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New World survivor

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In the litany of European explorers, the name of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca stands out. Cabeza de Vaca is well remembered for miraculously surviving a shipwreck and many hardships traveling on foot with three other men from Florida through the Southwest and into Mexico.

The first Europeans to see this territory, they trekked and trudged from 1527 to 1536. Cabeza de Vaca lived to write a dramatic narrative.

“What ever happened to Cabeza de Vaca?” Baker Morrow asked rhetorically. “He returned to Spain, and that’s all we’ve heard about him.”


“The South American Expeditions, 1540-1545″ by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, translated with notes by Baker H. Morrow. With illustrations and maps.
UNM Press, $39.95, 268 pp.

Ah, but Morrow is an inquisitive fellow. After Cabeza de Vaca’s return to Spain, Morrow learned, he asked for a new job in the New World. King Carlos I eventually granted him the governorship of Spain’s new province of Río de la Plata, which encompassed Paraguay and parts of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Cabeza de Vaca’s memoir of his ordeals as governor – and they were indeed ordeals – was published in Spanish but only partially translated into English.

“I said, ‘Now there’s a project!’ ” Morrow recalled.

Morrow writes that King Carlos told Cabeza de Vaca he had these tasks: “You have to rescue the colonists from starvation and the Indians. You have to spread Christianity. And you have to outfit four ships, hire 300-plus soldiers, buy horses, launch an expedition and explore. And you have to cover all at your own expense. Cabeza de Vaca said ‘Fine,’ ” Morrow stated.

“Cabeza de Vaca’s second act is every bit as fascinating as the first one. He pulls you into the story.”

Morrow has done the first full English translation of the expeditions, “one of the best ethnographic studies of American tribal culture anywhere. He lets the Indians speak for themselves.”

Another part of the book has Cabeza de Vaca and his soldiers finding Spanish settlers who had fled Asunción, Paraguay, then exploring the Rio Paraguay north to what is today Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso and into Bolivia.

Then things get dicey for Cabeza de Vaca. According to Morrow, he’s so fair-minded that he makes his soldiers pay the Indians for supplies and lodging. No thefts, no pillaging allowed. An angry lieutenant governor leads a mutiny and has the governor shot, but he’s only wounded.

Baker H. Morrow discusses “The South American Expeditions” with Matthew Shmader at 3 p.m. today at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.

Cabeza de Vaca is thrown in jail in chains back in Asunción, then to Buenos Aires. While waiting for a storm to abate, the mutineers (soldiers and clerics) change their mind about Cabeza de Vaca, who sees the storm as divine intervention. Sailing in a small launch across the Atlantic back to Spain, the mutineers have another change of heart as they head with an injured Cabeza de Vaca to the Azores, where Portuguese authorities back the governor’s story. In Spain, the mutineers file lawsuits with the Council of the Indies charging Cabeza de Vaca with malfeasance, Morrow said, and he countersues. In 1555, the court exonerated him, but didn’t restore his governorship. He returns home and lives four more years, not a poor, broken man as a 20th-century biographer claims, Morrow said. So ends the story.

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