Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

A Drama of Plunder, Murder, and Revenge

A famous story of American history is that which tells of the massacre of the French settlers in Florida by the Spaniards of St. Augustine, and of the signal revenge taken on the murderers by the French chevalier Dominique de Gourgues. There is a parallel tale to tell about Brazil, not so full of the element of romance, yet for all that an interesting story and well worth the telling.

The great Portuguese colony of Brazil, like many of the Spanish colonies, was open to the attacks of buccaneers and of free lances of the seas bearing the flags of various countries of Europe. There was not an important port of the country, except its capital, Rio Janeiro, that escaped attack by hostile fleets, eager for spoil, during the seventeenth century, and early in the eighteenth Rio itself was made the victim of assault. A city of over twelve thousand people, and the gateway to a rich gold-mining country in the rear, its wealth invited a visit from the prize-seekers, though the strength of its population and garrison long kept these away. Its turn for assault came in 1710.

In that year a squadron appeared in the waters outside the harbor on which the people looked with doubt. It flew the French flag, and that standard had not been a welcome visitor in the past. In fact, it was commanded by a daring Frenchman named Duclerc, who was on the seas for spoil. But a look at the strong defences of the harbor entrance, and some exchange of shots, warned him of the perils that would attend an attempt to pass them by force, and he sailed on to a point some forty miles down the coast, where he landed a party of a thousand marines.

His design to attack the city with this small party seemed folly. The governor, Francisco de Castro, had a force of eight thousand Portuguese troops, besides five thousand armed negroes and several hundred Indian bowmen. But he lacked the heart of a soldier, and Duelerc's marines marched like so many buccaneers through the forest for seven days without meeting a foeman. Even when near the city the only enemies in sight were a handful of men led by a friar, who attacked them boldly in defence of his church. After capturing this, the daring French charged into the city in the face of the fire from the forts on the surrounding hills, to which the governor's troops had been withdrawn.

The very boldness of the assault, and the failure of the governor to guard the streets with troops, nearly led to success. Little resistance was made by the few soldiers in the city, and the French traversed the narrow streets until the central square was reached. Here they met their first check from a party of fifty students, who had entered the palace of the governor and fired upon them from the windows. The first French assailants who forced their way in were taken prisoners and tied to the furniture. In the custom-house adjoining was the magazine. Here, as the storekeeper was hastily giving out ammunition, a fellow with a lighted match approached and carelessly set fire to the powder. In a moment the building was blown into the air, and the palace, which the French were still assailing, was set on fire.

The people were now rising, and the several detachments into which the attacking force had divided found themselves fiercely assailed. Duclerc, at the head of the main body, after losing heavily, barricaded himself in a stone warehouse on the quay, round which his foes gathered thickly. While there the bells of the city rang out merrily, a sound which he fancied to be made by his own men, who he thought were thus celebrating their victory. In reality it signified the victory of the Portuguese, who had fallen upon, defeated, and slaughtered one of his detachments. A second detachment, which had entered and begun to plunder the magazine, was set upon by the rabble and completely butchered. Duclerc's defence soon grew hopeless, and he was forced to surrender at discretion. The Portuguese sullied their victory by acts of cruel reprisal, many of the prisoners in their hands being murdered. In all nearly seven hundred of the French were killed and wounded. Six hundred, including the wounded, were taken prisoners, and of these many died through bad treatment in the prisons. Duclerc was murdered some months after being taken. Soon after the fight the squadron appeared off the port, where its officers, learning of the loss of the assailants, squared their yards and sailed away for France. Thus ended the first act in our tragedy of plunder.

The second act was one of revenge. In France was found a second Dominique de Gourgues to call to a harsh account the murderers of his countrymen. France, indeed, was in a fury throughout when the news came of the inhuman slaughter of its citizens. The man who played the part of De Gourgues was a distinguished and able naval officer named M. de Guay-Trouin. He was moved by a double motive. While hot for revenge, the hope for plunder was an equally inspiring force. And the fame that might come to him with victory added still another motive. The path was made easy for him, for the government gave its approval to his enterprise, and certain wealthy citizens of St. Malo, eager for gain, volunteered the money to fit out the expedition.

It was important to keep the affair secret, and the vessels were fitted out at different ports to avoid suspicion. Yet the rumor that an unusual number of war-vessels were being got ready was soon afloat and reached Portugal, where its purpose was suspected, and a fleet of merchant and war-vessels was hurried to sea with supplies and reinforcements for Rio. The suspicion reached England, also, and that country, then on the side of Portugal, sent out a fleet to blockade Brest, where the vessels of the expedition then lay, and prevent its sailing. But Admiral Trouin was not the man to be caught in a trap, and he hurried his ships out of port before they were quite ready, leaving the British an empty harbor to seal up. The work of preparation was finished at Rochelle, whence the fleet sailed in June, 1711. It consisted of seven line-of-battle ships, their number of guns varying from seventy-four to fifty-six, six frigates, and four smaller vessels, and had on board five thousand picked men,—a formidable force to send against a colonial city.

The powerful fleet made its way safely over the sea, and reached the vicinity of the northern Brazilian port of Bahia on August 27. Trouin had some thought of beginning his work here, but his water-supply was getting low and he felt obliged to hasten on. On the 11th of September he found himself off the Bay of Rio de Janeiro, with the city and its environing hills in full view.

The Portuguese had got ahead of him, the fleet from Lisbon having arrived, giving warning of the danger and reinforcing the garrison. Three forts and eleven batteries defended the narrow-mouthed harbor, within which lay four ships-of-the-line and as many frigates. Had all this force been directed by a man of ability the French might have found entrance to the bay impossible. But Francisco de Castro, the hopeless governor of the year before, was still at the head of affairs, and no man could have played more thoroughly into the hands of the French.

As it chanced, fortune favored the assailants. A heavy fog descended, under cover of which the fleet ran with little damage past the forts and entered the harbor. When the fog rose the Portuguese were dismayed to see their foes inside. Gaspar da Costa, the admiral of their fleet, was known as an able commander, but he was old and in feeble health, and such a panic now assailed him that he ran his ships in haste ashore and set fire to them, leaving to his foes the undisputed command of the harbor. Admiral Trouin had won the first move in the game.

Governor de Castro proved to be as completely demoralized as Admiral da Costa. He had twice as many troops as the French, but not half the courage and ability of his adversary. Fort Villegagnon, one of the chief defences, was blown up by the mismanagement of its garrison, and during the state of panic of the Portuguese Trouin landed about four thousand men, erecting a battery on an island within easy cannon-shot of the city, and occupying a range of hills to the left which gave him command of that section of the place. The governor with his troops looked on from a distance while the French pillaged the adjoining suburb, destitute of tactics that any one could discover unless he proposed to let the French enter the streets and then attack them from the houses.

It was in this way they had been defeated the year before, but Trouin was too old a soldier to be caught in such a trap. He erected batteries on the surrounding hill-slopes till the town was commanded on three sides, while the governor kept the bulk of his forces at a distance, waiting for no one knew what. Trouin had been permitted, with scarcely a blow in defence, to make himself master of the situation, and he needed only to get his guns in place to be able to batter the town to the dust.

He now sent a demand to the governor to surrender, saying that he had been sent by the king of France to take revenge for the murder of Duclerc and the inhuman slaughter of his men. De Castro answered that his duty to his king would not permit him to surrender, and sought to show that the French had been honorably killed in battle and Duclerc murdered by an assassin beyond his control.

A poor affair of a governor De Castro proved, and the French were permitted to go on with their works almost unmolested, the Portuguese occupying hill forts, the fire from which did little harm to the enemy. Trouin had already begun the bombardment of the city, and on receiving the governor's answer he kept his guns at work all night. At the same time there raged a tropical storm of great violence, accompanied by thunders that drowned the roar of the guns, the frightful combination throwing the people into such a state that they all fled in blind terror, the troops in the town with them. In the morning, when Trouin was ready to launch his storming parties, word was brought him that the city was deserted and lay at his mercy. Some of the richest magazines had been set on fire by the governor's order, but otherwise the rich city was abandoned, with all its wealth, to the French.

Of the relics of Duclerc's force, about five hundred remained alive in the city. These do not seem to have been then in prison, but living at large, and they were already abroad and plundering the abandoned city when the French forces entered. They had met good treatment as well as bad. Some of the people had been kind and hospitable to them, and in the sack of the city that ensued the houses of these charitable citizens were marked and left untouched.

Otherwise the sack was general, houses and warehouses being broken open, and quantities of valuable goods which could not be taken off being thrown into the mud of the streets. Now was the opportunity for the Portuguese to attack. Trouin was aware of the danger, but was unable to control his men, and a sudden assault by the garrison might have proved disastrous to the French. But the opportunity was allowed to pass, the governor, in fact, surrendering all his forts and marching his troops a league from the city, where he lay waiting reinforcements from the interior while the French plundered at their leisure.

Trouin was wise enough to know that his position was perilous. He might be overwhelmed by numbers, and it was important to finish his work and get away with little delay. But the plunder of the city was not sufficient for his purpose, and he sent word to the governor that he must ransom it or it would be burned. To make his word good he began by setting fire to the environs.

De Castro, eager to get rid of his foes at any price, offered six hundred thousand cruzados. This was refused by Trouin, and to stir up the governor to a better offer, the admiral took his messenger through the city and showed him that he was spoiling everything that fire would not burn. Learning, however, that the expected reinforcements might soon arrive, anxiety induced him to march his men to the front of the Portuguese camp, where he began to negotiate for better terms. The only addition De Castro would agree to was to promise the French a supply of cattle for food, fifteen days being allowed to collect the ransom.

Trouin, knowing well that he had no time to waste, accepted the terms, and none too soon, for shortly afterwards a strong body of reinforcements, led by an able general, entered the Portuguese camp. They came too late, the treaty had been made, and the new general felt bound in honor to make it good. So the ransom was paid, and on the 4th of November the triumphant French set sail, their ships deep laden with the rich plunder of the Brazilian capital and the gold of the governor's ransom.

The return home was not attended with the success of the earlier part of the expedition. Trouin had left Bahia to be visited and plundered on his return, but when he came near it the weather was so stormy that he was obliged to abandon this part of his plan. The storms followed the fleet on its way across the seas, and rose to such a height that two of his ships went to the bottom, carrying down twelve hundred men. One of these was the finest ship of the fleet, and in consequence had been laden with the most valuable booty. Of gold and silver alone it took down with it a weight valued at six hundred thousand livres. A third vessel went ashore and was wrecked at Cayenne. Yet with all these losses, so much wealth was brought home that the speculators in spoil made a profit of ninety-two percent on their investment.

The French had won in large measure revenge and plunder, while Trouin had gained his meed of fame. It was now Portugal's time for vengeance, and it was visited principally on the worthless governor to whose cowardice the disaster was due. He had been praised and rewarded for the victory over Duelerc's expedition—praise and reward which he certainly did not deserve. For very similar conduct he was now deposed and sentenced to degradation and perpetual imprisonment, on the charge of cowardice and lack of judgment. His nephew was banished for life for bad conduct, and a captain who had given up his fort and fled was hung in effigy. There were no others to punish, and Portugal was obliged to hold its hand, France being a foe beyond its reach. Rio had met with a terrible misfortune, from which it took many years to recover, and rarely have the sanguinary deeds of a murderous rabble led to so severe a retribution.