The Tragic Dream Of Jean Ribaut

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By the year 1561 the mainland of North America had acquired a bad reputation, at least as far as Spain was, concerned. In the three-score years following Columbus’ electrifying voyage, several Spanish attempts to colonize the Gulf and Atlantic coasts had failed dismally. Ponce de Léon was dead from wounds suffered during an Indian attack in Florida. The ambitious De Soto now lay at rest beneath the wide waters of the Mississippi which he had discovered. Pánfilo de Narváez had disappeared in the Gulf of Mexico, the only survivors among his six hundred men being a handful of gaunt and naked wanderers who miraculously made their way to safety in Mexico (see “The Ordeal of Gabeza de Vaca” in the December, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Despite its early promise, this vast new country had produced no Eldorado, no Fountain of Youth, no short cut to the riches of the Orient. It was, in brief, far less attractive in every respect than Mexico and Peru.

And so on September 23, 1561, King Philip II of Spain declared the mainland off limits to further official Spanish efforts. It was almost inevitable that Philip’s decision would prove to be a tactical mistake. Though Spain was at peace with France at the moment, French pirates operating in the Florida straits were taking an alarming toll of the heavily laden treasure galleons bound for Spain. And Philip’s ambassador in Paris warned that plans were afoot to plant a military outpost in Florida. But Philip apparently felt secure in the belief that if mighty Spain could not make a colony stick, France, beset by internal religious and political disorders, was hardly in a position to do better.

Had Philip known about, or been in a position to gauge the character of the man who was about to prove him wrong, he might have reacted differently. This man was Jean Ribaut, a bold French Huguenot sea captain in his early forties who had powerful friends in France and at the court of Queen Elizabeth in England. Ribaut was a man of deeds, rather than words; his only extant writings are contained in a short report of his first trip to the New World. But wherever he went, whatever he did, he moved men and caused things to happen. Thus four hundred years afterward we can get a clear impression of this remarkable adventurer and the events he set in motion.

On February 16, 1562, true to the Spanish ambassador’s warning, Ribaut set out from Le Havre with two ships, a large sloop, and a company of some 150 sailors, harquebusiers, and adventurous young French Protestant noblemen and officers. This was, in effect, an expeditionary force sent out “to discover and view a certaine long coast of the West India,” as Ribaut wrote in his single surviving manuscript, quoted here from the sixteenth-century translation printed in Hakluyt’s Divers Voyages. If all went well, farmers and artisans and supplies would be sent later, thus establishing a permanent refuge in the New World for France’s harried Huguenots. A successful colony would also act as a safety valve in relieving Huguenot political pressure on France’s Catholic government, pressure strong enough at that moment to threaten civil war.

At daybreak on the morning of April 30, seventy-three days out from Le Havre, Ribaut’s lookouts spotted a long, low, palm-fringed promontory somewhere in the vicinity of present-day St. Augustine, Florida. Ribaut anchored and lowered his pinnaces to explore. The small boats returned shortly after noon with the news that they had found no harbor for the ships. Ribaut weighed anchor and headed north, naming his first landfall in the New World Cape François, in honor of his native land.

Toward evening on the first day, still heading north along the coast with “unspeakable pleasure,” Ribaut perceived “a leaping and a breaking of the water, as a streame falling out of the lands into the Sea.” He anchored and spent the night there, restlessly awaiting the dawn so he could go ashore and explore what was apparently the mouth of a large fresh-water river.

“The next day, in the morning, being the first of May, wee assayed to enter this Porte,” Ribaut continued. Apparently the curious Indians who came to see what was going on had as yet suffered no misfortunes at the hands of white men, though Spanish ships had visited the east coast of Florida before. The Indians showed Ribaut the best places to beach his boats and welcomed him by exchanging gifts. The women and children, shy at first, soon gathered in great numbers, bringing with them evergreen boughs which they spread out on the sand for their chief and his visitors to relax upon while they tried to communicate.

In keeping with the month and the mood of his reception, Ribaut named his discovery the River of May. (We know it today as the St. Johns, that fascinating stream that flows north from Florida’s lake country, past the seaport of Jacksonville, and on out to the ocean past the aircraft carrier docks at Mayport.) Ribaut spent two days exploring the mouth of the May and in planting one of two stone columns he had brought with him to stake out France’s claim to this part of the New World. Replenishing the ships’ supplies was no problem; the Indians on the north shore soon began competing with a different tribe on the south bank to see which could outdo the other in hospitality. They plied Ribaut and his men with fresh fish, oysters, crabs, lobsters, beans, meal cakes, fresh water—Ribaut’s account at this point reads much like that of a man who was pretty well fed up with two and a half months of shipboard fare.