Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca
Most peoples’ exposure to world history is limited to several classes in school and action films. This creates an aura of glamour and excitement, which is far from the reality that conquistadors such as Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca experienced. In light of the intolerable hardships that many of these early explorers were forced to endure, what motivated men like de Vaca to join such perilous adventures? Cabeza de Vaca’s life and journey to North America are intriguing because through his extended encounters with the Native Americans he became known as the compassionate conquistador.
Cabeza de Vaca was born in 1490 to Spanish nobility; his ancestors being warriors and explores. Cabeza joined the army in his teens and distinguished himself as a fine officer. He was a respected veteran and dedicated to his country and the King when he was appointed treasurer and second-in-command of the 1527 expedition to the New World (Bishop). De Vaca was a career military man and it was an honor to accept the King’s appointment to conquer new lands (the whole Gulf Coast of North America) for his country, Spain. He had seen the hero’s welcome and the great wealth received by the lucky ones returning victoriously. The governor of this expedition said? That he and his followers were going to fight and conquer nations and countries wholly unknown, and in subduing them he knew that many would be slain; nevertheless, that those who survived would be fortunate, since from what he had understood of the opulence of that land, they must become very rich. (Jameson)
Besides heritage, patriotism, fame and fortune, de Vaca’s devotion to God was another driving force in his life. In writing his narrative, de Vaca addressed the Sacred Catholic Majesty saying his writings would be important to those who in our name [Spain] go to subdue those countries and bring them to a knowledge of the true faith and true Lord, under the imperial dominion?.(Jameson) His ardent faith gave him great desire to convent to Christianity the inhabitants of the New World.
The incredible hardships of these explorations are hard to believe. The fact that in 1527 a fleet of five ships and 600 men left Spain and ten years later de Vaca with three other survivors returned, speaks for itself. After landing in Cuba, the fleet continued to the coast of southwest Florida. For the next eight years de Vaca proceeded on foot and makeshift rafts along the Gulf Coast. (See map @ end) The details are gruesome, documenting potential death from many directions. Starvation was constantly battled. Weeks past where de Vaca had only a handful of corn for a day’s ration. He tells of 18 months with one group of Indians where the greatest luxury I enjoyed was on the day they would give me a skin to scrape, because I scraped it very deep in order to eat the parings, which would last me two or three days. (De Vaca) Cannibalism was noted among some. Men died from drowning, thirst, murder, infection, and exposure. At one place where de Vaca was forced to stay for several seasons, he had no clothes and exposure to the sun and air covered his body with big sores making it very painful to pull heavy loads, with ropes cutting in to his arms. Sometimes, by the end of the day he would have lost so much blood he had no energy to drag the load out (Bishop).
How could he persevere? To de Vaca’s way of thinking, human suffering was the fate of all good Catholics (Sheppard). Time after time Cabeza de Vaca was given strength by his unquestioned faith in God and belief that he was there for God’s divine purpose, that was guiding him to where he could better serve God. After weeks or often months of ongoing hardships, de Vaca would respond with, Thanks to our Lord, whose help to us never failed. He said that, In all that trouble my only relief or consolation was to remember the passion of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and the blood He shed for me, and to ponder how much greater His sufferings had been from the thorns, than those I was then enduring. (De Vaca)
The survival of de Vaca and the other three often depended on the good will of the Indians who held them captive and also on their growing reputation as healers. De Vaca attributed this power to God’s grace and took the opportunity to evangelize the Indians, which became a primary goal. This was one of his original motivations or desires before the expedition, to bring these people to knowledge of the true Lord.
Were de Vaca’s goals and dreams realized? In June 1536, when de Vaca and company made it to Mexico City, they were given a heroes welcome and he was honored a year later when he returned to Spain. He had claimed lands in the name of Spain. He was given the opportunity to bring Christian teaching to thousands of unsaved people. He continued the heritage of his family’s name as a conquistador for Spain. Even though the expedition was considered disastrous because of the great loses, Cabeza de Vaca became known as one of the greatest explorers of all times.
Much of de Vaca’s historical recognition he never lived to realize, however. Appalled by the Spanish treatment of the Indians, de Vaca urged a more generous and respectful policy. In order to bring those people to Christianity and obedience unto Your Imperial Majesty, they should be well treated, and not otherwise.(De Vaca) He desired to bring the Indians of the New World under Spanish law in a just and humane way. De Vaca became known after his death for his compassionate and just attitude toward the Indians he encountered during his travels. He was also given credit for performing the first recorded surgery in North America and authored the earliest writing on the cultures and customs of Native Americans before European Conquests in his original writing called, La Relation.
The early expeditions were documented to be inhumanly torturous and life threatening. So why did Cabeza de Vaca and others go along on the treks? The reasons are many: family heritage, love for the country, obedience to the King, ardent devotion to God, and the desire for fame and fortune. The expedition never made de Vaca wealthy, but he did accomplish the other goals he set ten years earlier. De Vaca died greatly distressed over the inhumane treatment of the Native Americans by the Spanish. He would be pleased, however, with the honorable recognition history gives him as the compassionate conquistador.(Unknown) The conquests of Spain might have turned out quite differently if they had been motivated by the values of Cabeza de Vaca and attempted to extend their civilization with compassion rather than rapacity.
Bishop, Morris. The Odyssey of Cabeza De Vaca. New York & London. The Century Co. 1933. 24,32
De Vaca, Alvar Nunez Cabeza. The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca. Part 2 of 4 Trans. Fanny Bandelier. www.floridhistory.com/cab-tx3.html. 1905. 1
De Vaca, Alvar Nunez Cabeza. The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca part 3 of 4. Trans. Fanny Bandilier. www.floridhistory.com/cab-tx3.html. 1905. 8
De Vaca, Alvar Nunez Cabeza. The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca part 4 of 4. Trans. Fanny Bandelier. www.floridhistory.com/cab-tx3.html. 1905.6
Jamesomn, J. Franklin Ph.D., LL.D. ed. Original Narratives of Early American History. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1907. 107, 124
Sheppard, Donald E. Cabeza de Vaca’s Background Native American Conquest Corp. 2000
Unknown. The Compassionate Conquistador. Ualvm.ua.edu/`prest003/devaca.htm