Monday, March 19, 2012

The Shipwrecked Men by Cabeza de Vaca

On the twenty-seventh day of the
month of June 1527 Governor
Panfilo de Narvaez departed from
the port of San Lucar de Barramed,
with power and mandate from Your
Majesty to conquer and govern the
provinces that extend from the
River of the Palms to the Cape of
Florida, which lie on the mainland.
Opening to
The Shipwrecked Men
by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca
translated from the Spanish by
Fanny Badelier 
In 1527, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca served as treasurer on an ill-fated expedition to the Florida Penninsula.  Early on, the expedition was shipwrecked near what is now Tampa Bay.  Cabeza de Vaca tried to convince the expedition's leadership that they should remain on the shore until rescue arrived, but the thirst for gold and the mistaken belief that there were Spanish settlements nearby resulted in a disasterous attempt to explore inland.  The 600 survivors  soon became  lost and desperate enough to kill their horses for food.  Just over 200 managed to live long enough to make it back to the Gulf coast.

There, they constructed five small boats and set sail for Mexico, hugging the Florida coastline only to be separated by the Mississippi River's currents and the Gulf's stormy weather.  Cabeza de Vaca never saw any of the men on the other four boats again.  He managed to get his own boat to what is now Galveston, Texas, which  his men christened The Isle of Misfortune.  Over the following eight years, a dwidling number of survivors would wander from Native American tribe to Native American tribe throughout the American Southwest, possibly as far as what became New Mexico and Arizona.

Four of the original 600 men survived. 

Upon his return to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca published an account of his journey which featured some of the first descriptions of Native American tribal life Europeans had ever read.  It was a sensation.

But it's not a pretty picture.

For example, for a time, Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved by a tribe that promoted its own security by killing all female children born into the tribe.  They argued that girls would grow up to marry men from other tribes and bare them sons who would become their father's enemies.  Since they had no daughters, this tribe purchased or seized women from other tribes as a means of getting wives who could bare them sons of their own.

The little research I've done beyond reading this book suggests that an account like this one is probably true.  Cabeza de Vaca began his journey just seven years after the Aztec capitol of Tenochitlan fell to Cortez.  The Aztecs required enourmous numbers of captives for sacrifice producing a large network of organized raiding parties and slave markets reaching as far north as the Mississsippi River.

In another example, Cabeza de Vaca spent several years serving as a trader between two tribes who feared eachother so much that neither would ever travel into the other's territory.  Cabeza de Vaca, however, as an outsider, could move freely between them both.  Situations like these and many of the others described by Cabeza de Vaca are possible the result of Aztec influence.

While other tribes treat Cabeza de Vaca fairly well, enough to make him an early advocate for tribal rights, there are no Noble Savages in The Shipwrecked Men. However, it should be pointed out that the violence Cabeza de Vaca describes in his encounters with Native America tribes is not much different from what was going on in Europe at the time.  It should also be pointed out that Cabeza de Vaca did not begin writing  this account until after he had returned to Europe.  He is writing based solely on memory, often memory many years old.  If you're a scholar of this subject, I love to hear how reliable you find Cabeza de Vaca  to be.

But in the end, while The Shipwrecked Men is difficult reading at times, it  is also a fascinating account of the early exploration of North America, one that is well worth reading today. 

1 comment:

Richard said...

Belated thanks for reviewing this, James. I read the full-length Cabeza de Vaca chronicle from which this was excerpted during my first year of blogging, so it was nice to be reminded of this really quite fantastic tale. Andrés Reséndez, then and maybe still a UC Davis professor, also wrote a wonderful popular history account of the expedition in 2007 under the title A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, which addresses many of the issues Cabeza de Vaca leaves out (like describing the start of the journey and what happened to the four survivors afterward). It's my understanding that most of what Cabeza describes is thought to be true but that he's probably guilty of laying it on thick (or omitting things) here or there in terms of lesser matters in his narrative. Whatever, a fascinating account, I agree!