Review of The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de VacaTranslated with notes by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 1968-69)

south-america-bookThe South American Expeditions, 1540-1545
by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Translated with notes by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 1968-69)
University of New Mexico Press
240 pages

Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79)

As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them./The good is oft interred in their bones.” Thus my guess is that if you can name a Spanish conquistador at all, it’s most likely Hernan Cortés, who succeeded in subjugating all of Mexico between 1519 and 1526.  Cortés famously sank his own ships in Veracruz, on the east coast of Mexico, after hanging two of his men for getting cold feet about schlepping with him across three mountain ranges to scope out Aztec gold in Tenochtitlán.  As Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 gives evidence, though, not every conqueror is a study in ruthlessness.  Translated with notes by Baker H. Morrow, the volume is a testament to a kindler, gentler conquistador.

The human panorama of the Spanish Conquest was vast. Like that of our recent and current military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (which have  involved multitudinous journalists from CNN, contractors from Blackwater, delegations of U.S. senators, etc.), it was not limited in scope to professional soldiers. It featured notaries in abundance, who were hired to proclaim the Requerimiento (essentially a declaration that the Spanish should hold sovereignty of the Americas because God was on their side); Catholic priests and brothers with very different, even opposing, theological axes to grind (the Franciscans baptized the Indians en masse, much to the horror of the Dominicans); warring native tribes (as Cortés well knew, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which is how he convinced the Tlaxaltecs to take up his cause against the Aztecs); and black slaves brought in to stem the tide of Indians dying as a result of smallpox and other calamities related to European conquest.  Out of this teeming new cross-cultural reality, a question slowly began to make itself heard:  if Indians had souls, didn’t they also possess certain God-given human rights? Although the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas perhaps articulated this question most vociferously, he was not alone. He was joined by numerous others, including Cabeza de Vaca.

The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 details Cabeza de Vaca’s years in the Río de la Plata region of South America, which encompasses parts of contemporary Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. The account appears to have been a collaboration between Cabeza de Vaca and his secretary, the notary Pedro Hernandez.  As Morrow’s “Translator’s Notes” inform us, this adventure, as harrowing as it proved at times, was preceded by an infinitely more harrowing one in North America, which Cabeza de Vaca recounted in La Relación, first published in 1542. When Panfilo Narváez’s 1527 expedition to Florida ended in disaster due to shipwreck and hostile Indians, Cabeza de Vaca rafted with the other castaways from the coast of Florida to Galveston Island in what is now Texas. He then trekked for eight years along the Río Grande and across the Sierra Madre. Enslavement by various Indian tribes impeded progress many times along the way, and by 1536, when the survivors finally reached a Spanish settlement in Culiacán (Sinaloa), only four remained. It was through this extraordinary trial by fire-which he survived in part due to skills as a faith healer he developed along the way-that Cabeza de Vaca came to appreciate the Indians as human beings.

In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca accepted a charge from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to assist the colony at Buenos Aires. The situation of the Spanish in the Río de la Plata region appeared to be tenuous, with the fate of Juan de Ayolas, the appointed governor, in doubt. Cabeza de Vaca was authorized to assume the role of governor himself if de Ayolas proved to be dead.  As it turned out, de Ayolas had been killed by the Indians, and Domingo de Irala had already stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum, ordering the settlers to move from Buenos Aires to Asunción, which he perceived to be more defensible. In many ways, The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 is the account of the crossfire between these two men, one of whom took the mistreatment of the Indians for granted and the other of whom did not.

Morrow’s translation gives the reader a lively sense of Cabeza de Vaca as a proto anthropologist. The Governor, as Cabeza de Vaca is called in the narrative, refuses to paint all the Indians with the same brush.  He is careful to distinguish the Xarayes from the Guaraní, the Guaraní from the Payaguaes. He informs us, for example, that the Indians of Puerto Reyes raise ducks to keep the cricket population in check, and that when a chief of the Payaguaes spits, the man standing next to him must cup his hands to catch the phlegm. He tells us that some tribes are warring, some not.

If the Relación reads like a narrative of Cabeza de Vaca’s captivity among the Indians, The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 reads in part like a narrative of his captivity among the Spaniards. In 1543, De Irala and numerous conspirators imprisoned Cabeza de Vaca to keep him from interfering any further with their interests. One cosmic irony was that the man assigned to guard him in prison was the same one he punished for slapping an Indian and beating him with sticks. Shipped back to Spain in chains, Cabeza de Vaca was fated to spend the rest of his life trying to exonerate himself.

De Vaca’s targeted audience for The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545 was the Spanish crown, and it is a credit to Morrow that he captures the hint of trepidation behind Cabeza de Vaca’s every word. I highly recommend this new translation not just to those who are looking for fresh takes on Spanish Conquest documents but also to those for whom Cabeza de Vaca’s name is unfamiliar.  As we sort out our own post 9/11 colonial legacy-and Abu Ghraib is part of it-the testimony of Cabeza de Vaca should serve as a beacon. The excesses of the Spanish Conquest led to Europe’s demonization of the conquistadors in the form of la leyenda negra (the black legend).   Yet, the Spanish Conquest also marked the point in human evolution when the theory that all human beings had inalienable rights began to be taken seriously. Thanks in part to Cabeza de Vaca, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was in the offing.

Ann Neelon’s interest in Latin America is longstanding.  She has lived for a sabbatical year in Costa Rica; taught in Mexico with the Kentucky Institute for International Studies; traveled to Honduras and Nicaragua as a Witness for Peace Volunteer; won a grant to research Bartolomé de las Casas at the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin; and compiled and edited a journal issue devoted to the theme of “Mexico in the Heartland.” She has also published translations of poems by Jorge Debravo, Oscar Acosta, and José Roberto Cea. She is Director of the Low-Residency M.F.A. Program at Murray State University and Editor of New Madrid.  


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  • Cabeza de Vaca’s books are masterpieces of weirdness mixed with great anthropology of a world now lost. He was one of those who set the template for what it means to be a great Peace Corps Volunteer: inquisitiveness, cultural understanding, an enjoyment of the strangeness of the world, perseverance, and an addiction to great adventure. Nice review!

  • I would put forward Alonso de Ojeda as the most compassionate conquistador. But the word conquistador means “conqueror” and one does not expect a “conqueror” to be the “milk of human kindness.”

  • I’m reminded of Bartolome de Las Casas . He was a Catholic Bsihop , who abhored the treatment of the Indians. He felt that all the Spanish Crown was interedted in was subjecting them harshly, insisting that the become Christians, and confiscating their gold/ He wrote a long and passionate objection to Spain’s policy and submitted it to the 15th century Conference at Vaiiladolid in Spain.. Today Bartolome de Las Casas is revered in Mexico as an early champion of their rights.

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