Monday, December 14, 2009

Home Ports: "Heated By Dreams Of Wealth"

I was always taught that the first European settlement in the U.S. was St. Augustine, Florida claimed by the Spanish (who were claiming everything in the New World at the time) in 1565. It turns out, though, that my teachers were wrong. Or perhaps just misinformed.

Fort Caroline was established by French Huguenots in 1564. It is north of what would become St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast of Florida south of Georgia. The man responsible was French Admiral Gaspard de Coligny who financed an expedition of Protestant exiles from France to settle in the Americas. This was not a settlement in the sense that Jamestown or New Orleans would be settlements. This was a fort built for one purpose only: to serve as a base from which to raid Spanish shipping. As de Coligny himself described it:

There were no tillers of the soil, only adventurous gentlemen, reckless soldiers, discontented tradesmen, all keen for novelty and heated by dreams of wealth.

What de Coligny doesn't mention is a visceral hatred of the Spanish. Like the Buccaneers of Tortuga a century later, the Frenchmen of Fort Caroline saw Spain as their mortal enemy.

From Fort Caroline, the freebooters went out and raided not only Spanish merchants and treasure ships but Spanish cities as well. Cartagena and Panama in South America both fell prey to the Protestant pirates. Cuba was hit particularly hard - probably due to proximity - with both Santiago and the well established capital of Havana sacked and plundered.

Of course the Spanish weren't going to hold still for all these Froggy shenanigans. In 1565 King Philip II sent a force led by Captain General Pedro de Menendez of Avilles to deal with the problem. 30 ships left Cadiz in June carrying a force of 2,000 soldiers along with upwards of 500 settlers. The Captain General was charged by the king to handle the pirate problem and establish a Spanish fort in "The Florida". De Menendez was the right man for the job not only because of his ruthlessness but his business interests as well. He owned several merchant ships, one of which had recently gone missing in the area of Fort Caroline with his own son aboard.

By September, de Menendez was reconnoitering Fort Caroline and he didn't like what he saw. The triangle shaped fort was heavily armed with earthworks and high walls on all three sides. It had a good view of it's harbor and sat slightly back on an estuary the could become a tap for the Spanish ships. De Menendez took his men and settlers south and, finding what he referred to as "a good harbor" he officially established St. Augustine.

While in the process of building his own ramparts, de Menendez and his men saw a flotilla of pirate ships from Fort Caroline sail by heading south. He surmised that the fort might be left with only a few men and he marched his soldiers overland to try and take it immediately. His hunch was right and the poorly defended fort was overcome with no Frenchmen left alive.

De Menendez left troops at Fort Caroline and returned to St. Augustine. There he was informed that the French ships previously seen had been wrecked on the coast further south. De Menendez hurried to the site and found 200 surviving pirates. He had them slaughtered on the beach. Shortly thereafter, de Menedez caught up with the last of the Fort Caroline freebooters. All were executed directly, including the commander of the fort, Jean de Ribault.

A mass grave was dug for these men and over it de Menendez erected a marker which read: "I do this not to Frenchmen but to heretics."

As a reward for his effective viciousness, the King made de Menendez Governor of Havana, among other things. The Spanish Main would remain relatively safe for another five years. Then El Dragon, Sir Francis Drake, would pick up where the Huguenots pirates left off.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I guess the lesson here is don't try to pull any "Froggy shenanigans" on the Spanish... Ouch. Thankee for that important safety tip and for the history lesson, as usual. That was a good, if somewhat brutal one.

Beck said...

Wow De Menendez was a rough guy. I'd always heard the same thing about St. Augustine. Interesting.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Well, they were just heretics after all.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Beck and welcome aboard! Thanks for joining the Brethren. The whole St. Augustine thing interested me because it sort of looks like that settlement wouldn't have been founded without the Spanish imperative to get rid of Fort Caroline. Curious indeed.

Anonymous said...

There sure is a lot of inaccuracies in the story you tell about Fort Caroline especially when it comes to pirates. Theodor de Bry who wrote a book based on the memoirs of Jacques le Moyne about Florida and Fort Caroline pretty much did the same thing as you have about making up information and that is why today they cannot find anything of French Huguenot influence in Florida. To date there isn’t as so much as a grain of sand of archeological information even pointing to the French ever setting foot on Florida soil. The Fort Caroline Memorial is a replica of such a fort but yet there is no archeological footprint to suggest it even existed in Florida. The only information we have is from Jacques le Moyne and Laudonnière and their account of the events leading to the destruction of Fort Caroline and their escape and voyage back to Europe. Jacques le Moyne was planning to write a book about these events but died before he could publish his work. When Theodor de Bry a notable cartographer and engraver, buys the works of the now deceased le Moyne and publishes a book about Florida and Fort Caroline in Franfurt in 1591 (which I own a 1st edition) now this is where some facts become fiction and Fort Caroline disapears into history, never to be seen again.

Just think, this has all happened because an individual wanted to excite his readers to the story and did not really care whether it was even accurate.

A special note: Theodor de Bry never set foot outside of Europe during his lifetime

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Anony! Thankee indeed for your take on this most interesting - if short - chapter in North American history.

I won't say I stand corrected, as my research would indicate that what I've written is accurate in as much as can be currently determined. I will say that it is always a pleasure to get another take on what "really" happened in any historical context.

Plus, I love to be spurred on to research even further. Thanks again.