A Linear Description Provided by de Vaca

The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is a collection of Cabeza de Vaca’s experiences with various Native American people after having landed in the New World.  de Vaca explored present day Galveston Island, Texas, and describes his encounters with the native people of the area in his text, explaining in his opening pages that his primary intent “is to bring to Your Majesty (Charles V) an account of all that [he] was able to observe and learn” while on his expedition.  He hoped to be brief and truthful in his explanations, providing a rather linear narrative to aid those individuals who may want to further seek conquest in the same lands.  Considering this immediate expression of intent presented in the text, I have chosen several excerpts from de Vaca’s book that I believe are instrumental in depicting his experiences with native people, their lands, and their customs.  First, I have chosen the dedication, in which he explicitly states what he wants Charles V to take away from the work, providing readers of the anthology with a clear understanding of why de Vaca documented his journey.  Following that, I have selected four chapters that speak directly to the specifics of the land and people that de Vaca encountered along the way, thus clearly conveying all that he “observe[d] and learn[ed],” and sharing those experiences with a larger audience.

Section 1 – Dedication/Introduction (page 45-47)

  • This introductory section outlines the overall purpose of Cabeza de Vaca’s expedition, as he explains that, “…I had no opportunity to perform greater service than this, which is to bring to Your Majesty an account of all that I was able to observe and learn in the nine years that I walked lost and naked through many and very strange lands, as much regarding the locations of the lands and provinces and the distances among them, as with respect to the foodstuffs and animals that are produced in them, and the diverse customs of many and very barbarous people with whom I conversed and lived, plus all the other particularities that I could come to know and understand, so that in some manner Your Majesty may be served” (46).  As the stated goal of his work, I feel like it is crucial to highlight sections of the text that work to accomplish its explanation, and that it would be helpful to provide readers with this short passage as a guide for the remainder of the excerpt.

Section 2 – Chapter 7: “Of the Character of the Land” (page 65-70)

  • This chapter provides an illustration of some of the land that de Vaca and his men traversed.  He explains that, “Throughout the entire land there are very large trees and open woods where there are walnut trees, and laurels and others that are called liquidambars, cedars, savins and evergreen oaks and pines and oaks, [and] palmettos of the type commonly found in Castile” (65).  He goes on to describe lagoons and fields of maize, as well as different animals that they encounter, including “deer of three types, rabbits and hares, bears and lions, and other wild beasts” (65).  Staying true to his dedication to Charles V, de Vaca clearly describes the landscape, both flora and fauna, of the lands he is traveling, which is why I chose to include this passage.  It would provide readers of the anthology an understanding of the types of creatures and conditions encountered by explorers such as de Vaca in the New World.

Sections 3-5 – Chapter 24: “Of the Customs of the Indians of that Land,” Chapter 25: “How the Indians are Quick with a Weapon,” and Chapter 26: “Of the Nations and Languages” (page 125-132)

  • Chapter 24 discusses the various customs of the Malhado Island people, including marriage rituals and child bearing practices, as well as the steps that families are to take should they enter into conflict with others.  de Vaca provides an account of his experiences with these people in hopes of informing his audiences of their beliefs and practices.
  • Chapter 25 continues the description of this group by citing their exceptional skill in weaponry along with customary behavior during times of conflict.  It also provides a description of their battle tactics, such as keeping vigil all night to ensure the safety of their tribe and remaining low to the ground during armed conflict.  Again, de Vaca explains the people and their customs as he observed them on his expedition.
  • Lastly, Chapter 26 lists the various nations and linguistic groups that make up the Malhado Island.  The stark differences in language between the groups is contrasted by their shared rituals of ceremonial smoking and drinking, concluding with a sense of togetherness between the people despite their distinctions.
  • I would include these three chapters because they build upon de Vaca’s intent to document and share the details of his journey, specifically regarding the people and their ways of living in this instance.  Here, he highlights several different aspects of life with each individual chapter, maintaining the descriptive and informative nature of his narrative. I would likely lump these three chapters together in a single excerpt, as they continue the previous sentiment (seen in the Dedication/Introduction and Chapter 7) while also being very closely related as they describe specific groups of people.
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