The French Piper

This is a postscript to the earlier Heretics story.

Two decades later, it’s 1586 and St. Augustine is a small colony struggling to survive.  With a European population of less that 350, it was almost useless as protection for the fleet.  Pedro Menendez Marquez, the nephew of the city’s founder, had recently begun building a small wooden fort in response to reports of raiders.

Sir Francis Drake, the famous English privateer, had just finished pillaging the Spanish cities of Santo Domingo and Cartegena in the Caribbean and was on his way home.  Like the Spanish fleet, he was taking advantage of the Gulf Stream current moving up the east coast of Spanish Florida as he considered a visit to the new English colony at Roanoke.  His crew spied a sentry tower just off the beach near St. Augustine and Drake saw this as yet another opportunity to irritate Spain’s King Phillip.  He landed a small force on Anastasia Island, across from the town, and another advance party was sent across the river but was quickly forced back by cannon fire.  While Drake landed even more men for a major assault, Menendez was busy evacuating the town.  The residents fled inland taking just what they could carry. Finally, the fort was abandoned and the soldiers also retreated to the woods.

Map of Drake's Raid

Map depicting Drake’s 1586 raid. Courtesy Florida Memory.

As Drake’s force prepared for their assault, a man in a small boat rowed towards the invaders.  The English soon heard the song of The Prince of Orange being played on a fife by this lone man.  The song celebrated the leader of the Dutch Protestant revolt – not a favorite tune of a Catholic Spaniard.  It turns out the piper was Nicolas Borgoignon, one of the few Frenchmen who had survived the Spanish massacre and who was still a prisoner of the colony.  He brought word that the Spanish had fled and all was waiting for the English to take.

Even though St. Augustine was a poor colony, there was still much to interest the English.  The fort’s cannon could be put to good use and unfortunately Menendez had also left behind a chest containing about £2000 to pay his troops.  Drake and his men would have been happy to leave with the rescued Frenchman and their plunder until one of the local men – a sniper – killed Drake’s Sergeant-Major.  As a result, the town and fort were put to the torch along with the crops in the field.

It took years for St. Augustine to recover from the losses sustained by Drake’s raid and it would be more than 100 years before a stone fort would be completed to provide the colony with real protection.  I do believe the spirits of several hundred French Huguenots are still chuckling at the destruction of the colony – or maybe it’s just the laughing gulls that frequent Matanzas Inlet.

References:

  • Covington, James. Florida Historical Society: The Florida Historical Quarterly volume 44 issue 1 & 2, “Drake Destroys St. Augustine: 1586”.
  • “St. Augustine.” Hand-colored engraving. London, 1589. Florida Memory Project.
  • Biggs, Walter. Drake’s Great Armada.  New York: Globusz Publishing (online at http://www.globusz.com/ebooks/Armada/).

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