10. Cabeza de Vaca (a)
His own subjugation definitely had a profound impact on the way in which he experienced the foreign territory. The peacemaking friendship he develops with some of the Native Americans is extraordinary. It is the type of experience he never would have had had everything gone according to plan. The barrier between him and his men and the Natives would have been reinforced, continuing the colonizer/colonized and Western/non-Western dynamics. I definitely think that a different sort of perspective bloomed because of his captivity. It served to wear his guard down, and he took note of Native American practices. I find his entry into healing and magic especially interesting. And would he have become a trader had it not offered improved conditions over slavery? Probably not, considering his familial ties to conquest, in the form of Pedro de Vera.
Rolena Adorno’s essay, “The Negotiation of Fear” had some interesting points on the role fear played in his time abroad. She makes the point that fear is used by both parties in these encounters, something that did not come across as strongly in Columbus’ first voyage, and considering Cabeza de Vaca’s time with the natives, this is certainly true; it was not only the Westerners who intimidated the other side. Here, he dealt with various levels of fear, including fear that the land he found would disappoint his royal patrons back home and fear involved with physical survival amongst hostile captors.
But there is another type of fear that he had to set aside in order to gain the type of relationship that he did with the natives: “this is a third and final moment in the negotiation of fear: Cabeza de Vaca and his party are asked to negotiate away the terrible fears of the natives who have been terrorized by the slave-hunting Christians. Cabeza de Vaca does not mince words:
The sight was one of infinite pain to us ... the people thin and weak ... We bore a share in the famine along the whole way ... and they related how the Christians at other times had come through the land, destroying and burning the towns, carrying away half the men and all the women and boys ... They would not, nor could they till the earth, but preferred to die rather than live in dread of such cruel usage as they had received.(Hodge, 110)
His advocacy of humane treatment of these peoples makes him a Lascasian by experience rather than reading” (Adorno).
Ultimately, Cabeza de Vaca’s parting friendship with the natives is for the most part the result of his enslavement, which forced him to spend time around natives and their culture, and the setting aside of fear, which warmed him to the idea of them as people.
However, what struck me about his narrative was the amount of communication Vaca and his men were able to have without knowing the language. The two races share many intimate moments over the course of Vaca’s travel log. Including but not limited to a major rescue and aid for him and his men after Vaca’s shipped had wrecked and clear enough communication to Cabeza de Vaca that he had the qualities necessary for a healer. In especially the latter, these seem like they would take more than just wordless empathy to convey fluidly. Nevertheless, Cabeza de Vaca usually is able to make (what seems like) relatively educated guesses on what the native people are trying to say to him, as well as what they are saying to each other, just by observing their interactions with each other, he and his men, and gesture.
It seems as though either Cabeza de Vaca must be wildly guessing about messages the Indians are trying to convey, or that the humanity that is shared between the two groups has allowed communication to transcend past speech. As a linguistics student, I found this to be a pretty interesting premise. In linguistics, many philosophers try and describe a language’s relationship to objects in the world. A point pretty often made in the foundations of linguistics is that it would be impossible to discern what specific words meant in an unknown language just by observing their actions. Its is known as The Indeterminacy of Translation, or W. V. Quine’s Gavagai argument. Read further here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indeterminacy_of_translation. The point regards the connection between language and behavior, that they are inextricably linked. Cabeza de Vaca are able to gather information about what the natives are “saying” due to their behavior and mostly think they have gleaned an adequate understanding of things, however, it could be so that his interpretation is muddled by Vaca’s own speech and behavior in relation to the Indians.
Cabeza de Vaca was a new kind of traveler not often seen before his time, he talks about himself and where he stayed, what he did, etc. In Lee W. Dowling’s Story vs. Discourse in the Chronicle of the Indies: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion, Enrique Anderson discusses how de Vaca’s tale is strengthened by its use of “I” and that this leads to a much faster paced and more enjoyable reading. They compare it to an adventure tale, and, I believe, this statement is true. From the initial separation of the ships, to the wreck, and to becoming shaman, Cabeza de Vaca and his crew go about events in a seemingly folkloric way. However, the events are presented very straightforward and matter-of-fact. Dowling notes that it makes “little use of narrative omniscience or of irony” and that the tale is really told in a completely linear and chronological way. Also interesting is that direct quotation is rarely used. This adds to the place of the piece as well as quickening the plot and its development.
David Lagmanovich points out that dotted throughout the story there are fantastical tales, strange practices, and other interesting evaluators, “elements concerned with making the point of de Vaca’s relation of the particular events that form the story.” These evaluators, Dowling says, serve to gloss over points where the King of Spain- who the work was addressing- may have blamed De Vaca for the disastrous consequences.
This last point shows the importance of keeping in mind who the audience of the piece is. The writers use these evaluators and ways of approaching the story that is being told in very specific moments to garner specific reactions or perceptions from the reader. In most cases, we, the 21st century student, are not the expected reader. We must therefore put ourselves not only in the mindset of whom each piece is being written for and how they were to receive it, but also the authors themselves. We must ask ourselves “why did he do what he did?” when analyzing specific tones and literary tools.
As stated in the first sentence, Cabeza de Vaca was not the common traveler of his time he presented a story to the king but in a fascinating and adventure-like way. With this approach he creates a sense of intrigue in his reader, which being the King, helps to successfully take of some of the blame for the negative choices made. In the end, the tale can be read like a blockbuster action movie, each event more shocking than the next.
The Christians tried to claim that Cabeza de Vaca was the same as them only because they wanted to gain the same respect that Cabeza de Vaca had. They continue by insulting Cabeza de Vaca because he has lost most of his connection to the old world and doesn’t resemble or embody the same conquistador and malicious spirit that they do. I wonder if because we are getting the perspective from Cabeza de Vaca’s point of view, that he is playing up the idea that he is understood and accepted, and that the other men are still feared as hostile people. Cabeza de Vaca is an example to the Native Americans that not everyone who comes from other countries and places has an evil agenda. He makes cultural understanding seem possible.
Cabeza de Vaca becomes defined as an other against Diego de Alcaraz and his men, rather than the Native Americans being the other. He has to occupy the same position that the Native Americans were once in, before Cabeza de Vaca experienced all of the hardships that he did which transformed his relationship to the Native Americans. His story speaks a lot to adaption and transformation through the loss of one’s position of power over the “other” into becoming he who is othered.
Cabeza’s initial stance towards the Native Americans was largely apathetic. He and his men had no qualms about raiding camps for any food or supplies they could find. During one of these raids, Cabeza’s men are attacked and holed up in a village. Cabeza notes nonchalantly that two Native Americans were killed over their two days of battle.
Later on there are some clear instances of role reversal. After many of the Spanish have been drowned and the survivors are washed ashore, the Native Americans sit down with them and begin crying. This is an equalizing moment – everyone is at the same level (on the ground), and the Natives are showing their empathy for Cabeza’s troubles.
At an even more humbling moment, Cabeza and his men resort to cannibalism. The designations of “civilized” and “savage” are subverted and it’s much easier to think of all parties involved as “human” rather than as “Christian/Savage.” After years in their civilization, Cabeza is recruited as a medicine man and he eventually gains a large following on the strength of his powers. In a pivotal scene the conquistadores of Mexico criticize the natives for following Cabeza since he is the same race that they (the conquistadores) are but has much worse fortune. The Native Americans deny this, claiming that Cabeza is different and therefore respectable for a variety of reasons, maybe most importantly that he comes in peace.
In her essay, Doctor refers to Cabeza’s eventual actions towards the Native Americans as “Christ-like.” It’s this sentence that interests me though: “He [Cabeza de Vaca] no longer sees the Indians as ‘savages’ to be dominated, but rather as human beings worthy of God's love and the message of salvation.” We are reminded that after all of his experiences, Cabeza remained a missionary at heart and he thought that the highest good for the Native Americans was to hear God’s “message of salvation.” As we said in class, the cosmopolitan urge is to think, “Let the Pagans be Pagans,” and I find myself personally gravitating towards this type of relativist viewpoint. I suppose that we just have to accept that evangelizing was a part of Cabeza’s culture, and even though there were religious barriers on his embrace of the other, the empathy that he gained still gives us hope as something to strive for in all of our experiences with the unfamiliar.
It is apparent through his writing that Cabeza de Vaca makes a conscious effort to level with, understand, and communicate with the Indians he comes into contact with as he speaks to them through sign language and writes of symbolic exchanges of friendship through the trading of arrows and beads. In one particular instance, Cabeza de Vaca and the rest of the men are washed up on the shore of a strange land—weak and starving from the misfortune of shipwreck and casualties. The Indians find them like so, sit down and weep with them. In the words of Cabeza de Vaca, “They felt such great pain and pity at seeing us in such a state that they all began to cry so loudly and sincerely that they could be heard from afar.” This feeling of empathy and humanization pervades de Vaca’s writing in reference to the Indians. He details how members of one tribe cry upon seeing one another after much time has passed, describes another tribe as caring more for their children than any other group of human beings he has ever seen, and details their overall generosity in giving what they can to him and his men when they are in need.
Through the progression in Cabeza de Vaca’s account, we witness a transformation in his concept of “the other” as he develops a sense of compassion for and understanding of the Indians he encounters—describing them in less derogatory terms and more like equals, acknowledging when Christians are to blame instead of Indians. Cabeza de Vaca’s personal development gives a unique narrative quality to the text, which (in my opinion) makes for a more interesting historical script, while provoking the discussion of human nature.
The narrative explains the uncertainty of the explorers’ initial situation in the new lands. “I responded that it seemed to me that by no means should he leave the ships without first assuring that they remained in a secure and inhabited port, and that he should take notice that the pilots were not convinced, nor were they all affirming the same thing, nor did they know where they were, and that beyond all this, the horses were in such condition that we could not make use of them in any need that might present itself.” (p. 57) The explorer notes that they had little knowledge of the places they were setting foot in and they needed to be conscious of that.
After explaining how they should control their actions, he points out that one of the largest initial difficulties of their journey is the language barrier. “Above all we were traveling mute, that is, without interpreters, through an area where we could hardly make ourselves understood by the Indians or learn about the land what we desired to know, and that we were entering into a land about which we had no information, nor did we know what it was like, nor what was stored in it, nor by what people was it populated, nor in which part of it we were located…” (p. 57) It is apparent that Cabeza de Vaca and the conquistadors essentially began their walk through the New World as blind men, lost and confused by what lay in front of them.
The communication barrier, along with the catastrophic events, made it nearly impossible to achieve some goals. Rolena Adorno’s artice, "The Negotiation of Fear in Cabeza de Vaca's Naufragios," points out that, “Cabeza de Vaca rejected all wishful thinking about the natives' conversion. With regard to his own experiences, he had no illusions about religious conversion being possible, due to the great gap in communication caused by mutual ignorance of languages.” Towards the ending of the narrative, the great explorer reaffirms the impenetrability of the native people due to the language barrier: “Cabeza de Vaca himself seemed content with this description, and added that, if the mutual understanding of language had permitted, they would have left them all Christians.”
Cabeza de Vaca also make note of the diversity of the languages within the New World itself, making it even more difficult to communicate when the language changed as they moved around. The explorers used any knowledge that they had and somehow learned to connect with the natives. The narrative tells us: “We passed through a great many [peoples of] diverse tongues; with all of them Our Lord God favored us, for they always understood us, and we them. We asked and answered questions by signs as well as though they spoke our language and we theirs, because, although we knew six languages, we were not able to use them everywhere, there being a thousand variations.” The journey became a learning experience for the conquistadors who were forced to learn and adapt some of the language to communicate and ultimately survive.
Beyond this general truth, however, Cabeza de Vaca encounters radically different treatment from the various groups of natives, at times being abused and beaten as a constant slave, while at others being showered with gifts and supplications. He himself notes that the csoastal tribes he has encountered are more hostile, generally speaking, than those of the mainland. While the editor attributes this to his search of an agricultural rather than a hunter-gatherer tribe to fall in with, I thought it might also have to do with coastal tribes having more prolonged contact with white settlers, since half a century after Columbus many inland tribes had still never seen a white man. In terms of his treatment or regard for the natives, Though Cabeza de Vaca shows little compunction in kidnapping or waging war against them or exploiting their beliefs with lies or tricks. Despite this, he reveals his respect for many tribes (especially those that treat him kindly) in admiring passages, and states directly his opposition to the violent methods of the conquistadors, opining that Christianity can be spread only through good treatment of the natives, and preventing fellow Christians he encounters from enslaving natives who helped him. In this way he proves himself a more open-minded explorer than Columbus, though this can be perhaps attributed to the vast amount of time he spent with the natives as an equal or inferior, as opposed to a conquering commander.
Few people in history have been through as much as those four men who survived the journey, to have been slaves and enslavers, healers and arms dealers, cannibals and messiahs. I think what makes this story so incredible is the raw perseverance of the men whose journey it chronicles. Just the thought that they managed to make it back to Spain, considering all they endured, is nothing short of miraculous.
Beyond the fascinating narrative of European survival, the work also provides an interesting look at the native inhabitants of the region. It is interesting to watch as Vaca adapts to native cultures in order to survive. It is also interesting to observe how some of Vaca’s thoughts stand in contrast to those of other conquistadors, at least in part, as he writes that peacefully “winning the Indians” for “Christ and king” is the only way to truly ‘conquer’ them. Even though Vaca does not always follow this idea, he is none the less far more advanced in this thinking than many of his contemporaries to say the least, and it is sad to think how harshly this idea was violated by the Spanish.
Another object of note in the text is Vaca’s incredible religiosity. It is apparent early in the text that Vaca’s devotion is real and at the center of his life. It is also, I believe, his drive for wanting to return to the new world after his nine years, to spread the faith and share his love of God with the native inhabitants. Even in the beginning of the text (or in my translation anyway) he never refers to Indians and Spaniards, but only Christians and non-Christians, demonstrating what differentiators Vaca views as truly important. For in the end, it seemed to me at least in part that Vaca had come to develop a certain love of the native people and their land, perhaps speaking as a testament to how when submerged amongst a people, even when hailing from an entirely different world, one can come to see what unites us all.
Knowing Cabeza de Vaca's background - a descendant of Pedro de Vera, one of the major figures in the conquest of the Canary Islands, and of a royal family that aided in spanish victory against the Moors - we expect his journey to be one of conquest and brute force.
Based on the other travel classics we've read and our knowledge of typical conquerer vs conquered relationships, Cabeza de Vaca's journey surprises us greatly.
So the question is, where does Cabeza de Vaca's unusual sympathy for the indigenous people come from? Does he believe that his Spanish Dominion will be better achieved through pacifism? Is it is his deep connection to Christianity? Or does his peaceful sensibility stem from fear?
Mary Doctor, in Enriched by otherness: the transformational journey of Cabeza de Vaca, talks abut the way that Cabeza de Vaca's struggle with the environment makes him vulnerable. Doctor quotes Pastor saying, "The enemy is no longer the native but the environment itself, which is always perceived as hostile and threatening, and exploration and adventurous initiative give way to wandering. In the discourse of failure, then, the heroic notion of conquest disappears and is replaced by a struggle for mere survival" (Pastor 121-28).
This vulnerability, coupled with a seeming lack of interest in the indigenous people makes his gentleness towards the indians seem less good intentioned. It seems, in the beginning of the story, that his pacifistic attitude stems from feeling vulnerable in a new environment and not from a genuine interest in understanding the customs of a new place. At the start it seems, perhaps, that his exploration is motivated by general conquerer motivations - gold, power etc.
We see a definite change in Cabeza, but only after much struggle. It is only when things become dire and he feels the need to flee the land, that "the heroic image of conqueror is replaced by that of struggling survivor" (Doctor).
His tale is called by many critics a "narrative discourse of failure." This notion that he did set out to conquer but was transformed into a peaceful and sympathetic friend to the indigenous people makes us very unclear his original motives.
The Medicine Man (who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two...)
On the island of Malhaldo, Cabeza de Vaca’s descriptions of the customs of those who lived there revealed a unique social position held by physicians. For example, de Vaca explained how the men of this island each had one wife except for physicians, who “are the most unconstrained; they can have two or three wives” (92). Cabeza de Vaca’s descriptions of the island peoples’ burial traditions likewise revealed differential treatment of physicians: it is the peoples’ custom “to bury their dead, except those among them who are physicians, whose remains they burn” (91). The burning of the physicians’ bodies was an honorary and celebratory event, and one year later the people continued to pay homage to the physicians by drinking their pulverized bones in water. The unique burial treatment of the Malhaldo physicians and their other social distinctions (such as the number of wives they were permitted) reveal physicians were special and revered members of the community.
In Cabeza de Vaca’s travels, a high regard for physicians seemed to be a significant recurrence. The veneration for healers was particularly evident after de Vaca and his men transformed themselves into physicians and began performing their own cures. As healers, de Vaca and his men were regarded as if they were god-like figures: “people came from many areas looking for us. And they said that we were truly children of the sun…they had so much confidence that they would be cured if we performed the cures, that they believed that as long as we were there, non of them would die” (119).
Moreover, as de Vaca and his men traveled onward, their roles as physicians proved vital to their survival. Because they had developed a reputation for their curing abilities, they were often welcomed and honored by those they encountered. For example, the Avares people (who had heard news of de Vaca’s great healing powers and this admired him greatly) provided de Vaca and his men with prickly pears and hospitality in the coldest months of winter. In this sense, the healing abilities of de Vaca and his men may have been even more beneficial to their own survival than to those they were ‘curing’.
This omnipresence in religion was evident even in the travels of Vaca. The travels, however, brought on a different aspect of religion.
Rather than being the purpose of travel, religion, in the case of Vaca, was an aid to help protect and motivate the traveler. Take for example when Vaca was captured by the Indians:
“When I was afflicted in this way, my only comfort and consolation was to think about the suffering of our redeemer Jesus Christ and the blood he shed for me, and to consider how much greater was the torment he suffered from the thorns than what I was suffering at that time.”
Religion in this instance protects Vaca mentally to accept the hardships he was put through while providing him “comfort and consolation”. Throughout the recounting of his travels, Vaca continually thanks God for the mercy and the kindness of the protection, and food he brings to Vaca.
Later on in the journey, religion becomes somewhat a means of survival and a way of life. When Castillo somehow relieved an Indian of his pain, the Indians believed that they had some sort of supernatural healing powers. When word has gotten out of Vaca and his men’s “healing powers” the Indians would send all their sick and dying to the white men for their healing powers, offering gifts of bows and arrows to repay healing act performed by Vaca and his men. Vaca continually attributes these healings as acts of God and thanks God for both healing the sick persons while protecting them by giving them such responsibilities. Vaca introduced the Christian religion to the Indians while becoming a person of veneration.
Religion is essential to all travels whether it be for the purposes of education, power or responsibility. Even in a loosely populated land, Vaca was able to bring Christianity to North America, where it protected him during his time of captivity and allowed him to survive (though some sort of divine help by God).
The beginning of Cabeza de Vaca’s journey started similarly to most European’s quests to North America. When Cabeza de Vaca reached Florida in 1528, he quickly claimed the new land for Spain. Next, he sought to find the gold that was rumored to be abundant in America. As his crew travelled, they soon became lost and in increasingly in bad health. Soon the journey became a survival story.
Cabeza de Vaca and his men tried to construct several boats to travel to Mexico. However, after colliding with a hurricane, the situation for Cabeza de Vaca and his men became dire. Their ships wrecked at what they called “Malhado Island” or Island of Doom. A journey that started with six hundred men, had now dwindled down to approximately fifteen survivors, who had lost everything including their clothes. While marooned on Malhado, Cabeza de Vaca described the rituals of the Native Americans of the region. One of the more fascinating descriptions of the culture was the role of the physician. Cabeza de Vaca described how the Native Americans tried to convince him that he was a physician. In this tribe’s culture, the physician would perform cures by making “incisions where the sick person has pain, and then sucks all around them. They perform cauterizations with fire… and after this, they blow upon the area that hurts.” This method of medicine was strange but Cabeza de Vaca claimed that some of it could be effective. Additionally, when Cabeza de Vaca restored an individual to health, he was rewarded with food and skins. However, when Cabeza de Vaca became sick, he still had to work and suffered “bad treatment” and, therefore, decided to flee.
After escaping from Malhado, Cabeza de Vaca became a merchant. He travelled throughout the tribes and was able to obtain goods that were needed by other Native Americans. Cabeza de Vaca’s trade consisted of snail shells, conch shells, beads and more that he traded for hides and red ochor. Cabeza de Vaca enjoyed this freedom and adapted to his new environment where he was renowned amongst the tribes and respected. Eventually, he reached New Spain and then returned home to spread his story of a new culture.