Sunday, January 14, 2007


Cabeza de Vaca

Several years ago PBS presented a four or five part series on the Conquistadores. All of the programs were quite interesting and well-done.

From the advantage of history, it is easy to condemn their attitudes and many of their deeds; but they were who they were, fully a product of their times. If these guys hadn't done it someone else surely would have; that was Europe in the 16th century. Without a doubt, some of the Conquistadores were exceedingly greedy and ruthlessly cruel. This was coupled with the fact that their civilization could not see the native populations in the Americas as equal. Indeed, since they barely treated their own poverty-stricken peasants in Europe as human, how could they consider the "godless' American natives to be any different?

Nevertheless, one of those Conquistadores, Cabeza de Vaca, stands out for his bravery, courage, stamina, determination, and eventual championing of the native cause. His story starts off in typical fashion. Born in Spain in 1490, like many of his fellow members of the privileged classes, he joined the military in hopes of making his fortune in the new world. The wild tales of unlimited gold and riches drew them by the thousands (not unlike the California and Alaska Gold Rushes three hundred and some years later).

Arriving in Cuba, he joined an expedition destined for Central Florida in 1528 - in search of fame and fortune (land and gold). Ill-equipped and weighted down by the ridiculous heavy armor unsuited for the heat and humidity of the tropical jungles of the Florida coast, a party of 600 men naively sailed up the gulf coast and promptly encountered trouble. Hurricanes, shipwrecks, treachery, hostile locals, an unforgiving climate, no food, foul water, disease - everything that could go wrong, did.

Abandoned by their leader, the remnants of the original 300 member ground party, now led by de Vaca, built log rafts and hoped to sail to Cuba. Instead, storms destroyed most of the rafts and pushed the rest to the north and west. de Vaca and about 80 members of the original crew washed up on beaches on the Texas coast near Galveston Island, where some were captured and enslaved by the local tribes; all the others apparently drowned or were killed. For the next several years de Vaca lived in abject servitude, while he slowly gained their trust and respect as a faith healer. In time he escaped from his captors and reconnected with three other survivors. They began a four-year journey across the southern part of Texas and then Mexico. Traveling up to 30 miles a day, barefoot and naked, they eventually reached the west coast in 1536.

This part of the trek is remarkable not only for the hardship and perseverance, but also because of the responses by the various local tribes they encountered. Because of their powers of healing, the natives celebrated their arrival - often hundreds of followers would accompany them from one village to the next, providing them with food and water in exchange for their "laying on of the hands". Eventually, as they neared the west coast they were "found" by a group of spanish slavers out on a raid, who escorted them to "civilization". It took two more years before de Vaca was able to finally return to Spain and make his report to the King.

Whatever credibility he earned by his remarkable ordeal of survival was offset however, by his outspoken advocacy for the rights of the indigenous population, going so far as to demand that they be treated with dignity and respect. He arrived back in Spain too late to be put in charge of a follow-up expedition to the North American continent, which was instead assigned to Hernando DeSoto. In time though, the discouraged de Vaca was made governor of Paraguay. In short order, his views towards the natives antagonized the other European settlers and they imprisoned him on charges of corruption and sent him back to Spain for trial. He was pardoned by the King and became a judge in Seville until his death in 1556.

Cabeza deVaca's report to the Spain's King Charles V, "La Relacion", describes the journey and survival of...
"four out of a land-force of 300 men--who by wits, stamina and luck found their way back to civilization after eight harrowing years and roughly 6,000 miles over mostly unknown reaches of North America. They were the first Europeans to see and live to report the interior of Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and northernmost Mexico; the 'possum and the buffalo; the Mississippi and the Pecos Rivers; pine-nut mash and mesquite-bean flour; and a long string of Indian Stone Age tribes... He had learned to love the land as beautiful and the Indians as surpassingly handsome, strong, and intelligent. In the midst of his sufferings, he caught a vision of the brotherhood of man. He wanted to bring the Indians civilization and Christianity and to establish a humane order among them. He had found that he could cure their sicknesses, communicate Christian teachings, and compose their tribal hostilities, leaving the lands he passed through in peace." [From the preface to his 1961 translation by Cyclone Covey.]
Online translations (by different authors in different eras) of his fascinating account of that eight-year journey in the report to King Charles V of Spain, "La Relacion", are available at Ibiblio, Texas State University, and PBS.

Many years after reading and re-reading about their unimaginable hardship, destitution, loss, and then faith, perseverance, and courage to survive while crossing an unexplored continent, I am still surprised that de Vaca's story is not commonly known.

Sounds like it would make a great movie, doesn't it?

And yeah, surprising this isn't taught in school. Or not surprising after all.
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