After being released from prison in 1564, French Huguenot explorer, navigator, and sea captain Jean Ribault was sent on a relief mission back to Florida, on his second voyage. Setting sail with a fleet of seven ships, five hundred soldiers, weapons and ammunition, various supplies, a selection of livestock, and five hundred sailors and colonists, Ribault and those under his command were destined for the New World. Ribault was due to bring supplies back to the settlement he had established on Parris Island on a previous voyage but the Spanish had other plans. Pedro Menendez was waiting for him.
By the time that Jean Ribault and his fleet crossed the Atlantic and set anchor off the River of May, Spaniard Captain Pedro Menendez de Aviles had arrived off the coast with his own fleet in tow. The Spanish fleet consisted of five ships, two hundred sailors, five hundred soldiers, and one hundred other passengers with various roles onboard the ships. Menendez was tasked with removing the French Huguenots from Florida and establishing a Spanish presence in the region at what is now known as St. Augustine.
The French And Spaniards Collide
As Menendez and his crew arrived at the River Of May, they discovered that three of the smaller French ship had already emptied their vessels of troops and cargo. This ensured these French ships would be light enough to float across the sandbar at the mouth of the river. The four larger ships in the French fleet were anchored further offshore. On approach, the Spanish and French fleets identified who they were to the other vessels verbally.
However, it didn’t take long for things to kick off. The magnificent Spanish galleass “San Pelayo” made a move to board the “La Trinite”, however, the four French ships quickly cut their anchors and made a rapid escape. As the French sailed away, the Spanish peppered them with cannon fire, but the Spaniards were unable to pursue as their ships had been damaged in a storm.
Menendez and his men retreated south to seek shelter in the next inlet that they could find. On the 7th of September 1565, they disembarked from their boats and made landfall where they started to dig a defensive entrenchment. The following day Menendez formally founded the settlement of St. Augustine and they began building a simple church where the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine stands today.
Jean Ribault And His Men Fight Back
While the Spanish were busy unloading some of the supplies from the damaged flagship “San Pelayo”, Ribault was planning his attack. He decided the prime time to attack was before the Spaniards had a chance to unload all of their ammunition, weapons, and supplies. Ribault took two days to gather his forces and set sail with his four biggest ships, occupied by a total of four hundred soldiers and two hundred sailors.
Ribault and his men surprised the Spanish fleet and almost managed to capture Menendez who just made it across the sandbar away from the French attack. Because it was low tide, the French ships were too large to float over the sandbar and instead sailed south in search of the “San Pelayo” that had departed only hours earlier.
Unfortunately for Ribault, a terrible storm began and he and his men fell victim to powerful winds, which pushed the ships even further south. Eventually, they ran aground, becoming shipwrecked. Three of the ships were smashed to pieces in the heavy surf near the Ponce Inlet while Ribault’s flagship “La Trinite”, was left sitting, stranded on a sandbar near Cape Canaveral.
The Spanish Return Fire
With the storm still howling, Menendez knew that, even if the French had survived the storm, there was no way that they would ever be able to sail north again. Leaving a contingent of armed soldiers to protect St. Augustine, the rest of the Spanish soldiers set off in search of the stranded French ships.
Marching overland, they came across the French Huguenot Establishment of Fort Caroline, killing one hundred and thirty people, with only fifty women and children being spared and just a few French managing to escape.
Anchored just offshore from the fort, the French saw these events unfold from onboard one of the smaller of Ribault's fleet leading them to sail the five vessels that remained to the safety of the river mouth. From here they decided to destroy the three smaller vessels and sail the “Perle” and the “Levier” back to France, ending the time of the French In Florida.
The Massacre Of The French Survivors
Jean Ribault and the other French Huguenot sailors and soldiers that were shipwrecked and survived were left behind by the vessels that sailed for France. They were unaware that Menendez had taken Fort Caroline. They planned to hike overland to the fort for refuge in two separate groups.
On the 29th of September, natives reported to the Spanish that they had identified a group of the French crew at the Matanzas Inlet. Menendez and his men marched directly towards them. Realizing that fort Caroline had been taken, the French survivors surrendered to Menendez, however, the Spanish captain showed no mercy killing as many as two hundred men.
Ribault and the remaining survivors met a similar fate when, on October 11th, talks broke down between the two leaders within the French group. About half of the three hundred men decided to take their chances in the wilderness, leaving Ribault to venture south. Ribault and the men who remained surrendered but ultimately were killed with only sixteen people being spared and up to one hundred and fifty being put to the sword.
Menendez Captures The Remaining Survivors And Eliminates The French From Florida
On November 1st Menendez headed south to seek out the last of the French Huguenot survivors who were living in a structure they had built on the beach, complete with six cannons salvaged from “La Trinite”. As soon as the Spanish arrived, the French ran but seventy-five surrendered after Menendez offered safety for those that abided. He kept his word, with only twenty or so French refusing to surrender and instead, disappearing into the wilderness occupied by the local Surruque Indians.
This brought about the end of the French Huguenots in Florida and with the French eliminated, Menendez and his men got to work on improving St. Augustine and other settlements along the coast to strengthen the position of the Spanish in Florida.
It is heartbreaking to see the great endeavor of the Huguenots in Florida come to a such tragic end. These amazing men and women suffered incredible persecution in France only to face massacre in the new world. On August 24, 1572 (7 years after Ribault’s death) more than 20,000 Huguenots would be hunted down and murdered in cold blood by French Roman Catholics, on the streets of Paris (St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre.) It would be the greatest massacre of life in the 16th century. It is not known, how many lives would have been saved if the efforts of Jean Ribault to establish a religious refuge in Florida, would have been successful. Yet it was in God’s sovereign will that it should not be, so it was not. Yet, we stand in humble awe of the sacrifice and perseverance demonstrated by these people of faith. Their legacy is not forgotten, it lives on within our hearts and minds. Post Tenebras Lux.
“Post Tenebras Lux”
The phrase "post tenebras lux" (after darkness, light), a rallying cry of the Huguenots and Protestant Reformers, refers to the rediscovery of biblical truth in a time of spiritual darkness. Because the darkness of heresy and immorality constantly creeps in, the followers of Jesus Christ must always be seeking to rediscover the light.