All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
13 January, 2012
The Great Republic by the Master Historians|
The Massacre of the French Protestants
by Bancroft, Hubert H.
|[The first earnest effort to establish a French colony in America was made in
the interest of the French Protestants at the instigation of the celebrated
Admiral Coligny. His primary effort in this direction was made in Brazil. The
northern shores of that country, as we have already stated, had been discovered
by Pinzon in 1499. In 1500 a Portuguese fleet under Pedro Alvarez Cabral, on a
voyage to the East Indies by way of the Cape of Good Hope, sailed so far
westward as to touch the coast of southern Brazil. A fort was built, in which a
few men were left, and gradually, during the succeeding years, small Portuguese
settlements spread along the coast. From time to time this coast was visited by
the French, mainly on piratical enterprises, and a state of war existed for
years between the French and Portuguese in the waters of Brazil. In 1555,
Coligny sent a colony to this region under Villegagnon, a French adventurer. It
was established on an island in the Bay of Rio Janeiro. But the place proved so
unsuitable, the colony was made up of such disreputable and vicious elements,
and the leader proved so worthless and treacherous, that the settlement, after
languishing for four years, yielded to an attack from the Portuguese, and was
swept out of existence.
In 1562, Coligny made a second effort to establish a refuge for French
Protestants in America. An expedition was sent to Florida under command of John
Ribaut. He reached the coast in May, and discovered a stream which he called the
River of May (now St. John's River). Proceeding thence to Port Royal, near the
southern border of Carolina, he erected a fort, and left twenty-six men,
returning to France for emigrants and supplies. The promised re-inforcement not
arriving, the colonists abandoned the fort and embarked for home in a brigantine
of their own construction. Like the Brazilian colonists, they had not taken the
trouble to cultivate the soil, and were driven by famine from America to
encounter a worse famine at sea. They were saved from death by an English vessel
which they fortunately met off the coast of England.
In 1564 another expedition was sent out by Coligny, and a colony established on
the St. John's River under Laudonniere, one of Ribaut's original company. It was
managed with the same improvidence as the former ones, and to escape starvation
a party of the emigrants embarked for France. But instead of returning they
commenced a career of piracy against the Spaniards. The remainder were on the
point of leaving the country, when Ribaut appeared, with seven vessels and about
six hundred emigrants. Meanwhile, news had arrived in Spain that a party of
French heretics had settled in Florida, which was claimed as Spanish territory.
Menendez, who had already established a reputation for brutality in America, was
sent out to extirpate them. Up to this point the conflicts of Europeans upon
American soil had been with the natives, with the exception of the piratical
proceedings above adverted to. Now the wars of Europeans with one another were
about to be inaugurated in a brutal massacre, the story of which we give in the
graphic account of Walter Besant, selected from his "Gaspard de Coligny."]
The expedition under Menendez consisted of an army of two thousand six hundred
soldiers and officers. He sailed straight for Florida, intending to attack Fort
Caroline with no delay. In fact, he sighted the mouth of the port two months
after starting; but, considering the position occupied by the French ships, he
judged it prudent to defer the attack, and make it, if possible, from the land.
A council of war was held in Fort Caroline, presided over by Ribaut. Laudonniere
proposed that, while Ribaut held the fort with the ships, he, with his old
soldiers, who knew the country well, aided by the Floridans as auxiliaries,
should engage the Spaniards in the woods and harass them by perpetual combats in
labyrinths to which they were wholly unaccustomed. The advice was good, but it
was not followed. Ribaut proposed to follow the Spanish fleet with his own, --
lighter and more easily handled, -- fall on the enemy when the soldiers, were
all disembarked, and, after taking and burning the ships, to attack the army.
In the face of remonstrances from all the officers he persisted in this project.
Disaster followed the attempt. A violent gale arose. The French ships were
wrecked upon the Floridan coast; the men lost their arms, their powder, and
their clothes; they escaped with their bare lives. There was no longer the
question of conquering the Spaniards, but of saving themselves. The garrison of
Caroline consisted of one hundred and fifty soldiers, of whom forty were sick.
The rest of the colony was composed of sick and wounded, Protestant ministers,
workmen, "royal commissioners," and so forth. Laudonniere was in command. They
awaited the attack for several days, yet the Spaniards came not. They were
wading miserably through the marshes in the forests, under tropical rains,
discouraged, and out of heart. Had Laudonniere's project been carried out, not
one single Spaniard would have returned to the fleet to tell the tale. Day after
day the soldiers toiled, sometimes breast-high, through these endless marshes,
under the rain which never ceased. The provisions were exhausted. Many of the
soliders remained behind, or returned to St. Augustine, pretending to have lost
their way. The officers asked each other loudly whether they were all to be
killed in a bog through the ignorance of an Asturian, who knew no more about war
than a horse. Menendez pretended not to hear, and they plodded on, mutinous and
discontented, till their leader suddenly pointed out, through the branches of
the trees, the earthworks and cannon of Fort Caroline. He invited his officers
to make up their minds to an immediate attack or a retreat. Seven of them
proposed a retreat: they would live on palmistes and roots on the way. But the
majority declared for advance, and the attack was resolved upon.
For some reason unexplained, the French sentinels chose this fatal moment to
leave their posts. There was actually no watch on the ramparts. Three companies
of Spaniards simultaneously rushed from the forest and attacked the fortress on
the south, the west, and the southwest. There was but little resistance from the
surprised garrison. There was hardly time to grasp a sword. About twenty escaped
by flight, including the captain, Laudonniere; the rest were every one
massacred. None were spared except women and children under fifteen; and, in the
first rage of the onslaught, even these were murdered with the rest.
There still lay in the port three ships, commanded by Jacques Ribaut, brother of
the unfortunate governor. One of these was quickly sent to the bottom by the
cannon of the fort; the other two cut their cables and slipped out of reach into
the roadstead, where they lay, waiting for a favorable wind, for three days.
They picked up the fugitives who had been wandering half starved in the woods,
and then set sail from this unlucky land.
[Meanwhile, Ribaut's shipwrecked crew were wandering along the shore of Florida,
fifty miles from Fort Caroline. They were ignorant of the loss of the fort, and
made their way with difficulty through the woods, until, to their despair, they
saw the Spanish flag flying over its ramparts.]
There was nothing for it but to retreat again. The unfortunate Frenchmen began
miserably to retrace their steps through the wet and gloomy forest, eating
leaves, herbs, and roots, their last misfortune was that they knew nothing of
the new Spanish settlement [of St. Augustine, established by Menendez], and so
directed their course as exactly to arrive at it.
Menendez saw from a distance the arrival of the first band of two hundred. They
were like a crowd of shipwrecked sailors, destitute of the power of resistance,
feeble from long fasting, fatigued with their long march. He had with him a
troop of forty men. A river ran between the French and the Spaniards. A Basque
swam across the stream, and asked for a safe-conduct for Ribaut, who had not yet
arrived, and four gentlement. Menendez would accord, he said, an audience to an
officer. One Vasseur, accompanied by two or three soldiers, crossed over the
river and was brought to the Spanish commander. Menendez began by apprising him
of the capture of Caroline and the massacre of the garrison. He confirmed the
truth of his story by causing two prisoners, spared as Catholics, to relate it
themselves. He coldly told Vasseur that all those who were Protestants should
suffer the same fate, or at least that he would not promise otherwise.
There was but one alternative. The French could trust to the possible clemency
of Menendez, or they could take to the woods. In the latter case they would
certainly starve; in the former, they might escape with their lives. It seemed
incredible that a man should, in cold blood, resolve to massacre two hundred
unarmed men. They laid down their arms. They were brought across the river in
small companies, and their hands tied behind their backs.
On landing, they were asked if they were Catholics. Eight out of the two hundred
professed allegiance to that religion; the rest were all Protestants. Menendez
traced out a line on the ground with his cane. The prisoners were marched up one
by one to the line; on reaching it, they were stabbed.
The next day Ribaut arrived with the rest of the army.
The same pourparlers began. But this time a blacker treachery was adopted.
Menendez did not himself receive the officer sent to treat. He deputed a certain
Vallemonde. This creature received the French deputy with unexpected civility.
His captain, he said, was a man of extraordinary clemency. It was true that
Caroline had fallen, but the garrison, women, and children were all put on board
ship, with provisions, and were now on their way to France. Finally, if the
French laid down their arms, he, Vallemonde, would pledge his word of honor on
the sacred cross, which he kissed devoutly, that all their lives should be
It is not clear how many of the French accepted the conditions. A certain number
refused them, and escaped into the woods. What is certain is that Ribaut, with
nearly all his men, were tied back to back, four together. Those who said they
were Catholics were set on one side; the rest were all massacred as they stood.
A rage for slaughter -- the blood-thirst --- seized the Spanish soldiers. They
fell upon their victims, and stabbed and hacked both the living and the dead.
The air was horrible with their oaths and cries. The work of murder was soon
over. In a very few moments there was not a cry, nor a sound, nor a movement,
among the whole four hundred prisoners now lying upon the ground, the maddened
soldiers still stabbing their lifeless bodies. Outside the circle of the
slaughtered and the slaughterers stood the priest, Mendoza, encouraging,
approving, exhorting the butchers. With him, calm, serene, and joyful, with a
prayer of thanksgiving on his lips, stood the murderer, Menendez.
The slaughter completed, they set up enormous piles of wood and burned the
bodies on them. On the trees near the scene of the massacre Menendez caused to
be inscribed, "Slaughtered not as Frenchmen, but as Lutherans." As for the
corpse of Ribaut, he had it flayed, and sent the skin to Europe, with cuttings
from the beard, as gifts to his friends.
[Those who had escaped to the woods built a small fort, defended themselves,
were offered terms of surrender, and were all sent to the galleys. The reception
of this news in France raised a storm of indignation. As the court made no
movement of reprisal, the French sailors took revenge into their own hands.
Fast-sailing privateers were sent out, which captured the rich Spanish galleons
and inflicted enormous losses. English buccaneers followed the example, and
Spain paid dearly in treasure for the bloody act of Menendez. One soldier,
Dominique de Gourgues, who had been in the Spanish galleys and hated the
Spaniards vehemently, resolved on a more direct revenge. With difficulty he
equipped three small ships which he manned with one hundred and eighty men. The
purpose of his expedition was kept secret; only the captains of his ships knew
of it. It was in the early part of 1568 that he appeared off the coast of
Florida. He landed his men, gained the alliance of the natives, who bitterly
hated the Spaniards, and began a painful and difficult march overland, attended
by thousands of Indian warriors.]
The Spaniards were extending their fortifications outside Caroline itself. At
one place the lines had only been drawn, and the works as yet were only just
commenced. Here the attack was to take place.
The story reads almost exactly like that of the Spaniards when they took the
fort by surprise. Entirely without suspicion, the garrison were taking their
dinner. Suddenly, a musket-shot, and the cry of "The French! the French!" There
were sixty men in this, the outwork. They were all killed. But there remained
the second fort. De Gourgues turned the cannon on it, and a lively artillery
fight began. The Floridans at this moment emerged from the woods. A detachment
of French attacked the fort in the rear. The Spaniards, ignorant of the number
of the enemy, lost their heads. The second fort was taken with a rush, and all
the Spaniards killed except fifteen, whom De Gourgues ordered to be bound and
kept in safety for the moment. There yet remained Fort Caroline itself. Here
there were three hundred combatant men. De Gourgues surrounded the fort with his
Indians, and prevented any spy from coming out, so that the besieged had no
notion of the numbers of their assailants. The commandant, in surprise and
indecision, allowed two days to pass before doing anything. Then he sent out a
spy disguised as an Indian. He was caught, and, being brought before De
Gourgues, he had the imprudence to confess that the garrison was horribly
discouraged, believing the French to be two thousand strong. Thereupon De
Gourgues resolved upon an immediate attack.
The Spaniards thought that his little army, all of which was now in sight, was
only an advance-guard. The French, thinking the moment inopportune, retired into
the wood again to watch. The Spaniards sent out a body of sixty, with a view of
drawing them out into the open. De Gourgues detached twenty of his own men to
place themselves in ambush between the fort and the sortie, so as to cut off
their retreat. Then, before the Spaniards had time to form themselves, he poured
a murderous fire into their ranks, and rushed upon them, sword in hand. They
turned to fly, and were met by the ambuscade. Not one returned to the fort. The
rest of the French rushed tumultuously out of the wood, and all together, headed
by De Gourgues, they crowded into the citadel.
A panic seized the Spaniards. They allowed themselves to be cut down almost
without resistance. Out of the whole force of three hundred, De Gourgues only
managed to save sixty.
He would have saved more, to make his revenge more complete. As it was, he wrote
an inscription, which he placed so that all could see,--"I do this not to
Spaniards, but to traitors, thieves, and murderers."
Then he hanged them up, every one, the Floridans looking on aghast. This done,
he destroyed the fort and returned to France. He was received with enthusiasm at
Rochelle, an entirely Protestant town.