Thursday, April 16, 2015

April 17, 2015

Matanzas Inlet

Back in 2012, I authored a blog that was dedicated to the 245 French Protestants who were killed for their faith near St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Known as Huguenots, their story has gone largely unnoticed, and I took it upon myself to do what I could to change that. Today, as a special memorial post, I am recopying two posts from 2012. Please join me in remembering these horrific events:


Even if the term “Murphy’s Law” was unknown to 16th century man, the concept of “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” was certainly familiar to the French Protestants of Florida. In September of 1565, Admiral Jean Ribault’s intrepid band of explorers had re-boarded their beautiful galleon Trinité in the hopes of destroying Spanish San Agustín before the Spaniards could destroy the French fortress of La Caroline. No such luck. A tempest later called the “San Mateo hurricane” sprang up, and the French went down.

 One would think it a good thing that most of the Frenchmen survived the shipwreck and somehow managed to make it to shore. When one considers the fate that awaited them, however, survival seems somehow cruel. Ribault’s men came ashore in two groups. It is unknown if the two bands had contact with each other, or for how long. This first band --- this first sacrifice-in-waiting --- collapsed along the shoreline at a place that would ominously become known as “Matanzas,” “slaughters.” Their presence would not go undetected for long.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Spanish “adelantado” and veteran sailor, would tolerate neither foreigners nor Protestants in Spanish-claimed lands. Spanish chaplain Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales provides an eerie narrative of what happened next: (I have reproduced his exact commentary, even the grammatical no-no’s, for the sake of authenticity).

“As soon as he had called to them, one of them swam towards and spoke to him; told him of their having been shipwrecked, and the distress they were in; that they had not eaten bread for eight or ten days; and, what is more, stated that all, or at least the greater part of them, were Lutherans. Immediately the general sent him back to his countrymen, to say they must surrender, and give up their arms, or he would put them all to death. A French gentleman, who was a sergeant, brought back the reply that they would surrender on condition their lives should be spared.

After having parleyed a long time, our brave captain-general answered ‘that he would make no promises, that they must surrender unconditionally, and lay down their arms, because, if he spared their lives, he wanted them to be grateful for it, and, if they were put to death, that there should be no cause for complaint.’ Seeing that there was nothing else left for them to do, the sergeant returned to the camp; and soon after he brought all their arms and flags, and gave them up to the general, and surrendered unconditionally. 

Finding they were all Lutherans, the captain-general ordered them all put to death; but, as I was a priest, and had bowels of mercy, I begged him to grant me the favor of sparing those whom we might find to be Christians. He granted it; and I made investigations, and found ten or twelve of the men Roman Catholics, whom we brought back. All the others were executed, because they were Lutherans and enemies of our Holy Catholic faith. All this took place on Saturday (St. Michael’s Day), September 29, 1565. I, Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, Chaplain of His Lordship, certify that the foregoing is a statement of what actually happened.” 

That chilling narrative leaves little to the imagination.


In my post of September 29th, I talked of the first Matanzas massacre near St. Augustine, Florida, and how over one hundred men were slaughtered for their Protestant beliefs and for upholding the French flag. That event was nearly too horrendous to be believed and certainly puts a different spin on early American history. Yet even more horrendous is that the exact same thing happened thirteen days later. The rest of Admiral Jean Ribault’s men were discovered near the same spot --- oddly enough --- and also became the subject of Spanish Captain-General Pedro Menéndez de Avilés’ scrutiny. He went forth to meet them and stood head-to-head with the great corsair Ribault.
At least in terms of prestige, the two men were evenly-matched, but Ribault’s troops were tattered, hopeless, and starving. It is said that Ribault was taken to see what had become of the previous company of Frenchmen. Unable to believe that the same fate would be his, he hoped for Menéndez’s mercy, trusting that perhaps for some reason this second band would not be seen as a threat. He agreed to surrender and advised that his men must each decide if they would do the same. Many of the men disappeared in the night, choosing to take their chances. Yet the rest, exhausted, bruised, and hoping for the best, agreed to surrender.
October 12th, 1565 dawned over the Florida shoreline. Menéndez, carefully planning the coming horrors in such a way that subsequent groups would not know their countrymen’s fates, ferried batches of ten Frenchmen across the Matanzas River. Ten by ten they came, silent, full of dread, apprehensive, and praying for mercy. The following account was penned by Father Gonzalo Solís de Merás, Menéndez’s brother-in-law: I have left the narrative exactly as I found it. 
“The Adelantado immediately directed Captain Diego Flórez de Valdés, admiral of his armada, to bring them across ten at a time, as he had the others, and taking Juan Ribao behind the sand dunes among the shrubbery, where he had taken the others, the Adelantado made him bind Ribao’s hands behind him and thus it was also done to the others with him, as it had to the ones before, telling them they must march 4 leagues by hand, and at night, so that he could not permit them to go unbound; and when all were tied, he asked them if they were Catholics or Lutherans, and if there were any who wanted to confess. 

Juan Ribao responded that he and all who were with him here were of the new religion, and he began to say the psalm of Domine memento mei; and having finished, he said that from earth he was and unto earth must they return; and twenty years more or less did not matter, the Adelantado should do what he wanted with them. The Adelantado commanded them to march, as he had the others, and with the same order, and at the same line that he had marked before in the sand, he commanded that what had been done to the others should be done to all; he spared only the fifers, drummers and trumpeters and four others who they said were Catholics, in all 16 persons; all the others were slain.”

There are some who are unwilling to give the title “martyr” to Florida’s Huguenots. Examples are cited that Fort Caroline was not solely a religious base, that they “happened” to claim the Calvinist faith though it was not the reason they died. But I find that an odd assertion. The Huguenots of Matanzas were told they would be spared if they accepted Catholicism. Those who already claimed the faith were treated reasonably well, though taken captive. Those who refused were slaughtered. In my eyes there is no better proof of religious martyrdom.
After reading contemporary accounts by Father Mendoza Grajales and Father Gonzalo Solís de Merás, which state matter-of-factly that the Huguenot captives were killed for their Protestant faith, it seems fruitless to deny that this was indeed a martyrdom and should be remembered as such. The fact that they “happened to be Calvinists” was not some passing note . . . it was one of the major reasons Pedro Menéndez took the course he did. Also, if Fort Caroline was meant to be a military bastion alone, it is very doubtful that there would have been ministers, women, and children.

Thank you for taking the time to learn about these events which are very near to my heart.

2015 St. Augustine Fridays

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