This is a short history providing a lot of context and background and additional sources to one of the more famous captivity narratives published from the New World during the colonization of the Americas. This book follows the journey of Cabeza de Vaca, a mostly low level Spanish finance official who joins a voyage to America alongside about 300 other people. Of the 300, four would survive, and that would come after eights years of the voyage during which he acts as a colonizer, a soldier, a captive, a slave, a healer, a kind of faith healer, and various other roles. The journals and publication would come after he returns to Spain many years later, and where he continues to experience a strange shift in status both from when he left, when he was a captive, and when he returns. He also ends up a kind of political pawn within a colonial power struggle in Spain. Unlike a few other famous New World books like Christopher Columbus’s journals, William Bradford’s, John Smith’s, and a few others, Cabeza de Vaca’s fame and prospective is almost solely based in his survival, not in some otherwise remarkable status beforehand.
This book follows that voyage, making numerous references to that publications. I have read that as well, but it’s been a very long time, and my memory of it that even for a record of eight years, it’s a relatively short book that covers a lot more ground than pages. This provides a lot of additional information and evidence for just exactly what kinds of experiences this journey brought. For example, the 500 years of additional historical context allows Andrés Reséndez tell gives accurate accounts of the cultures he would have encountered, a more accurate understanding of the prior history and geography of the region. He can tell us the political situations in Spain, where de Vaca might have felt biased or trapped by circumstances, and of course we know what happens after. In addition, there’s a truly harrowing description of the boat they would have traveled over the Atlantic on, and how bad the conditions were, even for the rich Spaniards, let alone how truly horrible they were for crew and slaves. It’s a short but very full feeling book that takes a narrow perspective to allow for a wider understanding of the century before English colonies first launched in the Americas.