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Brutal Journey: Cabeza de Vaca and the Epic First Crossing of North Americaby Paul Schneider
On Good Friday of 1528 an army of four hundred Spaniards, Africans, and Caribbean natives landed in the vicinity of Tampa Bay, Florida, under the command of a middle-aged conquistador with a last-chance license to conquer North America. They promptly disappeared without a trace into the swamps and, except for a small contingent that remained on board the ships, were soon assumed to be dead. But then, eight years and thousands of miles later, three Spaniards and a Moroccan wandered out of what is now the United States into what was then Cortés's gold-drenched Mexico.
They brought nothing back from their sojourn in the "unknown" north other than their story, for as one of them said later, "This alone is what a man who came away naked could carry out with him." But what a tale it was. Since leaving Tampa Bay, they and their dwindling company of comrades had become killers and cannibals, torturers and torture victims, slavers and enslaved. They became faith healers, arms dealers, canoe thieves, spider eaters, and finally, when there were only the four of them left trudging across the high Texas desert, they became itinerant messiahs. They became, in other words, whatever it took to stay alive long enough to inch their way across the continent toward Mexico, the only place they were certain they would find an outpost of the Spanish Empire.
Though well known to scholars of the European invasion of the New World, Pánfilo de Narváez's expedition to Florida is surprisingly unfamiliar to most North Americans. Part of the reason, no doubt, is the relative dearth of eyewitness accounts, a not-unexpected situation given the small number of survivors and the absence of even oral traditions reflecting the Native American perspective. There are only two firsthand narratives of the mission, both flawed in their own way and both European in origin. Best known is the astonishing personal memoir of the expedition's treasurer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, whose primary goal in writing was to convince the king that he deserved to be rewarded for his sufferings and services to the crown. The other is a shorter, official report that was prepared jointly by the survivors not long after their return; unfortunately, it exists only in a paraphrased form in an early Spanish history of the Indies.
Attempting to bring some possible version of the truth into focus through these two documents alone would be like trying to discern the craters of the moon through a telescope rigged out of two lenses salvaged from two different optical devices. It's a useful and theoretically possible exercise, but often more tantalizing in the questions it opens up than authoritative about some objective "reality." Fortunately, further details about the expedition can be inferred from the many other, better-documented Spanish intrusions into the region during the same period. Decisions made by Narváez can be compared and contrasted to those of his peers in similar situations, giving rise to a far more nuanced image of the commander than the traditional one of a bungling and vicious buffoon. Likewise, Cabeza de Vaca is not, in the end, quite as unerringly faithful and righteous as his own memory might suggest.
Hints about the lives and livelihoods of the various Native Americans encountered by the travelers surface in archeological reports and dissertations. What's been learned in the last fifty years about the original inhabitants of Florida, in particular, opens the door to a more evenhanded image of the encounter between the conquistadors and the Indians. Likewise, high-tech research into the nature and volume of pre-Columbian trade within the Americas sheds new light on Cabeza de Vaca's temporary career as a peddler. In Texas and Mexico, meanwhile, a century of academic debates over the probable route of the survivors has finally coalesced into something resembling consensus.
And finally, for the interested person, the saw grass shallows of the Florida Panhandle are still there to wade out into. Thunderous downpours still roll in off the baked lands outside Laredo, Texas. Some of the plants may have changed, but the Sierra Madre remain.
The end result is a mosaic of pedigreed "facts" that when viewed as a whole bring a plausible rendering of the story to life. It's a daunting and occasionally frustrating undertaking; in a work of nonfiction there are always some tiles missing from the mosaic. Nonetheless, the story of the Narváez expedition is well worth the effort, and not only because the ordeal of the four who survived constitutes one of the greatest survival epics of all time. Or because they were arguably the first from the "Old World" to cross the continent of North America. Or that their journey and their stories inspired the better-known expeditions of De Soto and Coronado that followed them.
Beyond the day-to-day drama of the journey, what the Narváez survivors saw and said they saw provides a tantalizing glimpse of native North America in the moments before the waves of disease and dislocation began to change forever the human makeup of the continent. When fleshed out with what is known from other sources, the glimpse becomes something closer to a vision, and the journeyers--lost though they mostly were--become unintentional guides to a now lost New World.
It was a world populated by neither "noble savages" nor "bad Indians." As the survivors made their way from Florida to the Pacific, and then south, they met a dizzying array of peoples, some cruel enough to pluck men's beards out for pleasure, others kind enough to carry dying strangers to warm fires. Some were seemingly well off, dressed in fine furs and extravagant feather-work, others were desperately poor, their bellies bloated from hunger. And it wasn't just the residents of the New World that confronted the audacious newcomers; there were hurricanes and lightning, raging rivers, scorching deserts, and venomous vipers. This precontact North America--land, water, weather, and people--is the true protagonist of the story, against which the lives and dreams of the four hundred would-be conquerors are bent and twisted and, in all but a very few cases, extinguished.
For the expeditionaries setting out from Spain in 1527, North America began as an imagined place where they would find fabulous empires of gold: perhaps the seven lost cities supposedly settled by Portuguese bishops fleeing Muslim invaders in the early Middle Ages, or the fabled lands of the Amazon warriors, or even the fictional island of California. They would find nations of peoples waiting to be "liberated" from their heathen ways and ultimately thankful to be brought into the fold of "civilization," even if blood had to be spilled to convince them. In the process, the adventurers believed they would become wealthy beyond anything possible if they stayed home. Coming out of a seven-hundred-year tradition of privateer warfare against the Islamic Moors in Spain--the "reconquest"--they saw no conflict between fighting for their ideals and their pocketbooks at the same time. They were going to North America "to serve God and the king," as one of their contemporaries said, "and also to get rich."
As citizens of the strongest nation in Europe, an empire entering its golden age with a destiny ordained by the pope himself, the conquistadors had everything they needed to make it happen. They had the superior weapons, the legal structure, the philosophical framework, the experience, the private capital, and most of all they had the desire, hubris, and zeal. But in the end, on the ground in North America, for Narváez and his followers it wasn't enough. Even before they landed in Florida, reality slowly but methodically began stripping them of everything they thought they were and remaking them into something altogether strange and new. In the case of one of the survivors, the Moroccan slave Esteban, also called "the Black," the change was apparently irreversible.
All history is hindsight, of course, and in hindsight it's easy to say the hundreds who followed Narváez to their doom in the quagmire were fools following a fool. They probably were. But history also attempts to understand, and in 1527 there were plenty of reasons to leave the land of no-opportunity that was home and to believe in Narváez and join his mission to America. He was a seasoned and well-connected commander who had already played a major and bloody role in conquering the Caribbean, and had gotten rich doing so. More importantly to the rank and file, only seven years had passed since Cortés had conquered Montezuma's empire, and the fleets stuffed with treasure and rumor arriving from Mexico reignited the frenzy of interest in New World conquests that had flagged in the disappointing decades immediately following Columbus's discoveries. Where there was one such bonanza, there was sure to be another; and if Narváez and his army didn't go find it, others inevitably would. So the hundreds signed on to go to La Florida and told their loved ones not to worry.
Such historical "inevitabilities," driven as they are by great economic forces and social trends, are modern history's stock in trade. But in the end, they are only the stage on which real lives of pain and pleasure were played out, lives that were defined by various egos and varying abilities, and to some measure by chance. For Narváez himself, the connection to Cortés and Mexico was far more than simply inspirational. It was personal and direct, remembered with a wince each day whenever he put a hand up to his ruined eye socket. No, it was beyond personal; it was obsessive.
So the story begins not in Spain or in Florida, but in the Totonic city of Cempoallan, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the year 1520, not long after Cortés had placed Montezuma under house arrest up in Mexico City.
Copyright © 2006 by Paul Schneider. All rights reserved.
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