An incredible series of “things gone bad” turned the 16th century colonization efforts of the French government into a tragic disaster. French efforts were far better planned than their Spanish or English counterparts in the 16th century. At the start, France seem destined to be the dominant power in North America. If any one of many decisions had been made differently, the French Colony would have succeeded. Here are some of the “what if’s.”
- If Jean Ribault and René Goulaine de Laudonniére had brought along a couple of fishing boats from Brittany on their voyages, the colonists would have had an abundance of food. Excess fish could have been traded to the Natives for grains and vegetables.
- If France had established a powerful military and naval base prior to sending over large numbers of non-combatants and non-productive people such as musicians, it is unlikely that the Spanish would have been able to dislodge the colonists from La Florida.
- If the first phase of the Religious Wars had no broken out, Jean Ribault would have been able to resupply and reinforce both Charlesfort and Fort Caroline before starvation set in.
- If one man had not remained behind at Charlesfort, the Spanish would not have known that a second and larger colony had been planned to the south.
- If some of the Fort Caroline garrison had not mutinied, the Spanish would never have had specific information about the location of Fort Caroline and how to reach it from land. The Spanish fleet commanded by Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés could not see Fort Caroline from the ocean, and otherwise would have not known that a fort was on the May River for some time.
- If René Goulaine de Laudonniére had accepted Sir John Hawkins offer to sail back to Europe, neither the Fort Caroline colonists nor the crew of Jean Ribault’s fleet would have been massacred. In fact, the delay caused by French acceptance of this offer, could have resulted in Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés’ fleet arriving at the mouth of the May River to face the combined forces of the English and the French. The English were superior sailors and gunners. Hawkins was Vice-admiral of the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada.
- If René Goulaine de Laudonniére had not ordered the dismantlement of Fort Caroline prior to their return to France, Spanish soldiers would have had a distinct disadvantage when attacking the fort. The Spanish had no cannons, while the French had many. It is possible that de Laudonniére’s garrison could have held out long enough for his Indian allies to come to their aid. Most Indian tribes in the Southeast then hated the Spanish because of the atrocities committed by the Hernando de Soto Expedition.
- If Jean Ribault had not decided to stage a surprise attack on the Spanish, both Fort Caroline and the mouth of the May River would have been heavily defended and well supplied. Ribault’s fleet would have been anchored in the safety of May River sound when the tropical storm struck.
Menéndez took a very dangerous gamble by marching overland to attack Fort Caroline. He probably would have not considered the attack if had known that the combined size of the French forces outnumbered his army. The Spanish carried inadequate supplies to maintain a long siege of Fort Caroline. Since the French had the Native province surrounding Fort Caroline as allies, there is little doubt that the Spanish would have been attacked by them, if the French stood their ground at Fort Caroline.
Two years later, the French’s allies willingly joined the attack on Fort Mateo, even though it was far more dangerous to attack defenders inside the forts ramparts and palisades. The Spanish could have easily become surrounded if the initial surprise attack on Fort Caroline had failed. With few supplies and nowhere to go, the story could have easily become one of a massive massacre of Spaniards by the Indians.
Source: Sixteenth Century French Exploration of the Southeast, by Richard Thornton, People of One Fire, Blairsville Georgia, © 2012.