I did the unthinkable over the last couple of days and bought three books all at once.
I had been thinking about one of my favorite characters in American history, Esteban the Moor. He’s been prowling restlessly around the back of my mind for some weeks, and it seems that in Master William, the French goldsmith of Karakorum I introduced in my last post, Esteban found a man like himself–forcibly taken far from his home, yet adapting, finding purpose, aiding others, and it might be said, eventually thriving.
Except that Esteban’s name was not really Esteban. He was born in North Africa, probably Muslim, and lost his original name and identity when he was sold as a slave in Spain. Then he lost his religion as well when his owner took him along to the Americas in 1527: the Spanish authorities were concerned about uppity formerly Jewish conversos snagging land for themselves in the New World and formally barred all non-Catholics from transatlantic trips, so Esteban got converted before boarding ship. (BTW, the ban was not terribly effective anyway–there’s a good overview of all that here.)
Esteban, with his master, was part of an ill-fated expedition to Florida. The long and the short of it was that the majority of their crew was lost in a storm at sea, and over a period of several years, Esteban, his master, and two other Spaniards eventually walked across North America and down into Mexico, undergoing several bouts of enslavement at the hands of various tribes along the route.
It’s a fantastic tale of survival and perseverance all by itself, but what is even more interesting is how it shaped the four men for the rest of their lives. The accounts given by the three Spaniards were published in Europe, and read widely (as you might expect of such an extraordinary tale). One of the Spaniards went back to Spain and spent the many of his remaining years at court, arguing for humane treatment of the Native Americans, losing his reputation and fortune in the process. Esteban, the slave, was never asked for his testimony, but his actions peep out in the accounts of the others, even with their agendas of individual self-promotion. He stayed healthy when the others got sick, and nursed them during their illnesses. He consistently acquired a reputation for healing among the tribes they encountered. A man from a land of several ethnicities, languages and faiths who had already had to adapt to still others, Esteban was typically the first to figure out how to communicate with each new tribe the travelers came across.
When I first came across the story of The Four, I found myself wondering about Esteban right away: how ironic to be doubly enslaved, alongside his master. It might have been materially worse for him in the Americas–he was back to staving off starvation, for starters–but was it better for him in other ways? Was there satisfaction in seeing his owner at the same level as himself? Why did he stay with the Spaniards, even help them return to Mexico City, rather than staying among the tribes? How tired must he have been, at times, having to start over and over and over again, learning yet another new language, another new set of customs, in order to survive?
Some years ago, I happened across a book specifically focused on Esteban, Crossing the Continent, in a bookstore in the process of closing down. It’s a flawed book in many ways, but the scholarship is very interesting, and I can mostly recommend it. Somewhere along the way I misplaced the book, and in looking it up on Amazon came across recommendations for another one, A Land So Strange. So I bought it. And then a novel of the same story, as the wonderful writing of the first chapter seems very promising.
Thanks to the wonders of recommendation algorithms, I also came across 1491. Over the years, I’ve come across various articles which give the lie to the too-neat tale of a few small bands of Siberians crossing a glacial land bridge and peopling two large continents (always in small bands) 13,000 years ago: various, much older sites, especially in Chile, some of which may have been inhabited by Polynesians coming up the coast along with the oceanic current. Major earthworks emerging into view in the Amazon basin as the rainforests are cut down. A skull in Brazil, dated to about 18,000 years old, with African or Australian characteristics. And so on. 1491 appears to pull much of that more recent research together with some structure.
I’m starting with 1491. More soon!
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Update — Quickie reviews of the three books listed here:
A Land So Strange: Probably a good intro to the story of Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow travelers, if the tale is a totally unfamiliar one. You’ll get much the same information from reading a well-annotated edition of the Relacion, de Vaca’s own memoir. The author of A Land So Strange mostly takes de Vaca’s account face value. If you want a broader view that covers all four travelers more inclusively, a more critical review of the relevant documents that takes into account the various motivations de Vaca and the others had in how they presented their tale, and/or more context for their journey, I’d recommend Goodwin’s Crossing the Continent instead.
The Moor’s Account, the novel from Esteban’s point of view, is both well-written and a quick read. The author, a native of Morocco, brings a stronger Islamic flavor to Esteban’s character than I’ve found elsewhere. The other characters are captured memorably as well.
1491: Strongly recommended. Ignore the sensationalist marketing on the cover: the author is a science journalist who has been covering the pre-Columbian archaeology beat for quite some time. He captures the excitement of the newest finds on both continents in the last few and summarizes the debates within the archaeological community in a very even-handed and readable way, incorporating his interviews with the various parties. If the subject area is totally new to you, it probably will be “revelatory”; even if not, this is a very good survey of a very broad range of material that brings together a lot of different threads and themes to provide an unusually holistic view of pre-Columbian America.