Jim Reviews: A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca by Andres Resendez

The story of Cabeza de Vaca is one that I was dimly aware of from High School and College history classes but I never got the detail and perspective afforded by A Land So Strange. The basic story was de Vaca ends up being one of the few survivors of and expedition into Florida and ends up having to walk back to New Spain via what is today Texas and northern Mexico. Resendez tackles the specifics of why that expedition even happened and what de Vaca experienced.

Panfilio de Narvaez one of the conquistadors who invaded Cuba led an expedition to conquer Florida (which at that time included everything from northern Mexico, today’s state of Florida and everything north). Cabeza de Vaca was a low level Spanish nobleman who was assigned by the King of Spain to represent Spanish royal interests on the expeditions. The only reason we know that Narvaez’s expedition failed spectacularly is largely down to de Vaca and his companions including an African slave managed to survive by crossing the Gulf of Mexico in rafts to what is modern day Galveston, Texas. After landing in Texas they are, somewhat ironically, enslaved by the Native Americans for many years until de Vaca organizes an escape.

What I found most interesting about this book was how much was going on in New Spain that no one ever hears about because the big names like Cortez and Francisco Pizarro suck up all the attention. There are small groups of Spaniards going out and taking over territory or just raiding that are completely ignored. Also just how much of the Spanish empire was built on enslaving the native population and bringing in African slaves. Although gold gets the main billing on the list of things that the Spanish are after, slavery comes a very close second and way more common that gold. As de Vaca and his companions move west and realize they are getting close to Spanish territory, the issue that keeps coming up is the fear of the native populations for Spanish slavers operating in their area. In fact, the first Spaniards de Vaca and his companions encounter on their walk back were actually Spanish slavers.

This is a great book if you like reading about the details behind larger historical events. It’s well written and fast paced. Resendez explains complicated political and technological issues very clearly.