Because this alone is what a man who came away naked could carry out with him
The 1542 Relaçion (Account) of Cabeza de Vaca
Last week: “There’s a certain slant of light” by Emily Dickinson (1860-62)
This week: La Relaçion of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1542, 1555)
Next week: “Living like Weasels” from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard (1982)
You came back!
This week I want to talk about contact zone created by 4 men who traversed the Gulf coast of North America in the early 1500s. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1488 - c.1559) who lived to tell the story in ethnographic detail, of what they survived, who they met, what they ate, and what they wore (or didn't ).
Cabeza de Vaca was a conquistador, part of the second wave of Spanish conquest in the the mid Atlantic world, a project that was about 35 years old at that time, about the same age as our narrator. He sailed from Spain in June 1527 as a middle ranking officer in his late thirties (as one of the king’s treasurers) on the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, which planned to settle some 600 men (and 10 women, whose stories are not recorded) on the coast of what they called Florida.
But everything went sideways. The first 200 men were lost to a hurricane in Cuba, which was already far off course from their intended destination. Then 400 men, 80 horses, 4 ships took off for Florida, and after a month of storms and difficulty, crash landed near Tampa Bay on Easter Sunday 1528 with 42 horses remaining. Three hundred men attempted to go inland, but by June these numbers had dwindled due to starvation and sickness and warfare. Finally, the governor Narváez decides to give up on Florida, “so poor a land,” and orders the remaining men to build makeshift rafts of 10 meters each, tied together with palmetto leaves and horsehair, hoping to get back to Cuba. At this point in the narrative, Cabeza de Vaca indulges in not a little scapegoating — and according to the document we have, and the story he tells, this boss was the worst boss.
The last horse died on 22 September. Its legs were made into water carafes. The four rafts take off with 48 or 49 men on each. They named the place, now near Apalachee Bay, Florida (aka, the armpit of Florida) — the Bay of Horses.
Thirty days pass, of storms and false harbors. They are lost, and out of water. Cabeza de Vaca writes,
“I tell this briefly in this manner because I do not think there is need to tell in detail the miseries and hardships in which we found ourselves, since considering the place we were and the little hope we had of surviving, each one can imagine a great deal of what would happen there.”
(This is the part where he is off the coast of Louisiana.)
After a month, Narváez famously says that it’s every man for himself (Cabeza de Vaca records this whole damning conversation) and then takes off in the direction of the sea with the strongest rowers. (He sinks.) Four days later, the remaining two rafts crash onto Galveston, and half-walking, half crawling, the first non-native peoples land in Texas in early December 1528.
This precious document, which is perhaps the earliest European account of North American life mid-conquest, is an excuse note. The original reader of this account was King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain who received a copy in 1537. In all, it took Cabeza de Vaca more than seven years to walk from Galveston to report for duty at the Spanish settlements in Mexico, and he showed up without converts or gold, so he had some explaining to do.
I want to talk about two things in relationship to this 107 page document: what he tells about the people and places he encounters and how he tells it.
Cabeza De Vaca is a reflective writer, who spent his years in the wilderness reflecting on luck and God’s will for him and the people he met. He also has to bring something back with him, and what he chooses to bring is not material wealth, but knowledge. He brings back data.
The title of this post comes from the “Proem” or the letter to the king that precedes the narrative account. He closes with his artful disclaimer:
“I wrote all this with such sure knowledge that although some very novel things may be read in it, very difficult for some to believe, they can absolutely give them credence and be assured that I am in everything brief rather than lengthy, and it will suffice for the purpose to have offered it to your Majesty as such, for which I ask that it be received in the name of service, because this alone is what a man who came away naked could carry out with him.”
This passage has more than its share of “it-s” and “this-es,” which means that these pronouns are accreting increasingly complex antecedents (the person/place/thing that the pronoun refers back to). Here is the same passage in the original Spanish, as it appears in the 1555 edition, in case you’re able to read it:
What he means by “all this” and “some very novel things” are his account of the customs of Native peoples he comes to know and live among. As his disclaimer says - you can bet on everything I say is the truth, because it was all that I had. Doth he protest too much? The narrative, which spans 7 years, loses its linear quality as the days turned into years. Days in captivity or journeying across desert melt into one another. As he repeatedly reminds us, “since I went naked as I was born,” he could bring nothing back but his memory and his faith in God; he had traveled there without paper or books or “firebrand.”
“I have already said how, throughout this entire land, we went about naked, and since we were not accustomed to it, like serpents we changed our skins twice a year.”
As it turns out, the material he recounts in exhaustive detail (he says that he is not longwinded, and this is true — the length of the narrative grows only from the sheer immensity of information he provides) so accurate that later scholars have been able to pinpoint species of piñon from his descriptions alone. The other three surviving member of the expedition provided corroborating accounts.
When students read this text with me, we spend a lot of time talking about the “novel things” that Cabeza de Vaca records about the Native peoples he lived among. It is like a proto-anthropological report: How they tell time. The many uses for oyster shells. Their various mourning rituals. How hard the women work; how long they nurse their young. How much the children are beloved. And because Cabeza de Vaca traveled a great distance from Galveston to central Mexico, he encountered many different cultures. Each time there is a new zone of contact created, and in a repetitive gesture, the locals are surprised by him and his companions, one of whom was an African enslaved man named Estevanico, and Cabeza de Vaca dutifully reports their customs for the reader.
But this reporting is one sided. As much as we might desire it, we have limited textual access to the experience of those people on the other side of this momentous encounter.
So, I think of his veracity often. Did he walk through the wilderness reciting details to himself — dates, distances, numbers of horses, the taste of prickly pear, the seasons of various nuts, running through his anxious mind, to keep it fresh enough to bring it back to his king? to his kind? Could I describe, in exhaustive detail, a place I had traveled through in 2015, as if my life depended upon it? Does trauma inform the detail? Does novelty make it memorable? Did he share similar data about his home in Andalusia with the Native people he lived with? Did he tell the Cuchendados and Charruco peoples about the fruits he grew up tasting? the people he mourned as a child and how they are buried? What it was like in Cadiz?
The concept I am using to describe this experience of one group of humans meeting another for the first time as a “Contact Zone,” which is a term coined by Mary Louise Pratt (“Arts of the Contact Zone” 1991). These are defined as “Social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” and the aftermaths, of which we are familiar: genocide, disease, colonialism, and erasure. Now, “First Contact” refers to aliens. But the initial encounter and exchange of language, customs, viruses and power between human groups happened on this planet during a window of time between 1450-1650. The boundaries and outcomes of these initial contact zones are still in play today.
This concept has become a commonplace for readers of this text, because Cabeza de Vaca does a good job reporting his perspective of meeting people for the first time, and it happens a dozen times over. Sometimes there is fighting, sometimes there is feasting, sometimes he is made a slave, sometimes he is made a healer.
I recommend you read the whole text to come to terms with the immensity of the material. You might never see these places the same way again. It reanimates and repopulates your imagination in these lands, and gives them life.
And he meets so many people. Lots of people. It has been estimated that in 1492, 75 million people lived in the Americas in cities and villages, compared to 60 million in Europe. Cahokia, trade city of the Mississippi Delta, near present day St Louis, housed at least 10000 people; Tenochtitlán, founded in 1325, had 250,000 people making it one of the largest cities in the world at that time. It is astounding to think that in 1491, these people did not exist for one another.
The idea of the globe looked like this for Europeans:
Then all this changed, and there was another place, another people to know on the planet. The king of Spain took this information, “the New World,” and asked, could this place be converted over to our way of thinking? are they the sovereigns of their lands? Or am I? It’s all very sci-fi, if you think too long on it.
Cabeza de Vaca took this new knowledge, that there were cities and customs unknown to his people on a part of the globe that did not exist for his people when he was a child, and told us how these humans on the other side of the known world solve arguments between spouses, or how to make a mesquite flour. He gave this as a gift to a hungry king.
He went on to further adventures and eventually, exile. But last two words of this text are: “I give thanks.”
I am using the excellent translation of the 1542 Relaçion by Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz, first published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1999, with a new introduction in 2003.