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The ransomed prisoners could explain the daring raid. It went back to an insult which Governor Guerra, presumably abetted by female friends, had dealt to a Frenchman, one Pedro Piques, who served the presidio as surgeon. Guerra had slapped the surgeon's face and fired him. The disgruntled Frenchman was bound for Habana aboard the St. Augustine frigate when it was captured by the pirates. He must have seen a chance for revenge on Guerra, suggested the raid on St. Augustine, and helped the pirates work out a plan.

First Mass Celebration
Don Pedro Menèndez de Aviles, along with Spanish soldiers and settlers celebrating Mass.

This was not the only news. The prisoners identified the invaders as Englishmen. Furthermore, the enemy had carefully sounded the inlet, taken its latitude, and noted the landmarks. They intended to come back and seize the fort and make it a base of operations. Otherwise they would have burned the town.

In Spanish eyes, the sack of St. Augustine was far more than a pirate raid. St. Augustine, though isolated and small, was the keystone in the defense of Florida. And Florida was important, not as a land rich in natural resources, but as a way station on Spain's great commercial route. Each year, galleons bearing the proud Iberian banners drove past the coral keys and surf-pounded beaches of Florida, following the Gulf Stream on their way to Cadiz. In these galleons were millions of ducats worth of gold and silver from the mines of Peru and México, and all of Europe knew it.

The trouble began the year after Magellan's ship encircled the world in 1522: Hernando Cortes dispatched a shipload of treasure from conquered México, but the loot never reached the Spanish court. Instead, a French corsair took it to Francis I. That incident opened a new age in the profitable profession of piracy. Daring adventurers of all nationalities sailed westward. Many found shelter in the West Indies.

Workers beginning construction of St. Augustine
Workers beginning construction on St. Augustine

Florida's position on the life line connecting Spain with her colonies gave this sandy peninsula certain strategic importance. Spain knew that Florida must be defended to prevent enemies from using the harbors as havens from which they could spread their sails against Spanish commerce. Besides, Florida's lee shores and deadly reefs combined with hurricanes in the narrow Bahama Channel to wreck many a good ship. Scores of mariners were cast ashore on the inhospitable coast. Florida had to be made safe for them, as well as unsafe for enemies.

It was a sizable defense problem. The French triggered the solution in 1564 with Fort Caroline, a colony named for their teenage King Charles, near the mouth of Florida's St. Johns River. The French settlement drew Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to Florida in 1565. He established the St. Augustine colony and forthwith removed the Frenchmen, some of whom had already begun piratical careers. Now, with this small fortified settlement on one side of the Bahama Channel and growing Habana on the other, Spanish ships could normally pass safely from the ports of Nueva España to those of the Old Country.

Where the sword of Spain went, the cross went also. Gradually a system of missions developed in Florida-fingers of civilization reaching far out into the wilderness. The missionaries had to be protected both from hostile aborigine and European, so defense became a dual operation. The unceasing hunt of naval patrols for pirates, storm-wracked vessels, and starving castaways was paralleled on land by fast-marching patrols along the Indian trails or swift-sailing piraguas in the coastal waterways. St. Augustine was the base of operations, and from its very beginning it was protected by fortifications stronger than any others in the Florida province.

Early sketch of castillo, c1593
Another early sketch of the fort in St. Augustine. Also possibly from 1593. Original manuscript in Archives of the Indies, Seville, Spain.

A typical early fort was San Juan de Pinos, burned by the English freebooter Francis Drake in 1586. Drake took away its bronze artillery and some 2,000 pounds sterling "by the treasure's value." Such a fort as San Juan consisted of a pine stockade around small buildings for gunpowder storage and quarters. Cannon were mounted atop a broad platform or cavalier, so they could fire over the stockade.

Such forts could be built quickly. But with equal facility could they be destroyed. If Indian fire arrows or enemy attack or mutinies failed, then hurricanes, time and termites were certain to do the job. During the century before Castillo de San Marcos, nine wooden forts one after another were built at St. Augustine.

Frankly, Spain did not yet see the need for an impregnable fort here. After the English failures at Roanoke in 1586-87, the weakling settlement of Jamestown a few years later did not impress the powerful Council of the Indies at faraway Madrid. Moreover, the Franciscans, by extending the mission frontier deep into Indian lands, put the Spanish stamp of occupation upon a vast territory and seemed a sure means of keeping out rival Europeans. The fallacy in this thinking lay in (1) disparaging the colonizing ability of the Anglo-Saxon and (2) believing that an Indian friendly to Spain would not also befriend England. It turned out that the English trader, equipped with glittering presents and shrewd promises, was quite able to persuade native customers to desert the strict teachings of the friar and line up with the English.

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