Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca chronicled the1527 Narváez Expedition licensed by Carlos I to claim the Gulf of Mexico for Spain. Of the about 600 men who embarked on this exploration in search of gold comparable to that discovered in Mexico only four survived. Cabeza de Vaca was the Crown’s treasurer, and as second in command, entrusted to return the Crown’s 5% share. There was dissention between Cabeza de Vaca and the leader of the Expedition, Pánfilo de Narváez. The latter tried to separate Cabeza de Vaca from inland exploration, unsuccessfully trying to assign him to the ships. After exploring Hispaniola and Cuba, and having lost a couple of ships to a hurricane, 300 of the party disembarked in what may now be Tampa Bay. Cabeza de Vaca wrote the first European account of the travails of this Expedition, which traversed Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, through Texas and perhaps what would now be New Mexico and Arizona, to present day Mexico City. One line in his book notes that of the four survivors of this Expedition, one was a black Moor slave from Azamor whose Spanish name was Estevanico (the diminutive used for slaves). The latter is the sole basis for Laila Lalami’s imagined historical novel, that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize and now Long Listed for the Mann Booker.
This entertaining read traverses the cultures of the Barbary Moors, the Portuguese and Spaniard conquistadors, and the varied native American tribes in Florida and the Gulf. As no one people have a monopoly on fear, disease, barbarism, survival ignorance and prejudice, there are no heroes. This is an excellent choice for young adult readers. It raises questions about culture and religion; adaptation and tradition; and the values that are held and shared.
Ms. Lalami is a storyteller. The prose is fluid but not elegant. The latter is not a criticism. There are fictional embellishments, but she does not profess to write a history. There is no revisionist’s goal. History is written by winners, so she offers an enjoyable alternative.
“And in this relation I tried to tell the story of what really happened when I journeyed to the heart of the continent. The servants of the Spanish empire have given a different story to their king and their bishop, their wives and their friends. The Indians with whom I have lived for eight years, each one of them, each one of thousands, have told yet other stories. Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague reflections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought. Maybe if our experiences, in all their glorious, magnificent colors, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth. To God belong the east and west, whichever way you turn, there is the face of God. God is great.”