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Castaways Paperback – Sep 23 1993
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"Even if your collection has one of the earlier translations of this basic southwestern document, you'll want to add this one."--"Books of the Southwest
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It is interesting to read about Texas as a foreign land as seen through the eyes of the author because I grew up there. It was fascinating to realize the adventures and drama that occured so many hundreds of years ago when two cultures collided and no one was positive who would dominate. We know today who did, but at that time, the master (conquistador) did become the slave (of the natives) for seven years. In this way, a valuable account of tribal life and culture is written first-hand, but many years after the events took place.
One thing I noticed is that Cabeza de Vaca still maintains a sense of superiority in that he never refers to any of the native people by their names in the book. It may be that he forgot the names over time. Or, he never considered it of importance because the natives were "barbarians" and intellectually inferior in his eyes. I'm also not sure that the author reveals the full truth of his role in the events that took place once he met up with the other conquistadors in Texas after his enslavement. He's a little too much the hero. While Cabeza de Vaca is somewhat sympathetic towards the native people, one feels that Cabeza de Vaca still looks upon the Europeans as explorers and evangelists, while those being explored and evangelized saw the Europeans as conquerors and gold-diggers. But we don't have their account.
Other than this, the book is very informative and filled with detailed information on geography and culture. I also purchased the Spanish version and so realized that the English translation is excellent.
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The story is almost five hundred years old. It begins with his selection as treasurer for a Spanish invasion force of six hundred that was intended to conquer Florida (then thought to be an island), sieze the natives' gold and add their bodies to the Spanish crown while their souls would be dedicated the the Christian God.
Everything went wrong. A hurricane hit. The expeditionary force was separated from their ships and ended up marooned on the Florida Gulf Coast, surrounded by hostile, deadly Indians. Eventually, the survivors slaughtered their horses for food, then melted down their armor to make nails and built boats in the hope of finding their way to Mexico.
Many more men were lost before they made their way to what is now known as Galveston. The survivors experienced starvation, the cowardice of their leader, slavery and even cannibalism. Out of six hundred conquistadores, only four men survived.
Those four men walked across the rest of Texas, wandering almost aimlessly in a search for the Spanish colony of Mexico. By the time they finally arrived in Mexico, after years of privation, they were no longer the same self-sure conquerors who had sailed from Spain. They had developed a following of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Indians who hailed them as "Children of the Sun". Cabeza de Vaca, who had emerged as their leader, fit the description of an Old Testament prophet. His hair had not seen a comb or scissors for several years, while his feet had not seen shoes for almost as long.
Here's an extended quote from Chapter 19:
"A few days after these four Spaniards had departed there came a time of cold and storms so severe that ... five Christians who were encamped on the beach came to such straits that they ate one another until only one was left, who survived because there was no one left to eat him.... The Indians were so indignant about this, and there was so much outrage among them, that undoubtedly if they had seen this when it began to happen they would have killed the men, and all of us would have been in dire peril: in a word, within a very short time only fifteen of the eighty men from both parties who had reached the island were left alive; and after the death of these men, a stomach ailment afflicted the Indians of the land from which half of them died, and they believed it was we who were killing them; and as they were wholly convinced of this, they agreed among themselves to kill those of us who were left."
How's that for action? It's true that the narrative style itself is archaic and stilted at times. But this translation emphasizes simple modern English and cuts through a lot of the difficulty of reading a story that's half a millenium old.
I've read the story of Cabeza de Vaca two or three times over the years. In it, I see an almost mirror image many of the other explorers like De Soto or Cortez: a man who learned to view the New World in a different way, and who became a different man by the experience. His story has action, sure: hurricanes, starvation, slavery, faith healing, a stupid, greedy leader, and a cast of thousands. But at the heart of this journey is the journey of one man's heart.
When taken as a whole, the text along with the many scholarly notes provide an interesting look into 16th century America.
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