Cortes and Cabeza de Vaca are similar, in that both were Spanish conquistadors from noble families who journeyed into the mainland of North America, with the intent to conquer the land in the name of the king of Spain. Both were deeply religious and framed their experiences in the New World through Christian eyes, and both wanted to the convert the native population into the catholic church. However, while Cortes changed the people and landscape of New Spain, Cabeza de Vaca was changed by the people and landscape of North America. If Cabeza de Vaca was not one of the few survivors of an expedition that originally had hundreds of men and many supplies, if his journey into North America would have been as successful as that of Cortes, would he have had the same respect towards the natives and their character as he displayed in his writing?
Cortes encountered a complex Aztec empire with material wealth and a robust population of about twenty million at the time of contact with Europeans. While there is some variation between different groups under control of the Aztecs, many shared common religious beliefs and practiced the same customs. Politically, Cortes destroyed the ruling Triple Alliance of the most powerful indigenous families, installing Spanish rule generally in New Spain and particularly the encomienda system in which he and his conquistadors ascended to positions of power in the new status-quo, “granting them the right to the tribute the native inhabitants owed to the king.” In the new political system, Indians would be subjugated by the Spaniards through forced labor and the collection of tribute. Aside from the extensive percentage of deaths from contact with European diseases, the treatment of Indians in New Spain only exacerbated the already high death rate. In the century following the conquest, the native population dropped by 85 percent. Alonso de Zorita held a position in the Audiencia of New Spain during the 1550s, and he associated the decline of the native population as the result of their mistreatment at the hands of the Spanish. He wrote, “Their numbers have also been diminished by their enslavement for work in the mines and in the personal service of the Spaniards.” De Zorita condemned the “Callousness and hardheartedness” of the Spanish authorities. Resentfully, he says, “if the water were lacking to irrigate the Spaniards’ farms, they would have to be watered with the blood of Indians.”
Cortes saw himself as doing God’s work by bringing Spanish rule, and along with it, Christian institutions into new Spain. He made this clear when telling his King of his success. Cortes recorded several speeches by the Aztec Emperor Montezuma that, while fitting the biases of the Christian aristocracy of Spain, seem suspicious to historians. Historian John H. Eliott notes that the words of Montezuma, in the writing of Cortes, “subtly combine the themes of the coming of a Messiah and the return of a natural lord to his vassals, in order to lead up to the grand climax of Montezuma’s renunciation of his imperial heritage into the hands of Charles V.” However, Cortes was a deeply religious man and he was conscious of the suffering that might befall the Indians, potential converts to Christianity, after the fall of the Aztec Empire. Eliot notes that early on in his correspondence with Europe, Cortes “had emphasized the importance of informing the pope of his discoveries, so that measures could be taken for the conversion of the natives.” In the years following the end of the Aztecs and the establishment of New Spain as a part of a compound monarchy in the Spanish empire, the Indians adapted their religion to include Christianity, creating a religious mixture made from the old world and the new. By 1559, New Spain was home to eight hundred ecclesiastics of the Catholic church and each village had an average of ten monasteries that functioned as centers of spiritual teaching, evangelism, political ideas, and the distribution of food.
The experience of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca contrasts starkly against that of Hernan Cortes. He was part of a larger expedition into North America that, in the context of military conquest, was a horrible failure. The colonizing party Cabeza de Vaca journeyed with were nearly all destroyed by the New World they came to conquer, with only a few survivors ever returning to their home in Spain. Of the five ships and 600 men who set out in 1527, shipwrecks, desertions, and disease reduced the party to only 15 men by the spring of 1529. On the mainland of North America, Cabeza de Vaca encountered no large empire, but a multitude of small tribes who all had different languages and customs. These tribes were often lacking in material wealth and struggled to survive due to starvation and disease. Cabeza de Vaca found himself seeking shelter with Indian tribes after many near-death experiences. Perhaps the lowest point of Cabeza’s journey was a failed attempt to sail from a small island off the coast dubbed “the Isle of Misfortune” and afterwards being taken in by a small tribe of natives. He writes, “Upon seeing the disaster we had suffered, our misery and misfortune, the Indians sat down with us and began to weep out of compassion for our misfortune.” In the following seasons and years, Cabeza de Vaca would live with several tribes of Indians, living, dressing, and working as they did, sometimes being treated poorly but eventually gaining a reputation as a respected medicine man.
When assuming the role of medicine man, Cabeza de Vaca and his friends adapted their religion to fit into Indian society. They were taught how to perform healing rituals but incorporated the sign of the cross and would pray for the sick and injured. According to Cabeza de Vaca, these rituals would be successful and Indians from many tribes traveled with his party to receive blessings. He used the languages that he learned to communicate his religious beliefs with the natives and acted more like a missionary than he did a conquistador. With the help of the Indians, Cabeza de Vaca and his party eventually found fellow Spanish colonizers who were shocked and confused at the sight of him. “They stared at me for a while, speechless. Their surprise was so great that they could not find words to ask me anything.” Cabeza de Vaca and his followers were angered when they learned of the Spaniards’ plans to enslave the Indians in the area and instead insisted that they build churches and convert the Indians to Christianity.
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition. Penguin Books, Kindle Edition.
Chavez, Alicia Hernandez. Mexico: A Brief History. Los Angeles: California University Press, 2000.
Joseph, Gilbert M. & Henderson, Timothy J. The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. London: Duke University Press, 2002.
-  Alicia Hernandez Chavez, Mexico: A Brief History (Los Angeles: California University Press, 2000), 31.
-  Gilbert M. Joseph, & Timothy J. Henderson, The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics (London: Duke University Press, 2002), 122.
-  Ibid, 124.
-  Ibid, 130.
-  Ibid, 106.
-  Ibid, 107.
-  Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition, (Penguin Books, Kindle Edition), Location 2017.