Cabeza de Vaca: Tragedy and the Other in the Contact Era

Cabeza de Vaca was a sixteenth century Spanish Conquistador that explored the New World during the Narvaez expedition that set sail in 1527. His narrative details this failed expedition and the decade in which he experienced shipwreck, survival in the new world, captivity, and cultural contact with the Native Americans. Cabeza de Vaca published his narrative in 1542, just three years prior to when he was tried by the Royal Council of the Indies on charges of misconduct in office, mistreating the Indians, and raising his own heraldic standard when he should have raised the king’s. His return to Spain in chains is absolutely crucial when examining the narrative of his experience in the New World. Charles V and his advisers were the original audience of Cabeza de Vaca’s  Relacion. Thus, Cabeza de Vaca’s exploration narrative and his account of the events that transpired in the New World should be read with the background knowledge that the Relacion was in reality, his personal attempt to exonerate himself in the King’s eyes. In Reading Autobiography, Smith and Watson’s chapter on Autobiographical subjects explains in great detail the varying implications of intended audiences. It becomes clear how much Cabeza de Vaca’s intended audience played a factor in his narration as he repeatedly informs the King that he served to the best of his ability. This becomes evident in the Relacion through the language that Cabeza de Vaca employs to express his admirable servitude; “The next day the governor raised the standard on Your Majesty’s behalf and took possession of the land in Your royal name and presented his orders and was obeyed as governor just as Your Majesty commanded” (54). Even though he was talking about his superior, similiar language is used throughout the narrative that glorifies “Your Majesty,” King Charles V.

Smith and Watson’s concept about the connection between “Authorship and the Historical Moment” in Reading Autobiography also bares significance while reading and understanding the intricacies involved in autobiographical texts like Cabeza de Vaca’s exploration/captivity narrative. Smith and Watson explore this concept by asking “what kinds of historical knowledge can be brought to bear when reading a life narrative…what did it mean to be an author at the historical moment in which the narrative was written…were there religious, juridical, political, and/or other cultural institutions invested in particular kinds of life narratives at this historical moment?” (237). Understanding the historical backdrop of the epoch allows for a better understanding of self-life writing and “autobiographical acts.” To be an author in mid-sixteenth century meant that you were more educated than most. The majority of Europeans at the time were illiterate, and many people who could read were limited in the breadth of what they could read and understand, and to write a intelligent literary text certainly separated you from an overwhelming majority of those who could not write as “true” authors. Understanding the historical, social, and geo-political landscape of a historical moment can, and does, completely change the way you understand and analyze a life narrative. The historical moment of the “Contact” era was defined by a clash between Old World Europeans and New World Native Americans. The contact between these two extremely different groups of people often resulted in violence due to cultural misunderstanding, communication breakdowns, religious and ideological differences, and an overall failure to reach some sort of middle ground when these two divergent peoples met. Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion is written from an ethnocentric approach which uses language that portrays the Spanish Conquistadors as superior. They are the heralds of culture, reason, God, and civilization, that is according to them; whereas the Amerindians are written about as barbaric and soulless savages, which should be objectified and exploited for the glory of the king. This identity of the “Other” is a interesting aspect of the historical moment of “Contact” between the Europeans and the indigenous people of the Americas. It is in this context that Smith and Watson’s section on “Relationality” can be extremely useful while reading exploration narratives like Cabeza de Vaca. Smith and Watson discuss the importance of relationships between the various factions of people within a text; the “us vs. them” mentality if you will. The complexities involved in “Relationality” between Europeans and Amerindians is further complicated in Cabeza de Vaca’s captivity narrative. This sections provides very unique insight into the historical moment of “Contact,” and the clash of different customs, beliefs, and mentalities of these two cultures; Even more intriguing is the relations and perceptions between the two.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.