Texts and Miracles in the New and Old Worlds:
Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
Robert T. C. Goodwin
Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was considerably more successful as a travel writer than as a conquistador. The story of how he
and three companions survived eight years of hardship amongst Indian tribes as they travelled from Florida to Culiacán, on
the Pacific coast of modern Mexico, soon became well known from La relación que dió Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca…, first published at Zamora in 1542, but which has traditionally been referred to as the Naufragios, usually translated as ‘shipwrecks’ or ‘disasters.’
The Naufragios describes a disastrous expedition led by the veteran conquistador Pánfilo Narváez, beginning with the departure from Spain
in 1527 and ending with Cabeza de Vaca’s arrival at Lisbon in 1537. It explains early problems in the Caribbean involving
the desertion of men at Santo Domingo, the loss of two ships to a hurricane, and restocking with supplies, before describing
the eventual arrival on the Florida coast during Holy Week of 1528. Narváez then split the expedition into two groups: he
marched inland with 300 men in search of gold, arranging to meet the remaining 100 men with the ships further along the coast
towards Mexico. The two groups had no further contact and the text, along with most of the critical attention since, then
deals almost exclusively with the overland group. Over a period of five or six years the Europeans (and Africans) died of
disease, drowned, were killed by Indians, killed each other, and even ate each other in desperation. Four men, Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and a north African slave called Esteban, managed to escape from captivity amongst different Indian tribes along the coast. Thanks to the leadership of Cabeza de
Vaca, they then headed inland and, travelling west from tribe to tribe, they gained a reputation as quasi-deified doctors
or shamans who performed miracles with the help of God. This status led the Indians to guide them to the Pacific coast where
they encountered a Spanish slaving party. Cabeza de Vaca then returned to Spain, while Dorantes tried to do so, but failed.
Castillo remained in Mexico, while Esteban was killed on a later expedition.
There are six key passages in the Naufragios that are strangely fictional or novelistic in character. Three describe specific miracles in some detail, involving a spontaneously
combusting bush, raising a man from the dead, and surgically removing an arrowhead buried near a man’s heart. Two describe
mysterious characters: a strange Indian myth about a demonic creature called Mala Cosa; and a peculiarly prescient Moorish
woman who foretold the outcome of the expedition before it left Spain. There is also an episode in which, in order to persuade
his Indian companions to continue their journey, Cabeza de Vaca feigned anger, which resulted in, or coincided with, an epidemic
amongst those Indians.
These novelistic passages and supernatural elements in the text have led to continual debate over the extent to which it may
be treated as a true account and a considerable body of criticism that approaches the text as literature. Such approaches
reflect changing notions of historical truth and its relevance to the historical record. This chapter examines the difficulties
faced by sixteenth-century authors when describing the novelty of the New World to an Old-World readership, a relationship
often mediated by balancing veracity with verisimilitude and descriptions of real experience with the Renaissance epistemological
authority accorded the eye-witness. To this end, it uses the notion of texts that travel to address the multiple accounts
of Narváez’s expedition and the relationships between them, for, although critical attention has focused on the Naufragios and its titular author Cabeza de Vaca, he was only one of many of its authors and it is only one of many texts produced at
the time that tell the story in one way or another. All those texts might be described as having “travelled” in a number of
ways, but I want to begin with the idea of texts that travel in a most literal sense, travel that I have mapped graphically
in fig. 1.
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These ‘travelling’ texts form three groups: first, four extant primary sources describing the miraculous survival of the four
men; second, four extant sources related to the expedition that make no mention of the miracles; third, these and other extant
sources provide evidence of at least two further documents that contained reports made by the survivors themselves, but that
are now lost.
The earliest extant account of this miraculous survival story is a letter written by the governor of Venzuela, Philip von
Hutten, to his family on 20 October 1538. Like all letters and documents that are posted, mailed, or delivered by hand, Hutten’s
account was a text that travelled in the most literal sense that it was written in the New World and was then carried across
the ocean to be read in the Old World.
‘Es ist ein wunderlich Ding,’ he wrote, relating that through blessings and prayers the Narváez expeditionaries had cured
the native population of all manner of disease. He refers to them as ‘apostles’ who went about as naked as the Indians, states
that they raised men from dead and cured the deaf, the blind, and the paralytic. Up to 10,000 Indians at a time would follow
and worship them, calling them children of the sun and the moon. His report seems so exaggerated and implausible that it is
difficult to believe that he was really so credulous. However, taken at face value it appears to be a wondrous and on one
occasion improbably first-hand account of the marvellous and even miraculous nature of the New World: Hutten even goes so
far as to claim that he himself had witnessed the healing of incurable injuries, citing an arrowhead that spontaneously emerged
from a wound after three days without showing any sign of puss (Schmitt & Hutten, 121-122; Gil).
The second extant account was compiled some time after 1539 by the royal historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés. He included it in the manuscript of his Historia general y natural de las Indias, first published in 1535, but which he was then in the process of expanding. He crossed the Atlantic carrying his manuscript
to Spain, where he met Cabeza de Vaca in 1547. A very significant feature of Oviedo’s account is that following this meeting
and having had access to the Naufragios, he added a seventh chapter to the six which he had originally written in the New World.
The third extant text, the Naufragios, must be dated to its publication at Zamora in 1542, because that is the earliest form in which it is known. However, it
clearly derived from earlier texts written in both the New and Old Worlds. The title page of the 1542 edition dates Cabeza
de Vaca’s relación to 1536, when he was in the Indies, yet the end of the penultimate chapter refers to his arrival at Lisbon on 9 August 1537.
The final chapter records of those expeditionaries who stayed with the boats and did not accompany Narváez inland that ‘[we]
hallamos mucha gente de ellos en la
Nueva España, y otros acá en Castilla,’ indicating the chapter was written in Castile, while the use of the first person plural
implies that Cabeza de Vaca had company when he encountered these people.
The fourth extant text is here cited for the first time. Recent research at the Archivo General de Indias in Seville has identified
the información de méritos y servicios produced by Andrés Dorantes’s son Baltasar Dorantes de Carranza in 1573 and 1574, in which great emphasis is placed upon
the service and deeds of his father.1 Baltasar cited both this document and the Naufragios as his sources for the Sumaria relación de las cosas de la Nueva España, published in 1604, where he describes his father’s service as a conquistador. Such informaciones took the more or less standard form of an initial statement outlining an individual’s military and administrative service
to the crown, in this case the service of Andrés Dorantes in Florida and Mexico. Then, the purpose of the información was explained: as here, this was usually a petition for money, a pension, or some kind of office to alleviate poverty. Baltasar
Dorantes sought such office on the strength of his father’s service and his motive was that he and his extended family were
poor and unable to support themselves because of a legal dispute surrounding his inheritance. This was followed by a list
of questions or statements, called the interrogatorio, that organised the information about service and general merit into a form that could then be put to witnesses called to
testify on behalf of the individual submitting the información. In this case eleven witnesses testified in Mexico on 6 and
17 November and 7 December 1573 and the document was completed in January 1574; these responses were collectively known as
This información is another document giving account of the story and which crossed the Atlantic. Moreover, four witnesses who testified on
behalf of Baltasar Dorantes in 1573 refer to a printed “coronica” describing the expedition, indicating that the Naufragios crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction, from Spain to the Indies, travelling on Cabeza de Vaca’s return ticket, as
The purpose of the recent archival research in Seville referred to above was to expand our knowledge of what happened to the
men and women who stayed with the boats. They are only mentioned as an apparent afterthought in the final chapter of the Naufragios and have usually been left out of the historical record by critics who refer to the famous four as the only survivors of
either the 600 men who set out from Spain, or, as with Hutten, the 400 who went to Florida. It is now possible to identify
further survivors of the expedition not previously named and the most important documents brought to light in this context
are informaciones made by Juan Durán, at Compostella in New Galicia, in 1538 (Patronato 55, N5 R4 1533-1539), Antonio de Aguayo at Guadalajara in New Galicia, in 1562 (Patronato 65, N1 R4); and Francisco Díaz, at Popayán in New Granada (Colombia), in 1566 (Patronato, 157 N2 R4).2
We learn little about Díaz’s experience in Florida, simply that he and others survived, later joining the conquest of New
Granada from 1537. However, Durán, Aguayo, and three men who testified for them went to Florida with Narváez and later became
involved in Nuño de Guzmán’s conquest of New Galicia from 1529. The first contact that Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo,
and Esteban had with Europeans when they emerged from eight years in the wilderness, in 1536, was with Guzmán’s men in New
Granada. Aguayo, Durán, and others had good reason to be interested in the four survivors’ knowledge of the territory to the
north and east and their evident influence over the Indians, but these informaciones make no mention of the miraculous end to Narváez’s expedition.
More surprising is Alonso del Castillo’s información, drawn up in Mexico in 1547. While the interrogatorio contains a lengthy outline of the extreme hardships and constant fear suffered by Castillo when held captive by the Florida
Indians, it makes scant reference to miracles, simply stating that the survivors escaped “casi milagrosamente” (Patronato
57 N 4 R 1 3r). The witnesses are similarly silent about miraculous shamanism.
We can be certain that two texts describing the survivors’ experience that are no longer extant definitely existed. First,
two letters sent to the crown in 1536 and 1537 by Antonio de Mendoza, the viceroy of Mexico, cite a report made jointly by
Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, and probably also Castillo, that Mendoza sent to Spain in 1536. This was read by royal officials
who responded in a real cédula sent to the casa de contratación in Seville in 1537 (CDI, 42: 530). Second, Oviedo stated that he drew closely on a document containing the testimony of the
three Spanish survivors that was sent from Havana to the Audiencia of Santo Domingo in 1539.
Although it is clear that these two documents had a separate physical existence, one was in the Old World from some time in
1536 or soon after, the other in the New World from some time in 1539 or earlier, they are usually confusingly referred as
though a single document and Oviedo is cited for evidence of what went into the ‘Joint Report’ sent by Mendoza in 1536. For
all that it is reasonable to believe that the content of these separate documents was similar, there is no reason to think
they were identical and this chapter will offer some evidence to suggest that it may have been significantly different.
A Portuguese, known as the Gentleman of Elvas, who wrote an account of Hernando de Soto’s expedition to Florida in 1538 mentioned
that when Cabeza de Vaca was at court in 1537 he had some kind of written relación with him (Elvas, 38). This may have simply been the report sent to the crown by Mendoza in 1536, but it seems likely that
it was a separate document derived from that report but then later developed by Cabeza de Vaca.
The testimonies of two witness called by Baltasar Dorantes in 1573, Gonzalo de las Casas and Sebastián Granado, show that
Andrés Dorantes eventually reached Spain where he received royal favour in the form of two encomiendas. It is therefore likely that Dorantes, like Cabeza de Vaca, should have taken some written account of his Florida service
with him to assist him in his petition that would have been related to the report sent to Santo Domingo in 1539. Indeed, Dorantes
may have posted that report at Havana, on his way to Spain.
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These travelling documents have a common ancestry in the real experiences of members of the expedition and the stories they
told, but they are also evidence of the multiple journeys made by the story itself in time, space, and conceptually: these
documents contain different texts, produced by individuals who told or retold the story for different reasons at different
times and in different places.
The parallel and interrelated development of the same story is familiar generally and in the early historiography of the New
World: by way of example we might turn to Columbus and Cuneo; Columbus and Vespucci; Cortés, Gómara, and Bernal Díaz del Castillo;
or, Bartolomé de las Casas and Sepúlveda. Each of these examples illustrates the way texts mark fixed points that can be used
to map the journeys or diffusion of stories that by nature are fluid between one telling and the next. However, the Naufragios and Oviedo’s accounts taken together are the only example, as far as I am aware, of two versions of the same story both derived
from the collective testimony of three eye-witnesses, that while essentially similar are also significantly distinct and that
were compared by one of the authors, Oviedo, soon after they were written.
The Hutten letter demonstrates that news of some specific miracles mentioned in the Naufragios were already widely current in the Indies by 1538, for all that we do not know the route, or more probably multiple routes,
by which the story travelled from Mexico in the spring of 1536 to Venezuela in the autumn of 1538. Moreover, it treats the
story as a phenomenon rather than a narrative, giving it a sense of stasis: it communicates news of the miracles but it obscures
both the sense of the survivors’ journey and the impression that such movement was given momentum by their role as miracle
workers. It thereby illustrates how the abbreviation necessary for the story to be diffused as anecdote results in distortion
However, Hutten’s most striking modification was to claim that such miracles were now widespread in the Caribbean and that
he had himself witnessed amazing acts of healing. He is likely to have been aware of a similar account of survival amongst
Indian tribes in 1532, but not likely to have witnessed such sorcery: when rescued, Francisco de San Martín, the treasurer
of an ill-fated expedition to the Venezuelan interior, claimed that Pomeo Indians forced him to become a shaman and that he
performed healing rituals for
them (Oviedo, 3:23a-28b). The miraculous emerged from the Beyond, the world of the Other, and into the colonial experience
in the form of words, transcending the fundamental boundary between the isolated experience of survivors in Indian territory
and Hutten’s own experience in the realms claimed for Charles V. However, Hutten was tempted into the rhetorical recourses
of both claiming eyewitness to events which, by all other accounts, he cannot have seen, and conflating separate accounts
of different events. Such sleight of hand is a simple rhetorical device, familiar from the tascas of Madrid, the bodeguitas of Seville, and the pubs of London, but which can be formally associated with the authority accorded eyewitness testimony
by Renaissance historiography that underlies the process of relación. That rhetoric can be broadly understood in the context of a long-standing critical awareness that it was difficult to describe
the novelty of the New World in such a way as to be meaningful in the Old World. The Carribean became a crucible of literary
and historiographical experiment in which fantastical accounts of ‘marvellous possessions’ (Greenblatt) drew on ‘ancient texts’
(Grafton), novels of chivalry, and other descriptions of experience alien to contemporary Old-World reality in an attempt
to achieve meaning by evoking a sense of a reality not previously within the literary or real experience of either the storyteller
or his audience.
Ideas about the New World travelled as written mail and in the minds of passengers, both carried by a more or less regular,
but not altogether reliable ferry service across the Atlantic. When those travelling ideas and knowledge of the Indies were
written down it is possible to talk of a travelling text in a literal sense and to identify the content that sailed within
the vessel of the text. By contrast, as the passengers travelled, they changed or adjusted their minds and developed their
ideas, and while the movement of fluid thought in that way was influential at the time, at a material level it is now intangible.
However, changes made between earlier and later texts offer clues to these changes of mind.
Although the Naufragios was printed in Spain, it was the product of the original experience, travelling texts, and Cabeza de Vaca’s own idea of the
story and sense of its meaning as it was stirred, shaken, and generally tossed about in Cabeza de Vaca’s head as he crossed
the Atlantic on his journey in 1537, fraught with bad weather, shipwreck, and an encounter with pirates. Moreover, it was
the product of a dialogue with the crown.
The real cédula, mentioned above, issued by the crown in 1537, instructed the casa de contratación to extract written testimony from Cabeza de Vaca about what he had seen, learnt, and heard of the land, pueblos, and indigenous peoples of Florida (Indiferente 1962, L 5, fols 273v-276v, 26-10-1537). Evidently, the report sent by Mendoza
in 1536 was considered insufficient in this respect, probably because Hernando de Soto was then in Spain planning his own
expedition to Florida and required as much detail as possible. The Gentleman of Elvas records that Cabeza de Vaca discussed
Florida personally with Charles V (39). Presumably, the royal officials required him to supply the same kind of information
as had been requested in the real cédula and comparison with Oviedo’s account demonstrates that a considerable body of information about the land and peoples recorded
in the Naufragios was new to him in Spain, in 1547.
In 1547, Oviedo talked with Cabeza de Vaca and read the Naufrazgios and as a consequence of this meeting of minds and texts, he wrote an additional seventh chapter as an appendix to his account.
This was not a revision, but a compilation of information that was new to him, over half of which is evidently paraphrased
from the Naufragios in identifiable passages describing fauna, flora, geography, and ethnography, exactly the kind of information requested in
the real cédula.
While the proemio to the Naufragios addresses the text to ‘ese lector real,’ the Emperor Charles V, in light of the real cédula, the parallel reading with Oviedo suggests that the Emperor was more than a reader. In fact, because Charles V and his agents
were interlocutors and interrogators, requiring Cabeza de Vaca to supply particular types of information, the crown can be
considered a co-author of a sort. Most relaciones, such as Cortés’s letters, were the work of individuals aware, consciously or otherwise, that the written word was paramount
in establishing their reputación back in Spain. But while Cortés was addressing a mental image of an imperial audience from the field, Cabeza de Vaca had
no need to imagine the authority that required written witness of him: the crown, the sovereign, and his officials were instead
active participants in forming the story.
The Naufragios was the consequence of a process of textual development, the multiple journeys taken by the story itself which are represented
on the map. The printed work is the product of at least eight stages of narrative development between the experience of the
survivors in North America between 1527 and 1537 and the first publication of the text in 1542: first, the real events and
the experience of the four survivors in Indian territory; second, the collective development of a story at the time and during
their early encounters with Europeans following reappearance; third, the joint formalisation of the story for Mendoza in 1536;
fourth, Cabeza de Vaca’s reflection on the story and its possible meanings for him between 1536 and 1537; fifth, the production
of a personal relación, perhaps drawing on the Mendoza report after 1536; sixth, his re-acquaintance with the Mendoza report on arrival in Spain
in 1537; seventh, his dialogue with the crown; and, eighth, the organisation of a manuscript to be typeset at Zamora in 1542.
The Naufragios was presented as a relación, the eyewitness testimony of events that it claimed had really taken place. For the canonical historians of early-modern
Spain that claim to eyewitness was enough to include accounts of the miracles performed by Cabeza de Vaca in their histories
of the Indies, but not entirely uncritically. While López de Gómara recorded that ‘the injured man was dead’ in his Historia de las Indias (182b), Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas suggested that the Naufragios only claimed that Cabeza de Vaca had appeared to raise a cadaver from the dead and highlighted the fact that this man was
‘almost dead,’ in his Historia general de los hechos de los castellanos… (502). Oviedo was clearly more sceptical and was not satisfied with Cabeza de Vaca’s reliability as an eyewitness and consequently
his approach to the miracles is perplexing.
When still in Santo Domingo, Oviedo was evidently aware (as Hutten had been in 1538) that the four survivors were reported
as having very successfully performed an extensive range of miraculous cures. However, although he refers in general to miraculous
healing and indicates that this was the key factor in enabling the survivors to progress, he is reticent about the detail
of specific events of a miraculous nature. In fact, the only miracles he describes are the epidemic caused by feigned anger,
which he attributes to the cunning of Dorantes, not Cabeza de Vaca, and the cure of a tribal group suffering problems with
their sight. However, either Oviedo or his source was not prepared to concede that those cures for blindness and other illnesses
were truly effective, hinting at the significance of an underlying Indian credulity:
There, they cured all those who were blind in one eye or both and many other illnesses, or at least if the Christians did
not cure everyone the Indians believed that they could cure them.
This attempt at rationalisation in Oviedo’s account apparently contradicts a statement a few lines above about the Christians’
miraculous healing of Indians in general that ‘in fact they did cure them’ (306b).3
Oviedo’s failure to mention the burning bush, raising the man from the dead, the surgery to remove the arrow-head, and even
Mala Cosa and the Mora de Hornachos, is all the more curious given that he was happy to give account of miraculous episodes
in other survival stories: he conceived of the final book of his Historia as being devoted to ‘Naufragios’ and recorded a number of miraculous elements. Elsewhere he shows a keen interest in unexpected
natural phenomena: for example, he records some kind of optical illusion that made people look like giants and the giant race
of Patagonians, and a case of Siamese twins in Santo Domingo. However, Oviedo coupled an empirical approach to historiography
with a bureaucratic tendency to depend on eyewitness testimony in determining historical truth (Myers 165-166). He cites his
sources for the race of Patagonians and apologises for being uncertain about the reliability of reports of the optical illusion,
thus offering an evaluation of his sources.
The explanation for Oviedo’s silence about specific miracles may be that the Santo Domingo carta was equally silent. Oviedo was not in a position to judge whether the kind of stories that Hutten reported originated with
the four survivors or were hearsay. Therefore, were such detail absent in the documentary eyewitness testimony before him,
he would have left it out. Moreover, the intra-textual dialogue over whether the cures really happened or were simply within
the scope of Indian belief perhaps betrays a degree of scepticism over the extent to which the miracle stories might be believed
Oviedo reacted sceptically to Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios, noting in his additional chapter that he favoured the Santo Domingo carta:
one way or another I take the report made by the three men to be better and clearer than this other one that one man alone
made and had printed (315a).
He then cast doubt on the name Mal Hado given to an island on the Texas coast by Cabeza de Vaca, noting that it was not named
in the ‘first report.’ Moreover, he questioned Cabeza de Vaca’s judgement in so naming it, because the ‘Christians were well
treated on that island just as he [Cabeza de Vaca] confesses in both reports’ (315a). Oviedo then noted:
This later report by Cabeza de Vaca says that throughout the mountainous lands that they reached they saw significant signs
of gold, kohl, iron, copper, and other metals. I would like this explained more clearly and at greater length (318a).
Despite such scepticism about Cabeza de Vaca as a witness, in his additional chapter Oviedo remained resolutely silent on
the subject of the novelistic miracle episodes that he must have read in the Naufragios and that must have been familiar to him from hearsay in the New World. Moreover, as we have noted, Oviedo’s account is not
the only one of our travelling texts that makes no mention of specific miracle episodes.
Most importantly, in the same year that Oviedo met Cabeza de Vaca in Spain, 1547, Alonso del Castillo arranged his información making almost no mention of miracles, divine intervention, or shamanism, for all that the general description of the four
surviving ‘casi milagrosamente’ (3r) may hint that the more familiar version of the story was in some way suppressed. Instead,
this document places great emphasis on the hardship they experienced. In Mexico, in 1547, Castillo clearly preferred to emphasise
suffering and not shamanism as an explanation for his survival.
Baltasar Dorantes’s información of 1573 is even more of a conundrum: the first four witnesses referred to a printed ‘coronica’ as though familiar with its
content and in a way that suggests it may have been physically present during their testimony. This was almost certainly the
Naufragios and therefore contained the fullest accounts of the miracles that we have, yet none of these witnesses made more than the
most oblique mention of the miraculous nature of the four’s survival. Paradoxically, three witnesses who made no referenced
to the ‘coronica’ gave prominence to the miraculous role of the survivors, although specific miracles were not described.
Three of the witnesses who referred to the ‘coronica’ were religious and would therefore have been considered literate and
able to cite a text as evidence. By contrast, one of the witnesses who emphasised the miraculous nature of the survivors’
experience was an illiterate sailor who had been lost at sea with Dorantes for eight months in 1537, while another was a close
The evidence of Hutten’s letter suggests that soon after the reappearance of the four survivors the stories of particular
miracles and their extraordinary role as shamans were established and spread quickly between the communities of colonists
around the Caribbean, becoming distorted and exaggerated in the process. The implication is that all four survivors were initially
complicit and probably actively involved in reports giving detailed accounts of some miracle episodes. However, by the time
the Santo Domingo report was sent from Havana in 1539 its author or authors preferred a more general picture of an apparently
miraculous peregrination in which the detail was suppressed. In 1547, Alonso del Castillo decided to suppress the miraculous
elements altogether and Oviedo similarly remained silent when faced with the accounts of miracles given in the Naufragios. In 1573, this tendency to suppress the miraculous elements appears to have been changing and although the educated religious
and literate witnesses avoided the subject, those witnesses who had heard the stories personally from Dorantes apparently
saw no problem in recounting them and Baltasar saw no problem in using that evidence. By 1604, Baltasar described his father’s
miraculous role in his Sumaria relación…, citing the información and the Naufragios
By contrast with this period of reticence about the miracles in the New World, in the Naufragios, a text that was brought together in the Old World, the miracles described by Cabeza de Vaca are the most striking images
of many episodes that slow down the chronological progress of the narrative, offering us vignettes displaying the wonders
of life in the Beyond, but which from outset, in the proemio, he formulaically requests his reader believe for all that they may be implausible.
Oviedo and the Naufragios represent the survivors’ developing authority over the Indians and apparently miraculous powers in terms of Christianity,
but it is not made clear how successfully they communicated this to the Indians. Moreover, Rolena Adorno has argued convincingly
that the Christians were exploited by the Indians to extort tribute from their neighbouring tribes (1991). Readers have long
been aware that images such as the burning bush and raising the man from the dead are self-evidently Biblical and recently
Kun Jong Lee has argued that the narrative progress of the Naufragios is characterised by Pauline typology and that the novelistic miracle episodes, along with the name given to the island, Mal
Hado, are integral to representing Cabeza de Vaca’s experience as replicating that of Saint Paul. However, he suggests that
Cabeza de Vaca deliberately manipulated the story in this way because that ‘was the most powerful rhetorical strategy to disown
any involvement in black magic’ at a time when Indian shamanism was usually regarded as the work of the devil (Jong Lee, 249;
That interpretation is problematic because the sixteenth-century Mexican Inquisition viewed admixtures of Christian and pagan
ritual as especially disturbing: the records of trials demonstrate that such ‘religious syncretism was the primary concern
of the Mexican church’ (Greenleaf 1969, 2). Thus, when a midwife was ‘convicted of performing illegal surgeries on her patients
and eliciting the aid of the devil with her incantations’ (Greanleaf 1962, 115), the Inquisitors also recorded her supplications
to God and the Madonna (Grunberg, 176-177). It was all very well to die like an early Christian martyr, but secular conquistadors
were not encouraged to channel God’s grace themselves, especially not as part of native healing practices.
The appointment of Fray Juan de Zumárraga as Apostolic Inquisitor from 1536 to 1542, in addition to his role as Bishop and
Archbishop of Mexico (1528-1548), may explain the suppression of the Narváez survivors’ miracle stories in the New World,
whilst different concerns in the Old World and the geographical and psychological distance may have made them appear less
heretical in Spain. It is interesting that Oviedo’s account first announces the shamanism by associating it with the kind
of faith-healing found in Spain, noting that the survivors healed by
making the sign of the cross over the [Indians] and blowing on them in the way that those who are known as faith-healers do
in Castile (305b).
By contrast, Cabeza de Vaca introduces the idea of blowing as part of his extensive description of native medicine on Mal
Hado (Ch. 15).
The specific miracles are absent in Oviedo either because he suppressed those episodes himself or, more likely, because they
were absent in the Santo Domingo report. By contrast, the miracles are described in the Naufragios either because Cabeza de Vaca embellished his account with that detail or because they formed part of the original Mendoza
report sent to Spain in 1536. Therefore, when Cabeza de Vaca arrived at the Imperial court in 1537 he would have necessarily
had to explain those stories, perhaps, as Jong Lee suggests, mapping them onto a framework of Pauline typology in order to
do so. By contrast, it seems that when the Santo Domingo report was posted in 1539 it was already considered expedient to
generalise about the survivors’ role, portraying them as Christians who led large numbers of native allies because of the
reverence shown them by the Indians and with the help of God. Without the detail that makes the Naufragios a story of almost supernatural experience, Oviedo’s account hints at something miraculous while setting these four conquistadors
within a framework for explaining the conquest in terms of Indian credulity and willingness to follow Europeans they perceived
as God-like that is familiar in conquest history, most obviously from Cortés’s accounts of the conquest of Mexico.
The silence over the miraculous detail amongst educated witnesses in the New World contrasts markedly with the striking presentation
of this subject matter in a text finalised in the Old World in the presence of the Emperor and his court. It is worth remembering
that the second edition of the Naufragios, printed at Valladolid in 1555, was part of Cabeza de Vaca’s campaign to establish his good name, having been brought back
from Río de la Plata in disgrace. It told a story that he clearly felt conferred kudos, so the 1542 edition can hardly have
been received with opprobrium. This dichotomy highlights the intellectual and conceptual ocean that lay between the New World
and the Old. Interestingly, just as Las Casas, who had experience of the New World had turned his eye most critically on Columbus’s
Diario de abordo, so too, Oviedo’s experience of the Indies led him to be more critical of his sources.
The ability to map the broad context of this story and fix points in time and space during its oral diffusion, the ability
to trace the textual
pre-history of the Naufragios and the convoluted process by which the original events became inscribed as printed narrative, and the ability to compare
the Naufragios with Oviedo’s account make this an almost unique example with which to illustrate the complex process by which America became
part of the European world view during the sixteenth-century. This analysis has situated the production of the Naufragios in both the New and Old Worlds, but it firmly establishes the printed work as a product of the Old World and Oviedo’s account
as a product of the New.
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All primary sources are currently being made available at ‘web address to be supplied by B W Ife’
Newly cited documentary sources
||México 212, N 45 1585
||información of Baltasar Dorantes de Carranza
||Patronato 65, N 1 R 4 1562
||información of Antonio de Aguayo
||Patronato 55, N 5 R 4 1538
||información of Juan Durán
||Patronato 157, N 2 R 4 1556
|| información of Francisco Díaz
||México 1088, L3 251r-251v
||legal document identifying Mari Hernández
||Patronato 184, R 27
||Mendoza letter February 11, 1537
||Patronato 57, N 4 R 1
||información of Alonso del Castillo
||Indiferente 1962, L 5 273v-276v
||real cédula to House of Trade, 1536
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Editions of primary texts used
- Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Núñez. 2001. Naufragios. ed. Juan Francisco Maura. Madrid: Cátedra.
- Oviedo y Valdés. 1959. Gonzalo Fernández de. Historia general y natural de las Indias, ed. Juan Pérez de Tudela Bueso, 5 vols. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Españoles. IV: 284-318.
- Schmitt, Eberhard, and Friedrich Karl Hutten. 1996. Das Gold de Neuen Welt: Die Papiere des Welser-Konquistadors und Gneralkapitäns von Venezuela Philipp Hutten, 1534-1541. Hildburghausen: Verlag Frankenschwelle.
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Secondary sources cited
- Adorno, Rolena, and Patrick Charles Pautz.1999. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, 3 vols. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
- Adorno, Rolena. 1991. The Negotiation of Fear in Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios. Representatios 33 (Winter):163-199.
- Ahern, Maureen. 1993. The Cross and the Gourd: The Appropriation of Ritual Signs in the Relaciones of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and Fray Marcos de Niza. In Early Images of the Americas: Transfer and Invention, ed. Jerry M. Williams and Robert E. Lewis. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press. 215-244.
- CDI. 1864-1884. Colección de documentos inéditos relativos al descubrimiento, conquista y colonización en América y Occeanía, eds Joaquin F. Pacheco and Francisco de Cárdenas. 42 vols, Madrid: Real Archivo de Indias (Bernaldo de Quirós).
- Elvas, Fidalgo (Gentleman) de. 1965. Expedición de Hernando de Soto a la Florida. trans Miguel Muñoz de San pedro, 3rd ed.
- Gil, Juan. 1993. Alvar Núñez, el chamán blanco. Bulletín de la Real Academia Española 73 (258): 69-72.
- Grafton, Anthony, April Shelford, Nancy Siraisi. 1992. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.
- Greanleaf, Richard E. 1961. Zumárraga and the Mexican Inquisition, 1536-1543. Washington DC: Academy of American Franciscan History.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. 1991. Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Greenleaf, Richard E. 1969. The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Grunberg, Bernard. 1998. L’Inquisition apostolique au Mexique: Histoire d’une institution et de son impact dans une société coloniale (1521-1572). Paris and Montreal: L’Harmattan.
- Herrera y Tordesillas, Antonio de. 1991. Historia general de los hechos de los castellanos en las islas y tierrafirme del mar oceano. ed. Mariano Cuesta Domingo, 4 vols. Madrid: Universidad de Complutense. II.
- Jong Lee, Kun. 1999. The Pauline Typology in Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios. Early American Literature 34: 241-262.
- Myers, Kathleen A. 1995. Imitación, revisión y amazonas en la Historia General y Natural de Fenrández de Oviedo. Revista Iberoamericana 170-171: 161-173.
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