Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca 1490-c. 1557

Spanish explorer and chronicler.

Cabeza de Vaca is remembered by students of American history as the first European to set foot in the interior of what would become the states of Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Relación, his account of the eight years he spent traveling on foot across North America as one of only four survivors of a Spanish expedition of nearly 500 men, has long been a primary source for historians and anthropologists interested in Native American life and customs before contact with white civilization. While the Relación is not regarded as among the greatest literary chronicles of Spanish exploration and conquest in the New World, its sympathetic portrayal of native peoples and subtle yet penetrating condemnation of Spanish savagery and greed make it one of the most unique.

Biographical Information

Cabeza de Vaca was born in 1490 in the Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera, near the port at San Lúcar de Barrameda, from where Magellan sailed in 1519 to become the first man to circumnavigate the globe. It was from San Lúcar de Barrameda that Cabeza de Vaca was to begin his first adventure in 1527. Cabeza de Vaca's family had a long history of illustrious service to Spanish royalty. His paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera, had been one of the major figures in the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands, and his mother's family had earned royal favor along with the unusual title “Cabeza de Vaca” (literally “head of the cow”) when a peasant ancestor aided a Spanish victory against the Moors in 1212 by marking an unguarded path with the skull of a cow.

There is no record that Cabeza de Vaca had any university education, and while in his teens he began a career in the military. In 1512 he saw action in the Battle of Ravenna, in which 20,000 soldiers died forcing the French to leave Italy. His service to the Duke of Medina Sidonia and to Charles V in several civil wars over the next ten years brought him greater military distinction and a promotion to lieutenant. Little else is known of Cabeza de Vaca until 1527, when he was appointed treasurer and second in command to Pámfilo de Narváez, in an expedition to conquer the recently discovered land of Florida. On June 17, 1527, Cabeza de Vaca and nearly 500 men set sail. He did not return to Spain until 1537, one of only four men from the entire expedition to survive storms, shipwreck, disease, starvation, attacks from Native Americans, and the blundering decisions of Narváez, and the only member to return to Spain. Upon his return he gave an official report to the Spanish king of what he had witnessed as the first European to have traversed nearly 5,000 miles of the interior of the North American continent. Five years later Cabeza de Vaca published his account of these adventures as the Relación.

Perhaps because of his experience with Narváez, Cabeza refused the following year to return to Florida as second in command in De Soto's expedition to conquer the lands and peoples of Florida. In 1540 the King made Cabeza de Vaca the governor of Río de la Plata, a province roughly comparable to present-day Paraguay. The explorer left Spain in November 1540 and landed in Brazil the following March. His records of his governorship and two marches—each traversing over a thousand miles through unexplored South American jungle—before his men mutinied and returned him to Spain in 1543 as a prisoner, were published together with his North American chronicle in 1555 as the Comentarios.

After being forced to return to Spain in 1543, Cabeza de Vaca spent many of his final years defending his South American actions in court. After years of trials and appeals, he was stripped of his honorary titles, sentenced to banishment from the New World, and condemned to eight years of exile in North Africa. In addition he was sued by many investors in the South American expedition who were unable to recoup their financial losses. Although his exile to Africa was eventually withdrawn, Cabeza de Vaca was effectively bankrupt from the costs of his trial. Some scholars have suggested that the explorer died forgotten and penniless; others believe that the Spanish King took pity on him and granted him a pension and new honorary titles. The exact date of his death is also a matter of debate; it is generally accepted that he died somewhere between 1556 and 1564.

Major Works

Cabeza de Vaca wrote and published two works. The first, the Relación (also known as Naufragios or Shipwrecks), was published in 1542 and retells in harrowing detail the many ill-fated adventures that doomed the Narváez expedition to failure and the eventual death of all but four of the original crew of 500 men. The narrative is the first work by a European to offer details of North American species such as the buffalo, opossum, armadillo, and Gila monster; to recount the terrible fury of a Caribbean hurricane; and to bear witness to the lives of Native Americans.

Beginning with their departure from Spain in June 1527, Cabeza de Vaca describes how the men eventually arrived on the western coast of Florida near present-day Tampa Bay, but not before nearly a hundred men either deserted the ship or died in tropical hurricanes while wintering in Cuba. Despite Cabeza de Vaca's warnings, expedition leader Pámfilo de Narváez decided to march with the majority of his men up the Florida peninsula while their supply ships followed them by hugging the coast. Within months, however, the men lost contact with the ships, and, short of provisions, began to die of starvation and tropical diseases. To make matters worse they were continually attacked by coastal Indian tribes. Deciding that their only chance of survival was to sail west toward what they believed was New Spain, the surviving 250 men fashioned five crude rafts and set sail from the Florida coast. Several of the boats sank when they were pushed far out to sea as they passed the area where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca's raft with several dozen men managed to land on the eastern coast of present-day Texas. Gradually their numbers were reduced to just four men—Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Dorantes' African slave, Estevanico, all of whom figure prominently in the written account. The bulk of the book describes how the four were capturerd and enslaved by Indians in Texas, their attempts to escape, and the turn of events that led from their enslavement to positions of high honor among their captors as the foreigners gained reputations as divine healers. The book then traces the long march across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, down through Sonora, Mexico, concluding as Cabeza de Vaca and his comrades are greeted as heroes by the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City in 1536. The influence of Cabeza de Vaca's tale of suffering, privation, and spiritual awakening has been enduring. Inspired by de Vaca's allusions to fabulous riches, expeditions led by De Soto and Coronado soon returned to Florida and the desert Southwest to conquer the land and its people as they searched for the mythical golden cities of Cibola.

Arriving back in Spain in 1537, Cabeza de Vaca delivered a report of the years in North America co-written by himself, Dorantes and Castillo known as the Joint Report to the Spanish King and government. Although the original report has been lost, a version of it was published by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdéz in 1539.

Cabeza de Vaca's second major work, the Comentarios, was published in 1555 and included a newly edited version of his North American account as well as a much more lengthy description of the three years he spent as leader of an expedition to restore peace and Spanish rule in the South American province that would become Paraguay. Concerned that his predecessor as governor of the region had been murdered by Native Americans, Cabeza de Vaca tells how he decided it would be faster to march overland from Brazil rather than sailing all the way around the southern tip of the continent to reach his destination. The five-month journey through what was believed to be impenetrable forest is described in great detail, as is another march the following year in search of one of the golden cities of Cibola. The marches take a great toll on his men, and he is forced to halt his second expedition after his men refuse to walk any further. A few months later, a full mutiny against his leadership erupts in large part because many of the Spanish resent his protection of Native Americans against their own financial interests. Cabeza de Vaca's tale comes to a close as he is returned to his homeland in chains.

Critical Reception

Cabeza de Vaca's reports of his travels and suffering in strange, new lands had enough popular appeal to be regularly reprinted in Spanish and translated in 1556 into Italian. However, they did not garner much attention in the rest of Europe or North America until the middle of the nineteenth century, when they were translated into French, German, and English. Several English translations in the twentieth century made the Relación available for historians and anthropologists in the United States who found in the accounts of his long overland trek across the desert Southwest valuable descriptions of flora, fauna, and Native American customs. Much of recent scholarship on the Relación has been concerned with attempting to determine the explorer's exact route based on geographical clues in the work. Other scholars have examined differences between the accounts given in the Joint Report, the 1542 version of the Relación, and the 1555 version in the Commentarios, and they have debated whether Cabeza de Vaca may have fabricated elements of his narrative either to please his king or to increase his own prestige. Cabeza de Vaca's account of his years in South America has been largely ignored by English critics and historians; the complete Commentarios have never be translated into English.

Over the last forty years, Cabeza de Vaca's Relación has been gaining increasing critical attention for its literary merits. While it is clear from the frequent misspellings and grammatical mistakes that Cabeza de Vaca was no polished writer, the subtle way the author appeals to the king (to whom the book is addressed) for mercy and for compassion for Native Americans has been regarded as skillful. Critics have also praised the story's pacing and its mood of tension and excitement. Themes of spiritual transformation in the Relación have also been examined; Cyclone Covey and Peter Wild, for example, have stressed the work's underlying Christian ethic. While much of this attention has tended to focus on Cabeza de Vaca's unusual sympathy for Native Americans and the implicit argument that Spanish dominion will be better achieved by practicing a loving Christianity than by conquest, there is also a growing segment who see in the Relación the seeds of modern fiction in general and American literature in particular. William T. Pinkerton has argued that Cabeza de Vaca's narrative may be seen as the “prototype” of much of modern American literature with its preoccupation with “the voyage of exploration, of physical and spiritual discovery, the journey into the interior, in which the dominant figure is man isolated—alone in the wilderness, alone with himself.”