The Incredible Journey Of Cabeza De Vaca

Sixteenth Century Quest Ends in Tragedy and Disappointment

“One of the great tragedies of the Christian West was the almost complete destruction of the Indian cultures of America by European and Christian conquerers.”

Thomas Merton

When the adventurer Pafilo de Narvaez and his crew set out in 1528 to colonize a part of the unfamiliar North American continent, he seems to have been filled with optimism, planning to establish three forts and two towns.  None could have imagined—certainly not his expedition treasurer Cabeza de Vaca —that this would become a saga of disaster piled upon disaster.

The expedition now seems to have set out beneath a dark star. During a stopover on the island of Hispaniola, the location of the present day nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic,140 of his men deserted. Subsequently, while stopping at the Cuban seaport of Trinidad, the flotilla was devastated by a hurricane, resulting in the loss of two entire ships, along with another 60 men and 40 of the expedition’s horses.

An experienced pilot named Diego Miruelo was hired to lead the surviving vessels across the Gulf of Mexico to their destination at the mouth of Rio de las Palmas on the Mexican coast.   Few pilots at the time were familiar with the Gulf Coast, and Miruelo turned out not to be familiar enough. As he navigated his tiny fleet along the west coast of Cuba, he continually ran aground. 

Like many mariners of the time, Miruelo failed to take into account the powerful current of the Gulf Stream. When the group found themselves near the mouth of a great bay, they presumed it was Rio de Las Palmas. Instead, driven far off course by the wind and the the Gulf Stream, they were 500 miles to the east, probably at the entrance to Tampa Bay in Florida. Navaraez issued a fatal order, to divide his strength, accompanying one half of his men to explore the area overland while the others searched along the coast. The plan was to pick up the land explorers later, but the two groups were never to meet again. 

The expedition members’ imaginations were inflamed by tales of a fabulous city to the north with huge amounts of gold for the taking, a mystical place named Apalachee. This was the sort of thing that stirred the Spanish blood. The memory of Cortez’s enrichment during his incursion into the Aztec lands was fresh in the minds of the expedition members.  When, after an exhausting trek along the unfriendly coast they reached the site, they found it nothing more than a typical Native American settlement, offering no riches whatsoever.

Local natives knew of Narvaez’s practice of holding prisoners hostage and were painfully aware that he had ordered one chief’s nose cut off. The Spanish reputation for cruelty was alive and well, and coastal peoples were not about to accept these bearded, malodorous strangers from the sea at face value. From Apalachee, the Indians directed the Spaniards to another destination where they were assured untapped riches awaited them. Anything to get rid of such interlopers.

For days on end, De Vaca’s men struggled through mud and snake and gator infested swamp water, devoured by biting insects, weakened by typhus and typhoid fever. As they slogged along, native archers with deadly accuracy decimated their ranks. Rather than a road to riches, this turned out to be a highway through hell.

Upon reaching the coast, finding themselves with insufficient food supplies, the expedition members slaughtered their horses and devoured them while constructing five unwieldy log rafts, fastened together with ropes woven from horse hair.

Without food or fresh drinking water, taunted by hostile natives, they worked their way slowly along the coast until reaching the Mississippi delta. There, a powerful land breeze, together with the strong current of the Mississippi as it entered the Gulf, swept two of the rafts far out into the ocean. Those aboard, including Navaraez himself were never seen again.

As the survivors trekked across the wastelands, their numbers continued to diminish. Men died from drinking sea water, from malnutrition, illness, Indian arrows, drowning. As the starving men struggled ashore from one raft, a particularly violent tribe known as the Camones massacred the lot of them. Some simply vanished, their fates forever unknown. By the time Cabeza and his crew arrived on what was probably Galveston Island, only forty men were left. Those on the second raft resorted to cannibalism over the winter. Even at that, by March only one man survived. Life became easier as they entered lands where pecan trees and prickly pear cacti provided life sustaining nourishment.

After being treated to food and hospitality by some indigenous people, Cabeza and his remaining men abruptly turned west. Given that they were perhaps a mere 90 miles north of their goal, Rio de las Palmas, no explanation has ever been discovered for their change of plans.

Throughout their travels, Cabeza encountered vastly differing indigenous societies. Some offered the travelers hospitality and encouraged them to prolong their visit. Others, finding them a drain on food resources, wished them gone. Most were in continual war with one another.

As they followed trade routes inland, they acquired a reputation as healers. Relying upon Christian symbols and some sketchy medical skills remembered from Europe, the Spaniards  were sometimes able to heal natives of a variety of conditions. On one occasion, they even successfully revived a man who appeared to be dead.

As the survivors moved inland, they were handed off from one tribe to another. By the time they reached the Sea of Cortez, they had a following of hundreds of people who regarded them as shamans, among the most highly regarded members of indigenous societies.

At the end of their journey, they were rescued by conquistadors under the command of Nuno de Guzman, a man remembered only for his unmitigated cruelty and lust to acquire ever more Indian slaves. The hundreds of people following Cabeza were captured and  treated most cruelly, then enslaved, many shipped off to sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Cabeza de Vaca’s is a story of good intentions coming to nought. Unlike most of the conquistadors, hell bent upon loot, rapine and slaughter, he dreamed of the peaceful colonization of the Americas, a cooperative civilization wherein great peoples would meet as equals, sharing their knowledge, skills, ideas and dreams. When he was later placed in charge of Rio de la Plata, encompassing much of modern Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, he insisted on fair treatment of the indigenous peoples of the region.

During his initial incursion into the Rio de la Plata, rather than riding a horse like a conquerer, he led his forces on foot and shoeless, calling out to the Guarani people in peace and offering gifts. He insisted that his men pay for all goods acquired from the Guarani. However, the Guarani balked at Cabeza’s civilizing program because he encouraged monogamous marriage and  prohibited cannibalism. His own men grumbled that he acted like a missionary, that he was no true conquistador. Finally, craving loot, they seized him and sent him home to Spain, accompanied by a dark cloud of spurious accusations, such as theft, embezzlement and the charge that he delivered 25 Indian captives as the main fare for a cannibal feast.

Most Spanish conquistadors and settlers preferred dealing with Indians harshly. Underlying the nightmarish tale of cruelty and destruction is a failed world vision, a disastrous contortion of a more benign and humanitarian impulse. While Cabeza de Vaca envisioned a homogeneous society of not only monetary riches but spiritual ones, the powers that be had other ideas.

The conquistadors in South America cited the Aristotelian concept that some humans are inferior species destined for enslavement and destruction. Not to be left out, Puritan invaders of North America too often regarded those original inhabitants they met as godless savages, deserving of extermination. The subsequent history of the America’s could accurately  be written with a pen dipped in blood.

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Lorin Swinehart
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