“This is the most important shipwreck ever discovered in North America.”
— John de Bry, Director of Center for Historical Archaeology
“Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.”
— Indiana Jones
The year was 1565. Jean Ribault, a French naval officer, had already explored the area around Jacksonville, Florida, and established a French outpost in present-day South Carolina three years earlier. He then returned to France to find the country embroiled in a civil war, was imprisoned in England as a spy, and learned that the South Carolina outpost had been abandoned by the men he left behind. It was, to say the least, an eventful three years.
But in 1565, he returned to Jacksonville, where his lieutenant had founded a new colony called Ft. Caroline. His mere presence was an irritant to the Spanish, who had already laid claim on the whole of Florida. They set out to locate Ft. Caroline and destroy it, seeking to oust the French from the peninsula. In September, the Spanish conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés finally found him and began to bombard his ships with canon fire.
Ribault boarded most of his men onto the ships and headed to open water. Menéndez sailed south and founded what is, today, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America — St. Augustine. The two men were gearing up for their next battle — Ribault outfitting his ships and Menéndez securing his fortification — when Mother Nature decided to interfere in the most Floridian way possible — cyclonically.
The hurricane caught the French and the Spanish off guard, but it was a double blow to the French. The storms, wind and heavy rain prevented the small remaining garrison at Ft. Caroline from noticing that Menéndez’s Spanish army was sneaking up on them by land. The Spaniard had decided to push his troops ahead through the force of the storm, rightly guessing that it would cover his advance. At sea, Ribault’s ships didn’t stand a chance. The winds first pushed him south of the Spanish position and then ran his fleet around, driving his vessels to the bottom of the sea.
It was a disaster for the French. Their fleet was lost. Fort Caroline was overwhelmed and destroyed by the Spanish. And when Ribault and his surviving men were found by the Spanish, the Frenchman surrendered, thinking that the rules of engagement would be followed and the prisoners of war would be treated well. King Philip II, of Spain, had other ideas. He had ordered Menéndez to kill all of the Frenchmen who were not professed Catholics. More than 350 of the French were killed, including Ribault.
Through more than four-and-a-half centuries, no trace was ever found of Ribault’s original claim marker in Jacksonville or of the remains of his fleet. But now a Tampa, Florida, salvage and marine archaeology company called Global Marine Exploration Inc. has found the wreckage of a 15th century fleet off the coast of Jacksonville. And that wreckage contains French markings. The discovery is exciting, potentially historic, and immediately spawned a lawsuit.
The legal action comes because American law has anticipated just this kind of discovery. The Sunken Military Craft Act, passed in 2004 and amended in 2016, provides that the wreckage of any ship that sailed for another country belongs to that country once it is found, no matter how old it is.
Thus, France believes that the wreckage, and any artifacts in it, belongs to them. Global Marine Exploration argues that it is simply too early to know who the ships belong to, and thus France should not yet have a claim. The American company and the French government battled it out in Federal Court in Florida in a case that was closely watched on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Earlier this month, U.S. federal Magistrate Judge Karla Spaulding concluded, based on expert testimony, that the wreckage is that of Ribault’s flagship la Trinite, and thus belongs to France. Global Marine Exploration has not said whether it will appeal, and the French government says that they will take no immediate recovery or salvage actions.
For historical preservationists in Florida, and those who work at the Fort Caroline National Monument, these are immensely exciting times. The exact location of the Fort has never been discovered, and the National Monument has no artifacts directly connected to the fort itself. The wreckage of the ships could be laden with historical treasures that would make even Indiana Jones blush.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas and vice president of the Board of Trustees of the Central Ohio Symphony.