Those Who Fell For Faith: Jean Ribault
Anyone who writes fiction “backwards” (knowing the ending of the story, then constructing what happened beforehand) has most likely discovered that this can be quite a sad venture. Reading of happy childhood memories and scattered adventures is much more touching when one knows how it all ends. Some people’s lives evoke the same pathos in our hearts. This is very true for Jean Ribault, a French officer, adventurer, and proud Huguenot who died on the 12th of October 1565 in Florida’s horrific Matanzas massacre. He is most famous for his death . . . faced with betrayal toward not only himself but also the men under his command, he remained calm and urged the would-be martyrs to sing Psalm 132.
So what happened before that point? What events in Jean Ribault’s life might have led up to this last standoff, this horrendous yet touching expression of faith? No one knows the exact year of his birth --- 1520 is the best estimate --- but we do know a place: Dieppe, France. This is particularly interesting since Ribault’s final voyage began in Dieppe as well. Here the beautiful flagship “Trinite” set sail in May 1565.
No one knows whom Jean Ribault married, though they know of one son --- Jacques --- who later also visited the land the French called ‘La Floride.’ Jean became a naval officer, and during this time he answered to Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, another fascinating figure who would meet his own bloody fate during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572.
Jean Ribault was not always a shining example of Christian piety. There were some activities in which he participated that were ‘below the radar,’ such as raiding Spanish ships and making quite a name for himself in that manner. Yet this makes him a perfect example of how Christians with less-than-perfect records can still return to Christ and make a home for Him in their hearts.
In 1562 Jean Ribault left Havre de Grace and sailed for “la Nouveau Monde,” the New World. Few had any idea what to expect. He must have felt a thrill in his heart when land was first sighted. Monsieur Ribault named his fledgling colony “Charlesfort” after King Charles the Ninth. It was located in what would later become the site of a Spanish colony named Santa Elena and is now known as Parris Island, South Carolina.
Jean Ribault made two trips to La Floride, the first in 1562 and the second in 1565. Yet some interesting events occurred in between these journeys. Upon returning to France, he learned that the first War of Religion, the “opening act” of eight bloody and grueling conflicts between the nation’s Protestants and Catholics, was in full swing. History says only that Jean Ribault “assisted the Huguenots at Dieppe” but does not say how. I picture him as a hands-on man, right there in the thick of things with a sword in his grip. He was a fiercely loyal Calvinist known for natural leadership skills and impatience. He would never have stood idly by while his fellow Huguenots had need of his services.
Having gone to England to seek aid for his colony, he was marked as a spy and incarcerated quite unceremoniously in the infamous Tower of London. I have often looked at photographs of the White Tower and wondered which window might have been his --- if he was ever given the pleasure of a window. At this time Jean Ribault had no idea what his fate would someday be.
While Ribault was incapacitated, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny appointed Rene de Laudonniere, who had helped found Charlesfort, to create a new colony in the New World. Laudonniere sailed to the St. Johns River in Florida and established Fort Caroline, also named after Charles the Ninth. His time at Caroline was unsuccessful. Between mutiny, Native American unrest, and starvation, many felt Laudonniere was not up to the task. In May 1565 Jean Ribault, freshly-released, sailed out of Dieppe with a bevy of ships full of life-giving supplies for La Caroline.
By this time, the colony had taken on a stronger purpose. Wealth and subsistence were only two of its goals. It has also taken on the face of a Protestant refuge, a haven, a place where France’s Huguenot population might seek safety and elusive religious freedom. Jean Ribault arrived on the 28th of August, 1565. He must have been gratified to see the relief on the colonists’ faces. Yet the French were being closely followed. A Spanish fleet led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, under the direct command of King Philip the Second of Spain, hovered just beyond La Caroline, waiting for the perfect opportunity to scrape swords.
We know there was some controversy between Jean Ribault and Rene de Laudonniere when Ribault stripped Laudonniere from command and took over La Caroline himself. Jean Ribault was a self-made man. Accounts seem to paint him as a stubborn and high-spirited commander who despite his forty-five years desired instant gratification and a firm fight rather than waiting for the enemy to attack. These characteristics might have set ill-at-ease with his devout Christian heart, but I am reminded of King David, who was indeed a very driven --- and sometimes sinful --- individual, but who loved God with all his heart and soul.
Jean Ribault quickly learned that Pedro Menendez had recently founded San Agustín and had begun to fortify it in the hopes of warding off a French attack. The quick-on-the-draw French officer elected to attack San Agustín before the Spanish could strike La Caroline. Laudonniere disagreed. There was another confrontation, the details of which we do not know. But Ribault recklessly started off with his best men aboard the ships that had only just arrived in La Floride. An Atlantic hurricane soon showed him the rashness of his actions.
He might have wept and complained. He might have lamented his choice of action (and likely did, especially as his shipwrecked men crawled along the shores of Matanzas Inlet without food or shelter, and when the Spanish arrived in all their glittering glory). It must have been like a knife in the heart to hear Pedro Menendez speak of the ruins of Fort Caroline. (As Ribault had started out before the Spanish raided La Caroline on the 20th of September, he knew nothing of the attack).
Jean Ribault bargained for his life and for that of his men, naively trusting his captors. They refused his offer. He might have agreed to abandon his Calvinism. But instead he showed his mettle as a man of God. He did not despair. He calmly and quietly argued his men to sing a psalm dear to his heart, and he met his martyrdom with God’s praises still on his lips. Perhaps it is too much to think that his humbleness touched his executioners. We know, of course, that it touched his followers, for they took his example and refused to give up the faith. They extolled the psalm with lifted voices that must have carried across the dunes.
“O Lord, remember David and all the hardships he endured.
He swore an oath to the LORD and made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob:
“I will not enter my house or go to my bed--
I will allow no sleep to my eyes, no slumber to my eyelids,
till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”
And with this vow, Jean Ribault met his fate. Immediately after, I can imagine that he met his Maker, as did his followers who also died in their unshakable convictions. Jean Ribault was one of the first Protestant martyrs to fall on America’s shores. He was not perfect; far from it. But his sacrifice and that of his followers continues to be an inspiration. These brave men must never be forgotten.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved