Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Journey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536 by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

Harrowing trek across the American continent
In 1527, Spain sent a party of 600 soldiers and colonists to America to explore Florida and the Gulf Coast. The voyage was led by Pánfilo de Narváez and thus dubbed the Narváez Expedition. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was named treasurer and second in command of the expedition. After stopping at established Spanish settlements in Hispaniola and Cuba, the party’s ships entered Tampa Bay in April 1528, where a group disembarked and began exploring the Florida coast on foot and horse. Through a series of unfortunate events and poor decisions, the landing party became separated from their ships, never to see them again. If they ever hoped to return to civilization, their only recourse was to head West towards Mexico in hopes of reaching existing Spanish settlements. Very few members of the Narváez expedition survived this arduous journey, but Cabeza de Vaca was one who did, making it all the way to the California coast and down to Mexico City. Afterwards, he wrote a narrative account of his journey from memory. This work was originally published in Spain in 1542 as La relación de Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The English translation by Fanny Bandelier was published in 1904.

Cabeza de Vaca’s account is a harrowing story of death and deprivation in which scores of Spaniards succumbed to starvation, drowning, disease, and cannibalism. The way he tells it, one would think there was nothing to eat in America in the early 16th century. Even the Indigenous populations he encounters are mostly struggling for existence. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions encountered numerous Native peoples, some hostile and some friendly. The hostile tribes killed his countrymen or enslaved them for years, while the friendly Indians sometimes nearly worshipped the Spaniards as faith healers and messengers sent by the gods. Cabeza de Vaca’s encounters with Native tribes are the most interesting and valuable aspect of his narrative. Though not without his Christian prejudices, Cabeza de Vaca shows a curiosity, sensitivity, and tolerance toward Native American cultures that was a marked departure from the prevailing genocidal attitude of the conquistadors and early missionaries toward the Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. As the prototypical anthropologist of the New World, Cabeza de Vaca left behind an invaluable document of the state of Native civilizations at this early period in colonial history.

All his merits as an explorer and observer, however, do not make Cabeza de Vaca a great writer. As read through Bandelier’s translation, this is often a convoluted and confusing text. It must always be kept in mind that Cabeza de Vaca wrote this account from memory, years after the events depicted, which calls its accuracy and reliability into question. Also, most of the places he explored were unnamed at the time, making it difficult to tell exactly where many of the events he relates took place. The names he gives for the Native tribes may be questionable as well. Probably the best way to read this work would be in a recent, heavily annotated edition, where one might get the benefit of professional anthropologists’ and geographers’ insights, as opposed to the public domain text by Bandelier, which provides very little historical context.

Nevertheless, Cabeza de Vaca’s journey makes for a fascinating read, both as a historical document and as an exploration adventure story. This is a must-read primary source for anyone interested in Native American history or Spain’s colonization of the New World.
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