Castaways: The Incredible Narrative of Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca

I never knew much about the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and the last person I expected to steer me in his direction is Pastor Steven Anderson. In a recent sermon, Anderson gave a diatribe on the Spanish conquistador era and recommended Castaways, Alvar’s journal describing, in remarkable detail, his time among the Native Americans from 1528-1536.

For those who don’t know Steven Anderson, he’s a King-James-only fundie who falls on either side of the right-left divide in ways that surprise. He’s a supreme Nazi when it comes to sodomites (they should be executed by the state), but a bleeding heart when it comes to immigrants, even illegal ones (they should all be welcomed with open arms). He’s sexist to the core but abhors racism. He’s a right-wing climate change denier, but a left-wing greenie when it comes to respecting the earth (he’ll rip you to pieces if he sees you littering or not bagging your crap while camping, and he walks to work and eats organic). He’s anti-vax but pro-mask (per Lev 13:45), and throughout the year of 2020 railed from the pulpit against Covidiots who refused to wear masks and distance socially. He condemns Islamic jihadism, but he hates Zionism even more. He thinks Democrats are wicked, but Republicans more so (especially the “fake Fox-News Christians” who fawn over Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck), and that Donald Trump is the “most degenerate man to ever sit the Oval Office”. He loves the Declaration of Independence like any true American, but believes that Thomas Jefferson is burning in hell. He thinks Christopher Columbus is burning in hell too. Both men “removed God’s word” (Rev 22:18-19) — in the Jefferson Bible (Jefferson) and the Book of Prophecies (Columbus), which in turn earns them being “removed from the book of life” and any chance of salvation.

Anderson has a heart for ethnic underdogs, and like Álvar Núñez lends his sympathies to the plight of Native Americans. He makes clear in his sermon that he has no use for myths like the noble savage and advanced native civilizations at the time the Spanish landed. The natives had civilizations to be proud of in the past, but — as Álvar Núñez found out first hand — many tribes had degenerated by the 1500s, living hand to mouth, with no clothes to keep warm, and relying on faith-healers who blew in your face to heal you (about as effective as the western practice of leeching). Álvar shared the miserable plight of these natives, but he came to admire and respect them, such that by the time he reconnected with the Spaniards eight years later he was revolted by the Spanish treatment of the Indians and by western superior attitudes.

Anderson’s sermon-review intrigued me, and so I got the book through interlibrary loan and read it in a couple days. The first quarter is a bit slow, but once Alvar reaches the Isle of Misfortune (chapter 11) it’s a page-turner to the finish line (chapter 38). I’ll review the parts of Alvar’s journal I found interesting and provide citations so that a lot of this comes through in his own words.

The Expedition

To summarize the expedition (see the map to the right): Álvar Núñez began as second in command of a group of 600 men who intended to establish colonies and garrisons in what is today Florida. They landed in Florida in April 1528, and it was a disaster from the start. Six months later they had been emasculated to a force of 242, over half the men killed by disease, nasty weather, and attacks from natives they were trying to conquer.

They fled the Apalachee Bay on September 22, crammed into five makeshift boats, and two of the boats reached Galveston Bay south of Houston on November 6. By now there were only 96 survivors (thanks to hurricanes, thirst, and starvation), and by February there would be only 15, and by the year 1532 there would be four — the final four who would eventually make it back to Spanish civilization (in 1536): Álvar Núñez, Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico (Dorantes’ African slave). Incredibly, these four men continued surviving in the wilderness of Texas, and then in Mexico, bonding with various Native tribes (sometimes as their slaves), learning their languages, sharing their atrocious living conditions and being forced to take on the role of faith-healers.

The “Isle of Misfortune” (November 1528 – February 1533)

Álvar’s longest stay was in the place he first arrived — the “Isle of Misfortune” in Galveston Bay — for nearly four and a half years. The isle was most likely what is today Follet’s Island, fifty miles south of Houston. The survivors called it the “Isla de Malhado” (“Island of Misfortune”), as most of them eventually died on it, whether from accidents, starvation, or exposure. They were all emaciated and naked, having lost their clothes and possessions when the boat capsized and was lost upon arrival. Álvar writes that “one could have counted our bones without difficulty, as we looked like the very image of death” (p 42).

The natives’ reaction to the sorry state of these white strangers is moving:

“At the hour of the sunset the Indians, believing that we had not left, came looking for us again. I gave them to understand by signs how a boat had sunk and our members had drowned. When the Indians saw the disaster that had come upon us, and the disaster we were in, with so much ill luck and misery, they sat down among us, and, with the great grief and pity they felt on seeing us in such a desperate plight, all of them began to weep loudly, and so sincerely that they could be heard a long way off, and this lasted for more than half an hour.” (p 42)

Thus did Álvar and his men begin to live on this place that had very little firewood, and houses built of reed mats on oyster shells. The natives had no more clothes than they did, except for some of their women, and there was no chief. According to Álvar’s description, this tribe of Indians valued children above all, made women do the hard work, and hung their elderly out to dry:

“The folk that we found here are tall and handsome; they have no other arms than bows and arrows, in the use of which they are extremely skillful. The men have one nipple pierced from side to side, and some of them have both, and they wear a reed two and one-half handbreadths long and two fingers thick stuck through the hole; they also have their lower lip pierced, and a piece of reed as slender as a half a finger stuck through it.

“The women are the ones who do the hard work. They live on this island from October to the end of February. Their staple food is the roots I have mentioned, gathered underwater in November and December. They have creeks and have no more fish at this time; from then on they eat roots. At the end of February they go elsewhere to seek food, for then the roots begin to sprout and are no longer good. Of all people on earth they are the ones who love their children most and give them the best treatment; and when it happens that someone loses a child, the parents and kinfolk and the whole tribe weep for him, and their lamentation lasts a whole year, for every morning before dawn the parents begin to weep first of all and after them the whole tribe, and they do the same at dawn and at midday; and after they have bewailed them for a year they do funeral honors to the dead child and wash and clean off the soot with which they have covered their bodies. They mourn for all their dead in this way, except for the old, of whom they take no heed, for they say that they have had their time and are of no use to anyone; rather, they occupy space and take food from the children’s mouths… ” (pp 46-47)

He also notes that every man had a wife, but the medicine men (faith-healers) were allowed two or three wives, and that “there is great friendship and harmony among the wives” (p 47). Álvar and his men soon became forced into the roles of medicine men — Christian witch-doctors, as it were — and successful ones apparently:

“On that island they tried to make us into medicine men, without examining us or asking for our credentials, for they cure illnesses by blowing on the sick person, and by blowing and using their hands they cast the illness out of them; and they ordered us to do the same and to be of some use. We laughed at it, saying it was a joke and that we did not know how to heal, and because of this they withheld our food until we did as they had told us.” (p 49)

By making the sign of the cross and saying a prayer like the Our Father and blowing on people, he ended up healing many people, and before long, the Natives were asking him to heal many more people and bless their food. Whether his cures came from a placebo effect, coincidence, psycho-somatic causes, or truly miraculous powers is anyone’s guess. It’s like studying the historical Jesus; to me it really doesn’t matter.

From Misfortune into Slavery: February 1533 – September 1534

After almost four and a half years, in early 1533, Álvar left the Galveston Bay area, heading southwest along the Texas coast. He got a shock in the Guadalupe area (red circled area on the right map), when he found three members of his expedition (whom he hadn’t seen since 1529) — Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico (Dorantes’ African slave). They were still alive, but enslaved by the Yguazes and Mareames tribes. Alvar joined them in slavery for a year and a half before they all managed to escape.

The Yguazes and Mareames tribes were closely related and had some unpleasant customs, particularly killing people after they dream of doing so, and automatically killing their daughters at birth:

“They kill even their own children as a result of dreams, and when daughters are born to them they let the dogs eat them and throw them away. The reason they do this, according to them, is that all the Indians in that land are their enemies and they carry on continual warfare with them; and if by any chance their enemies should marry their daughters, these enemies would increase so much that they would conquer them and take them as slaves; and for this reason they preferred to kill their daughters rather than let a possible enemy be born to them. And when these Indians want to marry, they buy wives from their enemies.” (p 60)

They also worked their women brutally hard — more so than the tribes in the Galveston Bay area — giving the women only six hours of rest between day and night. Álvar writes that the men of these tribes are mostly thieves, “for though they get on well among themselves, if one so much as turns his head, even his son or his father will rob him of whatever he can” (p 61). They are also “tremendous liars and drunkards” (ibid).

Álvar suffered no matter what tribe he was living with, but his time in this region was by far the worst stretch of his eight years. Everywhere the tribes starved, but the Yguazes and Mareames suffered so much from hunger that they ate spiders, ant eggs, dirt, wood, deer shit, “and other things I will not mention; and I firmly believe that if there were stones in that land they would eat them” (ibid). He and his three friends (Alonso, Andres, and Estevanico) were abused horribly and tried to escape three times; they were beaten and almost killed each time. Finally, after a year and a half, they managed to escape.

From Slaves to Shamans: September 1534 – May 1535

Fleeing southwest, they came to the Avavares tribe (see the green circled area on the map above), a complete 180 from those they had left. Where the Yguazes and Mareames made slaves of foreigners and abused the hell out of them, the Avavares treated (peaceful) foreigners as honored guests. Just as the natives on the Isle of Misfortune had done, the Avavares brought their sick to Álvar and his men to be healed. Alonso was the one to perform this first faith-healing, but eventually all four of them became witch-doctors:

“On the same night that we arrived, some Indians came to [Alonso] Castillo and told him that they had dreadful pains in their heads, imploring him to cure them; and after he had signed them with the cross and commended them to God, the Indians said that all the pains had left them at that very moment; and they went totheir homes and brought many prickly pears [cacti] and a piece of venison, which was something we could not identify; and as the matter became known among them, many other sick folk came that night to have him cure them, and each one brought a piece of venison, and there were so many of them that we did not know where to put the meat. We offered many thanks to God because His mercy and favors toward us increased daily. And after the cures had been accomplished, they began to dance and make their revels and festivals until dawn; and because of our arrival, the festival lasted three days.” (p 68)

Though they wanted to keep pressing west (to reconnect with Spanish civilization), they stayed with the Avavares for eight months since winter was setting in. Álvar and his men were treated well and honored, but they went through long periods “without a bite to eat, nor able to find anything that could be eaten”. They were still naked as ever, and Alvar writes that “as my feet were bare, the blood ran from them freely” (p 69). But he and his men continued to work healings and became loved by Avavares. When the four men departed the following spring,

“The [Avavares Indians] implored us to remember them, and to pray to God that they might always be well, and we promised them this, and so they departed the happiest men in the world, having given us the best that they had. We had stayed with those Avavares Indians for eight months and reckoned this period by the moon. During all this time the Indians came from many places to seek us and said that we were truly children of the sun. Up to this time Dorantes [Andres] and the black [Estevanico] had not done any healing; but because of the many entreaties we received, coming from many different places to look for us, all of us became medicine men, though I was paramount among us in daring and in attempting any sort of cure.” (p 73)

Fleeing West then South: Across and Down Mexico (May 1535 – March 1536)

From this point on, Álvar, Alonso, Andres, and Estevanico kept fast on the move, staying only a few days in one village before moving to the next. Their general misery continued as before:

“I have already mentioned how we were naked everywhere in this country, and as we were not used to it, we shed our skin like snakes twice a year, and with the sun and wind developed great sores on our chests and backs, which hurt us badly because of the large loads we carried, which were very heavy and caused the cords to cut into our arms. And the land is so rugged that and heavily forested that we often sought firewood in the woods, and when we had finished getting it, blood would run in many places from thorns and thickets we encountered, which broke the skin wherever they touched us. Sometimes it happened that I went for wood in places where, after gathering it had cost me much blood, I could neither carry nor drag it. When I was in these difficulties, my only solace was to think of the Passion of our Redeemer Jesus Christ, and the blood he shed for me…” (pp 75-76)

An interesting point: Whenever they left a village, a group of natives would accompany them to the next village, since escorting travelers was an imperative custom for them — and with a rude twist: upon arrival, the escorts would plunder the village they just came to as payment for their escort services. (If the receiving village had advance notice, the villagers would hide their belongings as best they could.) This was a tolerable custom, because the members of the receiving village would then have a chance to recoup their losses by serving as escorts to the next village; etc.

Their fame as healers grew significantly during the trek across Mexico, to the point of being burdensome:

“All that night the Indians spent in ceremonies and dances, and next morning they brought us all the folk of that village for us to touch and make the sign of the cross over them… All during this part of the journey we were very much hampered by the large number of people who were following us and could not escape from them though we tried, for their eagerness to come and touch us was very great.” (pp 88-89)

The natives usually paid them with the plunder they had just taken, though Álvar and his men usually returned the plunder (when they were able do so without insulting their hosts).

By late 1535 they had crossed westward into what is today Chihuahua and then westward more into Sonora. There (directly south of what is today the Tucson region of Arizona), they stayed for three days in the land of the Pima tribe. They told the Pimas they were searching for Christians (Spaniards), while assuring the natives that they intended to tell their fellow Christians “not to kill Indians, nor to make slaves of them, nor to take them from their lands, nor to do them any other harm at all” (p 107).

Indeed, Álvar was sickened by how terrorized the Pimas and other tribes were due to Spaniard warfare and pillaging. The natives in this region, he writes, were

“… so unhappy that it seemed they wished to die. They brought us blankets that they had hidden for fear of the Christians and gave them to us, and even told us how on many occasions the Christians had entered the land and destroyed and burned the villages and carried off half the men and all the women and children, and that those who had managed to escape from their hands were wandering and in flight. We saw that they were so frightened, not daring to stay in any one place, and that they neither wanted nor were able to sow crops or cultivate the land but rather were determined to let themselves die. And they showed great pleasure in us, though we feared that once we reached the Indians who had a frontier with the Christians, and were making war on them, these others would treat us ill and make us pay for what the Christians had done to them.” (pp 107-108)

So not surprisingly, when Álvar, Alonso, Andres, and Estevanico reconnected with Spaniards, it wasn’t the most joyous reunion. They had lived with the natives for so long that Indians had become people of integrity to them, and not just a race to be subjugated and plundered. Álvar writes:

“… we had many and great altercations with the Christians, because they wanted to make slaves of the Indians we had brought; we were so angry that when we departed we left behind many Turkish-style bows that we had brought and many pouches and arrows; we had great trouble persuading the Indians to return home and to feel safe there and to plant their maize. They wanted nothing but to go with us until they had left us with other Indians, as their custom was, for if they returned without doing this they feared they would die, and because they were with us they feared neither the Christians nor their lances. The Christians were angry at this, and had their interpreter tell them that we were men of their race and that we had been lost for a long time, that we were unlucky and cowardly people, and that they were masters of that land whom the Indians must obey and serve. But the Indians paid little or no heed to what they were told. Rather, they said that the Christians were lying, for we cured the sick and they killed the healthy; and that we had come naked and barefoot and they well dressed and on horses and with lances; and that we did not covet anything, rather we returned everything that they gave us while the Christians stole everything they found and never gave anything to anyone. And so they told all our deeds and praised them, in contrast to the Christians.” (pp 112-114)

After this incident (it happened in March 1536), Álvar and his men managed to send the Indians off in peace, and they traveled with the Spaniards, finally reaching their own civilization in southern Mexico. Álvar’s journal would be published six years later in 1542.

Man of His Times

It should be stressed that there’s no mistaking Álvar for a modern (much less postmodern) multiculturalist. If he came to like and respect the natives more than his own people, he didn’t extend that respect to the sphere of religion. He writes passages like this throughout his journal:

“We told them [the Indians] that there was a man in Heaven whom we called God, who had created heaven and earth, and that we adored him and had him as our Lord, and that we did what he commanded us to do, and that from his hand came all good things; and that if they would do this they would be much the better for it. And we found in them such a disposition to believe… And when all the Indians departed, we commanded them to build churches and place crosses in them, and we had the children of the important chiefs brought to us and had them baptized. And then our captain rendered homage to God, promising not to make or allow any raids nor to take slaves in that land among those people whom we had reassured, and said that he would keep and enact this until His Majesty and the Governor should establish what was most to the service of God… May God our Lord in his infinite mercy resolve that in Your Majesty’s lifetime and under your power and dominion, these people may come to be truly and willingly subject to the true Lord who created and redeemed them.” (pp 105, 119-120)

In this sense, I suppose, Álvar was similar to the modern Pastor Steven Anderson. Of first importance is the salvation of souls, and following the one true faith. After that you can make room for all the justice and equity you need.

Takeaway

Castaways is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and certainly the best one of the conquistador era. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca lived among the coastal natives of Texas for six and a half years (Nov 1528 – May 1535) and then among the natives of Mexico for about a year (May 1535 – March 1536), and he survived all this to tell us the gritty details. No other Spaniard was able to do something like that. For a man of his times he was admirable: a proud evangelical who came to accept the natives mostly on their own terms. His book is a cultural goldmine for tribes that are otherwise unheard of.

I can understand why this book would appeal to someone like Steven Anderson — an evangelical who takes door-to-door soul-winning as a divine mandate, and believes that without Christ it’s impossible to avoid burning in hell for eternity. But he also believes that accepting Christianity should be a free choice. Anderson hates imperial subjugation and forced conversions; he condemns U.S. military intervention abroad; he believes that all immigrants should we welcomed in America, regardless of ethnicity or creed. He believes in suffering for the cause of Christ, and Álvar Núñez is a supreme model of that. For myself, I admire Álvar for his integrity and compassion, not to mention his determination to survive. I would have given up the ghost quite early, without any grace for my hosts.

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