- Historic Sites
The Tragic Dream Of Jean Ribaut
Half a century before Jamestown, a Huguenot sea captain planted the flag of France on America’s South Atlantic coast. His hopes were as high as the odds against him
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
As the fall of 1562 wore on without sight of a sail, the stores of the nearby Indian tribes began to run low because of the additional burdens placed on them by the colonists. The natives retired deeper into the woods to forage on roots and nuts and whatever game they could kill. At this point a disastrous fire broke out at Charlesfort, consuming almost all the Frenchmen’s remaining supplies. For a time they were able to sustain themselves by trading knives and trinkets with more distant tribes, “but misfortune or rather the just judgment of God would have it,” wrote Laudonnière, “that those which could not bee overcome by fire nor water, should be undone by their owne selves.”
When Ribaut departed for France he had plated the garrison under the command of Captain Albert de la Pierria, a soldier of long experience who seems to have been something of a martinet. As the problems of survival in the New World became more urgent, the Captain dealt more and more severely with his men. He hanged a drummer named Guernache for a “smal fault”; then, because of some unrecorded misdemeanor, he banished a soldier named La Chère to a tiny uninhabited island nearby. Though the Captain promised La Chère food and water, he failed to keep his word. The other soldiers mutinied, killed the Captain, and rescued the starving La Chère. Returning to Charlesfort, they resolved to build a boat in which to return to France. The six months were up, and Ribaut had not returned.
In all the annals of the sea there is nothing quite like the voyage of this handful of French soldiers back to their native land. Though Ribaut’s men probably did not realize it, the distance from Port Royal to Le Havre is approximately 3,500 miles.∗ [In 1789 Captain William Bligh covered 3,618 miles in an open boat in forty-three days following the famous mutiny aboard H.M.S. Bounty, but Bligh had a sturdy boat and an unusually capable and well-disciplined crew.] Ribaut had taken all his sailors back with him to France. Thus the Charlesfort garrison had no real idea of the magnitude of the voyage they were about to attempt. Nor did they really know much about building a boat. With the aid of friendly Indians, no doubt happy to learn that they were about to get rid of the insatiable soldiers, Ribaut’s men nevertheless put together a vessel they deemed seaworthy. Its seams were caulked with pine resin and Spanish moss; its sails were patched together from shirts and sheets. Not surprisingly, one of the party, a youth named Guillaume Rouffi, elected to remain at Charlesfort rather than take his chances on the open sea in so crude a boat.
René de Laudonnière, who interviewed the survivors of this remarkable voyage, estimated that the soldiers were well along their way across the wintry Atlantic when they had their first setback. “After they had sayled the third part of their way, they were surprized with calmes which did so much hinder them, that in three weekes they sailed not above five and twentie leagues,” he wrote. They rationed their remaining food, each receiving twelve grains of mill a day.
“Yea, and this felicitie lasted not long,” Laudonnière continued. “For their victuals failed them altogether at once: and they had nothing for their more assured refuge but their shooes and leather jerkins which they did eat … some of them dranke the sea water, others did drink their owne urine: and they remained in such desperate necessitie a very long space, during the which part of them died for hunger.”
The calm that plagued them now gave way to a storm. “As men resolved to die,” they settled down in the bilges to await the end. One man, however, still had his wits about him. He convinced his comrades that if the wind continued blowing from the same quadrant, they would sight land in three days. The storm abated, but by the end of three days no land had appeared.
“Wherefore in this extreme dispaire certaine among them made this motion that it was better that one man should dye, [than] that so many men should perish: they agreed therefore that one should die to sustaine the others,” said Laudonnière. They drew lots and executed the loser. Ironically, this was La Chère, the soldier who had survived the unreasonable banishment. They divided La Chère’s flesh among themselves —”a thing so pitiful to recite, that my pen is loth to write it,” Laudonniére said.
Before it became necessary to resort to cannibalism a second time, land was sighted, and the survivors were picked up by an English barque. Among its crew was a Frenchman who had been on the first voyage to Port Royal, but who had returned to France with Ribaut. He recognized his emaciated compatriots and saw to it that they were well treated.
Throughout the rest of 1563 and on into early 1564, Guillaume Rouffi, the man who had mistrusted the crude boat, was France’s sole representative on the mainland, in June, 1564, he was carted oft to Havana by Don Hernando de Manrigue de Rojas, who had been sent out belatedly to get rid of the Charlesfort garrison.
Now the Atlantic Coast reverted to its native state. England had not yet put in a colonizing appearance. The failure of the Charlesfort colony had somewhat vindicated Philip II’s decision to de-emphasize the mainland, and Spain made no further serious efforts to gain a permanent foothold there.