish force departed from Cadiz under the command of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, one of the ablest admirals in the Spanish fleet. His destination was also Florida, and his orders directed him to find out “whether there are on said coast or country, any settlers who are corsairs, or of any other nations not subject to us.” If this proved to be true (and Menéndez knew it was, for the intelligence pipeline between Spain and France was working better), he was bluntly ordered to “cast them out by the best means that seems to you possible.” Though the two countries were still at peace, a battle fought in far-off Florida could be diplomatically swept under the rug if it proved to be embarrassing in Europe.

After dawdling for a considerable length of time to explore more rivers, Ribaut arrived at Fort Caroline on August 28. Here at last was the succor the ailing Laudonnière had been longing for. But events set in motion three years before by the first French inroads into what Spain considered her exclusive territory were now rapidly moving to a climax. A week after Ribaut’s arrival, six Spanish warships appeared off the coast near the mouth of the May River.

Though Ribaut was on shore, the men aboard his ships cut their anchor chains and put to sea. The Spaniards gave chase, but were rapidly outdistanced by the smaller, faster French vessels. As the Spanish ships headed back toward the coast, the French fleet shadowed them, found they had put into St. Augustine’s harbor, some thirty-five miles to the south, and then reported back to Ribaut.

Always the man of action, Ribaut ordered all able-bodied men at Fort Caroline aboard his ships to pursue the enemy. Laudonnière protested that this would leave him defenseless against an overland attack, but Ribaut was now in command. On September 10, leaving two ships behind, he set sail to attack Menéndez, who meanwhile had disembarked his forces at St. Augustine and begun to fortify his position.

Among the many things discovered in the New World—tobacco, corn, pumpkins, turkeys—most history books fail to make note of the hurricane. Peculiar to the east coast of North America (and to the east coast of Asia, most of which was terra incognita in 1565), the hurricane posed problems that the European seaman was totally unable to cope with. Its portentshigh cirrus “mare’s-tails” in the sky, the ominous calm, the first fitful, nervous gusts—had not as yet been related to the ferocity that was likely to follow. Once caught in a hurricane with its contradictory winds and mountainous waves, the most experienced and able European sailors were in a realm that had existed heretofore only in the imaginations of madmen. Shortly after Ribaut made his first contact with the Spanish at St. Augustine, a hurricane struck.

The great tempest wrecked three of his ships. With great difficulty, he and 600 of his men made it to shore near the harbor, where the Spanish fleet had safely ridden out the storm. Though Menéndez did not yet know of the extent of the catastrophe that had befallen Ribaut, he surmised that the French fleet had been badly scattered.

After a swift overland march, Menéndez attacked Fort Caroline early on the morning of September 20. Routed out in their nightshirts, Laudonnière’s small garrison were unable to put up any effective resistance and fled through the marshes in an attempt to reach the two ships that, anchored in the river, had survived the hurricane. By nightfall the Spanish had killed 132 Frenchmen without suffering a single casualty. The survivors were few: Laudonnière, the artist Le Moyne, the woman who had caused Laudonnière so much grief, and eighteen or twenty others. They were taken aboard the two ships, one of which was commanded by Ribaut’s son, and hastily set sail for France.

Meanwhile Jean Ribaut and his men, stranded on the hot Florida beaches without food, water, or arms, began to surrender a few at a time. They were asked, “Are you Catholics or Lutherans, and are there any who wish to confess?” All but a few remained stout Huguenots to the bitter end and they were led out behind the dunes and summarily executed. On October 10 Ribaut himself and the last remnants of his force capitulated. They too were put to death. For an epitaph on his unknown grave, the remarkable Ribaut might have had the words of his executioner, Pedro Menéndez: “The King of France could do more with him with fifty thousand ducats, than with others with five hundred thousand; and he could do more in one year than another in ten, for he was the most experienced seaman and corsair known.”

And so ended France’s ill-starred attempts to colonize the east coast of what would become the United States. Now the die was cast: the departure of the French from Fort Caroline marked the beginning of the pattern that was to shape North America for all time.

Under Pedro Menéndez, the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine took hold; Spain was to dominate Florida until she ceded it to the United States in 1821. As a precaution, the Spanish twice attempted to establish outposts at the site of Ribaut’s first settlement at Port Royal, but as their influence began to wane and the English began to push farther south from Virginia, these forts were abandoned, leaving as their only legacy “tabby,” a kind of concrete the Spaniards had learned to make from oyster shells; copied by the English, it may still be seen in the foundations of the older homes of the lower South Carolina coast.

The French, following the lead of Jacques Cartier, now shifted their attention to Canada and began pushing down the Mississippi Valley and up from New Orleans. Today the only testaments to their dramatic moves to colonize South Carolina and Florida are two monuments, one at the site of Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River near present-day Jacksonville, the other on the seaward tip of Parris Island, South Carolina, home of the famous U.S. Marine Corps “boot camp,” where Charlesfort is believed to have stood. (The exact location of Charlesfort is still much disputed. Evidence recently unearthed suggests that it may have been on nearby Port Royal Island.)

A few place names—monuments of a less formal nature—tell a different story. Ribaut’s “fayrest and greatest haven” in South Carolina is still known as Port Royal. And down on the east coast of Florida, an inlet near St. Augustine is still called Matanzas. In Spanish the word means slaughter, and near here lie the bones of Jean Ribaut, a man who might have altered the course of American history were it not for a hurricane.

Sherwood Harris. The Tragic Dream of Jean Ribaut. American Heritage. October 1963; Volume 14, Issue 6.

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