Friday, July 10, 2009

A Fifer's Tune

On July 10, 1584, William of Orange was gunned down by Balthasar Gérard, at the Prinsenhof, in what was perhaps the first assassination in history to be committed by firearm. As the great Dutch statesman collapsed, his last words were reportedly, "Mon Dieu, ayez pitié de mon âme; mon Dieu, ayez pitié de ce pauvre peuple" ("My God, have have pity on my soul; my God, have pity on this poor people").

Already a hero to his people for leading them in the great war of independence against Spanish tyranny, a song was composed in his honor as early as 1581, based on an earlier French tune made popular during the 1568 seige of Chartres which was first called "Oh la folle enterprise du Prince de Condé" or "Autre chanson de la ville de Chartres assiégée par le prince de Condé." Wilhelmus van Nassouwe or Het Wilhelmus is said to be the world's oldest national anthem and its words reflect the values of the man and his country.

Alas! my flock. To sever
Is hard on us. Farewell.
Your Shepherd wakes, wherever
Dispersed you may dwell,
Pray God that He may ease you.
His Gospel be your cure.
Walk in the steps of Jesus
This life will not endure.

Unto the Lord His power
I do confession make
That ne'er at any hour
Ill of the King I spake.
But unto God, the greatest
Of Majesties I owe
Obedience first and latest,
For Justice wills it so.

There is a story told about one particular time Het Wilhelmus was played on the other side of the world two years after William's death. Following the August 1585 Treaty of Nonsuch, whereby England officially entered the Eighty Years' War on the side of the Dutch, Sir Francis Drake, having already circumnavigated the earth several years ago, commenced the Anglo-Spanish War by leading the English attack on the Spanish colonial cities of Santo Domingo (in what is now the Dominican Republic) and Cartagena (in what is now Columbia), sacking both before turning northward. After spying a crude fort on the Florida coast (Anatasia Island) in June 1586, Drake and his men decided to investigate. In the course of their reconnaissance, some of his scouts saw a man rowing across the river and heard him playing a certain tune on a fife. It was a tune they recognized and which identified the rower as not a Spaniard but a Protestant. Nicholas Borgoignon, a French fifer and survivor of the Fort Caroline settlement, who had been first imprisoned by the Spanish at St. Augustine some 21 years before in 1565, rowed out to greet the English forces with the news that the Spanish had abandoned their fort, San Juan de Pinos. With the intelligence from Borgoignon, Drake's forces located and marched on the town of St. Augustine, sacked it, burned the fort, and captured a huge treasure chest among other Spanish possessions. It was the Prince of Orange's Song, Het Wilhelmus, that helped to deliver a French Huguenot prisoner and seal the fate of St. Augustine.

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