Wednesday, May 23, 2012

May 23, 2012

“Painter in a Savage Land”

For those history buffs and students of religion interested in the story of the French in Florida from 1562 to 1565, books dealing with this subject are hard to come by. I have always been fascinated by the Huguenot settlement at Fort Caroline and the massacre site of Matanzas and was afraid there would be no literature that would explain events and teach me something new. Also, there is always the fear that the information might come from a biased source.

Last year I found a book that it is such an incredible resource for those interested in this time period and place that it became my favorite book (and that’s saying a lot, as I have always been a voracious reader). It is called “Painter in a Savage Land,” by Miles Harvey. This book is incredible. It chronicles the story of the French in Florida by following the adventurers of renowned New World painter Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, detailing each event in a colorful, vivid, and captivating way. The language used is flowery without being difficult to understand, and the obvious compassion that the author feels for the Huguenots during times of struggle and bloody massacre is a refreshing change.

To give an example of the writing in “Painter in a Savage Land,” here is my favorite descriptive paragraph describing how Pedro Menéndez de Avilés burned every Protestant book he found at La Caroline and possibly also paintings of native Timucua ceremonies:

“. . . the flames consuming those pages just as history would soon consume the people they commemorated, the carefully rendered lines and forms and figures blurred and then blotted by ash, the blackened papers peeling into the Florida sky, and floating off like ghosts, like lost dreams, like memories drifting to oblivion.”

Tears fill my eyes every time I read those lines. It is true that the French colony in Florida was a haunting bastion of lost dreams; there is still a tangible longing for those who mourn what was lost and imagine what might have been. There is another section that speaks of Jacques le Moyne having survived the massacre at Fort Caroline and now setting out for France in a tiny vessel: 

“Perhaps he felt as cold and insensate as the fish fitting beneath the hull of his pilotless ship. If not, it’s hard to even conceive of his terror at that moment. Having just endured a famine, having just been wounded in war, having just witnessed the massacre of his countrymen, he was now entering a vast churning ocean amid storms of stunning violence, with only biscuits and water to live on and barely enough clothing to cover his back. Yet for all that, he must have known that whatever perils awaited him at sea, he was lucky to be alive.

“Terra Florida now vanished from view. On that shore the slaughters continued.”

Chills. Everything about the Huguenot story is filled with pathos . . . “Painter in a Savage Land” captures each moment with skill and emotional umph, and I would highly recommend the book to anyone who’s interested in Huguenot history, the French in Florida, the history of painters in the New World, or just history or Protestant religious history in general. I was very glad to find it as I did not believe there was such a treasure concerning this obscure chapter in history. Cheers to Miles Harvey for creating a book that tells the story amazingly well.

May we remember forever.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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