Friday, February 13, 2009

Royal Ephemera

A beach reader emails us today to call attention to this sentence in the current issue of the Gulf Breeze News:
His Majesty King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía of Spain will visit Pensacola, Feb. 18 and 19 during the city's 450th anniversary celebration. Pensacola, founded by Spain in 1559, is one of the first European settlements in the United States.
"What do they mean 'one of the earliest' European settlements...?" our reader demands, rather irritably.

Her dyspepsia, we suppose, is rooted in fealty to the local gospel of Chamber of Commerce types that de Luna's 1559 adventure along the shores of what is now Pensacola led to the "first" European settlement in the United States, not merely "one" of them. St. Augustine may be the "first continuously occupied settlement," goes the local catechism, but Pensacola was the "first".... well, the first what?

Today's News Journal, in a sidebar, summarizes some of the facts:
In August 1559, an expedition led by Tristan de Luna y Arellano arrived in Pensacola Bay to establish Santa Maria de Ochuse, a settlement that predated the founding of Jamestown by a half century and St. Augustine by a half dozen years. Departing Veracruz on June 11, 1559, Luna was at the head of one of the most formidable settlement expeditions in American History: an eleven-ship fleet carrying in excess of 1,500 persons, more than double the number on any previous Spanish expedition to Florida. Though the settlement failed in 1561, it was the longest-lasting colonial settlement up to that date in what is today the United States.
History is far messier than we may suppose and, as usual, the devil is in the details. The one big detail the PNJ leaves out (perhaps reluctant to remind tourists and would-be residents of our own more recent tropical experiences) is that a hurricane soon killed many in the expedition and destroyed all but two of De Luna's ships.

As described in Steve Pinson's essay for the Pensacola Archeology Lab --
Before Luna had unloaded his vessels, they were struck, during the night of September 19th by a terrible hurricane, which lasted twenty-four hours, destroying five ships, a galleon and a bark, and carrying one caravel and its cargo into a grove some distance on land. Many of the people perished, and most of the stores intended for the maintenance of the colony were ruined or lost.
De Luna nevertheless proceeded to stumble blindly around what is now the Florida panhandle and lower Alabama for two years, robbing and murdering natives for their food even as his ample contingent of priests tried to "Christianize" them. Would-be colonists who had survived the storm starved and his subordinates rebelled. Upon his eventual return to Spain following an ignominious rescue, De Luna was shunned and he died despised and reviled by all who knew him best, including his wife.

In the end, so marginal was De Luna's contribution to the settlement of the New World that a number of reputable chronologies do not even mention his expedition -- see, for example, here and here.

More complete historical accounts can be found in a few books such as Herbert Ingram Priestley's Tristán de Luna, Conquistador of the Old South: A Study of Spanish Imperial Strategy (1936) and David Weber's The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992). Even Weber's rather careless and often inaccurate History of Florida (1871) paints only a slightly more favorable opinion of De Luna, but not by much.

In the details of his life and adventures, as we have said before, Tristan De Luna emerges as an earlier-day version of George W. Bush: stupid, vain, incompetent, luckless, and insane. You might think this would give pause to anyone who is thinking of naming a street or a condo after him. No such luck. These days, Pensacola celebrates his dubious qualities everywhere.

To return to the point of our reader's question, if you're looking to resolve the question of what, if any, "first" the de Luna expedition achieved, Wikipedia probably offers the best solution. The on-line encyclopedia says that in 1559, 450 years ago, he established the first "ephemeral colony" inside what is now the continental United States.

"Ephemeral colony." We like that. It's a felicitous phrase, intriguing -- even mysterious -- in its vagueness yet accurate enough when all the details are known.

No comments: