“The Moor’s Account” by Laila Lalami — A Review

Sarah Crown in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_1324 Aug. 21 21.00In 1527, a fleet of five ships set sail from Spain for the New World, on a mission to settle the recently discovered land of La Florida. After making landfall on the Gulf coast, near where the city of St Petersburg stands today, the expedition’s leader, Pánfilo de Narváez, headed into the country’s unmapped interior in search of the gold he had convinced himself would be found there. Within days his men became hopelessly lost; soon after they began to die, from starvation, disease, drowning and the depredations of local tribes. In the end, of an original contingent of 300, just four survived: three Spanish gentlemen – Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo and Andrés Dorantes – and Estebanico, a Moorish slave.

History, it’s said, is written by the victors. While the Narváez expedition was a catastrophe of almost absurd proportions, its name used for years afterwards as a byword for disaster, these four men (who were eventually picked up in northern Mexico by a group of Spanish slavers, “strangely dressed and in the company of Indians”), were, if not victors, at least survivors. Together, they’d lived through the worst the continent could throw at them and even, ultimately, carved out a niche for themselves as healers among the indigenous Americans. Their reappearance was a triumph bordering on the miraculous, and Cabeza de Vaca’s tale of their adventures, which he published on his return to Spain, was justly celebrated. But his story also revealed that, even among survivors, some are more equal than others. While the three Castilians were given joint billing, the slave who had been with them every step of the way for the eight long years of their exile was confined to a single line of biography. “The fourth [of us],” says Cabeza de Vaca, “is Estebanico, an Arab Negro from Azemmour.” And that’s it.

When she came across Cabeza de Vaca’s chronicle nearly 500 years after it was written, Laila Lalami was first puzzled, then fascinated by the omission.

More here.