Spikes on McGrath, 'The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane'

John T. McGrath. The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. 239 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-1784-6.

Reviewed by Courtney Spikes (California State University, Los Angeles)
Published on H-Florida (June, 2002)

International Intrigue and the Quest for Florida

International Intrigue and the Quest for Florida

In 1564, a fragile ship filled with half-dead French sailors was found adrift in the English Channel. The men, who had resorted to cannibalism during their three-month odyssey, crossed the Atlantic from Florida in a crudely constructed boat using sails sewn from their shirts. With no food stored for the winter and unpredictable relations with neighboring Indians, the French Huguenot sailors chose to flee their small fort in the New World rather than die waiting for their captain, Jean Ribault, to return from France with much needed supplies. These French forays into the Florida region were seen as a viable threat; sadly for the sailors, Captain Ribault was at that moment imprisoned in England as a result of his collaboration with a deceptive English adventurer. Ironically, the sailors found themselves rescued by the very man who had imprisoned their captain. Although saved from their ordeal at sea, they too would be jailed in a country currently at war with their homeland, France.

In this, one of the many incredible incidents that author John T. McGrath deftly recounts in his book, The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane, we learn that European international affairs often unexpectedly complicated attempts to establish a foothold in the New World. McGrath's meticulous research reveals the political, religious, and economic motivations behind sixteenth-century French and Spanish quests for empire. The author's detailed and vivid account of French efforts to colonize Florida recreates the scenarios behind the establishment of forts at Port Royal Sound in 1562 and at St. John's River in 1564. French efforts to colonize the Florida region were seen as a viable threat by the Spanish to their land and sea routes between the two continents. Spain and France ultimately had to fight for control in Florida, not only with indigenous peoples but also with each other. McGrath reminds us that the colonization of the Americas was an international affair and his transnational study of conquest and colonization acknowledges that sixteenth-century Spanish supremacy of the New World was neither guaranteed nor inevitable.

McGrath questions why the French failed to make significant inroads in their colonization of Southern Florida and how the Spanish succeeded in removing them entirely from those territories. To do this, McGrath examines the individual actors directly involved with this episode and their decision-making processes. France's queen mother Catherine de Medici, King Philip of Spain, French politician and Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, French naval captain Jean Ribault, and Spanish naval explorer Pedro Menendez serve as the principal players in this dramatic, overlapping narrative. McGrath carefully constructs the personal histories of each actor and how the confluence of their actions affected the disastrous efforts of France to secure holdings in Florida. Specifically, McGrath points to the failure of the Florida endeavors as the primary cause of French reluctance to venture west until the next century. The rich detail of McGrath's research explains the reasons for France's failure in the context of politics, religious wars, international power shifts, and personal ambition.

McGrath's work offers readers as much information about French and Spanish political designs on the New World as it does about the French arrival and their subsequent defeat in Florida. The book outlines how Spainish imperial conquests from Florida to Mexico, and the resulting wealth from silver and gold mining operations, prompted French interest in the region. Botched attempts in Brazil and Canada initially diminished royal enthusiasm but French political advisor Coligny persuaded de Medici to send a Florida expedition in 1562 under the direction of popular French naval captain, Ribault. Ribault claimed to have discovered a new route to the Americas where he could arrive in Florida undetected by the Spanish. This new sailing route motivated de Medici's decision to fund Ribault because the region legally fell under Spanish control, although de Medici and King Philip had never agreed formally on Florida's territorial boundaries.

>From an economic perspective, McGrath points out that the Florida region offered both countries desirable benefits. The legendary French corsairs, who raided transport ships along the Atlantic seaboard, had proved lucrative for France. Colonies in Florida would further support their procedures and potentially inhibit Spanish control over the region. However, the corsairs' illegal actions and the letter de marque, provided by the French monarchy to defend their activities, escalated political tensions with Spain. In contrast, Spanish galleons traditionally sailed through the Bahama Channel en route to Spain and attacks by the corsairs made this route increasingly hazardous and unprofitable. Therefore, controlling the Florida region became critical to Spain because it offered King Philip an alternative route overland to transport his goods from a northern port and avoid the French corsairs altogether.

McGrath also interprets the rise of French Calvinism and its connection to the Florida expeditions in a new way. Catherine de Medici's effort to quell religious and political unrest by officially recognizing Calvinism with her 1561 Edict of January initiated more overt challenges to her authority and made her ongoing support of religious toleration tenuous at best. Yet, McGrath explains that Protestant Coligny was able to persuade de Medici to financially and politically support two Huguenot-led expeditions to Florida. Unlike previous historical theories, McGrath asserts that Coligny did not seek to create a Huguenot refuge but instead intended to use the expeditions to demonstrate the political benefit of the Huguenots to France and the monarchy. In addition, McGrath describes how the political advisor hoped to sustain political tensions between France and Catholic Spain in order to encourage a stronger French alliance with England's Queen Elizabeth. Furthermore, Coligny promoted the expeditions to directly challenge Spain's shipping routes and to force King Philip's hand at the negotiating table. However, McGrath will later point out, Coligny's presumption that Spain would prefer to avoid war at all costs would be proven wrong when Philip personally financed the final attack against French forces in Florida in 1565.

The presence of the French in Florida appears in chapter 5 where McGrath features the pioneering route taken by Ribault in February 1562. By traveling west from 45 North to 30 North, instead of the more commonly used southern trade-winds route, Ribault sailed to America in only ten weeks. He effectively demonstrated the viability of this new shipping corridor to the French monarchy and arrived in Florida unobserved by the Spanish. Landing near St. Augustine, preliminary friendly relations with the local Indians led Ribault to leave twenty-six people with orders to establish a Florida settlement that he believed would be re-supplied quickly after his return to France. McGrath's research indicates that Ribault considered his expedition a success and sailed to France with the belief that he had created a new route to the Americas, legally claimed 200 miles of Florida coastline, and founded a small French garrison that he named Charlesfort.

However, religious wars and imprisonment hampered Ribault's return to Charlesfort with supplies. In one of the many "fact is stranger than fiction" moments throughout this narrative, McGrath tracks how the starving survivors of Charlesfort eventually sailed across the Atlantic in a handcrafted boat culled from the remnants of the settlement. These sailors were eventually discovered and captured by a British explorer who had facilitated Ribault's imprisonment in England in 1564. Meanwhile, a second French expedition, funded through the political maneuverings of Coligny, sailed to Florida while Ribault was in jail and established Fort Caroline later that same year. McGrath reveals that by this time, the Spanish had learned of the French forays into Florida and were crafting a response to remove what they considered to be heretic Huguenots from the Florida territory of Catholic Spain. King Philip also feared that the new settlements would offer the French more opportunities to support their corsairs in the region who continued to attack Spanish shipments of gold and silver.

McGrath traces the Spanish response to the French settlements in Florida, showing how it led to the final conflict and French defeat. In 1565, after the second French expedition landed in Florida, King Philip hired Spanish captain Pedro Menendez to prepare an attack on France's Fort Caroline. Revealing Menendez's motivations for attempting this expedition, McGrath positions the captain's legal battles in Spain, and the news that his son had been shipwrecked in Florida, as the impetus for his involvement with the expedition and his later zeal for carrying out Philip's orders to "cast out" foreign settlers by any means necessary (p. 119). McGrath argues that Ribault, now free from English prison and subsequently hired by Coligny to re-supply Fort Caroline, only intended to sail to Florida with provisions. Only when news of Menendez's fleet and military preparations reached France did Ribault and Coligny change their plans and prepare for battle in Florida. McGrath's detailed chronology reveals how this early military escalation between Spain and France took place amid spy reports, gossip, and general misinformation.

McGrath's narrative builds to a crescendo with a dramatic description of the ultimate confrontation caused by the two 1565 expeditions to Florida. Although Ribault had initial success in 1562 with Charlesfort, McGrath explains that Menendez was the better captain and military strategist on sea and land in 1565. The destruction of Ribault's fleet by a hurricane presented Menendez with a dangerous and unique opportunity to win the battle by land, which he did. However, McGrath carefully teases out the possible reasons for a series of strategic blunders made by Ribault well before the hurricane determined the final outcome. The author makes a clear case that neither fate nor weather was solely responsible for French failure in Florida. In the end, Menendez destroyed Fort Caroline in 1565, he executed Ribault along with most of his sailors, and Spain claimed a decisive victory in the New World.

McGrath then turns his focus back to Europe to review how the French and Spanish perceived the battle results. He points out that the depictions of Menendez as a murderous villain outweighed his military achievements in Florida. McGrath traces how three Huguenot massacres committed by Menendez during this campaign became the focal point of France's public denunciations against Catholic Spain as religious barbarians. However, McGrath goes to great lengths to present Menendez as a man who believed that despite several initial setbacks in the battle, "it was no less than Divine Providence" that offered him victory against Ribault and therefore he believed that it was his religious duty to carry out the Catholic King's orders to the letter (p. 153). The Spanish captain's decision not to kill the fourth and final group of defeated French sailors demonstrates, for McGrath, that Menendez's actions were calculated and not the result of a random murderer.

For scholars of Florida, this book offers a richly detailed overview of the domestic and international motivations that framed sixteenth-century French interest in Florida. McGrath's comprehensive restructuring of the events and interactions surrounding France's initial attempts to claim Florida territories presents a complex understanding of French and Spanish political, economic, and religious policies at the time. McGrath's work also highlights the unpredictable nature of these interactions and how fate, and weather, can lead to unforeseen outcomes. In his conclusion, McGrath speculates that the French failure in the 1560s opened the door for England in the next century to compete directly with Catholic Spain for territories in the New World. This book amply demonstrates that European imperialistic designs in the New World were fraught with challenges and McGrath artfully depicts the hurdles one nation experienced in its first endeavor.

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Citation: Courtney Spikes. Review of McGrath, John T., The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. June, 2002.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=6387

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