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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 spared.

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.

Walter Besant

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