Days of the Discoverers Part 19


This story follows closely the "Relacion of Cabeca de Vaca." It illustrates the resourcefulness, bravery and ingenuity of Spanish cavaliers of the heroic age as hardly any other episode does.


De Soto was a gentleman of Spain In those proud years when Spanish chivalry From fierce adventure never did refrain,-- Ruler of argosies that ruled the sea, She looked on lesser nations in disdain, As born to trafficking or slavery.

In shining armor, and with shot and steel Abundantly purveyed for their delight, Banners before whose Cross the foe should kneel, His company embarked--how great a light Through men's perversity to stoop and reel Down through calamity to endless night!

Yet unsubmissive, obdurately bold, The savages refused to serve their need.

They would not guide the conquerors to their gold, Nor though cast in the fire like a weed Or driven by stern compulsion to the fold, Would they abandon their unhallowed creed.

The forest folk in terror broke and fled Like fish before the fierce pursuing pike.

The stubborn chiefs as hostages were led-- And in the wilderness, a grisly dyke Of slaves and captives, lay the heathen dead, And the black bayou claims all dead alike.

Then southward through the haunted bearded trees The Spaniards fought their way--Mauila's fires Devoured their vestments and their chalices, Their sacramental wine and bread--the choirs No longer sang their requiems, and the seas Lay between them and all their sacred spires.

At last in a lone cabin, where the cane Hid the black mire before the lowly door, De Soto died--although they sought to feign By some pretended magic mirror's lore That still he lived, a gentleman of Spain,-- And the dread flood rolled onward to the shore!



"Paris is no place in these times for a Huguenot lad from Navarre," said Dominic de Gourgues, of Mont-de-Marsan in Gascony. "His father, Francois Debre, did me good service in the Spanish Indies. One of these days, Philip and his bloodhounds will be pulled down by these young terriers they have orphaned."

"If the Jesuits have their way all Huguenots will be exterminated, men, women and children," said Laudonniere, with a gleam of melancholy sarcasm in his dark pensive eyes. "Life to a Jesuit is quite simple."

"My faith," said Gascon, twisting his mustache, "they may find in that case, that other people can be simple too. But I must be off. I thank you for making a place for Pierre."

In consequence of this conversation, when Ribault's fleet anchored near the River of May, on June 25, 1564, Pierre Debre was hanging to the collars of two of Laudonniere's deerhounds and gazing in silent wonder at the strange and beautiful land.

"The fairest, fruitfullest and pleasantest land in all the world," Jean Ribault had said in his report two years before to Coligny the Great Admiral of France. Live-oaks and cedars untouched for a thousand years were draped in luxuriant grape-vines or wreathed with the mossy gray festoons of "old men's beard." Cypress and pine mingled with the shining foliage of magnolia and palm. From the marsh arose on sudden startled wings multitudes of water-fowl. The dogs tugged and whined eagerly as if they knew that in these vast hunting-forests there was an abundance of game. In this rich land, thus far neglected by the Spanish conquistadores because it yielded neither gold nor silver, surely the Huguenots might find prosperity and peace. Coligny was a Huguenot and a powerful friend, and if the French Protestants now hunted into the mountains or driven to take refuge in England, could be transplanted to America, France might be spared the horrors of religious civil war.

Pierre was thirteen and looked at least three years older. He could not remember when his people and their Huguenot neighbors had not lived in dread of prison, exile or death. When he was not more than ten years old he had guided their old pastor to safety in a mountain cave, and seen men die, singing, for their faith. After the death of his father and mother he had lived for awhile with his mother's people in Navarre, and since they were poor and bread was hard to come by he had run away the year before and found his way to Paris, where Dominic de Gourgues had found him. If the Huguenots had a safe home he might be able to repay the kindness of his cousins. Meanwhile the country, the wild creatures, the copper-colored people and the hard work of landing colonists and supplies were full of interest and excitement for Pierre.

Satouriona, the Indian chief, showed the French officers the pillar which Ribault's party had set up on their previous visit to mark their discovery. The faithful savages had kept it wreathed with evergreens and decked with offerings of maize and fruits as if it were an altar.

Unfortunately not all the colonists were of heroic mind. Most who had left France to seek their fortunes were merchants, craftsman and young Huguenot noblemen whose swords were uneasy in time of peace. French farm-laborers were mainly serfs on Catholic estates, and landowners did not wish to come to the New World. Thus the people of the settlement were city folk with little experience or inclination for cultivating the soil. The Indians grew tired of supplying the wants of so large a number of strangers. Quarrels arose among the French. A discontented group of adventurers mutinied and went off on a wild attempt at piracy. They plundered two ships in the Spanish Indies and were caught by the Spanish governor. The twenty-six who escaped his clutches fled back to the fort, which Laudonniere had built and named Carolina. His faithful lieutenant La Caille arrested them and dragged them to judgment. "Say what you will," said one of the culprits ruefully, "if Laudonniere does not hang us I will never call him an honest man." The four leaders were promptly sentenced to be hanged, but the sentence was commuted to shooting. After that order reigned, for a time.

Some of the tradesmen ranged the wilderness, bringing back feather mantles, arrows tipped with gold, curiously wrought quivers of beautiful fur, wedges of a green stone like beryl. There were reports of a gold mine somewhere in the northern mountains. Ribault did not return with the expected supplies, the Indians had mostly left the neighborhood, and misery and starvation followed, for the game, like the Indians fled the presence of the white men. The Governor began to think of crowding the survivors into the two little ships he had and returning to France.

Matters were in this unsatisfactory state when Captain John Hawkins in his great seven-hundred-ton ship the _Jesus_, with three smaller ones, the _Solomon_, the _Tiger_ and the _Swallow_, put in at the River of May for a supply of fresh water. He gave them provisions, and offered readily to take them back to France on his way to England, but this offer Laudonniere declined.

"Monsieur Hawkins is a good fellow," he observed dryly to La Caille, "and I am grateful to him, but that is no reason why I should abandon this land to his Queen, and that is what he is hoping that I may do."

Others were not so long-sighted. The soldiers and hired workmen raised a howl of wrath and disappointment when they heard that they were not to sail with Hawkins, and openly threatened to desert and sail without leave. Laudonniere answered this threat by the cool statement that he had bought one of the English ships, the _Tiger_, with provisions for the voyage, and that if they would have a little patience they might soon sail for France in their own fleet. Somewhat taken aback they ceased their clamor and awaited a favoring wind. Before it came, Ribault came sailing back with seven ships, plenty of supplies, and three hundred new colonists.

The fleet approached as cautiously as if it were coming to attack the colony instead of relieving it, and Laudonniere, who saw many of his friends among the new arrivals, presently learned that his enemies among the colonists had written to Coligny describing him as arrogant and cruel and charging that he was about to set up an independent monarchy of his own. The Admiral, three thousand miles away, had decided to ask the Governor to resign. Ribault advised him to stay and fight it out, but Laudonniere was sick and disheartened. Life was certainly far from simple when to use authority was to be accused of treason, and not to use it was to foster piracy, and he had had enough of governing colonies in remote jungles of the New World. He was going home.

To most of the colonists, however, Ribault's arrival promised an end of all their troubles. Stores were landed, tents were pitched, and the women and children were bestowed in the most comfortable quarters which could be found for them just then. To his great satisfaction Pierre found among the arrivals his cousin Barbe and her husband, a carpenter, and her three children, Marie, Suzanne and little Rene. The two young girls regarded Cousin Pierre as a hero, especially when they learned that the bearskin on the floor of their palmetto hut had but a few months ago been the coat of a live black bear. It had been caught feasting in the maize-fields of the Indians, by their cousin and another youth, and shot with a crossbow bolt by Pierre. They thought the roast corn and stewed clams of their first meal ashore the most delicious food they had ever tasted, and the three-cornered enclosure in the forest with the wilderness all about it, the most wonderful place they had seen.

Little did these innocent folk imagine what was brewing in Spain. The raid of French pirates upon the Jamaican coast had promptly been reported by the Adelantado of that island. Spanish spies at the French court had carefully noted the movements of Coligny and Ribault. Pedro Menendez de Avila, raising money and men in his native province of Asturia in Spain for the conquest of all Florida, learned with horror and indignation that its virgin soil had already been polluted by heretic Frenchmen.

Menendez had in that very year gained permission from the King of Spain to conquer and convert this land at his own cost. In return he was to have free trade with the whole Spanish empire, and the title of Adelantado or governor of Florida for life--absolute power over all of America north of Mexico, for Spain had never recognized any right of France or England in the region discovered by Cabot, Cartier, Verrazzano or others. Menendez was allowed three years for his tremendous task. He was to take with him five hundred men and as many slaves, a suitable supply of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, and provisions, and sixteen priests, four of whom were to be Jesuits. He had also to find ships to convey this great expedition.

But Menendez had been playing for big stakes all his life. He was only ten years old when he ran away and went to sea on a Barbary pirate ship.

While yet a lad he was captain of a ship of his own, fighting pirates and French privateers. He had served in the West Indies and he had commanded fleets. King Philip had never really understood the enormous possibilities of Florida until Menendez explained them to him. The soil was fertile, the climate good, there might be valuable mines, and there were above all countless heathen whom it was the deepest desire of Menendez to convert to the true faith. In this last statement he was as sincere as he was in the others. He expected to do in Florida what Cortes had done in Mexico. Now heresy, the unpardonable sin, burned out and stamped out in Spain, had appeared in the province which he had bound himself at the cost of a million ducats to make Spanish and Catholic. With furious energy he pushed on the work of preparation.

He had assembled in June, 1565, a fleet of thirty-four ships and a force of twenty-six hundred men. Arciniega, another commander, was to join him with fifteen hundred. On June 29 he sailed from Cadiz in the _San Pelayo_, a galleon of nearly a thousand tons, a leviathan for those days. Ten other ships accompanied him; the rest of the fleet would follow later. It was the plan of Menendez to wipe out the garrison at Fort Caroline before Ribault could get there, plant a colony there and one on the Chesapeake, to control the northern fisheries for Spain alone. On the way a Caribbean tempest scattered the ships and only five met at Hispaniola, but Menendez did not wait for the rest. When he reached the Florida coast he sent a captain ashore with twenty men to find out exactly where on that long, lonely shore line the French colony had squatted.

About half past eleven on the night of September 4, the watchman on one of the French ships anchored off shore saw the huge _San Pelayo_, the Spanish banner lifting sluggishly in the slow wind, coming up from the south. Ribault was in the fort, so were most of the troops, and three of the ships were anchored inside the bar. The strange fleet came steadily nearer, the great flagship moved to windward of Ribault's flagship the _Trinity_, and dropped anchor. The others did likewise. Not a word was spoken by friend or foe. The Spanish chaplain Mendoza afterward wrote:

"Never since I came into the world did I know such a stillness."

A trumpet sounded on the _San Pelayo_. A trumpet sounded on the _Trinity_. Menendez spoke, politely.

[Illustration: "'GENTLEMEN, WHENCE DOES THIS FLEET COME?'"--_Page_ 204]

"Gentlemen, whence does this fleet come?"

"From France."

"What is it doing here?"

"Bringing soldiers and supplies to a fort of the King of France in this country--where he soon will have many more," flung back the Breton captain defiantly.

"Are you Catholics or Lutherans?"

This time a score of clear voices reinforced the Captain's--"Lutherans--Huguenots--the Reformed Faith--The Religion!" And the Captain added, "Who are you yourself?"

"I am Pedro Menendez de Avila, General of the fleet of the King of Spain, Don Felipe the Second, who come hither to hang and behead all Lutherans whom I find by land or sea, according to instructions from his Majesty, which leave me no discretion. These commands I shall obey, as you will presently see. At daybreak I shall board your ships. If I find there any Catholic he shall be well treated. But every heretic shall die."

The reply to the rolling sonorous ultimatum was a shout of derision.

"Ah, if you are a brave man, don't put it off till daylight! Come on now and see what you will get!"

Menendez in black fury snapped out a command. Cables were slipped, and the towering black hulk of the _San Pelayo_ bore down toward the _Trinity_. But the Breton captain was already leading the little fleet out of danger, and with all sail set, went out to sea, answering the Spanish fire with tart promptness. In the morning Menendez gave up the chase and came back to find armed men drawn up on the beach, and all the guns of the ships inside the bar pointed in his direction. He steered southward and found three ships already unloading in a harbor which he named San Augustin and proceeded to fortify.

In Fort Caroline, Pierre Debre, awakened by the sound of firing, ran down to the beach, where a crowd was gathering. No one could see anything but the flashes of the guns; who or what was attacking the ships there was no way of knowing. The first light of dawn showed the two fleets far out at sea, and Ribault at once ordered the drums to beat "To arms!" They saw the great galleon approach, hover about awhile, and bear away south. When the French fleet came back later, one of the captains, Cosette, reported that trusting in the speed of his ship he had followed the Spaniards to the harbor where they were now landing and entrenching themselves.

Chapter end

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