- Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America by Dennis Herrick
Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America is a fascinating biography of one of history's most extraordinary and underappreciated explorers. Author Dennis Herrick goes to great lengths to accurately portray Esteban, who is practically nonexistent in American history [End Page 246] literature despite being the first person from the Old World to travel across the North American continent and the first to enter the modernday American Southwest in the sixteenth century. Due to his status as a Spanish slave, Esteban's feats have largely been downplayed or even completely ignored by historians and writers. Herrick writes Esteban back into the historical record, righting Esteban's reputation and helping secure his rightful place in American history.
The book begins by introducing the myths and mysteries that surround Esteban while offering the audience the most likely truths. This includes an unprecedented detailed account of Esteban's life, including his early years in Morocco before becoming enslaved by the Spanish and his trip across the Atlantic Ocean with his owner, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, to the island of Hispaniola in 1527. Before Esteban arrives at Hispaniola, Herrick provides context by explaining the conquest mentality of the Spanish as their reasoning for invading the islands and surrounding lands of the Caribbean Sea in the sixteenth century. This context proves to be an excellent introduction to the planning and undertaking of the infamous Narváez expedition, and how Esteban found himself on a boat headed for Florida.
While it is well known that Esteban and the rest of the Spanish were headed toward disaster in Florida, Herrick gives readers plenty of insight into why the expedition was doomed to fail from the beginning. After wandering around Florida's Gulf Coast for several miles and weeks, starving for gold and for food, the feeble Spanish were no match for the tribes of native Florida. Herrick provides an exciting tale of escape that keeps the reader turning the pages as Esteban, his owner, and two other Spaniards flee into the Gulf in a small boat, stranding themselves at sea for weeks before finally making landfall near present-day Galveston, Texas.
Esteban's story continues with the natives of southern Texas and northern Mexico enslaving the group of four. This is a fascinating chapter describing how the three Spaniards suffered mightily while enslaved, while Esteban coped much better, having already experienced life as a slave. This experience, along with his ability to form strong relationships with their native captors, raised Esteban's rank to the leader of the group of four. Esteban's elevated status followed the group after they escaped their enslavement and made their way to the Spanish-controlled city of Tenochtitlan, where present-day Mexico City is located. [End Page 247]
On reaching Tenochtitlan, Herrick does a brilliant job of capturing the fluidity of Esteban's status as he is once again reverted back to slavery. Fortunately, the reader sees Esteban get a second chance to experience freedom after being assigned to guide an expedition in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. This expedition would result in Esteban becoming the first person from the Old World to enter the presentday southwestern United States, entering what would become Arizona and New Mexico. The search for the Seven Cities of Gold is not as well documented as the earlier failed Narváez expedition and escape from Florida, but Herrick does an outstanding job of working with multiple sources to create a solid timeline and entertaining narrative.
While many historians and writers have concluded that Esteban's life came to an end during this expedition, Herrick offers a detailed explanation of the alternate possibility that Esteban may have staged his death to gain his freedom from the Spanish. Both possibilities are explored in great detail in the book's later chapters, leading into a fascinating discussion on how myth has often become fact concerning Esteban's life. Herrick argues...