French in Florida Celebrations

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2012, Vol. 36, No. 1

This year, on May 1st, the State of Florida, through its statewide Viva Florida 500 initiatives, celebrated the 450th anniversary of French Huguenot Captain Jean Ribault’s arrival in the New World and the beginning of French history in Florida. Celebrations will continue in 2013 celebrating 500 years since the arrival of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon on FIorida’s east coast. The following year, 2014, will mark a second French exploration milestone, the founding of Fort Caroline in 1564.

On May 1, 1562, nearly 50 years before the English settlement at Jamestown, Jean Ribault sailed into what we now call the St. Johns River, christening it the Riviere de Mai, or River of May. He met with indigenous, Mocama-speaking Timucua Indians on the northern side of the river and claimed the land for France by erecting a large stone obelisk bearing the French royal coat of arms. Leaving Florida and sailing northward to modern day Parris Island (South Carolina), Captain Ribault established Charlesfort, where he left behind a garrison of thirty men to be resupplied within a year’s time. Port Royal Harbor was well known to Huguenot corsairs and sailors as the parallel where Spanish treasure fleets met trade winds that would blow them eastward to Spain. The Charlesfort-Santa Elena archeological site attests to the dramatic adventure of those Frenchmen left behind who, due to the ongoing Wars of Religion, were not readily resupplied but rather left to their own devices. After a general mutiny, all defenders save one attempted to cross the Atlantic in a small improvised craft. They were subjected to the worst of hardships at sea and ultimately resorted to cannibalism before being rescued off the coast of England. As Spain learned of France’s colonial ambitions, ships were sent Hernando de Manrique de Rojas was the commander of Spanish forces sent in late 1562 to destroy the French fort at Port Royal. to burn Charlesfort to the ground. This mission was successful, capturing the fort’s last defender, who had survived by the aid of local inhabitants.

Unable to enter France due to the fall of the Huguenot stronghold at Dieppe, Capitain Ribault was next promised aid and safe harbor by Queen Elisabeth I of England but soon found himself imprisoned in Tower of London under charges of espionage. The powerful French Admiral, Gaspard de Coligny, named Ribault’s second-in-command, René Goulaine de Laudonnière, as leader of the second French expedition in Florida. Incredibly some of the survivors of the Charlesfort fiasco would join this second expedition in 1564, attempting to found a lasting colony near modern day Mayport (Jacksonville, FL). After a little over a year’s time, Laudonnière was barely keeping the fledgling colony together. Even as they began preparing to return to France, a French flotilla commanded by Capitain Ribault appeared upon the horizon to reinforce the French effort. However, hearing that a nest of corsairs and heretics was being established in La Florida, a Spanish fleet commanded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was dispatched by Phillipe II to destroy the French colony and establish the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine.

As Ribault sailed northward to confront Avilés, his fleet was struck by a hurricane which scattered and scuttled the ships, its supplies, weapons and men Avilés easily took Fort Caroline as French hurricane survivors marched northward towards St. Augustine. On at least two occasions at Mantanzas inlet (Spanish for slaughter), parties of French soldiers surrendered to Avilés and, refusing to renounce their faith, were put to the sword. Over two hundred Frenchmen died in this way at Matanzas, while 16 were spared for their utility to the new colony or having converted to Catholicism. The colonies’ women and children were spared by Avilés and Laudonnière, while the artist Jacques Le Moyne and others were able to escape by way of small vessels and aid from the Timucua people. The experiences of these French colonists, many of them Huguenots, are recreated in the personal accounts of Laudonnière, L’histoire notable de la Floride,Laudonnière, René Goulaine de, Dominique de Gourgues, and Martin Basanier. 1586. L’histoire notable de la Floride sitvee es Indes occidentales, contenant les trois voyages faits en icelle par certains capitaines & pilotes françois, descrits par le Capitaine Laudonniere, qui y a commandé l’espace d’vn an trois moys: à laquell. Paris: Auuray. as well as in the memoirs of Le Moyne,Le Moyne de Morgues, Jacques, Theodor de Bry, and Frederic B. Perkins. 1875. Narrative of Le Moyne, an artist who accompanied the French expedition to Florida under Laudonnière, 1564. Boston: J.R. Osgood and Co. who sketched some of the first eyewitness images of the New World. Miles Harvey, of Painter in a Savage Land, retells the amazing story of this European artist who would serve as the New World’s first investigative journalist, bringing back images of what laid beyond the farthest horizons.

As part of the 450th anniversary celebrations in Florida, French Week 2012 was celebrated in Jacksonville, Florida, marked by the arrival of two French naval schooners, Etoile and Belle Poule. These two tall ships represent the last of their kind still in service, and their commanding officers, Lieutenants Largeteau and Linke, joined the French Consul General of Miami, Gaël de Maisonneuve, and the Mayor of Jacksonville in awarding the French Legion of Honor to three American WWII veterans who served in France. As the retirees stood, the Consul read out their acts of unparalleled bravery in the fight to free occupied France. The French descendants of both Jean Ribault and René Goulaine de Laudonnière were in attendance. Afterwards, the crew of the sailing ships invited attendees on board ship for a very generous reception of champagne and canapes in view of the waters where French explorers had first sailed 450 years ago.

The 450th commemoration of the French history in Florida continues in 2014 as the founding of Fort Caroline is remembered. In coordination with the France-Florida Research Institute and the University of Florida’s (UF) Digital World’s Institute, UF’s George A. Smathers Libraries has been awarded grant funding to produce a short animated film incorporating the original 16th century Le Moyne/de Bry engravings owned by the Fisher family of Florida. These engravings have recently been rescanned by the State Library & Archives of Florida and will become part of an animated reproduction of the story of the French in Florida.

Matthew Loving
Romance Languages / Area Studies Librarian
George A. Smathers Libraries
University of Florida
P. O. Box 117001
Gainesville, FL 32611-7001
(352) 273-2635