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 TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’

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Nombre de messages : 8069
Localisation : Washington D.C.
Date d'inscription : 28/05/2005

TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’ Empty
MessageTO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’

November 26, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor

A French Connection


TO commemorate the arrival of the
first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more
appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux.
After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the
“New World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50
years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise
Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.
Long before the Pilgrims sailed in 1620, another group of dissident
Christians sought a haven in which to worship freely. These French
Calvinists, or Huguenots, hoped to escape the sectarian fighting
between Catholics and Protestants that had bloodied France since 1560.
Landing in balmy Florida in June of 1564, at what a French explorer
had earlier named the River of May (now the St. Johns River near
Jacksonville), the French émigrés promptly held a service of
“thanksgiving.” Carrying the seeds of a new colony, they also brought
cannons to fortify the small, wooden enclosure they named Fort
Caroline, in honor of their king, Charles IX.
In short order, these French pilgrims built houses, a mill and
bakery, and apparently even managed to press some grapes into a few
casks of wine. At first, relationships with the local Timucuans were
friendly, and some of the French settlers took native wives and soon
acquired the habit of smoking a certain local “herb.” Food, wine, women
— and tobacco by the sea, no less. A veritable Gallic paradise.
Except, that is, to the Spanish, who had other visions for the New
World. In 1565, King Philip II of Spain issued orders to “hang and burn
the Lutherans” (then a Spanish catchall term for Protestants) and
dispatched Adm. Pedro Menéndez to wipe out these French heretics who
had taken up residence on land claimed by the Spanish — and who also
had an annoying habit of attacking Spanish treasure ships as they
sailed by.
Leading this holy war with a crusader’s fervor, Menéndez established
St. Augustine and ordered what local boosters claim is the first parish
Mass celebrated in the future United States. Then he engineered a
murderous assault on Fort Caroline, in which most of the French
settlers were massacred. Menéndez had many of the survivors strung up
under a sign that read, “I do this not as to Frenchmen but as to
heretics.” A few weeks later, he ordered the execution of more than 300
French shipwreck survivors at a site just south of St. Augustine, now
marked by an inconspicuous national monument called Fort Matanzas, from
the Spanish word for “slaughters.”
With this, America’s first pilgrims disappeared from the pages of
history. Casualties of Europe’s murderous religious wars, they fell
victim to Anglophile historians who erased their existence as readily
as they demoted the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine to second-class
status behind the later English colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth.
But the truth cannot be so easily buried. Although overlooked, a
brutal first chapter had been written in the most untidy history of a
“Christian nation.” And the sectarian violence and hatred that ended
with the deaths of a few hundred Huguenots in 1565 would be replayed
often in early America, the supposed haven for religious dissent, which
in fact tolerated next to none.
Starting with those massacred French pilgrims, the saga of the
nation’s birth and growth is often a bloodstained one, filled with
religious animosities. In Boston, for instance, the Puritan fathers
banned Catholic priests and executed several Quakers between 1659 and
1661. Cotton Mather, the famed Puritan cleric, led the war cries
against New England’s Abenaki “savages” who had learned their prayers
from the French Jesuits. The colony of Georgia was established in 1732
as a buffer between the Protestant English colonies and the Spanish
missions of Florida; its original charter banned Catholics. The bitter
rivalry between Catholic France and Protestant England carried on for
most of a century, giving rise to anti-Catholic laws, while a mistrust
of Canada’s French Catholics helped fire many patriots’ passion for
independence. As late as 1844, Philadelphia’s anti-Catholic “Bible
Riots” took the lives of more than a dozen people.
The list goes on. Our history is littered with bleak tableaus that
show what happens when righteous certitude is mixed with fearful
ignorance. Which is why this Thanksgiving, as we express gratitude for
America’s bounty and promise, we would do well to reflect on all our histories, including a forgotten French one that began on Florida’s shores so many years ago.

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of
“America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting
Women and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation.”

Le Mensonge peut courir un an, la vérité le rattrape en un jour, dit le sage Haoussa
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