French explorer, colonizer, naval officer, and navigator, Jean Ribault, was born in 1520 in the coastal community of Dieppe in the Normandy region of Northern France. Dieppe was a critical port during the Renaissance period where some of the country’s most infamous cartographers, navigators, and sailors were based. Born in such a place during the Protestant Reformation very likely set Ribault up to become the influential character that he grew into in his adult life.
Beginning as a sailor in the French Navy, Ribault was led by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a proud French Huguenot, who would ultimately select Jean Ribault to lead a colonization mission to the New World. On his mission to the New World, Jean Ribault was tasked with finding new locations for the establishment of Huguenot colonies where French protestants could avoid the ferocious persecution they were experiencing in Florida. His exploits would lead to the founding of two North American colonies; Fort Caroline and Charlesfort, known today as Florida and South Carolina respectively.
The Protestant Reformation
The protestant reformation first started in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, just three years before Jean Ribault was born. Martin Luther, a monk, and teacher published a document known as the “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences”, or “95 Theses”, which outlined ninety-five different ideas he had about Christianity. Luther invited people to debate his controversial ideas, which directly contradicted the Catholic Church’s teachings.
The result was the Protestant Reformation, a religious movement that swept through Europe, leading to the formation of a new branch of Catholicism, known as Protestantism, a collective term used to describe those groups that separated from the Catholic Church because of differences in Doctrine.
Founding Of The French Huguenots
Following Luther’s objections to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and in particular, to his objection to the indulgence system where people could buy or earn forgiveness of their sins, other challenges to the Catholic doctrine began around Europe. John Calvin in France brought about new ideas regarding the practice of Holy Communion, maintaining that followers of God should be more independent in their beliefs and be less reliant on the structure of the church for their salvation.
French Huguenots, also known as Calvinists, followed the teachings of theologian John Calvin who became a leading figure in the Protestant movement during the sixteenth century. While Catholicism dominated France at the time, Calvin’s teachings appealed to some of the brightest and best-educated Frenchmen in the country, including military officers and well-known tradesmen.
The first French Huguenot Church was established in 1555 in a private residence in Paris, however, the term “Huguenot” was not adopted until 1560. By 1562, there were more than two thousand churches throughout France and more than two million practicing Huguenots in the country. However, despite the rapid rise of the new religion, Hugeonots were heavily persecuted and were unable to practice at night or in towns. They were also not allowed to bear arms as the crown feared a rebellion might occur.
Jean Ribault Sets Sail For The New World
In 1562, three hundred Huguenots were praying together in a barn outside the town of Vassy in Northwest France where they came under attack from troops commanded by Francis, Duke of Guise. Over sixty Huguenots were killed and more than one hundred more were wounded in what became known as the “Massacre Of Vassy”. This sparked years of bloody violence throughout France, which is now referred to as the French Wars Of Religion, resulting in the deaths of thousands of French Huguenots all over the country.
The unrelenting persecution of the Huguenots, lead to Jean Ribault setting sail for the New World in search of new locations where his fellow protestants could live in peace. With the help of his crew, he established settlements at both Fort Caroline and Charlesfort before returning to France.
Life After Returning To France
After his maiden voyage to the New World, he returned to France only to find that the situation had gotten much worse while he was away with the treatment of the Huguenots becoming more brutal than ever. He escaped to England where he was captured under suspicion of being a spy and was subsequently locked up in the notorious Tower Of London.
Ribault was confined to the Tower Of London for more than a year, from early June 1563 to the Fall of 1564. In his absence, the Charlesfort colonists ran low on supplies, resulting in conflicts both among themselves and also with the native tribes in the area. Those that survived tried to build a boat to sail home with the final survivors being rescued off the coast of England and being imprisoned, after a treacherous journey across the Atlantic that led some of the men to revert to cannibalism to survive.
A Second Trip To The New World
After being released from the Tower of London, Ribault was once again enlisted by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny to lead a fleet to the New World. After successfully traveling to Florida with eight hundred colonists, Ribault and his men set up a colony at Fort Caroline.
However, while Ribault had been away, the Spanish had established a presence in the region which threatened the continued presence existence of the French Huguenots in the area. The Spanish and the French ships battled off the coast of the New World and eventually, Ribault’s flagship La Trinité was shipwrecked in a storm.
Jean Ribault Is Killed By The Spanish In His Final Act Of Bravery
Spanish Admiral, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, was ordered by the Spanish King to destroy Fort Caroline, home to French Huguenots in the New World. After his ship sank off the coast f modern-day Cape Canaveral, Jean Ribault and many of his crew managed to reach the shore. However, they were soon captured by the Spanish and they were asked to renounce their protestant faith. Unwilling to comply with the demands of the Spanish, Ribault was brutally killed in front of his men. He was stabbed in the belly with a dagger, a pike was driven into his heart and his head cut off. After Ribault died, the rest of his men were also killed by the Spanish, bringing an end to the French Huguenot’s time in Florida.