Volume IV, Number 2, Fall 2008


"The Conquistador Who Wrote a Captivity Narrative: Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios as a Captivity Narrative" by Carmen Gomez-Galisteo

Carmen Gomez-Galisteo is a PhD student at the Institute of American Studies, University of Alcalá, Spain. Email:

In 1527, Spanish soldier Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was appointed treasurer to the ill-fated expedition of Pánfilo de Nárvaez to Florida. One of his duties was to write an official report (a relación) so as to inform Emperor Charles V of the goals, achievements, and circumstances of the journey. However, the failure of the expedition (they got lost and only Cabeza de Vaca and three other members of the original expedition returned to Spanish territory a decade later) prevented his account from being similar to other official reports. To me, his account, more than a relación de servicios (account of services) to the Spanish Crown, is rather a captivity narrative, a report of his experiences living among the Indians1 for six years and a half. This is why The Captivity Narrative of Mr. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca would not have been such an unlikely title for Cabeza de Vaca’s work. In this essay I will explain why I consider that Naufragios makes a better captivity narrative than a relación (i.e., an account) or any other type of text, what conventions of the captivity narrative genre Cabeza de Vaca uses in his own account, whether he interprets his disgraces in America as a punishment for his sins following the conventions of the jeremiad present in captivity narratives, and the lessons for his community that can be extrapolated from the text.

When he embarked in the expedition to Florida, Cabeza de Vaca was a newcomer to the Indies, with no previous experience. A man who had previously taken part in several European campaigns but had never set a foot in America, he had to relay on hearsay when it came to the new American reality. In the fashion of his paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera, conquistador of the Canary Islands, Cabeza de Vaca wanted to be a conquistador, a man like Cortés, taking part in the conquest of a whole empire, maybe even greater than Cortés’, if rumors in that direction were to be believed. Therefore, it was not unwillingness on his part that prevented his being a conquistador, but the circumstances (Maura, 55).

After a number of disgraces, the members of the expedition got lost somewhere they could not identify. Having lost contact with their ships and with no possibility of surviving or escaping by their own means, they were forced to become slaves to the Indians in order to survive.2 According to Slotkin, in a captivity narrative “a single individual, usually a woman, stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God” (quoted in Campbell). Cabeza de Vaca does pretty much the same – he cannot be a conquistador and has to wait for someone to come to rescue him and his companions. They are no doers anymore, but passive figures. As such, they must relay on Indians’ hospitality despite their fears of Indian cannibal rituals and entrust themselves to God’s will.

Therefore, the account Cabeza de Vaca was supposed to write could little (if at all) resemble Cortés’s cartas de relación describing a wonderful empire, full of riches, which gained for Cortés titles, honors and wealth as well as a historical reputation unsurpassed by any other Spanish conquistador. So, if Cabeza de Vaca’s text could not be a relación, as he was expected to submit to Emperor Charles V, what is it? The problems with the identification of Cabeza de Vaca’s account are plenty. To start with, as I have already mentioned, Cabeza de Vaca’s account is not a relación in the usual sense of the word. It is no report of the noble and successful enterprise of a colonization venture in America. The expedition was a failure and a genre specifically created and designed to ennoble the historical figure of those engaged in it, was most inadequate.

This is why, in my opinion, the other name this work is referred to, Naufragios (Spanish for shipwrecks) is a much more appropriate title for Cabeza de Vaca’s text than The Account or its equivalent in Spanish, La Relación. An account as his contemporaries expected, it was not, and it is misleading that its title moves us to think so. On the contrary, one wanting to read something similar to Cortés’ cartas de relación, will be disappointed with Cabeza de Vaca’s text – that if the reader is not “contented” with the adventures of the account. In a similar way, the other genres that were available to Cabeza de Vaca do not entirely fit what Naufragios is. It is neither a diary nor a journal, and it is not even a novel, though it may contain elements of all the above that have led some critics to identify it as a picaresque novel. It is my opinion that the genre that best applies to Naufragios is the captivity narrative. Accordingly, I’ll analyze Naufragios as one.

Throughout the years, some authors have noted that Naufragios contains some elements that make it a captivity narrative. For instance, Bruce-Novoa considers that “Cabeza de Vaca’s tale is hagiography, captivity narrative, and immigrant tale.” That is, for him, among other things, Naufragios is a captivity narrative. Others, like Hickerson, consider that it should not be regarded as a captivity narrative at all due to the “different locales and situations” (210) which Cabeza de Vaca and his companions experienced in America,3 given that they were not regarded as slaves throughout all their stay there. Still others, while acknowledging that not all the captivity narratives written in North America were written by Puritan authors, fail to recognize Naufragios as one. For instance, in their exhaustive study of captivity narratives,4 Derounian-Stodola and Levernier mention some Spanish captivity narratives but they leave out Cabeza de Vaca’s, be it for ignorance of this particular text or perhaps because it does not fit the goals that they attribute to Spanish captivity narratives –

Spanish narratives thus portrayed Indians as brutish beasts so that the native populations of the New World could, without serious objections from Europe, be more easily exploited, along with whatever wealth they possessed (17).

With his defense of the American Indians and his ideas of a society where Christians and Indians can peacefully live together, Cabeza de Vaca’s text may be too unusual a captivity narrative to fit Derounian-Stodola and Levernier’s definition of a Spanish captivity narrative.

About Hickerson’s allegation of Cabeza de Vaca not being a captive during all his time with the Indians, this was due to Cabeza de Vaca’s resourcefulness. His ability to trade or, later on, to “heal,” enabled him to become something other than a slave. This change of status evidences that Cabeza de Vaca had gotten a greater knowledge of the environment in which he lived, of the Indian society and manners in order to survive, not that he was not a captive anymore because of the “goodness” of the Indians. If he managed to obtain a position other than slave, it was due to his own capacity. Nobody would dare saying Mary Rowlandson was not a captive only because she learnt to trade with the Indians.5 Also, I would even dare to say that if Cabeza de Vaca comes to describe his relationship with the Indians as anything different from bondage, it is due to the tendency of men “to transform the tale of captivity into one of adoption, to substitute the male dream of joining the Indians for the female fantasy of being dragged off by them,” as explained by Leslie A. Fiedler in The Return of the Vanishing American (1968) (in Derounian-Stodola and Levernier, 39). Finally, in response to Derounian-Stodola and Levernier’s narrow concept of what a Spanish captivity narrative should be, I must say that, though the ideal society Cabeza de Vaca promoted was not part of the mainstream political agenda of Spanish colonization of America by then, Naufragios fits most definitions of what a captivity narrative is.6

To mention just one definition, “a captivity [narrative] is nothing more than the record of capture or attempted capture by the Indians” (Carleton, 169) and Naufragios is, keeping other considerations aside, just that – a record of Cabeza de Vaca’s capture by the Indians. Nevertheless, no serious or thorough attempt has been done so far as to identify the ways in which Naufragios qualifies as a captivity narrative, the elements of the captivity narrative genre it shares and the ways in which it is different from a Puritan captivity narrative. This essay addresses these issues.

Beginning with Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, “the first, and greatest, of the captivity narratives are simple, direct religious documents” (Pearce, 2), and this could well apply to Naufragios. Naufragios, at first glance, might seem less religion-inspired than other, more canonical captivity narratives but, to contradict this false first impression, let’s just point out that God is the most repeated word in the text (Maura, 210). In Cabeza de Vaca’s text, religious meaning might be not as evident as in other narratives but a close reading will show the importance of the religious message embodied in the narrative. Increase Mather in his Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684) wrote that

several of those that were taken Captive by the Indians are able to relate affecting Stories concerning the gracious Providence of God, in carrying them through many Dangers and Deaths, and at last setting their feet in a large place again (quoted in Pearce, 2).

Much like Mather promulgated, Cabeza de Vaca could see God’s providence to him in several instances during his captivity till they were finally able to return to civilization “DEO GRACIAS,” thanks to God, as he writes in Latin and in capital letters at the end of his narrative.

“Captivity, in the Old Testament, is viewed as a means of both instruction (or spiritual testing) and correction (or punishment)” (Downing, 256) and this is exactly what captivity represents for Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca regards his experiences in America as trials and, at the same time, is conscious that he and the other members of the expedition have sinned and that is the reason for their present calamities – “since God permitted, because of our sins, that of all the expeditions that ever went to those lands, no other encountered such great dangers or had such a miserable and disastrous outcome” (28). It would require a much lengthier paper than this one to dwell on the concept of and the expression of remorse in Catholicism in opposition to Protestantism so I will just point out that Cabeza de Vaca’s remorse is less insistent that in Puritan captivity narratives, but, still, he is remorseful. Though in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative, there is not such a continuous stress on their disgraces being a punishment for their sins, Cabeza de Vaca makes clear that they are responsible for their calamities because of their sins. His statement that their expedition was the biggest failure of all the Spanish explorations to Florida, most of which ever since Ponce de León’s were failures (Glantz, 407), is in itself recognition of the seriousness of their sins. Cabeza de Vaca thus presents himself as a firm believer in the Biblical quotation that inspired Puritan captivity narratives – “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Hebrews 12.6). However, the sins he refers to are just the sins of the members of the expedition. Different from a jeremiad, Cabeza de Vaca does never place the blame on Spanish society as a whole, but only on themselves.

It is worth noting that though Cabeza de Vaca presents themselves as sinners who are receiving a fair punishment, he never gets into details about what these sins (or their exact nature) might be. In contrast, Rowlandson is prolix even to the verge of boredom in telling us how her having misspent her Sabbaths, among other things, is the reason for her present sufferings and trials at the hands of the Indians. Cabeza de Vaca, however, does not elaborate on his sins. He tells us they have sinned; what these sins were, is left to the readers’ imagination.7 Cabeza de Vaca, in his taking the blame for their shipwreck on the grounds of their sins, was reflecting a common trend, not an original idea, though. It is fairly common in writings about America in the 16th and 17th centuries that shipwrecks (a common occurrence) are depicted, more often than not, as a direct consequence of the crew’s sinfulness. This point had most notably been asserted by two Spaniards – friar Juan Eusebio Nieremberg and, earlier on, historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (Cañizares-Esguerra, 144). Yet, although this was a familiar strategy to describe a shipwreck, there is no indication of what those sins were or why they were even more horrid than the sins of other crews, given that their punishment was more horrid and far lengthier as well. As I have already noted, those are not the sins of the Spanish nation as a whole, but specifically those of the members of the expedition. What sins could those be for deserving such a harsh treatment?

As I mentioned before, Cabeza de Vaca was a newcomer to America, whose first journey to the New World (and actually the only one he would ever make to North America) was this one. Later on, Dominican friar Bartolomé Las Casas and others would speak about the sins and abuses of the conquistadors against the Indians, but prior to his arrival to America, Cabeza de Vaca’s contact with the Indians, if any, would have been limited to Indians brought as slaves to rich children in Spain (as Las Casas himself once was). So, since Cabeza de Vaca had not been to America before, one would assume that the sins of the members of the expedition that made them undergo so many calamities could not be related, in any possible way, to any abuse to the Indians. However, it is my point that Cabeza de Vaca, when making reference to their sins, might have had Narváez’s previous sins in America in mind.

It is obvious from the very beginning of his narrative that Cabeza de Vaca only had the deepest scorn for his commander. Less obvious is his reference to Narváez’s former actions in America, which gets easily lost for the modern day reader unless he studies a bit about the historical context of the expedition. During his time in Cuba and New Spain as second-in-command, Narváez had earned himself (and well deserved it was) a reputation of being a cruel man towards the Indian. Cabeza de Vaca, a man who would have not missed the chance of attacking Narváez whenever possible, in my opinion, did take the opportunity and indirectly referred to Narváez. It is my point that, by referring to previous sins, he wanted to remind his readership of Narváez’s crimes in Cuba and New Spain (for which he was never tried or even reprimanded). Indirectly, thus, he puts the blame, once more, on Narváez’s wrongdoings. If most of his companions die and he undergoes such trials in North America, Narváez and his evil doings are the cause. Once more, Cabeza de Vaca proves the poor leader Narváez made – he was not only unable to prevent their getting lost in unknown land, but he was ultimately the biggest sinner in the expedition, and, accordingly, the sole responsible for their calamities in American soil.

Cabeza de Vaca’s text also differs from the conventions of the jeremiad in that he is to teach his readers a lesson about the Indians’ treacherousness but there is no lesson for Spaniards about their wrongdoings. This might be in order to distance himself from what the Spaniards had done in South America. On the one hand, Cabeza de Vaca had not been there. On the other hand, Narváez had been, and during his stay there he had distinguished himself for his cruelty with the Indians. Cabeza de Vaca, whose dislike for his commandeer is so patent throughout his narrative, surely wanted to 1) distance himself from him and 2) not accept the blame for Narváez’s sins, in which he had no part whatsoever.

In acknowledging God’s power upon them, Cabeza de Vaca, just like the Puritans, portrays himself as subject to God’s divine scheme that ultimately allows for his return and his telling. The goal of History for the Puritans was to record Providence at work (Murdock in Hanke, xlvii) and Cabeza de Vaca and his companions read in their calamities and the occasional strokes of good luck God’s Providence. If they are able to return to civilization, it is due to their unbreakable trust in God – “We nevertheless never lost confidence in the idea that God our Lord would provide the surest relief. Something else happened that made our situation even worse still” (46).8 In a similar fashion to the way in which the Puritans examined their day-to-day experiences so as to find signs of God’s favor, Cabeza de Vaca interprets his having been spared from the fate of most of his companions as God’s will. That way, Cabeza de Vaca’s text becomes a record of God’s providences to him and his companions. For Slotkin, “Indian captivity victimization by the wilderness was the hardest and most costly (and therefore the noblest) way of discovering the will of God in respect to one’s soul” (quoted in Derounian, 85). During captivity, religion becomes the only source of comfort for Cabeza de Vaca –

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 (82).

Faith in God never fails them and sustains them through their calamities – “and caused us to thank our Lord heartily for showing us his kindness ever more fully and giving us the sure hope that He was going to free us and bring us to a place where we could serve Him” (79) and they come to realize that God had favored them by showering them with miracles, fulfilling a prophecy made before they departed from Spain – “if anyone should get out, God would perform very great miracles for him” (120).

Everything that happens is the product of God’s will (“God willed” [26, 47]) and they have no other option, as the good Christians they are, than to entrust themselves to God. In their healing Indians, Cabeza de Vaca pictures their ability as God’s performance, not their own – “the wonderful works that our Lord did through us” (76), “the marvelous deeds that God our Lord worked through us” (79). Through their agency, God performs miracles and the credit must necessarily be paid to God, not to Cabeza de Vaca and his companions. This way, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions are not responsible for the Indians’ health or recovery, they are just people asking God for His mercy – “as best I could I beseeched our Lord to be pleased to grant him health and to grant health to all who needed it” (80). Moreover, their healing does not lie in their performing any action, but in their entrusting Indians to God’s care –

at sunset he [Castillo] made the sign of the cross on them and commended them to God our Lord, and we all asked God as best as we could, to restore their health, since He knew that that was the only way for those people to help us, so that we might escape from such a miserable life (79).9

Throughout all his narrative, Cabeza de Vaca is careful to present himself throughout his journey as a tool for God’s providences. He has come back to tell and warn others about the alien American reality and be a prophet for an ideal community between Indians and Christians. In that light, Cabeza de Vaca is just a subject to God’s designs and wills. Everything that took place in America is, according to what he says in the proem, “through no one’s fault, but only by the will and wisdom of God” (28).

One of the main goals of captivity narratives was the transmission of a moral lesson for the community. Similarly, Cabeza de Vaca finds a moral and didactic purpose in his book. This purpose is different from the one conveyed in Puritan captivity narratives because “while Puritan, Catholic, and Quaker alike read in their captivities the design of Providence, only the Puritans interpreted their trials as at once chastisements for insufficient faith and as God’s extraordinary means of converting the ‘lukewarm’ and confirming those he would elect” (Fitzpatrick, 7). Given that the Catholic idea of salvation is different, so is Cabeza de Vaca’s purpose. His purpose, by God’s grace, is to inform others – “we did this so as to note the many particular things of that land, so that we could give an informative account of it if God our Lord should be pleased to lead one of us out and into a Christian land” (94) – and promote the idea of a society in which Indians become Christians and are treated as brothers by the Spaniards.

Different from Puritan captivity narratives in that it is a captivity narrative interpreted in a Catholic sense, rather than relying on Old Testament patriarchs, Christ is the only biblical figure in the narrative. Parallelisms with Old Testament patriarchs are replaced by parallelisms to Jesus Christ. Cabeza de Vaca is undergoing martyrdom and, like a martyr (though not by dying) he teaches an important lesson to Indians and to Spaniards as well. In this discourse of martyrdom, Cabeza de Vaca “achieves moral status through physical trial” (Toulouse, 658) and becomes a prophet warning others about what happens in America. Not only that, he is a Christ-like figure (Maura, 134) resurrecting the dead and bringing news of a new age.

For all the reasons I have just mentioned, it is my opinion that Naufragios can be considered a captivity narrative.10 Naufragios certainly is a wonderful piece of writing that escapes most attempts of classification, but I think that it is best defined as a captivity narrative. All in all, Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative is not too different from Puritan captivity narratives, with the same concept of what captivity implies and the acknowledgment of his trials being a divine punishment for their sins and his being a subject to God’s providence. Naufragios is not just a Catholic captivity narrative – it is a Spanish, Catholic captivity narrative, which explains the differences with French captivity narratives and as such, shares most of the conventions of the captivity narrative genre but with the particularities of its author being a Catholic, Spanish soldier.

Notes

1 I refer to Native Americans as “Indians” in order to be as close as possible to Cabeza de Vaca’s terminology, given that he referred to them as “indios.”

2 Cabeza de Vaca explains it in the following way:

and some who had been in New Spain responded that we should not even think about it, because if they took us to their lodges they World sacrifice us to their idols. But seeing that we had no other recourse and that any other action would certainly bring us closer to death, I did not pay attention to what they were saying and I asked the Indians to take us to their lodges (Cabeza de Vaca, 57).

All subsequent quotations to Cabeza de Vaca’s account belong to this edition unless otherwise stated and will appear in parenthetical citation.

3 “The Relación has traditionally been regarded as a captivity narrative, with Cabeza de Vaca himself consigned to the status of ‘captive’ or ‘slave.’ In fact, the conditions under which the Spanish refugees lived and the treatment they received varied greatly in different locales and situations” (Hickerson, 210).

4 The Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550-1900. New York: Twayne, 1993.

5 The comparison between Mary Rowlandson and Cabeza de Vaca is not coincidental because a number of the roles Cabeza de Vaca fulfilled while among the Indians were female ones (Wade, 1999: 339).

6 Some definitions of captivity narrative are the following –

one in which the details of the captivity itself are found to figure forth a larger, essentially religious experience; the captivity has symbolic value; and the record is made minute, direct, and concrete in order to squeeze the last bit of meaning out of the experience (Pearce, 2),

“works ‘that presumably record with some degree of verisimilitude the experiences of non-Indians who were captured by American Indians’” (Vaughan quoted in Derounian-Stodola & Levernier, 9), “a single narrative whose primary focus is to record the experiences of individuals of European or African origin who had actually been captured by American Indians” (Derounian-Stodola & Levernier, 9).

7 Leaving things out in his narrative, for the reader to guess on his own, is a recurrent strategy Cabeza de Vaca uses throughout the whole work (Maura, 103).

8 Favata and Fernández’s translation somehow loses the sense of religious consolation Cabeza de Vaca finds. In Spanish, the sentence is the following – “Mas como el más cierto remedio sea Dios nuestro Señor, y de este nunca desconfiamos, sucedió otra cosa que agravaba más que todo esto” (But since the surest remedy is God our Lord, and we never distrusted Him, something else happened for the worse – translation mine) (Cabeza de Vaca, 2000: 25).

9 The reason of this downplaying his being an active agent by claiming just the role of God’s instrument for someone who has no pains in claiming for himself the ability of resurrecting the dead, is, to say the least, surprising. The underlying reason is that Cabeza de Vaca might have been afraid that too bold a statement of his curing abilities by means of sorcery could be attributed to witchcraft and he be accused of such a charge to the Inquisición, an institution that, by the mid-16th century, when Naufragios was published, was in its heyday.

10 If there are problems with identifying Cabeza de Vaca’s text as a captivity narrative thoroughly, so be it, but even Mary Rowlandson’s narrative is sometimes problematic as a prototypical captivity narrative. For instance,

Rowlandson’s use of Native American words, her growing differentiation of her captors from the ‘heathen’ stereotype, and other evidence of adaptation to her captors’ culture seems to undermine the portrayal of experience in terms of Babylonian captivity and providential affliction (Logan, 269).

Works Cited

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