by the Rev. Dr Alan Clifford
What about the events of 1562-5?
As sexual perversion and Islamic darkness tighten their grip on the USA, Americans need to recover their earliest history…
AMERICA’S HEROIC DAWN
THE HUGUENOT MARTYRS OF FLORIDA
Dr Alan C. Clifford
A largely-forgotten history reminds us that the first attempted Christian settlement in North America was by Huguenots seeking a haven from persecution in France. This follows the era of Christopher Columbus whose first adventures to the New World date from 1492, soon followed by the Cabots from England a few years later. Not to forget the English Jamestown settlement of 1607, the Huguenot adventure occurred sixty years before the Pilgrim Fathers founded the Plymouth plantation in 1620.
This was the era of Iberian domination, when Spain was the world’s ‘super power’. With the blessing of the Pope, Spain and Portugal laid claim to the New World. Their brutal Central and South American conquests brought justifiable opprobrium upon the cruel fascism of King Philip II and his ilk. Predictably, war was inevitable as less-compliant European nations resisted this evil and expanding tyranny. The Protestant Reformation fuelled the animosity as anti-Catholic sailors from Normandy found courage to challenge Spanish arrogance. One form of resistance was to attack the Spanish treasure ships bringing gold and silver from Mexico, Peru and elsewhere. Outraged by the cruel horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, hot-headed French pirates thought nothing of enriching themselves at Spain’s expense. They were the scourge of the Spanish Main. The Spaniards called these high-seas raiders corsarios luteranos, i.e. ‘Lutheran pirates’. However, among these ‘Protestant adventurers’ were more noble souls with more honourable aspirations, properly called Calvinists.
Closely acquainted with John Calvin, the Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspar Coligny sent Jean Ribault of Dieppe—an eminent sailor of strong Protestant convictions—on an expedition of discovery in 1562. This high-principled man was no pirate, as one historian implies. So, after a voyage of eight weeks, the explorers found a river estuary off the coast of Florida. Landing on 1 May, Ribault and his sailors gave thanks to God for safe passage, commending also the native Timucuan people to God’s mercy.
We fell to the ground a little way from [the native people], to call upon the name of God, to beseech him to continue still His goodness towards us, and bring to the knowledge of our Saviour Christ this poor people.
This was the first Protestant prayer in North America. It reflects the missionary dimension of Calvin’s usual end-of-sermon prayer, that God might ‘grant His grace, not only to us, but also to all people and nations of the earth, bringing back all poor ignorant souls from the miserable bondage of error and darkness, to the right way of salvation’. Ribault and his Huguenot brethren knew—as Calvin expressed it—that ‘The advent of Christ was ‘the time of Reformation’ [Heb. 9:
10-11]—doubtless for the 1st and 16th centuries—and that, ‘the figures of the [Old] Testament’ receiving ‘their fulfilment in Him, … the whole world became an enlarged Mount Zion upon the advent of Christ’.
Naming the river ‘the River of May’ (now the St John’s—formerly Spanish San Juan—near modern Jacksonville), Ribault claimed the territory for France by setting up a monument in the name of the French King Charles IX. After further peaceful contacts with the native people, the Huguenot explorers sailed further up the coast to modern South Carolina where another monument was set up. Leaving a settlement at Charlesfort, Ribault returned to France to report on his discoveries and organise another expedition.
However, finding France in the throes of the tragic religious wars, he took refuge in England. Queen Elizabeth warmly welcomed him at first. After suspecting that this French patriot might be a threat to our security, she briefly imprisoned him.
While in the Tower, Ribault wrote his account (to his Huguenot master, Gaspar Coligny). This was 1563. It was translated and published in English the same year. A noteworthy fact, this was a year before Shakespeare was born! The anonymous translator’s English—doubtless influenced by Tyndale and the Geneva Bible (1560)—is very clear and vivid.
Perception problems with the black letter type are soon forgotten as the reader feels gripped by the narrative, replete with colourful accounts of the local flora and fauna, and the native Americans.
In April 1564, Ribault’s second-in-command René Laudonnière sailed for Florida on a second enterprise. Their arrival in June began with worship:
I commanded a trumpet to be sounded, that being assembled we might give God thanks for our happy and favourable arrival. There we sang a psalm of thanksgiving unto God, beseeching him that it would please him of his grace to continue his accustomed goodness towards his poor servants, and aid us in all our enterprises, that all might turn to his glory and the advancement of our king.
These enterprises enraged Catholic King Philip II who, sanctioned by the Pope, claimed America for Spain. Regarding the French as interlopers, the fact that they were Protestants made them more intolerable. So, in 1565, not before a Cuban expedition under Captain Hernando de Manrique de Rojas destroyed Charlesfort (in May 1564), the Pope commissioned devout Catholic Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés of Asturias to rid Florida of the Huguenot menace.
Menéndez’ orders were to ‘leave not a man alive. Inflict on the heretics an exemplary punishment which all of their kind will remember forever’. His hatred was also fired by the fact that the Huguenots were determined to free the inhabitants of Cuba who had been enslaved by the Spaniards.
Despite kind help from the natives, internal problems and a delay of supplies from France—then in the grip of the first religious war—meant that Fort Caroline was not looking a viable settlement. As desperation was setting in, ships under the command of Sir John Hawkins appeared in August, 1565.
Though offered a passage back to Europe, the French decided to accept a ship and supplies from the Protestant English (in exchange for most of their cannon). Plans to abandon Fort Caroline ended when Ribault’s second expedition brought supplies and reinforcements from France. Then, hard on the heels of Ribault’s fleet, Menéndez and his heresy hunters arrived off the Florida coast. Establishing a base at San Agustín (named after the Feast Day of St Augustine), he sailed north to oppose the French. After an inconclusive stand-off in the St John’s estuary, Menéndez returned to his base. Ribault and 500 of his men then sailed to attack San Agustín. However, lashed by a hurricane, shipwreck south of St Augustine rendered Ribault’s counter-offensive futile.
A fortnight later, since there were few defenders, the Spaniards then attacked Fort Caroline over land. ‘At dawn on 20 September 1565, Menéndez and his men struck at the fort, inside which were women and children, all the sick, including René Laudonnière, and a handful of armed guards. Above 143 massacred bodies Menéndez placed a notice: ‘I do this, not as to Frenchmen, but as to Lutherans’. Besides taking supplies and ammunition, Protestant Bibles, books and Reformed symbols were destroyed. Laudonnière and a few others escaped to tell the tale. Sailing in his ship the Greyhound, Laudonnière landed in Wales, receiving succour from people in Swansea before continuing back to France. He later wrote an account of Ribault’s voyages, and his martyrdom—an event we now relate.
Tragically, with his vessels beached, Ribault and his men were eventually caught in the cruel grip of Menéndez. A first group of survivors of his sunk and grounded ships tried to make their way overland to Fort Caroline, not knowing what had happened there. Scouts from St Augustine observed them. Soon Menéndez led 50 soldiers south to Anastasia Island. Surrounding the worn and bedraggled Huguenots, he offered to spare their lives if they would surrender. ‘Battered by the sea and hungry, they agreed…’ After ordering their hands tied behind their backs, the Spaniard ferried his prisoners across the swamps to a place of execution. Soon, 111 Huguenots lay dead in the sand. A second group headed by Ribault appeared a few days later. They too were slain at the same location. It was later named ‘Matanzas’ (Spanish for ‘slaughters’). In all, nearly 250 died.
What is truly remarkable is the way all these French Protestants, without exception, maintained their profession of the Reformed Faith. Over four thousand miles from home, in an unfamiliar foreign land, they did not capitulate in the face of death. What a testimony to God’s all-sufficient sustaining Grace! A Spaniard named Solís de Meras was an eyewitness of the massacre:
[Menéndez], [took] Jean Ribault behind the sand hills, among the bushes,…he asked if they were Catholics or Lutherans, or if any of them desired to make confession. Jean Ribault replied “that all who were there were of the new religion,” and he began to repeat the psalm, ‘Domine! Memento mei’; and having finished, he said, “that from dust they came and to dust they must return, and that in twenty years, more or less, he must render his final account; and that [Menéndez] might do with them as he chose.”
We must note what Jean Ribault recited (or possibly chanted). Charles Bennett remarks that ‘the psalm that Ribault recited before the dagger was thrust into his body was the 132nd Psalm which begins, “Lord, remember David”; but Ribault began it, according to an eyewitness, with “Lord, remember me.” The psalm is highly significant. As David—anxious to build the Temple later built by Solomon—was concerned to find a resting place for the Ark of the Covenant and the pure worship of God, so Coligny, Ribault and others desired to find a place in the New World to worship God in spirit and truth, far from the superstitious and persecuting religion of Rome. Sadly, pursuing them across the Atlantic, their enemies gave them no peace, even in distant Florida.
Thus on that fatal September day in 1565, Ribault and around 250 others were America’s first martyrs. Trusting to the certain purposes of their Sovereign God, they knew—despite their fears—that their struggles and sufferings for Christ would never be in vain, a truth gloriously stated by John Calvin in his commentary on Psalm 132:
The greater that fear which seizes upon us when exposed to aggression from enemies, the more are we sensibly awakened to take hold of divine help. The passage teaches us that the Church and people of God will never enjoy such peace on earth as altogether to escape being assaulted by the variety of enemies which Satan stirs up for their destruction. It is enough to have it declared, upon divine authority, that their attempts shall be unsuccessful, and that they will retire eventually with ignominy and disgrace.
And so it proved to be, as expressed by American poet James Russell Lowell (1819-91), opponent of slavery and other injustices:
Careless seems the great avenger,
History’s pages but record,
One death-grapple in the darkness
’Twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth for ever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne –
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.
Roche remarks that Menéndez ‘then set sail for Spain to make his report to Philip II. Behind him, at the St Augustine supply depot, a strong force of Spaniards stayed on. They kept up the settlement at Fort Caroline also, renaming it San Mateo. Slowly, St Augustine grew to become the first Spanish settlement in what is now the United States of America… but it was not the first European settlement, though reference works insist that it was’.
The ‘Matanzas’ slaughter created widespread outrage in France, and not only among Protestant people who (in view of Romans 12: 19, ‘ “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord’) dare not contemplate revenge. Remarkably, it was a patriotic French Catholic named Dominique de Gourgues who led an expedition of retribution in 1567. It was an issue of simple justice. He attacked the Spanish-held Fort Caroline—then renamed Fort San Mateo—in April 1568. He and his men were helped by the native Americans who had earlier become friendly towards the Huguenots. They too had suffered at the hands of the Spaniards who had robbed them and stolen their women. Unlike the Spanish conquerors, the French had not come to the New World only for gold and silver. The former were known as the ‘bad white tribe’, the Huguenots as the ‘good white tribe’. The native Timucuan had clearly learned the Reformed Christian Faith, lustily singing psalms and songs taught them by their Huguenot friends.
When De Gourgues’ attack came, the half-drunk Spaniards were surprised during their siesta. Putting them to the sword, De Gourgues placed a notice over their corpses: ‘Not as to Spaniards, but as to Traitors, Robbers and Murderers’. On his return to La Rochelle, the Huguenot community expressed gratitude to the instrument of Divine justice. The Spanish government then demanded that De Gourgues be hanged. Ever the wily politician, the Queen Mother Catherine de Medicis—while agreeing that France would no longer permit expeditions to territories claimed by Spain—did not oblige them by pursuing the French hero.
After another mission of conquest to America in 1572 (the year of the French St Bartholomew Massacre, 24 August), Menéndez was recalled by Philip II to prepare for the ‘Invincible Armada’. He died at Santander in 1574. More justice was meted out when Sir Francis Drake bombarded St Augustine in 1586. Spain felt Drake’s wrath again in the defeat of the Armada in 1588.
So, the French Huguenot mission to the New World failed through relentless Roman Catholic persecution. They were thus prevented from setting up colonies of their own, as they might have done. As in Europe (let the horrors of the French St Bartholomew Massacre of 1572 never be forgotten), so in Florida, the Reformed people of France were called to absorb the hate-inspired energy of their enemies. This enabled the English and others to plant permanent settlements in North America years later. Following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), Huguenot settlements eventually found a place in the Carolinas, Virginia and elsewhere. Among thousands of other Americans, George Washington had Huguenot ancestry. In view of a tragic later history, had Providence determined otherwise, the early Huguenot policy towards slavery might have bequeathed a happier legacy than became the case in the USA.
While not unknown to earlier historians, this important history was resurrected and thoroughly documented by Florida historian and Democratic congressman, Charles E. Bennett (1910-2003). A man of strong Christian conviction, he was clearly inspired by the faith and fortitude of the Florida Huguenots. His enthusiasm led to the creation of the present replica of Fort Caroline (visited by my wife and myself 1 December 2010).
In 1954 Charles Bennett sponsored a bill that added the words ‘In God We Trust’ to all US currency. Due to his influence, a code of ethics for Government personnel—nicknamed ‘The Ten Commandments’—was adopted in 1958. He sought to glorify God in all things. Charles Bennett published several books on Huguenot history.
As faithful Christians in the USA begin to face opposition from hostile elements, and while apostate American Calvinists are embracing Roman Catholicism, public-spirited Protestant Christians like Sara Ballenger are finding inspiration from the events researched by Charles Bennett. Sara’s booklet on the Matanzas massacre (excellent despite its brevity) is now into a second edition (2010). The significance of all this for our own testimony is surely obvious.
In somewhat secular mode, Roche concludes that ‘As individuals, sacrificed in fire, tortured on the rack, exiled, the Huguenots lost—theirs was the ‘predestined’ fate of vanguards. But those who survived nurtured among us the ideal of personal freedom with responsibility;…whenever, with each generation, we fight to keep alive the rights our forefathers won for us in blood …, we fight once again the battle of the Huguenots. Our triumphs are theirs.
More ‘Christianly’, W. Carlos Martyn wrote:
The object of the Huguenots was the demolition of idols, the purification of the sanctuary, the reinauguration of primitive Christianity; to bring man to God through the divine Redeemer, the ‘one Mediator’, by the abolition of an impious, mediatorial priest-caste, and the promulgation of the golden truth which Luther reaffirmed, and which Calvin echoed, ‘justification by faith’ in Christ, the invocation of His sole intercession at the heavenly bar.
While Sara Ballenger warns us that the current reality is nothing to be complacent about, that the beneficiaries of Huguenot heroism are betraying their noble heritage, Martyn’s Victorian conclusion still points us in the right direction (despite 150 years of subsequent decline):
Standing in the sunlight of the nineteenth century, the age of unfettered lips, of myriad churches, of open Bibles, whose great heart throbs with that love of God which is ‘perfect liberty’, who shall say that the Huguenots have not grandly performed their work? Let each of us reverently thank God for the light of their example; let us determine to be worthy of the past, and the apostles of a sublimer future. 
All in all, the testimony of the Florida Huguenots should never be forgotten. Indeed, with thanksgiving to God, we remember these faithful servants of Christ, of whom ‘the world was not worthy’ (Hebrews 11: 38).
A DOCUMENTED AND ILLUSTRATED EDITION OF THIS TEXT IS AVAILABLE ON REQUEST
1 Writing to Henry Bullinger of Zurich on 29 July 1563, Calvin wrote: ‘What the Admiral intends I know not. Yesterday I had a letter from him in which he only lets Beza and myself know that very soon he will send an express messenger to inform us of his designs’ (John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Letters, Part 4, 1559-1564, ed. Jules Bonnet, vii. 325). One wonders, if this included Coligny’s Florida project.
2 This was actually Coligny’s second project following the failed 1555 expedition to what was to become Portuguese Rio de Janeiro.
3 See J. H. Parry, Europe and a Wider world 1415-1715 (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1949; 14th impr. 1965), 86.
4 Jean Ribault, The Whole and True Discovery of Terra Florida (London: Thomas Hacket, 1563), 15.
5 Calvin, Comm. Psalm 132: 14.
6 Ribault, Florida, 23.
7 Ibid. 40.
8 Ibid. 42.
9 O. I. A Roche, The Days of the Upright: A History of the Huguenots (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1965), 57.
10 Charles E. Bennett, Laudonièrre & Fort Caroline (Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1964, new ed. 2001), 43.
11 Roche, 58.
12 Bennett, Laudonièrre & Fort Caroline, 41.
13 Roche, 58.
14 Bennett, Laudonièrre & Fort Caroline, 42.
15 Calvin, Comm. Psalm 132: 18.
16 Ibid. 59 (emphasis mine).
17 Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, America: The Story of a Free People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942), 24.
18 See David Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty (London and New York: Allen Lane, 2009), 39.
19 See G. Elmore Reaman, The Trail of the Huguenots (London: Frederick Muller Limited, 1963), 127.
20 See Francis W. Halsey (ed), Great Epochs in American History (New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1912), Vols. 1 and 2.
21 See cited work.
22 See Sara Ballenger, America’s First Martyrs: The Martyrs of Matanzas (Redding, CA: Encouraging Word Publishing Services, 1999).
23 Roche, 308.
24 W. Carlos Martyn, A History of the Huguenots (New York: The American Tract Society, 1866), 527.
25 Ibid. 527-8.
AMERICA’S HEROIC DAWN (1562) Un http://youtu.be/G4GhPiT124w
AMERICA’S HEROIC DAWN (1562) Deux http://youtu.be/3xbO5DzcQvI
AMERICA’S HEROIC DAWN (1562) Trois http://youtu.be/qXs_oPEutO8
FLORIDA HUGUENOTS 1 Fort Caroline http://youtu.be/QazeWALWMuo
FLORIDA HUGUENOTS 2 River of May (St John’s) http://youtu.be/I4ZSib1ZIkA
FLORIDA HUGUENOTS 3 Dr & Mrs Clifford worship at Ribault memorial
FLORIDA HUGUENOTS 4 Dr Clifford pays tribute to Matanzas martyrs