Cabeza de Vaca

From Academic Kids

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490 – c. 1559) was an early Spanish explorer of the New World and is remembered as a protoanthropological author.

Cabeza de Vaca means "Cow's Head" and this surname was granted to his family in the 13th century, when his ancestor aided a Christian army attacking Spanish Moors by pointing out a secret pass through the mountains by leaving a cow's head there. In the prologue to his great story relating his shipwreck and wanderings in North America, he refers to his forefather's service to the King, and regrets that his own deeds could not be as great, due to forces beyond his control.

As treasurer, and hence one of the chief officers, of the Narváez expedition, he, Moorish former slave Estevanico, Andres de Dorantes and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado were the only survivors of the party of 600 men. The four were enslaved by various Native American tribes of the upper Gulf coast (including the Han and the Capoques of Galveston Island, which the explorers termed Malhado, or Island of Doom) but later escaped and eventually reached Mexico City.

Traveling mostly in this small group, Cabeza de Vaca explored what are now the U.S. states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona on foot from coastal Louisiana to Sinaloa, Mexico, over a period of roughly six years, during most of which time he lived naked and in slavery. During his travels he developed sympathies for the indigenous population. Among the natives, he lived as a slave, passing from tribe to tribe. He eventually became a merchant, which allowed him freedom from his enslavement and to travel among the tribes. Eventually, after returning to the colonized reaches of New Spain and encountering a group of fellow Spaniards in the vicinity of modern-day Culiacán, he went on to Mexico City and returned to Europe in 1537. Cabeza de Vaca wrote about his experiences in a report for Emperor Charles V. It was later published in 1542, under the title La Relación (The Report). Cabeza de Vaca desired to succeed Pánfilo de Narváez (whose ineptitude had caused the deaths of most of the party) as governor of Florida and return there, but Charles V had already appointed De Soto to lead the next expedition. He declined to travel with the expedition as second in command and jealously refused to give his countrymen any details of the country that might prepare them for the hardships they would surely face.

Instead, in 1540 he was appointed governor of La Plata, in what is now Argentina and surroundings. As in North America, he was unusually sensitive and benevolent towards the Native peoples. He was the first European to behold the Iguazu Falls, among the most spectacular in the world. Political intrigue against him caused his arrest and return to Spain in chains, in around 1545. He was eventually exonerated and wrote an extensive report on South America, which bound with his earlier La Relación and published under the title Comentarios (Commentary).

Trivia

He is the main character of the film Cabeza de Vaca (1991) by Mexican filmmaker Nicolás Echevarría. The film plot is base on Cabeza de Vaca's account of the fate of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition.

He was the lead leader with the Golden Hind, which is the name of the ship that Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world in.

Bibliography, in English

  • Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca: The Narrative of Cabeza De Vaca. Translation of La Relacion by Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz. University of Nebraska Press 2003. ISBN 080326416X (Many other editions)
  • Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca: The Commentaries of Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca. The Conquest of the River Plate, part II. London: Hakluyt, 1891. (First English edition).

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