Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas

Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas

Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas

Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas

Synopsis

The current image of the Spanish conquest of America and of the conquistadores who carried it out is one of destruction and oppression. One conquistador does not fit that image. A life-changing adventure led Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca to seek a different kind of conquest, one that would be just and humane, true to Spanish religion and law yet safeguarding liberty and justice for the Indians of the New World. His use of the skills learned from his experiences with the Indians of North America, however, did not always help him in understanding and managing the Indians of South America, and too many of the Spanish settlers in the Rio de la Plata Province found that his policies threatened their own interests and relations with the Indians. Eventually many of those Spaniards joined a conspiracy that removed him from power and returned him to Spain in chains.

Excerpt

No longer do the Spanish conquerors of the New World stand in a flattering light. Generations of celebration and romance have given way to a focus on cruelty, violence, tyranny and brutality. Yet such a viewpoint is too narrow, especially for a unique conquistador named Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. A life-changing adventure led Cabeza de Vaca to a vision of a different kind of conquest, one that would safeguard liberty and justice for the Indians of the New World. Although this Spanish soldier and official understood the goal of conquest as did the other soldiers of his era, he differed in his beliefs about the means used to gain that goal. He sought a conquest that was just and humane, true to Spanish religion and law.

His ideas of liberty or justice were entirely Spanish. The Indians of America, he assumed, would be better off under Spanish and Christian civilization than under their own political and social systems. Thus, Cabeza de Vaca was an imperialist who imagined that the policies of the government of Spain might be achieved in America by just and humane means and under Spanish law. The model for such a conquest came from his reaction to the abuses by other conquistadores in bringing Indians under Spanish authority. To try to hold him to the values of the post- and anti-imperialist outlook of the late twentieth century would be to miss the vital differences between him and the others of his generation.

This account of Cabeza de Vaca's career is based on published primary sources. During the past century many works have been published in Spain, Argentina, and Paraguay relating to the era of conquest and colonization in the Río de la Plata province (see bibliography). An index of relevant unpublished sources in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, appears in Raúl Molina, Misiones Argentinas en los archives europeos, 378-435. The titles of documents there show that little of significance remains unpublished.

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