The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and "Discovery" in the Southeast

By Patricia Galloway | Go to book overview

Martin Malcolm Elbl and Ivana Elbl


The Gentleman of Elvas and His Publisher

Current attitudes toward the Portuguese account of the Hemando de Soto expedition attributed to the so far anonymous "Gentleman of Elvas" seem at best ambivalent. On the one hand, few if any modern scholars appear ready to consider this Relaçam verdadeira dos trabalhos q + ̃ ho gouernador Dõ Fernãdo de Souto e certos fidalgos portugueses passarom no descobrimẽto da prouincia da Frolida "decidedly the best full account that has been handed down to us," as Theodore Lewis did in 1903.1 Since the 1930s, in fact, the Relaçam has become something of an odd man out among the Soto narrative sources, and at present even its independence from the other major early account, in Book 17 of Part r of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés Historia general y natural de las Indias, is being challenged.2 On the other hand, the Relaçam has long been ransacked for bits of ethnographic and historical evidence to fill the needs of specific research, without much concern about source criticism. Present-day arguments used to justify the text's historical value and primary character have in general echoed those of pre-1930s vintage, even though these early judgments for or against the Relaçam had been rather idiosyncratic and less than well supported.3

This atmosphere of eclectic fuzziness is hardly surprising, however, given that a thorough modern critical study of the text remains to be undertaken. We do not know enough to form a solidly grounded opinion about the ReIaçam, and so far we have had little to build on except restricted excursions into internal criticism, unsystematic comparisons with other Soto narratives, and open speculation. Things might perhaps be a little better if the status of the Relaçam as a primary survivor account, a claim made by the publisher of the 1557 first edition, were more persuasively established. But the question of the narrative's authenticity is unfortunately tied to the so far unresolved question of the text's authorship.

Simple anonymity would not be a problem, of course, only an inconvenience. Impeccably authentic yet anonymous sixteenth-century Spanish relaciones from the Indies, of all possible sorts, are passably common,4 while a

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