The First Captivity Narrative:

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THE FIRST CAPTIVITY NARRATIVE: ALVAR NUÑEZ CABEZA DE VACA’S 1542 LA RELACION Ramón Sánchez
University of Washington, Bothell

In this paper, I will discuss the development of one type of Western captivity narrative, a Spanish one that in the context of expanding Western conquest brought (1) the need for the European conqueror to defend himself from the accusation of cultural betrayal and (2) the need to redeem a failed conqueror. For this I focus on Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 La Relacion. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was a survivor of the failed Narvaez expedition that attempted to conquer part of the mainland of North America in 1527. The Spanish crown had authorized Governor Pamfilo Narvaez to take the territory from the cape of Florida to the Rio de las Palmas (which is now known as the Rio Grande in Texas). Part of the expedition, a force of around 300 men, entered into the interior of Florida, but only four survived the ordeals and eventually reconnected to Spanish civilization in 1536 near the Sinaloa River. These survivors [Cabeza de Vaca, Andres Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and the slave Estevanico] had trekked, mostly on foot, from Florida to almost to the Pacific ocean, near Culiacan. Cabeza de Vaca’s La Relacion presents the tale of the failed Narvaez Expedition, which set out on 17 June 1527 to conquer another Tenochtitlan, another golden city -a city they never doubted existed. For just as the English and later the Anglo-Americans imposed their “ virgin land” perspective on the Americas, so to the Spanish conquerors fitted the Americas into a narrative grid that made the land and its inhabitants known; Proceedings of the II Conference of SEDERI: 1992: 247-260

The First Captivity Narrative

for the Spanish conqueror, the Americas were set in the conceptual mold of the story of the “ golden city.” This particular expedition sought the golden city in the region known as Apalachen -but failed. In the Americas, the early Spanish conqueror sought a City of Gold (e.g., Cortes, Guzman, Narvaez). In his own eyes, he was the knight who battled dark, evil forces, and sought a kingdom to cleanse with the all important crown’s blessing. His sense of moral superiority and what he accepted as his right for material profit motivated his imperial enterprise. Medieval legends and chronicles encouraged the notion that golden kingdoms existed in the Americas. They gave rise to a conceptualization of the sort that Columbus made concerning gold as a restorer, as a metaphor for renewed vigor. Lyle N. McAlister comments: “ In Renaissance Hispania these fantasies [medieval tales] acquired a new vehicle in romances of chivalry whose contents, if not read by all, drifted into popular culture. Such tales had a common theme -the exploits of brave and virtuous hidalgos in fabulous lands- and a stereotypical outcome. The hero returned covered with glory and his fortune gained or restored.” 1 Thomas D. Hall notes about the growth of the Spanish Empire: “ [T]he lure of riches, the lack of alternative paths to glory and military hubris would have led them (conquistadors) to proceed undaunted. This kind of closed-mindedness combined with a particular balance of class forces and conflicts made subsequent policies all but inevitable.” 2 The Spanish conqueror sought kingdoms of gold: the Amazons’ kingdom, El Dorado, Quivira, the Seven Cities of Cibola, the “ land of the Caesars,” and others. The conquering experience, it was assumed, would not change the conqueror, just test a finished product -the conqueror, a morally superior being. There is no doubt that an important element in the conqueror’s discourse was the kingdom of gold, which many times was thought to be ruled by Amazonian women. Columbus made references to Amazon-like natives in the Caribbean islands. Cortes searched for Amazons and ordered a mission to find them: “ I am informed that along the coast adjacent to the town of Colima there are numerous well-populated...
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