Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was more successful as a writer and traveler than he was as a conquisidator. He was an early explorer, exploring the New World hailing from Spain, as well as a protoanthropological author. He was born in Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz in the year 1490 into a wealthy family. Orphaned at a very early age, Cabeza grew up under care of his maternal aunt. Pedro de Vera, his grandfather, had conquered the Canary Islands and would serve a large shadow in Cabeza de Vaca’s ambitions in ‘the new world’ America. His name cabeza means ‘head’ and de Vaca means ‘of the cow (Fanny et al. 1964) His surname was granted unto his family in the 13th century due to his ancestors aiding in a Christian army attacking the Moors. They did this by pointing out a secret path through the mountains by leaving along the way, the head of a cow. Soon, Cabeza de Vaca got employment in the term of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who was one of the leading political figures of the Andalusian at that time. Together they fought in Italy, where Spanish monarch had been trying to preserve his rights in certain Italian territories.
On June 17, 1527, an expedition commanded by governor, (Adelantado) Panfilo de Navarez sailed Cadiz, Sanlucar de Barrameda, with the treasurer as Cabeza de Vaca. Originally, just a trading petition, he eventually asked and got permission to “discover everything there was to be discovered in the new land, conquer and populate it. The wives of some soldiers, as well as several friars, also took part in the expedition clearly marking their intention of establishing a new proper colony. This expedition, designed to become one of the biggest, most equipped Spanish expeditions there had ever been with its four hundred men, and an additional eighty horses succeeded to meeting the design (Fanny et al. 1964) the crew stopped Santo Domingo to take supplies. More than a hundred and fifty of the crew members deserted them to settle in the island.the next stop was in Cuba upon where two of the five ships as well as sixty men got lost in a terrible hurricane. The expedition secured additional men and purchased additional ships and horses. Despite this, the number of crew members in the expedition was down to less than four hundred in comparison to the six hundred it had begun with. Once they left Cuba the ships got caught up in a severe storm driving them towards Florida. The finally arrived Florida near what is currently called Tampa Bay in 1528, according to Cabeza de Vaca’s records.
Having arrived in an unknown destination, Miruelo, their pilot was unable to identify their location. They were completely unaware of their exact location. Narvares made the decision to send the ships ahead the party on land thinking they were somewhere between Rio de las Palmas or Panuco. This, together with his decision to further go inland and find the province of Apalache, which reportedly contained gold, later led to the ultimate loss of the land expedition that was separate from the ships. Cabeza led a troop of fifty fantry as well as nine cavalries to capture the Apalachen town. After resting and gathering enough food stocks in the Apalachen town, the expedition ascertained that the next town of significant size was Aute. Aute had a reputation to have plenty of food ; fish, pumpkin, beans as well as corn. At this point, the expedition cared less about finding gold and more about finding food and surviving. A series of constant unfortunate events occurred along the way such as conflicts with the Native Americans as well as the barges they had build using the material available and having lost contact with their ships, which had returned to Spain after a year of searching for them in vain, the expedition had scattered. For they had lost all they had possessed as well as their hopes of escaping using their own means, the overall situation of Cabeza and his companions was indeed desperate (Cyclone et al. 1984)
Almost starving to death due to the little knowledge of the American ways, reliance on themselves own was almost impossible; Cabeza and his companions had no choice but to rely on the Native Americans hospitality. This was despite the suspicion that they conducted human sacrifices. Helpless and without means they were at the mercy of Native Americans’ charity. The Spaniards separated and eventually became slaves for a few years to some of the various Native American groups from the upper Gulf Coast. They included the Capoques and the Hans, later called the Coahuiltecan and Karankawa. Only four men, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andres Dorantes de Carranza, Cabeza de Vaca together with the enslaved Esteban, a Moroccan survived, escaped, and reached Mexico city. Travelling in a small group, Cabeza explored northeastern Mexican states, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, the current state of Texas and small portions of Arizona and New Mexico (Cyclone et al. 1984) They traveled on foot through Texas and the coast. He suffered from abject poverty and lived in poor conditions and sometimes in slavery. In his many wonderings, passing through different tribes, Cabeza developed sympathies towards the indigenous population. After more than one year of being a low slave, Cabeza escaped from the native to live with other natives tribes in the mainland.
In his newfound freedom, Cabeza engaged in trading with the native groups. As an outsider, he could carry out his trade among tribal groups who were bitter enemies usually at war. Cabeza traded in sea snails, hides, shells, and flinted for arrowheads. Famous among the native groups in the area, he was welcomed hence; this was an opportunity to trade for things he would require. He stayed for another five years in the Isle of misfortune constantly convincing other survivors to try to escape and reach New Spain. During this period, the natives encouraged Cabeza to become a medicine man or faith healer (Cyclone et al. 1984) The natives who engaged in faith healings also known as shamans. When a native would fall ill, they would go to the tribal shaman who would heal them by making sacrifices. The natives thought that the Spanish could make good faith healers because they could speak an alien language. The Spanish, however, objected that the rituals would do more harm than good; the natives claimed that the Spanish was wrong and oblivious of what they were talking of.
Cabeza came to understand his journey and survival in religious terms believing that he received guidance from God to learn how to heal the sick. He eventually gained much fame as a healer that he and the rest of his companions managed to gather a large following by the natives who had come to regard them as “the children of the sun” blessed with the power to destroy and to heal. Many of the natives then accompanied them across the current North Mexico and American Southwest. The cured natives often gave generous gifts including food to the Spanish for healing them. Despite all that food, the Spanish still found they were starving most of the time.
Cabeza noted that the natives often slaughtered girl babies due to the feuding amongst the native groups. Marriages within the tribal groups were also prohibited meaning the daughters could only be married by someone from an enemy tribe and would consequently bear sons who then grew up to be tribe’s enemy. To deprive their enemies of their future warriors, they killed their own female children (Pedro et al. 1907) Moving amongst various tribes, Cabeza heard what happened to the rest of their boats and the survivors. Since different tribes and groups were holding survivors, they often separated. They were only able to get together when their captors went to similar locations to find food. They planned their escape to coincide together with this time. An opportunity arrived but soon thwarted because the natives quarreled over a girl and separated each taking their captives with them.
Cabeza and Dorantes began practicing their faith healing the natives they would encounter and hence their reputation grew (Pedro et al 1907) They became celebrities in the region. Tribes that would shelter them passed them on to next tribes taking their valuables like bows in payment. The native tribes accepted this trade bearing in mind that they would eventually get comparable valuables once they passed them on to the next tribe. Cabeza’s reputation enhanced considerably when he treated a man whom everybody thought to be dead, but he subsequently revived. The inhabitants of other new villages became more generous and willing to give all they possessed in order to please the men bearing great spiritual power. Cabeza de Vaca once a soldier was rapidly transforming into a religious man, a saint.
Cabeza relates the tale of the Evil Thing, Mal Cosa. The natives claimed that about fifteen years before, a small bearded man existed and possessed supernatural powers. Cabeza in turn took the position that Mel Cosa was a demon and convinced the natives that the only thing that could protect them from the evil thing was if they converted to Christianity. It was then that the four travelled through northern Mexico and Texas healing as well as introducing the natives into Christianity. Cabeza and his group finally emerged from the wilderness in what is currently the northwestern Mexican state, Sinaloa. After a short period of recovering in Culiacan, he and the others traveled to Guadalajara and onwards to Mexico city. Majority of the officials recognized that Cabeza’s experience had made him extremely valuable especially in the future expeditions to the interiors of North America (Pedro et al 1907) Cabeza knew many native languages and understood their culture, as well. Cabeza wanted to bring the natives into the Spanish Empire, converting them to Christianity through enlightened and humane means. He also claimed that if this were to occur by humane means, he would have to be a leader in the expedition.
This made him undertake a perilous journey to Spain seeking appointment by the king for the leadership of his next expedition. The king, unfortunately, appointed Hernando de Soto as leader of the next expedition. Cabeza was not pleased and declined to join-to-join De Soto in his expedition when requested (Pedro et al. 1907) De Soto, as a soldier had accomplished as a military leader therefore; he was unlikely to give attention towards Cabeza de Vaca’s main concern for fairness and humaneness. The king eventually appointed Cabeza as the leader of the expedition but this time to the Spanish colony Rio de la Plata, South America. Cabeza was to sail to Rio and seek out the governor who went missing and feared dead. If the governor was indeed dead, Cabeza was to take his position.
During this period much was exchanged between Europe via New Spain to the new world. Cabeza and his expedition hailed from New Spain. Explorers took with them apples, wheat, coffee and oranges among other fruits and vegatables as well as animals such as donkeys, sheep chiken and dogs. They returned to Europe with tomatoes, maize and potatoes, vanilla and tobacco.
Cabeza’s reports of his adventurous travels and suffering in strange lands did acquire enough appeal and was reprinted in Spanish as well as translated into Italian. It was however not as popular in Europe. Over the past forty years, Cabeza’s written work has gained increased criticism and attention due to its frequent misspelling and grammatical errors. Clearly, Cabeza was not a polished writer. Themes of his spiritual transformation have also been and critics have stressed his work underlined Christian ethic. The novelistic passages as well as super natural elements in his work have led to a continual debate about the extent to which it should be treated as the truth for the tales seem exaggerated. It goes beyond doubt that Cabeza's story is quite captivating because of his adventures but it falls short of Cabeza’s fame as great conquisidator.
Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar, and Fanny R. Bandelier. The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca. Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1964.
Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar, and Cyclone Covey. Cabeza De Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.
Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar, Pedro de Castañeda de Nájera, Frederick Webb Hodge, and Theodore Hayes Lewis. Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States, 1528-1543: The Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeça De Vaca. New York: Scribner, 1907.