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A Sword Day, A Red Day, A Florida Story

Most Americans don't know that the French made an attempt to take Florida from the Spanish

centuries ago but were defeated in a major battle in 1565 when the Spaniards attacked the French forces when they were taking shelter from a hurricane.

In the 1560s the French Protestants, also known as Huguenots, were seeking out a location in the New World to establish a protestant state. From this protestant state, they would be free to practice their religion without persecution from any outside parties. Sending an expedition to, what is now the St. John’s River area of Florida, they successfully set up a colony called Fort Caroline, in an area near modern-day St. Augustine.

Frenchman Rene de Laudonniere began the colony on land that belonged to the Spanish crown. Needless to say, the Spanish monarch was outraged by the news, especially as the settlers were French Huguenots and not devout Catholics like the Spanish King and his subjects.

King Philip II immediately dispatched a fleet of eleven ships, carrying 1,000 seasoned soldiers. General Pedro Menendez de Aviles was one of the Spanish crowns most brutal commanders and was charged with removing the French Huguenots and setting up a Spanish colony in their place.

At the same time, Jean Ribault sailed from France on September 10th, 1565 with a further 600 troops and settlers, to resupply Fort Caroline and drive the Spanish in Florida out. Despite the King’s protests with Jean Ribault’s decision to set sail, he took it upon himself to cross the Atlantic to assist his fellow French Huguenots people who had started their new life in Fort Caroline.

Unfortunately, for Jean Ribault and his crew, a hurricane pushed his ships too far south, leaving them shipwrecked on the Florida Coast, between, what is now, Cape Cañaveral and Daytona Beach.

However, the Spanish were also affected by the hurricane, with only five ships left from their original fleet of eleven, making landfall on September 8th, 1565. They named their new village St. Augustine as the land had been sighted on August 28th, the Feast Day of St Augustine.

Menendez and his men, under the cover of the howling winds of what was left of the hurricane, stealthy approached and attacked Fort Caroline, where they were able to capture the French Huguenot settlement with minor loses but killed all of the French defenders during the battle, sparing only the women and children who were later sent to Havana by ship.

Some of the French inhabitants, including colony founder Rene de Laudonniere and artist, Jacques LeMoyne, managed to escape to ships and return to France. However, Mendez quickly received news of a group of 127 more Frenchmen who were on the other side of an inlet, just south of Fort Caroline.

With the help of a captured Frenchman (collaborator) who played the role of translator, Menendez informed the surviving Huguenot inhabitants that Fort Caroline had been captured and they needed to surrender. With all of their weapons, food, and supplies onboard the ships they were trying to prepare to sail back to France, the French had no choice but to surrender.

Chaplain Francisco Mendoza aware of the often unrestrained blood lust of the Spanish soldiers, asked Menendez to spare any Catholic French. But in the end, after the majority refused, the blood letting couldn't be contained resulting in the brutal killing of 111 men. Just sixteen were spared including four artisans whose skills were required, some who professed to being Catholic, and a handful of impressed Breton sailors.

Just two weeks later, the same thing happened again as more Fench survivors appeared at the inlet, including Jean Ribault and his men. On October 12th Ribault and his crew surrendered but refused to give up their Protestant faith and convert. On this occasion, without hesitation, 134 were savagely killed by the Spanish.

Because of these events, the inlet was known as ‘Mantanzas’, which means ‘slaughters’ in Spanish. The Spanish have a saying for such an event, "A sword day, a red day."

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