Thursday, November 15, 2012

November 15, 2012

The Ribault Column and the First Protestants in America

The Ribault Column, and, to the right, an interpretive plaque and
the beautiful St. Johns River ("Riviere de Mai")
At the Fort Caroline / Timucuan Ecological Preserve near Jacksonville, Florida there is a tall white column with four bronze plaques, standing over the river that the first French settlers named “Riviere de Mai.” At first glance it might not look like much, though it is impressive . . . it’s the history that makes this memorial column so intriguing. In May 1562, explorer Jean Ribault, whose martyrdom was still three years away, had brought multiple stone columns to “La Floride” for the purpose of marking his landing sites. (More information on Jean Ribault can be found in my post of March 06th). He placed one of these columns near what would one day become Jacksonville. Sadly, though I visited Fort Caroline in March, I wasn’t able to get up to the Column (it’s located a short distance away at the top of a flight of steps). I’ve put it on my itinerary for next year. Luckily one of my traveling buddies did manage to get some photos.

This particular column, of course, is not the original . . . though it would indeed be impressive if a 450- year-old column would look so good! This replica was placed in 1924, and its significance goes far beyond marking the spot where a hearty band of intrepid French explorers came ashore. It represents the beginning of the Protestant faith in America. Before 1562, no Protestants had yet set foot in what would become the United States. One wonders if these men imbued with the spirit of the Reformation even realized the significance of their venture as they stood and watched the first column being heaved into position.

When explorer and Ribault contemporary René de Goulaine de Laudonnière (see my post of March 12th for more on him) returned to the site of the original column years later, he, having been raised to disavow unfamiliar customs, was quite disturbed by what he saw. The native Timucua Indians had been bestowing great veneration upon the column as if they thought it a god. They had heaped decorative items and garlands upon it and had bestowed upon it some kind of otherworldly power. This did not set right with the Huguenots of La Caroline. History failed to record what measures were taken to ensure this did not happen again, or at least I haven’t yet found such a record.

The 1924 column sits on a bluff with beautiful views of the St. Johns River and of natural scenery, and one of its plaques reads as follows: “Erected by the Florida Daughters of the American Revolution – May first 1924 – Commemorating the first landing of Protestants on American soil.” This is big news. This is powerful. Before the Puritans . . . before Protestantism became the bedrock of early American society, before later Protestants became intrigued by the grace, faith, and fortitude of their persecuted ancestors . . . there were Huguenots stepping on Floridian soil for the first time.

Another plaque on the Ribault Column (there are four) reads: “This is a replica of the marker placed on or near this spot by Jean Ribaut – May first 1562 – In taking possession of Florida for France.” The two plaques with text are decorated by a shield, three small fleur de lis, the French royal coat of arms, a laurel wreath, and a hanging cross with a dove that is likely meant to represent the Huguenot cross. The two other plaques are decorated with seashells, the pattern of three fleur-de-lis that was emblazoned on the medieval French flag, and the royal crown.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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