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Heart of Darkness, Heart of Light : The Saga of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, the First American

<i> Michael Ventura is the author of the recently published novel, "The Zoo Where You're Fed to God" (Simon & Schuster). He last wrote an essay about the 21st Century for this magazine. </i>

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was and is a dangerous man. Not because he was violent (for he is perhaps the gentlest person of the American saga), but because he stands as a challenge to our reflexive beliefs and our tidy categories. Though he was the first European on record to spend significant time in North America, and the first to write a book about this land, even most well-educated people haven’t heard of him because his story is too strange, too disturbing to be taught in schools. To encounter him is to encounter our own limits and possibilities. To tell his story is to challenge our taboos. To invoke his time is to reveal our own.

Cabeza de Vaca was born in 1490 and died in 1557. To Americans, whose sense of the past fades every year, he can’t help but seem remote. The media constantly enshrine the cliche that our era has seen the greatest change in human history, but judge for yourself whether or not the changes in Cabeza de Vaca’s lifetime were equally transformative:

Columbus discovered the Americas for Europe, beginning the greatest mass migration the world has ever seen (a migration that created no less than, at present, 45 new nations and protectorates in the Americas alone); 800,000 Jews were expelled from Spain; Cortes conquered the Aztecs of Mexico and Pizarro the Incas of Peru, ending two civilizations; Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Leonardo da Vinci made the Mona Lisa; the painters Hieronymus Bosch, Durer, Raphael, Titian and Bruegel were active; the first modern clock was built; the first pawnshop was opened; the first political cartoon was drawn; the German priest Martin Luther and the English King Henry VIII broke from the Church of Rome, ending 1,500 years of Roman domination; Machiavelli wrote “The Prince,” initiating the modern view of politics; Copernicus developed the theory of the solar system--the first huge step in modern scientific development; the slave trade began, and with it the destruction of millennia of African traditions; the first insurance policies were written; Queen Elizabeth I was born; the first theory of germs was formulated; the first game of billiards was played; the Spanish Inquisition burned Protestants as heretics, and Nostradamus wrote his prophecies.

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So Cabeza de Vaca lived as we live, in that his was a time when the certainties of many centuries suddenly dissolved. Like many of us, when he tried to fit into his time, he became something he never expected to become.

And like us, he lived in an era of gruesome, widespread violence, much of which he saw firsthand. In 1512, at the age of 22, he was a soldier at the Battle of Ravenna, where 20,000 men were killed. He continued soldiering with distinction until, in 1527, at the advanced age of 37 (the average European life span was only about 40), he was respected enough to be appointed second-in-command to Pamfilo de Narvaez for what was supposed to be the conquest of Florida.

Narvaez was a vicious soul. Red-bearded and one-eyed, as governor of Cuba he had won the approval of his king (and the clout to mount this expedition) by such acts as ordering his men to slaughter 2,500 Indians who had come bringing them food. The fact that Cabeza de Vaca accepted a commission with such a killer tells us that he was quite willing to be your average murderous Spanish conquistador.

But he quickly revealed himself to be something more. The memoir he left us is called, in Spanish, “La Relacion”; the most accessible American translation is titled “Cabeza de Vaca’s Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America” (University of New Mexico Press). In it, he details an incident in Cuba in the summer of 1527: Narvaez and he, with five ships and 460 men, were gathering provisions for the conquest of Florida. But a great storm came up.

“All the houses and churches went down,” he wrote in the first published description of a West Indies hurricane. “We had to walk seven or eight together, locking arms to keep from being blown away. Walking in the woods gave us as much fear as the tumbling houses, for the trees were falling, too, and could have killed us. We wandered all night in this raging tempest. . . . Particularly from midnight on, we heard a great roaring and the sound of many voices, of little bells, also flutes, tambourines, and other instruments, most of which lasted till morning, when the storm ceased.”

What was this music in the storm? A writer’s touch? What literary critics call “magical realism”? From novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez we expect flutes and voices on the winds, but Cabeza de Vaca was not a novelist; he was writing what he considered a factual account. He was aware that this and much else in his narrative would be hard to believe. “La Relacion” is addressed to the King of Spain--Cabeza de Vaca’s commander-in-chief, as we would say. He cautioned his king from the first page: “I have written very exactly. Novel or, for some persons, difficult to believe though the things narrated may be, I assure you they can be accepted without hesitation as strictly factual.”

Most of us don’t hear music in storms, and science would not only doubt but also scoff at the possibility. Let’s say, then, that the music was in Cabeza de Vaca’s head--which doesn’t necessarily mean that he was crazy. His record of endurance and clearheadedness argues against that. Rather, his hurricane story shows that, in extreme situations, some strange inner sense opened in him. Catastrophes that caused others to go rigid with fear caused Cabeza de Vaca to experience a deepened, wild, even spiritual awareness. In the midst of a hurricane, and while fighting for his life, he could hear music.

This is the signature of the man. Even this early in his tale you can begin to see why he isn’t taught much in classrooms. Few teachers want to deal with questions--from students or from contentious school boards--about guys who hear flutes in the wind.

The Narvaez expedition finally reached the west coast of Florida in 1528. Drive that country now and all you see is a mall, a housing development, a mall, a mall, a development, a mall--on and on. Cabeza de Vaca, in his day, saw “immense trees and open woods,” “three kinds of deer,” “bears and lions (cougars),” a profusion of birds.

Florida was lush, but there wasn’t much to conquer. Its small tribes were primitive, apprehensive and hostile. They possessed nothing that any European would want to steal. Yet they were no fools. Fearing the Spaniards and eager to see them leave, they told grand lies about rich tribes inland and to the north--lies that Pamfilo de Narvaez was eager to believe. Here he made the disastrous decision to split his forces: The infantry and calvary would explore inland while the ships headed up the coast, to rendezvous later. Cabeza de Vaca was furious. Even in known territory the tactic was foolish; in unknown territory, it was mad. The land force could be lost forever.

Narvaez called Cabeza de Vaca a coward and ordered him to remain with the ships. He refused, writing later: “I would rather hazard the danger that lay ahead in the interior than give any occasion for questioning my honor by remaining safely aboard behind.” This man who heard music in the wind cared more about his honor than his life.

If we allow the possibility that Cabeza de Vaca’s music in the wind showed an aptitude for spirituality rather than, as they say now, “disassociative tendencies,” then we’re beginning to see a rare breed of the spiritual man: not a meditator, a recluse or a teacher; not a priest, an evangel or a mild or wild man; but a man of action, a decisive man with classical notions of honor who, if he heard music in the wind, simply said so. And if his comrades were going to their doom, he tried to dissuade them, but when he could not dissuade, he stood with them.

Native Americans have such models in their history, visionary warriors like Cochise, Geronimo and Crazy Horse. But it is hard to think of another European-American with these particular dimensions--as though we admire these qualities in others but are afraid to admit them in ourselves. Again we see why Cabeza de Vaca is a stranger to our textbooks. History is always taught as a reflection of the present, and he is more paradoxical than we want to believe we are.

It happened as Cabeza de Vaca feared it would. Narvaez, with Cabeza de Vaca still second-in-command, got lost inland and couldn’t find his ships. The terrain supplied little food, and the Spaniards could hardly hunt because they had to conserve their scarce ammunition for Indians who attacked guerrilla-style, killing many. Disease killed many more. Those who survived were exhausted and ill, and almost all (including Cabeza de Vaca) had been wounded. “You can imagine what it would be like,” he wrote, “in a strange, remote land, destitute of means either to remain or to get out.”

In a cove of what is now called Apalachicola Bay, on the west coast of Florida, they decided to build barges and try to make it around the coast toward the Rio Grande, hoping to find the Spaniards in Mexico. Narvaez picked the strongest men for his raft and said that it was every man for himself. His stronger men paddled swiftly away--and that’s the last anyone ever saw of Narvaez. Cabeza de Vaca was now in command.

They followed the coast as well as they could in bad weather, around the Florida Panhandle and to the waters of the Mississippi River near what is now New Orleans. They were the first Europeans to see the Mississippi, and Cabeza de Vaca was the first to write of it. They continued at the mercy of storms until they beached on what they called the Island of Doom, what is now Galveston, Tex. On the voyage, many died of hunger, thirst and disease. Remembering their state shortly before landfall, Cabeza de Vaca revealed his uncommon endurance when he wrote that “not five could stand. When night fell, only the navigator and I remained able to tend the barge.”

When they landed on Galveston Island, they were “so emaciated we could easily count every bone and looked the very picture of death.”

And now the story takes a turn. Indians came upon them. “Whatever their stature, they looked like giants to us in our fright. We could not hope to defend ourselves.” What happened went against all expectations and stereotypes. “The Indians, understanding our full plight, sat down and lamented for half an hour so loudly they could have been heard a long way off. It was amazing to see these wild, untaught savages howling like brutes in compassion for us.”

By now, there were only about 80 survivors. The Indians cared for them. From this point on Cabeza de Vaca called his people “the Christians,” to differentiate them from the pagan Indians. Here he recorded the first known cannibalism in North America: “Five Christians,” cut off from the others on the coast, “came to the extremity of eating each other. . . . The Indians were so shocked at this cannibalism that, if they had seen it sometime earlier, they surely would have killed every one of us. In a very short while as it was, only 15 of the 80 who had come survived. . . . Then half the natives died from a disease of the bowels . . . and blamed us.”

The Indians were probably right. The Spaniards had communicated the diseases they were dying of. We should pause for a moment. Imagine yourself one of those Indians, with half the people you’ve known all your life dead within days. Not surprisingly, the surviving Indians sought to kill the Spaniards. “When they came to kill us, the Indian who kept me interceded. He said: If we had so much power of sorcery we would not have let all but a few of our own perish.”

It speaks of the stature of these Indians that, amid all this grief and death, one person had the power to reason and others had the capacity to listen. The Spaniards were not only spared but also tended to. Cabeza de Vaca had come to conquer Indians. Now he owed his life to one. For the remainder of his eight years in North America, he would never kill, or even fight, another Indian. (A century later, Puritans whom Indians saved from starvation on Thanksgiving Day would have no such compunctions.)

Time passed. The Spaniards, with no means to leave, lived among the Capoques and the Han tribes. Then things took another extraordinary turn. Cabeza de Vaca relates wryly that the Indians “wanted to make physicians of us without examination or a review of diplomas.

“Their method of cure,” he relates, “is to blow on the sick, the breath and the laying-on of hands supposedly casting out the infirmity. They insisted we should do this too and be of some use to them. We scoffed at their cures and at the idea that we knew how to heal.” The dialogue between Cabeza de Vaca (who could now speak the tribal language) and the Indians was apparently intense. “An Indian (probably a medicine man) told me I knew not whereof I spoke in saying their methods had no effect.” The Indians denied them food until the Spaniards complied with their request. “Hunger forced us to obey, but disclaiming any responsibility for our failure or success.”

They had come to subdue, and now they were commanded to heal. Not only was it a complete reversal of roles, it presented a sticky theological problem. According to their religion, if these Spanish Catholics practiced paganism, they would lose their souls; but according to the Indians, if they did nothing they’d lose their lives. And what if the attempt failed? Then, too, they might lose their lives. So they added Catholicism to the ceremony. “Our method . . . was to bless the sick, breathe upon them, recite a paternoster and Ave Maria and pray earnestly to God our Lord for their recovery.”

No one was more surprised than Cabeza de Vaca when their method worked.

Here Cabeza de Vaca passes the point where history is prepared to accept him. He ceases to be a conquistador, ceases even to be an explorer, and enters what Joseph Conrad called “the heart of darkness"--by which Conrad meant a realm of the psyche in which civilized certitudes collapse. But Cabeza de Vaca, as we shall see, might have called the same realm “the heart of light.”

More time passed. The Spanish healers became ill again. At this, the tribes lost faith in their healing and treated them harshly. “My life had become unbearable. . . . In addition to much other work, I had to grub roots in the water or from underground in the canebrakes. . . .The broken canes often slashed my flesh; I had to work amid them without benefit of clothes.” This proud Spanish soldier, so devoted to his own honor, had become a naked slave. Yet note how he writes of this slavery with pain but no bitterness, no anger, no blame. You cannot find in this narrative one disrespectful word about his captors--without whom, after all, he would have long since died. Again, it’s as though catastrophe somehow freed him. He accepted the blows of fate without succumbing to them.

More years passed, with many hardships, adventures and deaths. Some Spaniards were killed only because an Indian had bad dreams about them. (The Indians sometimes killed each other this way, too.) Finally, of the 80 who made it to Galveston Island, only four remained: Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, Andres Dorantes and Dorantes’ slave, the first black man to set foot in what is now the United States, a Moroccan Moor converted to Christianity named Estevanico. (Our African American history begins with this man, nearly a century before the Pilgrims.)

After much planning and many disappointments, in the autumn of 1534 they escaped the tribes that held them as slaves and made their way west. Now they were taken in by a tribe in the vicinity of Austin and San Antonio.

“They lodged Dorantes and the Negro in the house of one medicine man, and Castillo and me in that of another.” This is a significant sentence. They had become the province not of the chiefs or the tribe as a whole, but of the shamans. These Indians had “heard of us and the wonders (healings) our Lord worked by us.” Note that this tribe threatened neither violence nor enslavement. We should also remember that by now these Christians didn’t look like Europeans. They wore what Indians wore, could live off the land like the Indians and speak their languages.

They had come to change the land, but the land had changed them. This, too, doesn’t fit the prevailing heroic vision of Westerners as people who molded the wilderness with their own desires. By this point in Cabeza de Vaca’s journey, heroism consisted of something very different: the ability to survive on the land’s own terms.

“The very evening of our arrival, some Indians came to Castillo begging him to cure them of terrible headaches.” Castillo prayed over them, and they claimed to be healed. And here follows the most amazing passage of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative:

“Since the Indians all through the region talked only of the wonders which God our Lord worked through us, individuals sought us from many parts in hopes of healing. The evening of the second day after our arrival . . . some of the Susolas came to us and pressed Castillo to go treat their ailing kinsmen--one wounded, the others sick and, among them, a fellow very near his end. Castillo happened to be a timid practitioner--the more so, the more serious and dangerous the case--feeling that his sins would weigh and some day impede his performing cures. The Indians urged me to go heal them. . . . So I had to go with them. Dorantes brought Estevanico and accompanied me. As we drew near the huts of the afflicted, I saw that the man we hoped to save was dead: . . . I found his eyes rolled up, his pulse gone, and every appearance of death, as Dorantes agreed. Taking off the mat that covered him, I supplicated our Lord in his behalf and in behalf of the rest who ailed, as fervently as I could . . . blessing and breathing on him many times . . .

“The natives then took me to treat many others, who had fallen into a stupor. . . . When (we) got back that evening, they brought the tidings that the ‘dead’ man I had treated had got up whole and walked . . . all I had ministered to had recovered and were glad. Throughout the land the effect was a profound wonder and fear. People talked of nothing else, and wherever the fame of it reached, people set out to find us so we should cure them and bless their children. . . .

“Up to now, Dorantes and his Negro had not attempted to practice; but under the soliciting pressure of these pilgrims from diverse places, we all became physicians, of whom I was the boldest and most venturous in trying to cure anything. . . . If anyone did not actually recover, he still contended he would. What they who did recover related caused general rejoicing and dancing; so we got no sleep.”

Before anyone gets too skeptical of these events, it should be noted that several years later, when Coronado’s expedition passed through New Mexico, Indians told them of “four great doctors, one of them black, the other three white, who gave blessings (and) healed the sick.” Historians and journalists call that “independent corroboration.”

Were the healings real? Cabeza de Vaca himself admits that not all were healed. But the phenomenon, let us say, was real enough to be remembered by independent witnesses. There have been many witnessings, both ancient and modern, in every known culture, to healings very like these. It’s a subject that discomforts scientists, because they’ve been able neither to prove nor disprove it conclusively, but there’s too much documentation for the phenomenon to be dismissed. And if even only a few of these phenomena are genuine--if healings such as Cabeza de Vaca described are part of the human possibility--then the present civilized consensus, and its description of existence, is not only incomplete but also inaccurate.

Though they were the first to explore North America and leave a record, and though their reports inspired the Coronado expedition, which resulted in the European settlement of the Southwest, still Cabeza de Vaca and his companions are lost to history because they challenge our consensus, our description, of reality. To teach of them at all is to at least consider the possibility that what they did was real.

Their healings can be contested, but what cannot be disputed is that the Indians of the Southeast adored them. Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo and Estevanico, hoping to run into Spaniards whom they thought might be exploring north from Mexico, proceeded into West Texas and New Mexico (some researchers think they got as far as Arizona). Thousands of Indians followed them. As Cabeza de Vaca writes, “we had been badly hampered by the hordes of Indians following us . . . they pursued so closely just to touch us. . . . Every Indian brought his portion to us to be breathed on and blessed before he would dare touch it. When you consider that we were frequently accompanied by 3,000 or 4,000 Indians and were obliged to sanctify the food and drink of each one, as well as grant permission for the many things they asked to do, you can appreciate our inconvenience.”

Cabeza de Vaca attributed these wonders neither to himself nor to his friends. He gave all the credit to divine powers working through them. He was as much in awe of the events as the Indians themselves; therefore, though he found their adoration “inconvenient,” he never looked down on the tribes. In fact, his verdict on the natives of this land was unique in his day and would be considered radical for the next several centuries: “They are a substantial people with a capacity for unlimited development.”

That statement alone makes his story out of place in an education system that taught, until fairly recently, that tribal peoples were not the equals of Europeans. Cabeza de Vaca, writing to his king, added a note that would go against the future Indian policies of all governments, including the United States: “Clearly, to bring all these people to Christianity and subjection to Your Imperial Majesty, they must be won by kindness, the only certain way.”

But when he finally came upon Spaniards, he found anything but kindness: “With heavy hearts we looked out over the lavishly watered and fertile, beautiful land, now abandoned and burned and the people thin and weak, scattering or hiding in fright. . . . (They) told us how the (Spaniards) had come through razing the towns and carrying off half the men and all the women and boys. . . . We told the natives we were going after those men to order them to stop killing, enslaving and dispossessing the Indians; which made our friends very glad.”

As you can guess, they had no success with this project. When they found the Spaniards who had done those things, Cabeza de Vaca got into “a hot argument,” for those Spaniards “meant to make slaves of the Indians in our train.” The commander of those conquistadors, one Diego de Alcaraz, “bade his interpreter tell the Indians that we (Cabeza de Vaca and his friends) were members of his race who had been long lost; that his group were the lords of the land who must be obeyed and served, while we were inconsequential. The Indians paid no attention to this. Conferring among themselves, they replied that the Christians lied: We had come from the sunrise, they from the sunset; we healed the sick, they killed the sound; we came naked and barefoot, they clothed, horsed and lanced; we coveted nothing but gave whatever we were given, while they robbed whomever they found and bestowed nothing on anyone.”

He added: “To the last I could not convince the Indians that we were of the same people as the Christian slavers.”

Finally it was time for Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Estevanico and Castillo to take their leave from the Indians--both those who had followed them for so long and those who had come to them for protection. Here Cabeza de Vaca added his most direct and defiant note to his king: “When the Indians took their leave of us they said they would do as we commanded and rebuild their towns, if the Christians let them. And I solemnly swear that if they have not done so it is the fault of the Christians.”

Cabeza de Vaca and his companions journeyed south, accompanied by Spanish soldiers, and met with the governor of Mexico, Nuno de Guzman, in Compostela, where he made his report to Guzman and to the now aging Cortes. “The Governor received us graciously and outfitted us from his wardrobe. I could not stand to wear any clothes for some time, or to sleep anywhere but on the bare floor.”

I think of him in that interim--of how strange clothing felt to him after eight years of nakedness, and of how he could not bring himself to sleep on a civilized bed. If he ever used his healing powers again, he made no record of it. In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed governor of the South American provinces of the Rio de la Plata, where he prohibited the slaving, raping and looting of Indians. This caused deep resentment among the soldiers in his command, and finally, in 1543, they imprisoned him and sent him back to Spain in chains. He remained in prison for about eight years (almost as long as he’d spent in North America), until his wife spent the better part of her fortune to free him. He died in 1557, at the age of 67 and, despite the writings he left, virtually disappeared from history because history could accept neither his actions nor his message.

Had he actually been given the gift of healing? In answer we have to ask ourselves: Why else would Indians have followed him by the thousands? It is certain that they did, for many Spaniards in Mexico witnessed it. Since this is the only incidence in the entire history of the meeting of Europeans and Native Americans when a white man had such an effect without military coercion, we must assume an extraordinary cause. That is what leads me to believe Cabeza de Vaca’s account credible.

But if he had such powers, why did they leave him when he was back among his own people? Perhaps because among his own kind his powers were neither wanted nor accepted; or perhaps because he had to wear again not only civilization’s clothing but civilization’s assumptions, and only when all trappings of civilization had been stripped away could the healing powers rise in him. Perhaps that is why he sought to return to the New World so soon. But as essentially a military governor in South America, he could not re-create the conditions that existed for him on his first journey.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that where others found, in the wilderness, Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca experienced the heart of light. Is that heart of light still among us? Is it still reachable in this land that is no longer a wilderness--this land where society is in such turmoil, and where people feel so frightened, angry and insecure?

It may be because Cabeza de Vaca’s journey raises this question that he has been, and is still, avoided in schools. Across the centuries he comes to suggest that being human may be a state of more possibilities than we have usually dared to dream. He tells us that only kindness, generosity and devotion are ultimately convincing--that they are “the only certain way” to reach across the barriers of our differences. He stands as a kindly, mysterious, courageous, yet disturbing figure, dangerous to our assumptions, challenging our limits.

He had begged that his story “be received as homage, since it is the most one could bring who returned thence naked.” Instead we have ignored him. Yet it may be that, more than ever, we need him now--need to tell his story among ourselves and teach it to our children, meeting his challenge, giving consideration to his mysteries and living up to his example.


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