Not Running with the Bulls, but Sailing with the Cow’s Head

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The famed San Fermin Festival and the “running of the bulls” in Pamplona, Spain is held at this time every year. Whatever one may think about this long-practiced tradition, there is one thing that all can agree upon — the festival brings people to Pamplona from all over the world and has captured the imagination of writers like Hemingway, as well as people who may only write about the experience on a picture postcard. And speaking of travelers and bovines…..

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was born at Jerez de la Frontera (c.1490-c.1557) in Andalusia, Spain. His journey is one of the most amazing and personal accounts of exploration in the Americas. Alvar Nunez joined the expedition of Narvaez to Florida in 1526. As treasurer, and one of the chief officers, of the Narváez expedition, Cabeza de Vaca and three others were the only survivors of the party of 300 men who landed near Tampa Bay, Florida on April 15, 1528.

A map from the same period from the Hoole Library (gift of the Warner family)
Americae sive novi orbis nova descriptio
Ortelius, 1570
G3290 1570 O7x
Visit to see more!

Over the course of eight years, various members of the expedition succumbed to disease, starvation, exposure, and the attacks of various Native American groups as they slowly made their way west, toward Mexico becoming the first Europeans to travel across the North American Continent.

Returning to Spain in 1537, he obtained the post of Governor of the Rio De La Plata region (Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay), he went in 1541. Cabeza de Vaca was a trustworthy subaltern, but not fit for independent command. His men rebelled against him in 1543, took him prisoner, and sent him back to Spain, where for eight years he was kept in captivity. The date of his death is unknown, but it is stated that he ended his days in Seville, where he occupied an honorable and modestly lucrative position in connection with the American trade.

His chronicle of these travels, often referred to as Naufragios, contains a strong dose of emotive elements destined to elevate the central figure of the narration, , to a superior level, achieving with this technique that the reader, identifying with the protagonist, will accept a large part of the fiction that has been poured into the text. A fundamental factor in this process is not simply the novelistic content of the work, but the ability of Cabeza de Vaca to present events that, even if they were real, in many instances are surrounded by a supernatural halo.

The story of his first trials in America as a member of the expedition of Narvaez, which was published in Valladolid on 1555 by Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba. It has been translated numerous times into other languages, including English and French.

The Hoole Library holds the first French edition, Relation et Naufrages, which was by the Librarie de la Société de de Géographie de Paris in 1837. There is hardly a work on early travel history of North or South America where Cabeza de Vaca is not named or referenced heavily.

Title page of the first French translation of Nunez’s work,
published in 1837.

This book shows his accounting to the King Carlos V about the expedition from the moment they departed Spain until he returned and his numerous and colorful reflections on the voyage. This work represents one of the great examples of early Travel Writing, where the words and descriptions take us beyond history to a world through his eyes.

En Español:

Naufragios, contiene una fuerte dosis de elementos destinados a elevar la figura central de la narracion, alcanzando con esta tecnica que el lector se identifique con el protagonist aceptando sin darse cuenta mucha de la ficcion incluida en el relato. Un factor fundamental en este proceso no solamente es el contenido novelistico de Cabeza de Vaca, pero su abilidad al presentar eventos, que si fueran reales en muchas instancias estarian rodeados de un aire o significado supernatural. Este libro representa las cronicas o relatos de Cabeza de Vaca al Rey Carlos V, incluyendo algunas reflexiones de lo acontecido, hay que notar que estas cronicas no fueron escritas hasta que Cabeza de Vaca llego a Espana en 1537. Para muchos estos relatos y las reflexiones que le siguen representan un buen ejemplo del comienzo, de lo que en la actualidad se conoce como “Travel writing”, donde las palabras y descripciones nos llevan mas alla de la historia, hechos o descripciones a un mundo a traves de los ojos del escritor.

Read more here:
Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez: The Narrative of Cabeza De Vaca. Translation of La Relacion by Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz.
Howard, David A. (1997). Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas. (E125.N9H68)

See this edition in Google books: Relation et Naufrages by Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, French Edition 1837 ( E125.N9)

So, why Cabeza de Vaca? Why not. Well, also because we want to welcome a new staffmember to Hoole — Luis Boggio, who is working with our foreign language rare books. He wanted to share a little bit of what he thinks is cool@hoole. Luis is a native of Uruguay and new to The University of Alabama. He brings an exciting new dynamic to the library with his background in Spanish and Italian and his great love for travel. Bienvenido, Luis!

Bonus points if you tell us where the very interesting and unflattering name of “cow’s head” came from? Cool indeed.

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