September 29, 1565: The First Massacre at Matanzas
Even if the term “Murphy’s Law” was unknown to 16th century man, the concept of “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” was certainly familiar to the French Protestants of Florida. In September of 1565, Admiral Jean Ribault’s intrepid band of explorers had re-boarded their beautiful galleon Trinité in the hopes of destroying Spanish San Agustín before the Spaniards could destroy the French fortress of La Caroline. No such luck. A tempest later called the “San Mateo hurricane” sprang up, and the French went down.
One would think it a good thing that most of the Frenchmen survived the shipwreck and somehow managed to make it to shore. When one considers the fate that awaited them, however, survival seems somehow cruel. Ribault’s men came ashore in two groups. It is unknown if the two bands had contact with each other, or for how long. This first band --- this first sacrifice-in-waiting --- collapsed along the shoreline at a place that would ominously become known as “Matanzas,” “slaughters.” Their presence would not go undetected for long.
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Spanish “adelantado” and veteran sailor, would tolerate neither foreigners nor Protestants in Spanish-claimed lands. Spanish chaplain Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales provides an eerie narrative of what happened next: (I have reproduced his exact commentary, even the grammatical no-no’s, for the sake of authenticity).
“As soon as he had called to them, one of them swam towards and spoke to him; told him of their having been shipwrecked, and the distress they were in; that they had not eaten bread for eight or ten days; and, what is more, stated that all, or at least the greater part of them, were Lutherans. Immediately the general sent him back to his countrymen, to say they must surrender, and give up their arms, or he would put them all to death. A French gentleman, who was a sergeant, brought back the reply that they would surrender on condition their lives should be spared.
After having parleyed a long time, our brave captain-general answered ‘that he would make no promises, that they must surrender unconditionally, and lay down their arms, because, if he spared their lives, he wanted them to be grateful for it, and, if they were put to death, that there should be no cause for complaint.’ Seeing that there was nothing else left for them to do, the sergeant returned to the camp; and soon after he brought all their arms and flags, and gave them up to the general, and surrendered unconditionally.
Finding they were all Lutherans, the captain-general ordered them all put to death; but, as I was a priest, and had bowels of mercy, I begged him to grant me the favor of sparing those whom we might find to be Christians. He granted it; and I made investigations, and found ten or twelve of the men Roman Catholics, whom we brought back. All the others were executed, because they were Lutherans and enemies of our Holy Catholic faith. All this took place on Saturday (St. Michael’s Day), September 29, 1565. I, Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, Chaplain of His Lordship, certify that the foregoing is a statement of what actually happened.”
That chilling narrative leaves little to the imagination. While many might have been tempted to paint the massacre with a broad brush in order to propagandize, this account is straight from the victors’ mouths, and there was no reason for them to make things sound worse than they actually were. In old St. Augustine there is a growing trend of remembering those who have gone before, both in violent ways and due to more natural causes. Burials of Englishmen, Spaniards, Africans, and Native Americans are analyzed and respected. Religious ceremonies are earnestly sought.
There has recently been a great interest in the martyrdom of Spanish priests who died in the early 18th century at the hands of non-Christian Indians. Yet the story of the martyrs of Matanzas, whether deliberately or as an oversight, is simply overlooked. It is one of the most gruesome tales in our nation’s history and one of the first scenes of religious violence in America, yet these men now die a second death . . . the death of being forgotten and dishonored. There is no handsome memorial for them. No religious service. No dignity. Their burial site has never been discovered, and a formal statement has never been made. It is my sincere hope that something might be done for these Protestant victims. I will continue to hope and pray that this will come to pass.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved