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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
But in France, meanwhile, the Truce of Amboise granted the Huguenots a temporary breathing spell. Unable to forget the allure of the New World with its promise of a Protestant haven, Huguenot leaders began making plans to send out another expedition. Since Ribaut was still imprisoned in England, the leadership of the second voyage to America passed to Laudonnière, the observant and articulate chronicler of the first trip. On April 22, 1564, he departed from Le Havre with a fleet of three ships. Like Ribaut’s first voyage, Laudonnière’s was essentially military in character. Of the 300 people accompanying him, 110 were sailors, 120 were soldiers, and the rest were artisans, servants, and page boys. There were also four women aboard and, as might have been expected, this caused trouble.
Laudonnière raised the coast of Florida on June 22, then proceeded to the River of May, where the Indians greeted him like a returning prodigal. To Laudonnière’s amazement, they had carefully tended the stone pillar erected by Ribaut two years earlier; more, they had been worshipping it. “Wee found the same crowned with crownes of Bay, and at the foote thereof many little baskets full of Mill which they call in their language Tapaga Tapola,” Laudonnière wrote. “Then when they came thither they kissed the same with great reverence and besought us to do the like, which we would not dénie them, to the ende we might drawe them to be more in friendship with us.”
Laudonnière explored the coast to the north, but turned back before reaching the abandoned site at Port Royal. He decided to make his permanent headquarters with the friendly savages at the mouth of the May River. Here he built a sizable compound which he named Fort Caroline.
Despite the happy homecoming, Laudonnière’s problems at Fort Caroline soon began to accumulate almost faster than he could handle them. Within three months of his arrival he was stricken with a fever, probably malaria, that sapped him of his strength throughout his stay in Florida. Several mutinies broke out. One group of dissident settlers tried to poison Laudonnière; when this plot failed they attempted to blow him up by placing a keg of gunpowder under his sickbed. A short time later, two shallops that the sailors had recently built were stolen by mutineers, who then embarked on a career of piracy.
Laudonnière aggravated his situation by making the same basic error that the garrison at Charlesfort had made: he relied too heavily on the generosity of the Indians. When winter came, the modest granaries of the neighboring tribes were exhausted; the Frenchmen had to forage for roots and bargain with distant peoples to stave off starvation. Inevitably, the Indians rebelled against these constant demands. Under the leadership of a powerful chief named Outina, they finally attacked a French foraging party, killing two and wounding twenty-two others.
With some justification, Laudonnière attributed his difficulties to the lack of support from home. “For if wee had bene succoured in time & place, & according to the promise that was made unto us, the warre which was between us and Outina, had not fallen out,” he complained. “Neither should wee have had occasion to offend the Indians, which with all paines in the world I entertained in good amitié.”
Reports of the unrest at Fort Caroline had meanwhile reached the homeland via a French ship that had called there in the fall of 1564. Distance seems to have magnified the bill of particulars against the unfortunate Laudonnière; he was reported to be living in sin with one of the four women on the expedition and was said to be acting like a tyrant, even trying to set himself up as king.
Jean Ribaut, now out of prison and back in France itching to return to America, was commissioned to lead a third expedition to Florida and take over command from Laudonnière. He left Le Havre on May 10, 1565, with five vessels carrying some 600 soldiers, laborers, women, and children. Unlike the two previous expeditions, this was a full-fledged colonizing effort. Commanding one of the ships in Jean Ribaut’s train was his son Jacques, like his father a captain in the French Navy.
Unknown to the French, there was trouble ahead. Two months after Ribaut left Le Havre, a Spanish force departed from Cadiz under the command of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, one of the ablest admirals in the Spanish fleet. His destination was also Florida, and his orders directed him to find out “whether there are on said coast or country, any settlers who are corsairs, or of any other nations not subject to us.” If this proved to be true (and Menéndez knew it was, for the intelligence pipeline between Spain and France was working better), he was bluntly ordered to “cast them out by the best means that seems to you possible.” Though the two countries were still at peace, a battle fought in far-off Florida could be diplomatically swept under the rug if it proved to be embarrassing in Europe.
After dawdling for a considerable length of time to explore more rivers, Ribaut arrived at Fort Caroline on August 28. Here at last was the succor the ailing Laudonnière had been longing for. But events set in motion three years before by the first French inroads into what Spain considered her exclusive territory were now rapidly moving to a climax. A week after Ribaut’s arrival, six Spanish warships appeared off the coast near the mouth of the May River.