In 1577, a French ship, Le Prince, is wrecked in Port Royal Sound, SC. The survivors include a true prince, Nicolas Strozzi, cousin of the queen mother of France, Catherine de Medici.
In the summer of 1580, 20 French privateering ships are sighted in the harbors of Guale (the present-day SE Georgia coast), a province of Spanish Florida. These interlopers are engaged in “illicit” trading with the natives and searching for castaways from Le Prince.
One corsair captain has anchored his galeaceta at the bar of San Mateo (the mouth of today’s St. Johns River), trading and gathering intelligence on San Agustín, capitol of colonial Florida. Learning that there is an enemy vessel within striking range of San Agustín, General Don Pedro Menéndez Marqués, the colony’s first royal governor and nephew of Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the founder of the colony, mans two fragatas and sails north.
On July 20, the Spanish encounter the French vessel amid the shoals at the mouth of the Rio de San Juan, near Fort San Mateo (today’s St. Johns River, at Jacksonville, FL). After an exchange of broadsides, the Spaniards grapple the French ship and hand-to-hand fighting ensues. Seeing all is lost, the French run their ship onto the shoals, hoping to take the Spaniards down with them. One of the Spanish fragatas is destroyed along with the French galeaceta, but Menéndez Marqués disengages his flagship in time.
Eighteen Spaniards and 54 Frenchmen (including two black sailors, the Spanish narrator noting one of whom “fought very well”) die in this engagement. After the fight, the victors learn that the French vessel had been commanded by a Captain Gilberto Gil, a Corsican. He had fought “cased from head to foot in armor which was arquebus-proof, and he died of an arquebus shot which struck him through the visor in the temple, for in any other manner it was impossible to kill him.” French ships continue to menace the Guale coast throughout the rest of the year.
Bushnell, Amy Turner; Situado and Sabana: Spain’s Support System for the Presidio and Mission Provinces of Florida; American Museum of Natural History, New York; ISBN: 0820317128; 1994.
Chang-Rodriguez, Raquel; Beyond Books and Borders: Garcilaso de la Vega and La Florida Del Inca; Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg, PA; ISBN: 0838756514; 2006.
Chatelain, Verne E.; The Defenses of Spanish Florida: 1565 to 1763; Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, DC; 1941.
Connor, Jeanette Thurber, transl. and ed.; Colonial Records of Spanish Florida, Vol. 2; Florida State Historical Society; DeLand, FL; 1925-1930.
Hann, John H.; A History of the Timucua Indians and Missions; University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL; ISBN: 0813014247; 1996.
Hoffman, Paul E.; A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast during the Sixteenth Century; Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA; ISBN: 0807115525; 1990.
Marshall, Bill; France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History; ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA; ISBN: 1851094113; 2005.
Written by Davis Walker and posted courtesy of Florida Living History, Inc. (www.floridalivinghistory.org )