- Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: The Great Pedestrian of North and South America by Donald E. Chipman
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and the African slave Estebanico were the only known survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez’ [End Page 92] 1528 tragic expedition to Florida. For eight years, the four argonauts wandered more than two thousand miles from the Texas Gulf Coast to the Pacific coast of Mexico, and then to Mexico City. The Spanish king rewarded Cabeza de Vaca with a governorship in Asunción, Paraguay, where he arrived in 1543, after walking another thousand miles from the Brazilian coast. Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to collect information on the landscapes and indigenous groups he visited in North and South America. As a result, his odysseys have received attention from historians, anthropologists, linguists, and even filmmakers. Historian Donald E. Chipman’s newest book synthesizes the latest scholarship and Cabeza de Vaca’s own memoirs with a well-written biographical narrative that covers the life of Cabeza de Vaca as well as his major deeds on the Americas. He does all this with erudition in just over sixty pages of text.
Following a chronological script in six short chapters, Chipman covers Cabeza de Vaca’s story from birth until death. The first two chapters describe the Cabeza de Vaca’s background in Spain and the preparation of Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition within the context of Charles V’s imperial politics and the Spanish conquest. The following three chapters chart Cabeza de Vaca and his group through Texas and northern Mexico. These chapters rely heavily on Cabeza de Vaca’s memoirs, the first European descriptions of what are now the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. For instance, chapters four and five summarize Cabeza de Vaca’s ethnographic observations of Texas and the northern Mexico indigenous communities. His last chapter focuses on Cabeza de Vaca’s trip to South America and his governorship of Río de la Plata in Asunción, Paraguay. This is perhaps the least known part of Cabeza de Vaca’s life. Here Cabeza de Vaca emerges as a leader and activist for Indian rights. Indubitably, Cabeza de Vaca’s experience in North America contributed to his leadership capabilities—his expedition to Paraguay only lost one man—and, what is more important to Chipman, increased his sensitivity concerning Indian affairs. Chipman points out that Cabeza de Vaca, like his contemporary Bartolomé de las Casas, became a “lay advocate of Indian rights on both American continents” (58).
While Chipman’s narrative is mostly descriptive, at some points, the author also contributes to historiographical discussions such as the controversies over Cabeza de Vaca’s route through Texas in chapter 3. There is a good selection of maps (mostly borrowed from Andrés Reséndez’s A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca), which are necessary to follow Cabeza de Vaca’s wanderings. Illustrations such as a contemporary sketch map of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea in 1519, a contemporary drawing of the loading and unloading of a horse for a translantic voyage or the Texas Surgical Society’s insignia recognizing Cabeza de Vaca as the first documented surgeon of Texas further support the story.
Chipman’s book is a joy to read for its well-written narrative style and brevity. In a short space, the author has done a superb job in describing Cabeza de Vaca’s deeds within the context of Spanish colonialism and Texas history, fields the author masters. The book will undoubtedly prove useful for students and scholars as well as the general public and is a welcomed addition to the Texas State Historical Association popular history series. [End Page 93]