Monday, June 18, 2012

June 18, 2012

St. Augustine's Founder is Not My Cup of Tea

In St. Augustine, Florida, the Nation’s Oldest City, there is an impressive bronze statue that sits in front of a museum / city hall that was once an impressive Victorian hotel. City founder Pedro Menéndez de Avilés y Alonso de la Campa stands proudly atop the base in 16th century glory. There are wreath-laying ceremonies, birthday celebrations, and Founders Day shout-outs to this man, yet somehow in this fanfare the conquistador’s darker nature is ignored. This is the part we should never forget. In September and October 1565, beginning at the bloodbath at French Fort Caroline and ending with the second massacre at Matanzas near St. Augustine, Florida, he was responsible for hundreds of Protestant deaths. And there is no doubt about that fact.

An 1858 guide book by George Fairbanks, entitled “The history and antiquities of the city of St. Augustine, Florida, founded A.D. 1565” sums it up quite well: The Adelentado, taking Jean Ribault behind the sand hills, among the bushes where the others had their hands tied behind them, he said to these and all the others as he had done before, that they had four leagues to go after night, and that he could not permit them to go unbound; and after they were all tied, he asked if they were Catholics or Lutherans, or if any of them desired to make confession.

He goes on: Jean Ribault replied, ‘that all who were there were of the new religion,’ and he then began to repeat the psalm, ‘Domine! Memento Mei;’ and having finished, he said, ‘that from dust they came and to dust they must return, and that in twenty years, more or less, he must render his final account; that the Adelentado might do with them as he chose.’ The Adelentado then ordered all to be killed, in the same order and at the same mark, as had been done to the others. He spared only the fifers, drummers, and trumpeters, and four others who said that they were Catholics, in all, sixteen persons.

Fairbanks further writes: At some point on the thickly-wooded shores of the Island of Anastasio, or beneath the shifting mounds of sand which mark its shores, may still lie the bones of some of the three hundred and fifty who, spared from destruction by the tempest, and escaping the perils of the sea and the savage, fell victims to the vindictive rancor and blind rage of one than whom history recalls none more cruel, or less humane. But while their bones, scattered on earth and sea, unhonored and unburied, were lost to human sight, the tale of their destruction and sad fate, scattered in like manner over the whole world, has raised to their memory through sympathy with their fate, a memorial which will endure as long as the pages of history.

Left: Pedro Menendez de Aviles at Lightner Museum in downtown St. Augustine
Right: Jean Ribault's massacre marker at Matanzas

This is Pedro Menéndez de Avilés’ legacy. I have heard (although I have not yet had the chance to substantiate it) that the faculty of Flagler College, a historic liberal arts college in St. Augustine that was once built as a hotel by Victorian mogul Henry Flagler, has in the past refused to pay homage to Menéndez because of his butchery of the Huguenots. But what of the “unknown assassins”? What of the Spanish soldiers who not only thought they were doing their religious duty but did it gladly, deriving pleasure from it, then returning to St. Augustine and kissing their wives and children before gleefully building their newly-founded colony?

Forgiving is not forgetting. 

There is much talk of Menéndez’s accomplishments and little of those he had put to death. His memory is exalted; theirs are obscured. Whenever I see a statue or portrait of Menéndez I think of Huguenot men of all ages kneeling on the beaches of Matanzas with their hands tied behind them. I think of the bloodbath that Menéndez not only ordered but almost certainly took part in, and of the unceremonious way the Protestant victims were left and forgotten. No voice. No rights, even to life. No chance. Yet this Spanish Captain-general gained popularity in the following generations and took on an important place in St. Augustine. This has always been greatly disturbing to me. 

Some might choose to show honor to Menéndez’s impressive commemorative statue in downtown St. Augustine, but I much prefer a quieter, more secluded spot . . . the hidden dunes and old markers proclaiming that nearly two hundred and fifty men chose death over conversion and remained true to their faith. I would rather respect them for their courage and mourn the passing of men with dreams in their eyes and the hope of freedom in their hearts. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his conquistadors have become larger than life despite their evil deeds. What of those they killed so unjustly? Jean Ribault’s legacy is something I would much rather admire. ‘Lord, remember Jean Ribault,’ the ill-fated French commander said, personalizing David’s Psalm 132. I know the Lord will. And I will as well.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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