Thursday, May 3, 2012

May 03, 2012

France Antarctique: The Brazilian “Fort Caroline”

If it comes as a surprise to many that there was once a French Huguenot colony in Florida, it is certainly surprising that there was a similar colony in what is now Brazil. This was the first such colony founded as a haven for religious freedom . . . and it, too, was destroyed and soon faded into oblivion. However, unlike Fort Caroline, which was founded not only as a Protestant refuge but also as a base from which France could protect her territory in the New World and a settlement where men hoped to become wealthy, the colony at Rio de Janeiro was founded mostly as a religious statement.

So how did it begin? The date was 1555, a decade before Fort Caroline was ravaged. Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, a French admiral, desired that the battered and beleaguered Huguenots might have a colony to call their own. He agreed to sail with them to Brazil and, once there, constructed Fort Coligny at Guanabara Bay. Gaspard de Coligny, the colony’s founder and benefactor and also a devoted Huguenot, must have been pleased to learn of the name that was chosen. You might remember that he also spearheaded the later French colonies in ‘La Floride.’ 

Interestingly, the French were considered trespassers due to an earlier decree that had given this part of the world to Portugal and Spain.  In the year 1557, Huguenots began flocking to what is now Rio de Janeiro under Villegaignon’s protective eye. It was not only French Protestants who delved wholeheartedly into the idea of settling in Brazil. Swiss Calvinists came as colonists also. There were a variety of people that must have made an interesting mix: Men of various constitutions, women seeking good Protestant husbands, and boys who could do a variety of tasks.

Unfortunately, religious differences could not be overcome in the New World any better than they could in the Old World. Villegaignon, still a committed Catholic, refused to accept the Huguenots’ interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. Huguenots were forbidden to settle in or near Fort Coligny as of October 1557. The Huguenots were no strangers to betrayal. Yet it must have been a horrific thing to see when Villegaignon, once a friend, benefactor, and protector, had certain Calvinists drowned when they would not give up their faith. This might have been considered the first Protestant martyrdom in the New World. It would certainly not be the last.

"France Antarctique" shown on a contemporary map

The French could not have believed that the Portuguese would remain blind to the French colony forever. Mem da Sá, who had recently been made governor of Brazil, was urged to destroy the remaining Calvinists and their base. It was the year 1560. He managed to obliterate Fort Coligny but could not slaughter the French colonists due to their timely escape. Just as the Florida Timucuans at Fort Caroline loved the French and thought of them fondly, the native people of Brazil proved helpful in hiding the endangered colonists of Rio de Janeiro.

History tells us that Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon could no longer tolerate the way Huguenots and Catholics were so eager to spill each other’s blood, and it seemed he was very upset by the violence that existed between the two groups. (Author’s tongue-in-cheek note: It seems odd that he should mind persecution and bloodshed, considering he had drowned Calvinists who refused to convert to Catholicism . . .) By 1559 he was living in France once more. 

Then the Jesuits arrived. In this time, the Jesuits were the bane of every Protestant, for this powerful religious order were movers and shakers in the 16th century world and were outspoken opponents of Protestantism in every way, shape, and form. On the first day of March in 1565, Estácio de Sá dedicated a new colony known as Rio de Janeiro so Portugal might finally take control of an area “infected” by French Calvinists. This miniature war took two years. During this time, Fort Caroline in Florida starved, was resupplied, and was destroyed alternately. In early 1567, de Sá had a big showdown with the French and won. Thus the colony founded only in 1555 lay in ruins by 1567.

Huguenot hopes in the New World had been shattered completely by this time. Rio de Janeiro was now Portuguese; the French had been killed or otherwise escaped. Fort Caroline, which has been raided and turned into a slaughterhouse in September 1565, was now a Spanish fortress known as San Mateo. Admiral de Coligny’s dreams were crushed . . . he bore this burden until 1572, when he was ignominiously martyred in Paris during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

Little wonder that the Huguenot story is full of ghosts.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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