Cabeza de Vaca

I’m sitting in the reading room of the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. In front of me stands a document bound in cowhide, stained and yellowed with time. The cover shows the wear and tear of the centuries, because this loosely bound book tells the story of Florida well before the United States became a sovereign nation.

Fifty years of administration of the province of Florida distilled into a four hundred year old manuscript.

The reading room is modern, well stocked with computers, and the archivists are efficient and muy simpáticos. Outside, the music rises up and wafts in through the barred window. A group of pilgrims refrains ‘Aleluia’ to the rhythm of Spanish guitars whenever the deep baritone voice of the priest ends a verse. The sound of hooves on the flagstones of the courtyard adds to the magic of the morning, taking me back four centuries to the days when the Guadalquivir, the river that bathes Seville, was the artery of commerce to the Indies.

Opposite my window is the terracotta brickwork of the Casas de la Contratacion, the mercantile exchange where ships and cargoes were bought and sold, sailing routes, loads, and dates arranged, and fortunes won and lost. On the other side of the building, across the square, is the cathedral familiar to the spy in The India Road. The church was still being erected then, in the late fifteenth century, and a few merchants traded in its shadows, where the visitors queue today.

After Columbus returned from the Indies trade blossomed, and the priests systematically attempted to drive the moneylenders from the steps of the temple. Unable to win this war of attrition, the traders built their own home opposite. The mercantile exchange still had only one storey when commerce began, such was the appetite for trade.

A typical Sevillian Patio Andaluz. Except this one is part of the old Jewish quarter, where each nook and cranny was reserved for a different trade.

The book’s title is ‘Libro de Capitulaciones y Asientos Pertenecientes a la Florida, 1527-1578’, a half century of records that have survived over four hundred years. When I registered at the archives yesterday I underwent a formal interview to establish my bona fides for the privilege of leafing through this ancient tome.

Many of the entries are in the name of the king, Carlos I. Any entry in his name begins with a list of his possessions, which include Castille and Leon, Navarra, and many others in ‘el mar oceano’. Entries are signed simply El Rey. He cosigns with his mother, Juana I, but he is not only king of Spain, he is also emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of Germany. The famous Charles V, on whose empire the sun never set. A man who spoke French at court, English for business, Italian to his mistresses, German to his horse. The emperor died at the age of 58, and was most certainly a formidable figure. His son Philip II, son of the Portuguese princess Isabel, was able to claim the throne of Portugal in 1580. This led to the occupation of Portugal by Spain, ending when independence was restored in 1640, accompanied by the defenestration of the regent, Miguel de Vasconcelos, from a second floor window in downtown Lisbon.

A typical asiento, done on May 4th 1537 (p. 113) grants permission to exact tribute from the Indians in Florida, although it’s not immediately clear whether this is to be done through their goods or by removal of individuals, presumably for sale as slaves.

Porquanto por parte de vos Juan de anasco nro contador de la provincia Florida cuya governacion tenemos encomendado al capitan hernando de Socto me há sido supplicado los mandaße dar licençia par que pudiessedes rescatar com ellos yndios deßa provincia no enbargante que fuesedes nro contador della lo como la mi mjd fueße y otouclo porbien por la presiente los doy licençia y facultad para que entretanto que enladicha provincia florida nose nos pagam derechos de almoxau faxgo podeis ecarfar y contractar y rescatar conlos yndios dela dicha provincia vos sólo/oencompania Como quiserdes y por bien tomierdes aßientas cosas destos nros reynos como conlas cosas dela misma tierra que enella secuaren e houveren guardando cerca dello las ordenancias que estouvieren hechas/o se hizieren por el mio governador y oficiales de la dicha provincia y contanto que por vos ni por la dicha compania no trateis ni contacteis conladicha mia hacienda direte ou yndirete ßopena dela nra mrd y de pezdimiento de vros biénes para nra camarca y fisco fecha en vallid A quatro dias deL mês Demayo / demill quis e treyntseseteanos / Yo elvrey por mandado de su mag Joan de Samaino / y enlas espaldas dela dha cedula estan cinco seriales de formas y esto loseguiente.

My innaccurate transcription of those few lines, a mere one and half pages of cursive script, took about one hour. Undoubtedly my lack of Spanish, their lack of punctuation, and the use of abbreviations such as nro for nuestro, or quis for quinhentos, didn’t help matters. Given this single book contains 167 pages, it may perhaps explain why only 15% of the contents of the archives are accessible in digital form. The database, available on all the computers in the reading room, lists 248 documents containing the name ‘Cabeza de Vaca’. Many, however, do not refer to Alvar Núñez, the explorer of Florida and Texas. Cow’s Head was obviously the surname of a large family, featuring the likes of Diego, Marcos, Pedro de Yerba, Juan António, Bartolomé, and many others. In fact, I can find very few entries for the great man himself.

One is his conquest of Río de la Plata, which separates Argentina and Uruguay, swiftly followed by a letter from the cleric Antonio Descalera to the emperor referring the atropellos (loosely translated as misdeeds) of Governor Cabeza de Vaca, and his abusive treatment of the natives. In fact a good deal of the documentation on him refers to ‘excesses’ of one form or another.

I was hoping to find maps of the South American coast, particularly featuring Brazil, which will have been part of Cabeza de Vaca’s route to Rio de la Plata. The word ‘Mapas’ brings up 190 hits, of which perhaps 20 are of the Americas. A collection for Florida and Louisiana for the period 1576-1814 shows the Mississippi, with its land concessions, and maps of cities such as New Orleans and Pensacola.

It’s certainly been an interesting morning, a period that in Spain extends well past 2pm. But now it has struck in me a terrible thirst. Time for tapas.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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