Wednesday, July 25, 2007


When I was little I was enthralled in stories of heroic endurance, whether of Geronimo or of Cabeza de Vaca. I did not and could not distinguish the feats of conquerors from those of the defeated.

I was browsing in R.J. Julia, an independent bookstore, when I came across a book called "Brutal Journey," and my childhood interest in de Vaca's long ordeal was relit. He was part of an expedition in the 1520s to Florida. The expedition was ruined by catastrophe after catastrophe. Finally, after being saved from starvation by aborigines near present-day Galveston, Texas, de Vaca and his men make one more attempt to launch their boat. It is sunk just off shore, with everything they possess, including their clothes.

The author makes the insightful statement that the loss of the clothing and armor was doubtless a harsh blow to men instilled with the idea that their superior civilization and civility was represented in their dress. Suddenly, they were reduced to the condition of the savages they feared and hated. They wept on the beach, naked in the chill wind, reduced in more ways than one.

The natives who had helped them returned, and upon learning of their plight (and the death of some of the men), joined the Spaniards in loud lamentation. This sympathetic act increased the misery of these superior men, convinced that they had really reached bottom.

de Vaca persuaded his comrades that their only chance of survival was to join the Indians to their village. Even at that extremity, some Spaniards resisted, convinced they would be sacrificed. Finally they did join them. But in the chill wind and their emaciation, some men could not walk. The natives carried them on their backs. They lit fires along the way to warm them.

The hold outs lived on the outskirts of the village, unable to accept the Indians as human. After several months they were discovered dead. The state of the corpses enraged the Indians, for it was evident that the Spaniards had eaten the corpses of their comrades. Only one body was whole. For a time they considered killing the Spaniards in their midst.

The Spaniards, whose sense of superiority rested in large part upon the attribution of cannibalism to the indigenous Other, had themselves sunk to cannibalism. And the "savages," blindly maligned for eating human flesh, considered punishment against the breakers of the taboo. Oh the poetic lessons of History!

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