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France and Florida agree: Wreckage of doomed 16th-century French fleet should be a public exhibit
France and Florida have agreed to work together to preserve and exhibit artifacts from the recently discovered wreck off Cape Canaveral of the La Trinité, the 16th-century French flagship that tried to protect the ill-fated colony of Fort Caroline.
The agreement emphasizes that one of its goals is to give the public a chance to eventually see some of the ship’s ancient cargo, which has been buried in the Atlantic Ocean since a history-altering hurricane more than 450 years ago.
That cargo includes at least one granite monument bearing the symbol of France’s coat of arms, the fleur-de-lis. It’s a remarkable find that appears similar to the monument, never discovered, that French captain Jean Ribault left at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562 to stake a claim to New France, a vast area of the Southeast coast.
“We have an excellent cooperation with the state of Florida,” Clément Leclerc, consul general of France in Miami, said in announcing the partnership. “Our common goal is to make sure that the vestiges of Jean Ribault’s fleet will be preserved and presented to the public here in the Sunshine State.”
That’s especially gratifying news to Fort Caroline history buffs, since physical evidence of French colonization in the area is skimpy, and the actual location of the colony in what’s now Jacksonville has been a mystery for centuries.
The granite monument and other artifacts, which include bronze cannons, provide tangible links to the doomed French efforts.
“The idea of having that come out of the water and being cleaned and preserved and put on display so that hundreds of thousands of people can see it — that’s pretty exciting,” said Chuck Meide, a marine archaeologist at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum.
The French wreck was discovered in 2016 by Global Marine Exploration Inc., a private treasure salvage company.
The find was of huge significance, University of North Florida archaeologist Robert “Buzz” Thunen said at the time: “This is Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year all rolled into one. And the Fourth of July.”
The salvage company later argued in court that the shipwreck’s identity couldn’t be established, and so it had the rights to claim it.
France, though, said the wrecked ship was Ribault’s 16th-century flagship, La Trinité, which was part of the country’s Royal Navy. Under the U.S. Sunken Military Act, the remains of any ship that sailed for another country, no matter how long ago, still belong to that country.
Earlier this year a U.S. district judge ruled emphatically for France, giving it ownership and preserving the wreck from any private salvaging. The state of Florida backed France in court.
The ruling said the ship was indeed La Trinité, the flagship of Ribault, whose fleet of four ships crossed the Atlantic in 1565 to support the struggling French Protestant colony at Fort Caroline.
The Spanish, alarmed by reports of the French settlement in territory they considered their own, arrived off the St. Johns about the same time as Ribault. After a skirmish, they set up camp in what would become St. Augustine.
They had their orders: Wipe out the French and establish a Spanish presence in the Southeast.
Ribault sailed to attack the Spanish outpost but was driven south in a hurricane that wrecked his ships. Given that opportunity, the Spanish marched to Fort Caroline during the storm and wiped it out, taking firm control of Florida and the Southeast coast.
Records show Ribault’s flagship was carrying monuments, bearing the fleur-de-lis, that were intended to mark France’s claim to what it called New France.
Meide, director of the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, said his crew is hoping to be among those who will help explore and preserve the wreck. Its artifacts stand a good chance of being well preserved from being buried under sand, and could give much insight into French efforts to colonize Florida, he said.
“I’m a Jacksonville native. I’ve heard about Jean Ribault since I was a little boy,” he said. “This [discovery] is one of the big ones ... It means so much to anyone who’s from Jacksonville. This is our history; this is our origin story.”