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.
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."