Arx Carolina is the title of this intricate and handsome copperplate engraving by Arnoldus Montanus, published in 1671 by Jacob Van Meurs in Amsterdam. The image comes from Montanus’ “Di Nieuwe en Onbekende Weerld: Of Beschryving von America” (trans: The New and Unknown World: Or, description of America and the Southland), a 585 page book adorned with vivid descriptions and illustrations depicting life in America. Montanus, a Dutch teacher, author, and printmaker, studied theology and taught his students about cultures and ecosystems from around the world. “De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weerld” is Montanus’ most famous book, one that was widely circulated during the late 17th century.
Arx Carolina is bird’s eye view of Fort Caroline, a fort established in the years 1562-64 by the Huguenots under French Capt. Jean Ribaut and later by Rene de Laudonniere. Located at the mouth of the River May (what is now St. John’s River, near present-day Jacksonville Florida), Fort Caroline was the site of a short-lived French presence in 16th century America. During this time, France was determined to expand its empire. Spain, the world’s leading power, had a solid foothold in the Americas and France wanted to share in the riches of the New World. Its first attempt to stake a permanent claim in North America was at La Caroline in May of 1562.
The settlement, under the leadership of Ribaut, was seen as a commercial venture at first. However, religious conflict in France, specifically the persecution of French protestants (Huguenots), led Admiral deColigny to make a proposal to the French crown to start a colony as a refuge for the Huguenots and others seeking religious freedom. In June of 1564, 200 French soldiers, artisans, and refuges, led by Rene de Goulaine de Laudonniere settled at La Caroline. Among the settlers was French artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. His job was to paint images of people, flora, fauna, and the geography of the America. It is with his notes and sketches that Montanus was able to accurately depict Fort Caroline more than a century later.
Arx Carolina depicts the early months of the settlement, as settlers and Timucua Indians worked industriously around the base of Fort Caroline, near the river’s south bank, to build a new home for themselves. Settlement went quite smoothly at first; however, as the months drew on, food stores ran out, the relationship between the settlers and the Timucua soured, and a group of settlers decided to mutiny. They left Florida, and sailed to Hispaniola and Cuba, where they were captured by the Spanish. Hearing that the French had settled in Florida worried and angered the Spanish. Spanish ships hailing from Vera Cruz and Cartegena, hauling gold and silver, rode the Gulf Stream through the Straits of Florida and up the southeast coast of North America. The Spanish worried that the French settlement of La Caroline would leave Spanish treasure ships vulnerable to French raiders.
On September 4, 1564, Pedro Menendez was sent by the Spanish King Phillip II to rid Florida of the French settlers. Ribaut and three hundred French soldiers sailed out to St. Augustine to preempt the attack, but they encountered a hurricane and were blown south. La Carolina was captured on September 20 by Menendez, and almost all of the settlers were massacred on the spot. Luckily, a small ship of French settlers, including Laudonniere and Le Moyne (with all of his notes and paintings in hand), were able to escape before the attack.
Arx Carolina serves as a tribute to the brief French settlement, depicting a scene that exudes all of the busy excitement of the Huguenots’ fresh start in the New World in exquisite detail. The view highlights the strong bond between the Native Americans and the settlers, showing them shaking hands and working along side one another. It also hints at the strength of the French soldiers and naval power at the settlement- gun emplacements litter the fort walls and ships float at the river’s banks. Moreover, the view gives great detail to the ecology of the region. The lithographs from Montanus’ book offer some of the earliest obtainable and recognizable images of the New World. While some argue that Montanus exaggerated the size and architectural sophistication of the cities he depicted, it is undeniable that his images are stunning examples of printmaking at its finest.