The Chevalier de Villegagnon

Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon was born at Provins in the Seine-et-Marne region of France sometime in 1510. His father was a local magistrate, who was ennobled a few years later. He died when Nicolas was only 11 years old. Nicolas was already adept at Latin, and his mother sent the young boy that same year to the Hotel de Auges in Paris. He studied at the religious schools of La Manche and Montaigu in preparation for the University of Paris. John Calvin was among his classmates.

Durand graduated from that university in 1530 with a law degree and was admitted to the bar at Orléans. But his attempt to find a post in the Parlement of Paris failed. As a result, he approached his uncle Philippe Villers de l’Isle-Adam, grand master of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, and was admitted into that order the next year, which had just been granted the island of Malta by King François I. (Although his proper name was Nicolas Durand, Seigneur de Villegagnon, this knighthood meant that he became more commonly known as “the Chevalier de Villegagnon.”)

Tall and athletic, the 21-year-old Villegagnon plunged into military and naval pursuits. In 1534, he served as an observer in the fleet gathered at Mallorca by the emperor Charles V to make an attempt against Tunis or Algiers. Six years later, he was sent to the French ambassador in Venice (incidentally befriending the poet François Rabelais). Villegagnon was given a letter from the French king to the Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, and returned to Turin next year with his reply. He also presented François with diagrams of the duke of Milan’s forts.

Pleased with his services, the French government included Villegagnon among the 400 knights of Malta attached to Charles V’s expedition against Algiers in 1541. Although only an observer, Villegagnon was wounded by a lance thrust into his left arm. While convalescing in Rome, he published a brief account of this campaign in Latin. The next year, he was sent to Budapest to report on a clash between the emperor and the Turks. Villegagnon returned in time to take part in the French defeat of the Milanese at Cerisoles and was put in command of the castle at Ponte Stura until 1547.

That same summer, he was recalled by the new French king Henri II to sweep the Brittany coast of English raiders. Villegagnon then sailed his four galleys in 1548 around Scotland and up the River Clyde to Dumbarton Castle to bring away the six-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots. More sorties ensued against Scotland and Guernsey, until he was sent to Malta in 1551, which was besieged by the Turks. While bringing back word of the order’s victory, Villegagnon was briefly held in Cremona Castle by the Austrians.

Released thanks to the emperor, Villegagnon was appointed in September 1552 vice admiral of Brittany, with orders to fortify Brest against the English. While engaged in this work, he heard tales of Brazil, so made a discreet visit to Cabo Frio two summers later. He learned that the Portuguese avoided Guanabara Bay because of its hostile natives, so he decided to plant a colony there. Returning to France, he made a four-hour presentation before Henri and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. The king agreed late in 1554, granting 11,000 livres toward this project. Villegagnon raised the rest from investors at Dieppe. However, his dream of a Utopian settlement in the New World ended bitterly. He died at Beauvais on January 9, 1571.

JANUARY 17, 1546. More than 100 French raiders under one “Hallebarde” disembark from a caravel and a smaller vessel. They ransack Baracoa in northeastern Cuba, scattering most of its inhabitants inland. The second of these Huguenot craft-after becoming separated in a storm-proceeds westward to Havana, where it extorts 700 ducats to spare its terrified citizenry’s dwellings.

APRIL 17, 1546. Hallebarde sneaks into Santi- ago de Cuba under cover of darkness, boarding a Spanish caravel at dawn that has recently arrived from Tierra Firme or the “Spanish Main” (modern Venezuela-Colombia). In little more than one hour, he carries this vessel out, with its crew still locked below decks, to loot at his leisure-an action described as “of great daring” by Gov.  Antonio de Chavez.

SPRING 1547. Two privately raised Spanish coast- guard caravels capture a French ship off Mona Island. JULY 25, 1547. Henri II ascends the throne of France.

SEPTEMBER 1547. A French ship approaches Santa Marta (Colombia) but retires when its 16- man boat crew is lured inshore and captured.

LATE MAY 1548. A French corsair vessel is sighted prowling off Santo Domingo.

AUGUST 1548. A French two-master sneaks into the harbor at Santa Marta under cover of darkness, and although crewed by only 40 men, sends a boarding party to seize Pedro Diaz’s merchantman in its roadstead. The next dawn, the rovers threaten to burn this prize if a ransom is not paid from the town. When local garrison commander Luis Manjarrés calls out his militiamen, the French bombard the town’s buildings throughout most of the day, killing two black slaves.

Shortly thereafter, these same attackers seize two Spanish caravels farther east off Cape de la Vela, as the caravels make from La Yaguana (modern Léo- gane, Haiti) toward Nombre de Dios. Both Spanish craft are robbed and scuttled.

NOVEMBER 1548. A trio of French vessels are seen prowling off San German de Puerto Rico, Mona Island, and Santo Domingo, allegedly wishing to trade, though the region’s Spanish inhabitants remain too mistrustful to oblige.

AUGUST 1549. A French corsair galliot, propelled by 18 oars per side, falls upon a homeward-bound Spanish convoy off Santo Domingo, cutting out a ship laden with sugar and hides, a caravel bearing 150 slaves, plus two smaller island traders.

NOVEMBER 1550. After pillaging a Spanish caravel off Dominica, the 80-man French ship Sacre of Bordeaux under Capt. Menjouin de La Cabane and a smaller consort attempt to snap up two stragglers from a nine-ship convoy off Santo Domingo; they are repelled by its warship escort. Unfazed, the rovers then descend upon La Yaguana (modern Léogane, Haiti) and rob a pair of Spanish vessels of 20,000 pesos. They make off with one ship as a prize, eventually sailing to Bayonne to dispose of their booty.

LATE DECEMBER 1551. The 42-year-old French Huguenot captain Guillaume Le Testu of Le Havre, sailing past the Island of Trinidade after exploring Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, clashes with two Portuguese ships, and his ship sustains heavy dam- age before winning free and returning to Europe.

APRIL 1552. With hostilities flaring up in Europe between France and Spain, various disembarkations are made by French corsairs on Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, as well as interceptions of four Spanish merchantmen.

JUNE 18, 1552. A French ship becomes becalmed before Nombre de Dios; its 14-man crew is captured.

AUGUST 29, 1552. Three Spanish warships and an auxiliary, manned by 130 men-the coast-guard force for Hispaniola under Cristobal Colon y Toledo, Columbus’s 29-year-old grandson-are lost in a hurricane, along with 16 vessels anchored in Santo Domingo’s harbor.

SEPTEMBER 1552. A French corsair ship and smaller consort pillage a Spanish ship off Santo Domingo before retiring to Saona Island. These same French- men then return to Santo Domingo’s southeastern shore to make off with a ship recently launched at the Zoco River.

EARLY FEBRUARY 1553. A Spanish caravel serving as a dispatch vessel or aviso is taken by French rovers off Mona Island.

MARCH 1553. Le Clerc’s Sweep. A French squadron from Le Havre comprising the royal warships Claude under peg-legged Commo. François le Clerc (alias “Jambe de Bois” or “Pie de Palo”), Espérance under Jacques de Sores, and Aventureux under Robert Blondel arrive in the Antilles accompanied by three large and four small privateers, plus two Spanish prizes seized at Santa Cruz de la Palma in the Canaries. They bear a total of 800 men with which to raid Spain’s West Indian outposts.

San German de Puerto Rico, Mona and Saona islands, and Azua are attacked in quick succession before Le Clerc deposits a large landing force on April 29 to sack Monte Cristi on northern Santo Domingo and then La Yaguana (modern Léogane, Haiti), after which the rovers stand back toward Puerto Rico. Spanish residents among the islands feel powerless to resist, for not only are four of these French craft galliots “whose oars ensure none can escape


” but half their total complement consists of harquebusiers. Laden with hides, sarsaparilla, and other booty, the French raiders make a final descent upon Santiago de Cuba before exiting the Caribbean in late May.

MARCH 1554. Having reentered the West Indies the previous month, three French ships under Le Clerc and Sores appear before San Juan de Puerto Rico, and on Palm Sunday-March 18-they raid more than three miles inland near San German. Afterward, they take up station off Saona Island, intercepting Spanish vessels, then later switch their base of operations to Mona Island.

APRIL 29, 1554. Off Cabo Frio (Brazil), the French ship Marie Bellotte of Dieppe captures a Portuguese vessel.

JULY 1, 1554. Destruction of Santiago de Cuba. Le Clerc’s subordinate, the Huguenot corsair Sores of La Rochelle, leads four ships and four smaller auxiliaries into Santiago de Cuba harbor under cover of darkness and slip 300 men ashore; they fall upon its sleeping residents and occupy the city without resistance. Bishop Fernando de Uranga and a half- dozen other prominent citizens are subsequently held hostage for almost a month and a half, until a ransom of 80,000 pesos can be raised. The French thereupon destroy Santiago’s fortress and burn several buildings before retiring on August 16, sparing the church in exchange for all its silver plate.

LATE AUGUST 1554. The French privateers Barbe and Marguerite under Vincent Bocquet of Dieppe, recently arrived in the West Indies, espy five large merchantmen and nine caravels off San German de Puerto Rico who have departed Santo Domingo around August 20 for Spain. Patiently tracking them across the Atlantic for more than 40 days, as far as the Azores, Bocquet finally seizes the caravel Tres Reyes Magos of the master Benito Garcia when it becomes becalmed early in October, along with the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe of Alonso Gonzalez and the Santiago of Diego Marin. The Santa Catalina of Francisco Morales Camacho is furthermore ransacked before sinking, while the Maria of Francisco Hernandez de Leon, the San Andrés of Alonso Cano, and the San Juan of Rodrigo Madera all run aground in the Azores and lose most of their cargoes. The triumphant rovers return home ladened with gold, cochinilla, and pearls, leaving the shrunken remnants of this Spanish convoy to limp into Cadiz by December 7.

OCTOBER 1554. French blockaders encircle the entrance of Santiago de Cuba.

French sweeps through the Caribbean in 1555.

MARCH 1555. Three French ships disembark 150 men on southern Cuba, who march inland and burn Sancti Spiritus.

JULY 10, 1555. Sack of Havana. At dawn, two sails are spotted near this port, piloted by a Spanish renegade. They disgorge several score corsairs a mile and a half away at San Lazaro Inlet, under the Huguenot leader Sores. They advance inland and take Havana’s 12-gun Fuerza battery from the rear, burning its wooden door to gain access, and thereby compelling its two-dozen defenders under alcaide Juan de Lobera to surrender by sunup of July 12. The French then occupy the town and bring four vessels into its harbor to careen.

While in possession of Havana, Sores demands a ransom of 30,000 pesos, bread, and meat in ex- change for sparing its buildings, plus 500 pesos for every Spanish captive that he holds and 100 for each slave. Instead, Gov. Dr. Pérez de Angulo (who has managed to escape into the interior) launches a surprise assault at dawn of July 18 with 35 Spanish, 220 black, and 80 Indian volunteers, only to have this attack repelled; the startled French corsairs slaughter their 30 Spanish prisoners (all except Lobera).

The next morning, a wrathful Sores hangs numerous slaves by their heels at prominent places along Havana’s outskirts, using them for target practice in a brutal gesture intended to discourage any further Spanish assaults. His men then level the town and buildings throughout its surrounding countryside up to five miles inland before finally retiring back out to sea on August 5 with the fort’s 12 cannons.

AUGUST 1555. French Huguenots land at Santa Marta, sacking and burning its churches.

SEPTEMBER 30, 1555. A boatload of 12 French raiders from Guy Mermi’s trio of ships-anchored off Mariel (Cuba)-cut out a Spanish caravel laden with hides.

OCTOBER 4, 1555. Mermi’s trio of French ships penetrates Havana’s harbor, landing 50 men to occupy its town. Discovering it to be still defenseless since Sores’s raid in July, they are followed within a few days by at least a dozen other intruders, who rest their crews and careen their vessels. Foraging parties probe inland, securing some commercial booty-principally hides-before putting back out to sea some three weeks later. This same month, a French assault also occurs at Puerto Plata in northern Santo Domingo.

OCTOBER 25, 1555. In Europe, the emperor Charles V abdicates, dividing his territories between his son, who becomes Philip II of Spain and Sicily, and his brother Maximilian, who becomes the new Holy Roman Emperor.

NOVEMBER 10, 1555. Villegagnon in Brazil. Two well-armed vessels arrive outside Rio de Janeiro’s uninhabited Guanabara Bay (known to the French as Iteronne or Geneve), having departed Dieppe on August 14 with a mixed group of 600 Calvinists and Catholics under 45-year-old Nicolas Durand, Seigneur de Villegagnon, knight commander of the Order of Saint John of Malta and vice admiral of Brittany, who is bearing orders from Adm. Gaspar de Chatillon, Comte de Coligny, to found a new settlement in this region to be called France Australe or “Southern France” (also France Antarctique or “Antarctic France”).

His colonists disembark on Ratier (modern Laje) Island, then transfer northwest on November 13 to nearby Sergipe Island, the name of which is in the process of being changed to Villegagnon (modern Villegaignon Island). Atop this island, they erect a redoubt named Fort de Coligny, with a smaller two-gun battery commanding its channel. A town named Henryville is also founded, and a couple of relatively prosperous years ensue, with the settlers planting crops and enjoying peaceable relations with their Tamoio and Tupinamba neighbors.

The Portuguese governor general Duarte da Costa at Salvador (Bahia) is informed early the next year by Sao Vicente’s regional governor Bras Cubas about this French toehold, but the former treats the report dismissively, believing the foreigners’ presence to be merely a transitory shore camp set up by rovers. Upon realizing its permanent nature, though, King Joao III has his ambassador Joao Pereira Dantas lay protests before the government in Paris and on July 23, 1556, appoints the energetic Mem de Sa to replace the Brazilian governor general. Mem de Sa takes ship from Lisbon in late April 1557 but is slowed by a difficult Atlantic crossing.

The French colonists, in the meantime, have been reinforced on February 26, 1557, by a second expedition of three ships under the flagship Rosée that brings an additional 18 cannon and 300 people under Villegagnon’s nephew Paris Legendre, Sieur de Bois le Compte le Meaux. Religious dissension, however, also arrives with this second contingent, eventually fracturing the colony’s harmony and prompting Villegagnon to revert to Catholicism. A group of Calvinist dissidents departs aboard the old ship Jacques on January 4, 1558, followed by Villegagnon himself in October 1559-four months be- fore Mem de Sa’s first Portuguese descent.

EARLY 1556. A lone French vessel raids Santa Marta, Cabo de la Vela, Puerto Plata, Havana, and Margarita Island.

FEBRUARY 5, 1556. In Europe, a truce-the Treaty of Vaucelles-is arranged between France and Spain, which is meant to endure for five years but promptly begins to break down when the French monarch Henri II sends troops under Henri, Duc de Guise, to Italy that same spring in support of the anti-Spanish machinations of Pope Paul IV.

SPRING 1556. Capt. Guillaume Mesmin of La Rochelle appears in the Antilles with a large ship and smaller auxiliary, manned by 150 men in total, and seizes a Spanish ship that becomes wrecked on Bermuda during its homeward passage.

SUMMER 1556. A couple of skirmishes occur off Jamaica, as its local Spanish authorities succeed in capturing a few French smugglers who have come to trade.

SPRING 1557. Hispano-French warfare resumes openly in Europe, with an army invading France and defeating the forces of Henri II outside St. Quintin by August 19.

NOVEMBER 17, 1557. On orders from the Crown directed to Chile’s governor Jeronimo de Aldunate, the Spanish seaman Juan Fernandez Ladrillero sets sail from the port of Concepcion with his ship San Luis and the San Sebastian under Francisco Cortés de Ojeda to chart the Strait of Magellan. A storm separates the vessels on February 15, 1558, the latter being lost and its crew extemporizing a craft from their wreckage named San Salvador, aboard which they regain Valdivia by October 1. Fernandez Ladrillero has meanwhile struggled into the strait’s western entrance by late July 1558, charting much of its shorelines before reemerging early in March 1559, returning into Valdivia by mid-June.

JANUARY 1558. After a storm-tossed Atlantic voyage, Mem de Sa finally reaches Salvador (Bahia) to assume office as Brazil’s new governor general. His first task is to dispatch his son Fernao de Sa to assist Capt. Vasco Fernandes Coutinho at Espirito Santo, as well as to travel himself to Ilhéus, as both captaincies are in the grip of native unrest.

SPRING 1558. French corsairs renew their West Indian depredations, and the Spanish merchantman Ascension of Capt. Bernaldino Rizo is taken off Saona Island. Four French ships out of Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz also sack Puerto Caballos (modern Puerto Cortés, Honduras).

JUNE 1558. French vessels appear within Santiago de Cuba’s vast harbor, occupying its desolated town for 10 to 12 days before receiving a meager ransom of 400 pesos, then departing.

EARLY 1559. Seven French corsair vessels under Jean Martin Cotes and Jean Bontemps appear off Santa Marta (Colombia), taking a small amount of booty, against token opposition. APRIL 3, 1559. In Europe, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis is signed between Philip II of Spain and Henri II of France, marking an end to the Habsburg- Valois Wars.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.