Talk about a bad trip: Four would-be conquerors wander across some of North America’s most difficult country for eight years, and they don’t even find gold to make up for their troubles.
The story of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s unwanted expedition into the interior is well-known to students of Spanish colonial history and has a huge scholarly literature surrounding it, but there are few popular works devoted to it as compared to, say, the easier journey of Lewis and Clark. Schneider’s well-told tale begins with avarice and jealousy, as the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez, having rebelled against the better-connected Hernán Cortés and been imprisoned for his troubles, nonetheless manages to convince the Spanish crown to let him take charge of conquering “the entire Gulf Coast of what would one day become the United States.” His fleet—not well-outfitted, for Narváez was broke—made the area of Tampa Bay in 1528, and his contingent of Caribs, Africans and Spanish soldiers marched off into the unknown for food and riches. Second-in-command by virtue of being King Charles V’s “eyes and ears on the ground during the expedition”—for, naturally, the king wanted his cut—Cabeza de Vaca found himself contesting Narváez’s increasingly impetuous decisions at every turn. Disappointed and embattled, the company reached what is now Galveston Bay before being shipwrecked; Narváez died, and the remaining force lost man after man until just three were left besides Cabeza de Vaca. This multicultural crew, one of whom, Schneider guesses, was a converted Jew, the other an African slave, then wandered for thousands of miles until eventually finding a Spanish settlement in western Mexico. Through all of this, Schneider does a solid job of enhancing an intrinsically interesting story without getting in the way.
A you-are-there enterprise in the Steven Ambrose vein, full of surprising turns and not a few ironies.