Rene de Laudonniere, New World explorer
Rene de Goulaine de Laudonniere was either a very lucky man or a very unlucky one depending on which part of his life story one chooses to ponder. He was born into a noble family sometime around the year 1529, and though history is silent on when his family might have converted to Calvinism, it was likely when Rene was very young. The Huguenot doctrines first became popular in the 1530s. He must have been accustomed to maritime ventures from childhood, having been born in the city of Poitou, which borders the ocean.
History is also silent on Rene de Laudonniere’s youthful adventures. He comes sharply into focus in 1562, the year he was chosen to accompany Jean Ribault on Admiral Gaspard de Coligny’s life-changing expedition to the New World. Together with Ribault, Laudonniere named their newly-christened territory in Parris Island, South Carolina, ‘Charlesfort’ after their king Charles the Ninth.
In 1564 Laudonniere had the chance to prove himself on a solo mission. This time he explored ‘La Floride’ in a place that would someday be called Jacksonville. He threw up a fortification named Fort Caroline, also named after the king. It soon became apparent that Laudonniere did not have the leadership skills necessary to shield La Caroline from open rebellion. Colonists bent on munity grew tired of eking out a barely-sustainable living. They threatened Laudonniere and compelled him to sign a document giving them the right to sail out and harass Spanish shipping. This decision meant the death of many.
In August of 1565, Jean Ribault, fresh out of an English prison after being falsely accused of spying and likely horrified by stories of how things were going at Fort Caroline, hurriedly sailed to ‘La Floride’ to relieve Laudonniere of his position. We imagine there was some sort of confrontation and that hard feelings were inevitable. Up until this point one might be tempted to think of Rene de Laudonniere as unlucky. Though the following events might continue that thought, he was decidedly lucky in the long run.
The morning of September 20th, 1565, soaked and battered yet decidedly calmer after a recent hurricane, dawned with the scent of blood in the air. Spanish adventurers broke their way through La Caroline. Stoked high on religious intolerance and hatred for any sort of competition, they began slaughtering the majority of La Caroline’s sleep-drowsed men. Women and children were taken into captivity. It was only by God’s grace that Rene de Laudonniere managed to flee the men who were actively seeking his life.
Laudonniere had been suffering with a fever, something that must have affected his mood greatly and perhaps filled him with despair and a sense of helplessness. Yet he managed to evade his captors. He was indeed lucky . . . he escaped. Most did not. Laudonniere took a ship back to France. Nearly all of the men of La Caroline would meet their fates by hanging or by sword. Jean Ribault and his sea-bound adventurers would be slain by cold steel as well.
Laudonniere’s nightmares were likely forged in these moments. Here was a man delirious and full of fever, dressed only in a nightshirt, watching his companions being slaughtered. He saw his beloved New World bastion of Protestantism flying the Spanish flag so hated by any loyal Frenchman of the time. Yet he pressed on, for there was nothing else to do. Jean Ribault and the able-bodied men of La Caroline had set sail for the very new Spanish colony of San Agustin. Laudonniere had no way to know of the ensuing shipwreck.
He endured a harrowing sea journey that ended in Wales. He was forced to find his way as best he could, eventually telling his story to the French court. But they were unsympathetic. Laudonniere’s peers painted him in a bad light. To make matters worse, news of the Matanzas massacre were starting to come to light. Laudonniere saw he had dodged a bullet. It was a miracle that he had been too ill to join the fleet and that he had refused to consent to such a bold venture. He very easily could have claimed the same fate.
Discouraged and wracked with horror over the things he had seen, he blended into anonymity, engaging in activities still hidden from all but those who knew him then. In 1572, having escaped the St. Bartholomew’s massacre, he was working as a mariner once more. I imagine his adventures were much tamer this time around. Now a mature man of about forty-three, he was likely still haunted by the images he saw at La Caroline.
Rene de Laudonniere passed away in 1574. What terrors haunted him in those final days, no one knows. Perhaps he had managed to push away the grief and live a normal life. Perhaps he married and had a family. We know he continued living in France, so we can deduce that he was fiercely patriotic. Any Huguenot who had the chance to settle in nearby countries such as Protestant England and yet remained in France must have had an intense --- and deadly --- love of their country. Or perhaps he simply could not imagine being apart from the land of his birth.
Laudonniere broke the silence when his memoirs were posthumously published. His book hit the shelves of ye olde print shops in the late 1580s, and in death he told the stories he could not bear to tell in life.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved