Monday, November 24, 2014

A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca

A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca

"Epic" gets thrown around a lot these days.  The journey in this book does the word justice.

A 400-strong Spanish expedition sets out to conquer and colonize what is now northern Mexico in 1527, but due to bad navigation and the strength of the eastbound stream in the Gulf of Mexico, land in northern Florida instead.  After 8 years of wandering and enslavement, on the pacific coast of Mexico, the four survivors of the expedition finally regained contact with the Spanish empire.

Separated from their ships, harassed by natives using guerrilla tactics and not having found a land of gold and plenty, the members of the expedition - already reduced in number - first escaped Florida on improvised rafts that took them to the barrier islands of Texas.  Without their guns or any other military advantage over the natives, desperately hungry and thirsty, the survivors were enslaved by local Indians.  Slowly their numbers dwindled until only 4 remained, who were held in slavery for many years.  After finally escaping, and making their way as medicine men, they returned to Spanish civilization and wrote two accounts of their journey.

This book is a modern retelling of their story, full of interesting details and historical context, as well as musings about what kind of mental strength it must have taken to survive for so long in a hostile, foreign land.  Beyond the psychological aspects of their journey, it's a fascinating story if you consider how much territory they covered, in an age where most of North and South America were very much still terra incognita. Columbus had only (re)discovered a few islands in the Caribbean less than 40 years earlier.   Cabeza de Vaca (the name means "cow head") and his companions must have witnessed much of native life that would soon vanish forever under the twin onslaught of disease and conquest.

I had always thought of the Spanish Conquistadors as having all been rather brutal in their treatment of the inhabitants of the "new" world, but apparently this was not so, even if dissenters did not get their way:
Las Casas pressed ahead with his campaign. His solution to the Indian problem was both disarmingly simple and extremely radical: “The Indians need to be placed beyond the grasp of the Spaniards, because no remedy that leaves them in Spanish hands will stop their annihilation.”
...

Instead of bringing the Indians into the Christian fold through violence, the healers [Cabeza de Vaca and his companions] dreamed of accomplishing this grandiose project peacefully and humanely.
Indeed, later in life, Cabeza de Vaca returned to the Americas - this time near present-day Buenos Aires, but, in part because of his benevolent attitude towards the indigenous population, he was deposed as the local ruler and shipped back to Spain.

I found the book and its subject to be fascinating, and would certainly recommend it.

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