"Conquest of America" and the French in Florida
When I first took up the cause of the Florida Huguenots killed at Fort Caroline and Matanzas Inlet in 1565, I read voraciously about St. Augustine’s history in the hopes of finding out more. I searched the web for films, documentaries, anything about these lost souls, and then finally, in 2005, I came across a gem produced by the History Channel. This series called “Conquest of America” is divided into four parts. To my excitement, the Southeast section featured the Huguenots and their struggles. Also, two of my favorite Protestant personages, French explorer Jean Ribault and his second-in-command René de Goulaine de Laudonnière, were vividly-portrayed.
As with any historical documentary, I knew beforehand that I might not agree with the way the French were represented. I was genuinely pleased to note that the Huguenot plight was portrayed with compassion, and though the French leaders sometimes made choices with which the Christians of today might disagree, they were given their fair share of limelight in “Conquest of America.”
This being said, the film opens with a sneak-peek at some the most emotional scenes. It explains that Spain believed itself to be the steward of the New World and would not tolerate outsiders staking a claim. It then goes on to recreate the court of Catherine de’Medici (mother of King Charles, and his regent at the time), the court of King Philip II of Spain, Charlesfort and Fort Caroline in the New World, and of course the horrors of the Matanzas massacre.
“Conquest of America” starkly and stunningly presents the injustice and pathos of the raid on Fort Caroline, where men, women, and children in nightshirts are roused from their tents by the clashing of swords. The violence portrayed is not particularly bloody but certainly shows enough brutality to give viewers a grasp at how terrible this event truly was. If it is difficult to believe that such bloodshed was enacted here, Matanzas is even more harrowing.
The scene of the French Protestants choosing martyrdom at Matanzas has its share of bloodshed but is likely much “cleaner” than the actual gut-wrenching event. Professor and author John McGrath, one of the guests who speak throughout the film, puts it chillingly: “There are a hundred corpses lying on the beach . . . with their hands tied behind their backs.” That unfathomable and heart-wrenching visual brings the tragedy of the French Huguenots of Florida starkly into focus.
I first saw “Conquest of America” in 2005 on the History Channel but purchased the film in DVD form just last month (at Fort Caroline’s visitor center, no less!) and began to examine it in great detail. Now, being a history buff, I did notice a few things during Conquest of America. First of all, in the scene of summer 1565 when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés is preparing to sail from Cádiz, Spain, the “Spanish castle” in the background is actually the Castillo de San Marcos, a seventeenth century Spanish fort in St. Augustine. Those who have visited the Castillo will not only recognize its shape and unique coquina walls but will also note the 1842 U.S. Army “Hot Shot Furnace.”
Near the end of the “Southeast” segment, when Menéndez first discovers the Protestant castaways on the beaches of Matanzas, he is standing directly in front of them when they awake. History says the French soldiers needed to be ferried over to Menéndez’s side of the inlet where the Spanish soldiers waited, so there was no way he could have faced them and spoken with them as soon as he first saw them. I am not sure why this particular “stone” was left “unturned.”
The music in “Conquest of America” is stirring and majestic. There is something very powerful about the score, something that adds to the drama and passion of the times. The actors were believable and, for the most part, greatly resembled those they were chosen to play. Again, I was very pleased with the portrayal of the Huguenots, not as perfect angels, but as men who were mostly good and would often make quick and sometimes deadly decisions. The narrator describes them as “proud Protestants” and explains that they chose to die for their faith rather than confess a different creed.
All in all, as someone who rarely watches documentaries, I was impressed with “Conquest of America” and immensely glad that the story of the Huguenots in Florida was told in a truthful and compassionate manner. On a side note, for book lovers interested in the French tragedy at Fort Caroline and Matanzas, I highly recommend “Painter in a Savage Land” by Miles Harvey. This is a masterpiece that follows the story of Huguenot painter Jacques le Moyne de Morgues and describes what not only he but also his French compatriots suffered in Florida. This is currently my favorite book.
Ceux qui ont été perdus ne seront jamais oubliés.
Those who were lost will never be forgotten.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved