Florida (1562-1565), a French Dream
His explorations, excavations, researches and findings in seas as well as in national archives made John de Bry one of the specialists of the French expeditions to Florida.
As we commemorate the 450th anniversary of the French presence in Florida, he took part of the Commission that oversaw the organization of the exhibition “Florida (1562-1565), a French dream…” opened at the Musée du Nouveau Monde in the city of La Rochelle, France, on September 25, 2012.
His active participation in this exhibition and his current day-to-day work "is to keep the memory of those expeditions alive and to disseminate the history to schools so young children are made aware early on that the French were here long before the Pilgrims and that their actions helped shaped the regional history of Florida, if not that of the future United States" as he states it.
- e-Toile- Mr. John de Bry, you are the Director of the Center for Historical Archaeology in Melbourne Beach.
Could you explain to our readers the purpose of this scientific non-profit organization?
Mr. John de Bry: The functions and goals of the Center for Historical Archaeology is to conduct and promote archaeological research in the French and Spanish colonial periods, focusing on maritime and underwater archaeology, and to conduct archival research in various repositories in Europe and the Americas.
One of the principal endeavours of the Center is to publish educational material and research finding to the scientific community and the public at large.
- e-Toile- During your career, you have conducted archival researches in numerous national archives and were the Chief underwater archaeologist of different expeditions to locate and investigate shipwrecks by Madagascar or in the Caribbean Sea. You worked also under the hospices of the Haitian government, the United Nations and UNESCO. Among all these missions, which one is the most pleasant recollection?
Mr. John de Bry: In the past I was often asked which shipwreck was my favorite one, and I would always respond by saying that I enjoyed working on all historic shipwrecks as they all offered something different in terms of material culture. That was until 1997 when I worked the wreck of la Belle, the flagship of French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle.
The ship was lost in Matagorda Bay, Texas, in January 1686, and discovered in 1996 by a team of archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission. As the wreck of la Belle, rested within Matagorda Bay, protected by a barrier island, it was decided to build a cofferdam and excavate under near dry conditions.
The 18 months excavation yielded an incredible assortment of artifacts with organic material in an amazing state of preservation, three magnificent bronze cannons, and a well articulated skeleton was found resting on the anchor cable in the bow section of the ship, two-third of his brain still preserved.
I also conducted archival research in France, more specifically at the Archives Départementales de la Charente-Maritime and at the Archives du Port de Rochefort where I located numerous historically important documents pertaining to La Salle 1684 expedition, including contracts of engagement and the construction papers of la Belle. This is the most memorable shipwreck excavation project I have ever been involved in.
- e-Toile- John de Bry, you took part of the Commission that oversaw the organization of the exhibition “Florida (1562-1565), a French dream…” opened at the Musée du Nouveau Monde in La Rochelle on September 25, 2012. How did you collaborate on the making of this exhibition?
Mr. John de Bry: I had a fascination for the 16th-century French expeditions to Florida for many, many years, in fact I became interested as a young boy as I am a direct descendent of Théodore de Bry, the 16th-century Fleming engraver who published in 1591 the Brevis narratio based on the water colors of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, the artist that came to Florida with the 1564 expedition. Moving to Florida in the late 1960s was for me a dream-come-true.
Back in 2003 I was contacted by Mickaël Augeron of the Université de La Rochelle who was working on a scholarly publication, “Champlain ou les portes du Nouveau Monde,” wanting me to contribute a paper on La Salle and la Belle, the book came out the following year in 2004.
In May 2011 Mickaël came to Florida with the curator in chief of the Museums of La Rochelle, Annick Notter, who had the vision of organizing an exhibition that would commemorate the 450th anniversary of the French Expeditions to Florida.
From that time on I became fully immersed in the planning of the exhibition and the publication of a catalogue that would contain contributions from scholars, historians, and archaeologists. My participation in this endeavor was as a guide and advisor on various aspects such as historical and archaeological context.
Madame Notter is an incredibly motivated and knowledgeable person and it was a tremendous honor and privilege to work with her. With Annick Notter and Mickaël Augeron we worked tirelessly on this publication, and I must say with no false modesty that we are very happy with the end result and with our work.
- e-Toile- In May 2012, the city of Jacksonville in Florida welcomed several French and American personalities including the Mayor of Jacksonville, the Consul General of France in Miami and descendants of Jean Ribault to launch commemorations celebrating 450 years of French history in Florida.
On your side, in May as well, you gave a lecture on Jean Ribault’s expedition. What do you plan for the next months to commemorate this milestone?
Mr. John de Bry: As always, my goal is to keep the memory of those expeditions alive, to disseminate the history of those important happenings to as many people as can be reached, to introduce this part of history to schools so young children are made aware early on that the French were here long before the Pilgrims and that their actions as well as the sad ending of their endeavor helped shaped the regional history of Florida, if not that of the future United States; who knows, had they succeeded perhaps we would be speaking French today.
Exhibition on view at the Musée du Nouveau Monde de la Rochelle.