Cumulative Days Riding: 158 Cumulative Days Blogging: 143
Today’s Mileage: 4 Total Trip Mileage: 1076
As I ride the bike today I have decided to speak to three pilgrimage sites in the St. Augustine Florida area. All three represent historical and archeological site. All three have a history tied to the politics between European powers in the 1600-1700s. One speaks to the desire for freedom and a fight against oppression and one site speaks to the “dark side” of religion.
Perhaps the best known landmark in the St, Augustine area is the Castillo de San Marcos. Construction of this fortification began in 1672. Its architecture is distinctive and unique. It is the oldest masonry and only intact 17th century fort in North America and represents an example of the “bastion system” of fortification. It weathered hurricanes and repeated attacks over its active history.
The bastion system of forts was developed in the 15th century and had a distinct star shape structure. This pattern was used to avoid a straight head-on shoot from cannons, and yet allowed plenty of wall space to mount guns for counter fire. Adding to the distinctiveness of this fortress was its construction from the building material unique to the northeast coast of Florida. Coquina, which is an aggregate of compressed sand and shells that is remarkable soft and porous, however once it has dried and aged its softness has unexpected benefits. Cannon balls did not “explode” the material like stone, but were either embedded in it like a marble in Styrofoam or harmlessly glanced off of it.
The fort went through numerous “changes in ownership.” The history of the entire Atlantic coastline was one of constant struggle and warfare between the European powers. Conflicts that often started on distant lands were carried to the shores and wilderness of North America. The Castillo de San Marcos played a central role in the early Spanish control of the Southern coast of the New World. It was an important point from which they projected the power up and down the coast and protected rich Spanish treasure fleets from pirates. The fort withstood assaults from the French and the English, never falling to an attacking force. As we heard in Mondays posting the fort did come under British control from 1763-1783 as a result of a peace treaty between Spain and England. It was the British governor who offered the Greek survivors of the New Smyrna colony sanctuary in St. Augustine. Following the US Revolutionary War the fort and city returned to Spanish control until 1821 when the growing USA acquired the territory of Florida.
The second pilgrimage site in the area, Fort Matanzas National Monument can be found some 14 miles south St. Augustine at the location where the Matanzas river empties into the ocean. This river which flows past St. Augustine posed a risk as attackers might travel up the river to lay siege to the city. Fort Matanzas was also built of Coquina like its older and much larger sister fort to the north. The fort sits by itself on a flat marshy barrier island called Rattle shake Island. What is hidden from the view of visitor, who must travel there by ferry, is the site’s tragic and unsettling history. The early history of the northeast coast of Florida involved an epic struggle between the Catholic Spanish forces and Huguenot (Protestant) French forces. In 1565 a French military expedition under the leadership of Jean Ribault sailed for the new Spanish settlement of St. Augustine from the French settlement of Fort Caroline to settle ownership of Florida in France’s favor. However, tragedy struck in the form of a storm that stranded the French at the mouth of the River. When the Spanish discovered the French on the beach, they ordered then to surrender, give up their Protestant faith, and accept Catholicism. Having lost all of their food and weapons in the ship wrecks they did surrender, but refused to renounce their faith. So the Spanish force massacred nearly 250 Frenchman as heretics near the inlet, which was then named “Matanzas,” the Spanish word of massacre. This tragic episode gave Spain undisputed control of Florida for the next 200 years. It also points to the fact that the conflict between European forces was not just one of land grabs for economic benefits, but also mirrored the religious conflicts which had racked Europe since the advent of the Protestant reformation. In addition, to the slaughter and destruction of native peoples, Christians were turning on Christian out of self-righteousness against what they labeled heresy.
The same forces of conflict did at times play out in more positive ways, at least for some populations. One such example of this can be found several miles north of the old city of St. Augustine. The site is Fort Moses State Historical Park. As English influence along the northern stretches of the American coast grew so did friction and conflict between the colonists of both powers. The English colonies of the Carolinas and Georgia made extensive use of African slaves to man their large plantations. The Spanish settlers and their Native American allies began to direct escaped English slaves south to St. Augustine, there by predating the later Northern “Underground Railroad” by more than a century. The Spanish governor granted a plot of land for North America’s first “free black” settlement. The inhabitants built a wood and mud “fort” wall, dug a moat, constructed homes and a wooden Catholic church to meet the spiritual needs of the recent converts. These free blacks farmed the surrounding land and took up arms with the Spanish neighbors to fight off hostile Indians and their former English slave masters. The settlement prospered until 1763 when the population of Fort Moses moved to Spanish Cuba in advance of the English forces who would take peaceful control of St. Augustine from the Spanish. The inhabitants feared that their former slave masters might renew claims toward their “rightful property.”
All three of these sites speak to the fact that the Europeans who came to the New World brought with them their conflicts, hatred and prejudices. It is reminder that this country that we heralded as the “Land of the Free,” was won, conquered and tamed at sometimes tragic costs. These include the destruction of native cultures, the slaughter of innocent people and the “enslavement” of a whole race. We can be proud of what we have accomplished and what we stand for, but we should never forget the suffering of these people. I would hope that these sites act as reminders and lead us to ask: “What are we doing now, as we interact with other cultures and faiths, as we look for “new frontiers,” as we live in a shrinking world.” What lessons should we learn from the suffering of these people so we don’t repeat past mistakes?
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