In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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More than fifty years have passed since the publication of Haniel Long’s The Marvelous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca. It’s an obscure book based on a letter written some four hundred years ago. Yet it surely ranks as one of the most stirring spiritual odysseys of all time.
In November of 1528, survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Florida washed ashore in the Gulf of Mexico, near present-day Galveston. Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, then thirty-eight years old, was among them. For the next eight years, Cabeza de Vaca and the remnants of the expedition journeyed across the continent; in the course of their travels, those beliefs once central to their lives — as Spaniards, as soldiers, as men in service to their king — underwent a dramatic and disquieting transformation. Conquered peoples sometimes exact hidden triumphs, invisible to those preoccupied with numbers killed or territory claimed, but apparent in the shifts in attitude and understanding that eventually visit the victors.
The story of Cabeza de Vaca survives in his letter to the king. The letter was decidedly circumspect; Cabeza de Vaca understood that his spiritual upheaval was occasioned by an episode that proved tragic for both Spanish colonial history and the king’s personal fortunes. Haniel Long uses the letter as the basis for The Marvelous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca — preserving the original narrative but interpreting it “to show what, quite plainly, was happening to the spirit of man. That is, I allow him to speak as though unafraid of his king and his times. I wish him to address us four hundred years later, in this world of ours where human relation is still the difficult problem, and exploitation the cancer.”
We’re grateful to Jack Kornfield for introducing us to these excerpts. Kornfield, with Christina Feldman, has edited an anthology called Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart, to be published by Harper and Row in April. It is an eclectic collection that affords the reader unsettling moments of self-recognition. Cabeza de Vaca’s letter sits squarely in this vein. It began as a tale of distant conquest; the European colonization of the American continent was an era of gold, slavery, and genocide. It differs from most such accounts, however, in that the usual pursuits of empire brought with it unexpected riches — riches not mined from the earth, nor won through blood, but riches of a far more profound sort.
— T.L. Toma
I am that Núñez Cabeza de Vaca who lately sent you a relation of his shipwrecks and mischances during the eight years he was absent from your dominions. In painful doubt whether my words were clear enough, I write again. My meanings being new to your Majesty and at a hasty glance unconcerned with your prestige, you might consider my narrative a poor occasion for exercising your serene power of understanding. The fault would then lie in me, not in what I have to say. Be my forgiving reader, your Majesty. Grant me your grace.
I was at the battle of Ravenna in 1512. Between dawn and sunset that day perished a thousand score. Young as I was, Ravenna taught me something of how easy it is to tear asunder and destroy a man, body and spirit. In the days that followed, in my first desolate confrontation with slaughter, I saw a far-off light, heard a far-off strain of music. Such words serve as well as any: for what words can describe a happening in the shadows of the soul?
Again that far-off flicker of music came to me in the disorders at Sevilla in 1521, when I fought under the Duke of Medina-Sidonia.
Seven years passed without that flash of inward fire and I forgot about it. Sevilla was then a marvelous, disturbing world. I saw the heretics burning in the arms of the iron prophets. I saw Columbus as an old man, Magellan as a young man. The sailors came ashore with parrots and gold ingots and Indian girls.
Then I too sailed across the seas, Lord Treasurer of the expedition of Pámfilo Narvaez.
All that day when we were in sight of Tenerife I thought of my grandfather, the conqueror of the Grand Canary. In my childhood I was surrounded by the natives of that island, the Guanches, whom he brought home as slaves. I listened to their vague and melancholy singing, learned to be at ease with inarticulate people.
For the money to conquer the Grand Canary, perhaps your Majesty will remember, Pedro de Vera Mendoza had pawned to the Moor his two sons, my father and my uncle.
As I told your Majesty in my account of that journey, never had an expedition more calamities than ours. Some of our ships foundered from hurricanes in the harbors of Cuba. The others we left behind deliberately in the lagoons of Florida.
Our greatest misfortune, aside from our greed and ignorance, lay in our commander, Pámfilo Narvaez himself. Pámfilo believed himself born under a lucky star, though nothing justified such a belief. Before Hernán Cortés, he could have marched to Tenochtitlan. But he did not. When Cortés and his soldiers were richly quartered in the palaces of Montezuma, Pámfilo could have replaced him in command. For that purpose was Pámfilo dispatched from Havana by Velásquez. But Cortés came flying on horseback all the way to Vera Cruz, and talked Pámfilo’s soldiers away from under his very nose. Pámfilo was not without a magnetism. But he was cocksure, a braggart, and what was worse, uncertain of the line between dream and reality. He forgot that Cortés burned his ships only after studying the jeweled emissaries of Montezuma, and becoming sure of the value of the quarry. Pámfilo had nothing to be sure of. And yet he pictured himself another Cortés, he pictured another Tenochtitlan concealed in the fronds of Florida. Having pictured these things he was as certain that they existed as he was of the vein in his neck.
Your Majesty is at liberty to picture us under this aging, adipose, credulous commander. Across that steaming land we marched with our armor glittering and our horses covered with gaudy trappings, 578 of us, toward utter ruin. Believing that on the page of history we would share the glory of Cortés and his murderous band . . .
Pámfilo would summon the copper-colored natives and tell them with gestures that he was searching for a city of the size and value of Tenochtitlan. The Indians had never heard of Tenochtitlan nor of Montezuma. But they had heard of a big town and pointed northward, exclaiming, “Apalachee!”
We marched and we marched, and had fevers and fevers. Yes, your Majesty is at liberty to picture us.
Apalachee was no Tenochtitlan. It was in an immense swamp, a large impoverished settlement of thatched huts, a place of unbearable squalor.
We could do nothing but seek the sea again and sail back to Cuba. Our arms and armor made us feel like dolts, and we wished we had pierced the jungle carrying carpenter’s tools. For now, without ax, adz, or hammer, we had to build ourselves boats.
This is the tale of what men can and cannot do when they must do something or die. We built nine open boats. During the weeks it required, some of us went with scant food, and those whose palates allowed it devoured the horses.
Our five hundred and eighty men had become four hundred when at last we set sail and left behind us the Indian marksmen and the snakes, neither of which in Florida err when they strike.
Day after day tide and wind washed us out to sea and then washed us in to land, along a dazzling and uncertain coast. From thirst, and from the exposure to the frightful sun, our four hundred became forty.
Who knows what was lost in these boats? Another Magellan, another Camoëns, another Cervantes, another St. John of the Cross . . .
No one has so sympathetic an imagination as your Majesty. You will understand what I am not telling you; that I saw men jump overboard, mad from thirst and sun. That I saw them swell and die slowly in delirium, heard their words and songs pour out the pitiful contents of their minds. That I saw men gnaw corpses. And that these were Spanish gentlemen.
It is curious to have so graphic a lesson in what life may become. We had been a proud band, relying on our united strength, our armor, and our horses. Slowly our strength diminished, until nothing that we had in common remained to help any of us.
As I say, it is curious when one has nobody and nothing to rely upon outside of oneself.
Yet again I heard that music, that fitful run and flash of brightness I first heard on the battlefield of Ravenna. Your Majesty is renowned as a patron of music; here was a music you may never have heard.
Somewhere on that coast a handful of us crawled ashore, and were fed and tended by kindly Indians till we regathered vitality for the hopeless voyage to Cuba. We stripped and launched the boat, first putting our clothes aboard her. But a great wave capsized the heavy, rotten hulk, drowning three of us. The others emerged mother-naked on the beach, shivering in the November wind of that overcast afternoon.
The Indians found us as naked as they were, and our barge gone, and in tears. They sat beside us and cried, too. I cried all the harder, to think people so miserable had pity for us. These simple Indians were the first relenting of nature to us in months and months. That evening, for fear we might die on the way, the Indians made fires at intervals along the path to their village, warming us at each fire. That night and many nights after, we slept beside them on the oyster shells which floor their huts, wrapped in hides against the cold winds from the sea.
While we were subjects of your Majesty, we had everything life offers; now we had nothing. To understand what it means to have nothing one must have nothing. No clothing against the weather might appear the worst. But for us poor skeletons who survived it, it was not.
The worst lay in parting little by little with the thoughts that clothe the soul of a European, and most of all of the idea that a man attains strength through dirk and dagger, and serving in your Majesty’s guard. We had to surrender such fantasies till our inward nakedness was the nakedness of an unborn babe, starting life anew in a womb of sensations which in themselves can mysteriously nourish. Several years went by before I could relax in that living plexus for which even now I have no name; but only when at last I relaxed, could I see the possibilities of a life in which to be deprived of Europe was not to be deprived of too much.
Tempests came, we could pull no more roots from the sea channels, the canebrake yielded no more fish. People died in the flimsy lodges. News came that five Spaniards farther down the coast, men from another barge, had eaten one another till but one remained. This deed startled the innocence of our Indians. They debated whether to kill us. Instead, they made us their beasts of burden.
In April the Indians went down to the sea, taking us with them; for a whole month we ate the blackberries of the sand dunes. The Indians danced incessantly. They asked us to cure their sick. When we said we did not know how to cure, they withheld our food from us. We began to watch the procedure of their medicine men. It seemed to us both irreligious and uninstructed. Besides, we found the notion of healing Indians somewhat repellent, as your Majesty will understand. But we had to heal them or die. So we prayed for strength. We prayed on bended knees and in an agony of hunger. Then over each ailing Indian we made the sign of the Cross, and recited the Ave Maria and a paternoster. To our amazement the ailing said they were well. And not only they but the whole tribe went without food so that we might eat. Yet so great was the lack of food for us all, it seemed impossible that life could last.
Truly, it was to our amazement that the ailing said they were well. Being Europeans, we thought we had given away to doctors and priests our ability to heal. But here it was, still in our possession, even if we had only Indians to exercise it upon. We were more than we had thought we were.
To be more than I thought I was — this was a sensation utterly new to me.
Starvation, nakedness, and slavery were utterly new to me, also. The last of my fellow Spaniards on the island died, and there was nothing to eat after the sea roots sprouted but the blackberries of the sand dunes. Nothing to protect me from the attack of the terrible frost, or the terrible sun; no one who knew my language. Everyone I saw was as starved as I. The human body emaciated, the lean cheek, the burning eye — the ribs showing, each rib distinct — the taut skin, the weak loins, the shrunken haunch and pap. In the whole world there can be no poverty like the poverty of these people. I could not stand it. I ran away. . . .
At this time, as I remember it, I began to think of Indians as fellow human beings. I introduce this idea to prepare your Majesty for other ideas which came to me later, in consequence.
These were days when I rearranged the pictures of my childhood, as a child turns his kaleidoscope. I saw the Guanche slaves anew, and as though I were one of them. I saw my grandfather through the eyes of his slaves. I remembered, now without laughing, how he had tricked the Guanches into slavery. He pretended to enlist them to sail from the Grand Canary to conquer Tenerife, and when he had them below decks he battened down the hatches and set sail for Cádiz. My grandfather’s brutality earned him the public denunciation of Bishop Juan de Frías. This too I remembered.
In this wilderness I became a trader, and went to and fro on the coast and a little inland. I went inland with seashells and cockles, and a certain shell used to cut beans, which the natives value. I came out with hides, and red ocher for the face and hair, flint for arrow points, and tassels of deer-hide. I came to be well known among the tribes, and became familiar with the lay of the land.
One day I heard someone calling me by name, “Alvar Núñez, Alvar Núñez!” It was Alonso del Castillo, one of the captains of the expedition. He said that Pámfilo’s barge had drifted ashore among unfriendly Indians, and left of its occupants were only himself and Captain Andrés Dorantes, and Dorantes’ blackamoor, Estevanico. We hid ourselves in a thicket and laid our plans.
That summer, when the coast tribes came together for the summer orgies, we four made good our escape westward. Thus our five hundred and eighty had become four hundred, our four hundred, forty, and our forty, four.
Certain natives came to Castillo. They were having spasms, and they begged him to cure them. He prayed, and required us anxiously to pray with him. When he had done praying, he made the sign of the Cross over the Indians, and their spasms ceased. We knelt to give thanks for this new amazement.
To understand what it means to have nothing one must have nothing.
To understand what it means to have nothing one must have nothing.
Through this region there are no trails, and I became separated from my companions. I spent a very cold night huddled before a fire. In the morning I loaded myself with dry wood, and took two burning sticks. Thus with fuel and fire, I went on for five days, seeing nobody, but having the sun with me by day and Mazzaroth and Arcturus by night. These five days I felt a numbness of those organs which keep one aware of the misery of existence. When curing sick Indians, I have struggled to shut out the thought of Andrés and Alonso (for we are self-conscious, knowing one another’s sins); and in the effort of praying I have felt as though something in me had broken, to give me the power of healing. But alone in this wilderness no tissue of the body hindered the mysterious power.
Nothing of me, your Majesty, existed then outside of that music I first heard at Ravenna.
The sixth day I found my companions, who had concluded that a snake must have bitten me. I told them we ought not to be self-conscious with one another. That power we had felt flowing in us and through us could not, in the nature of things, be acutely conscious of us as individuals. It must come rather as wind comes to the trees of a forest, or as the ocean continues to murmur in the seashell it has thrown ashore.
A gulf deeper than ocean yawns between the old world and the new; what I was now accustomed to would have startled a burgher of Madrid or Salamanca.
At Sevilla in my youth, as I have said, I saw the heretics burning in the arms of the iron prophets. This picture was with me often. Perhaps, like me, those heretics had had to pick up their notions of the Invisible as they went through life, and without the assistance of book or priest. What I myself was learning came from many blinding days in an open boat, while men died beside me crying for their mothers; and from living among these simple Indians, who insisted on our curing them of their ills. And so my notions of the Invisible may differ from what the books say. I mention it in passing, your Majesty.
When Juan de Frías assailed my grandfather openly in his cathedral, calling him coward and fiend, did he follow a lesson he had learned by rote? That good bishop had a heart and mind to which life itself could speak, and speak forcibly.
Indians came, bringing five persons shriveled and paralyzed and very ill. Each of the five offered Castillo silently his bows and arrows. Castillo prayed, we with him; in the morning the five were cured.
Castillo was always afraid his sins would interfere with his ability to work miracles. The Indians turned to me. I told Castillo it was no moment for indulging the idea of being sinful, and then I followed the Indians to their ranch. The dying man was dead; Dorantes and I found him with eyes upturned, and no pulse. I removed the mat that covered him and prayed. At last the something in me like a membrane broke, and I was confident the old man would rise up again. As he did. During the night the natives came to tell us he had talked, eaten, and walked about. They gave us many presents, and we left them the happiest people on earth, for they had given away their very best.
Your Majesty may by now have had enough of our cures, exertions outside of Holy Church, and for the sole benefit of miserable Indians. Yet so profound is your courtesy, I know, that you will let me reveal all that is within my heart. Your Majesty, since I addressed you first, you have become more mysterious to me and more majestic, and this increases my sense of freedom in speaking to you. To the understanding of such days and events this additional narrative becomes necessary, like a real figure to walk beside a ghost.
We found ourselves so pressed that Dorantes and the Moor, who had little taste for it, had to become medicine men, too. Boys and girls, men and women, old men and women, human bodies deformed, starved, wasted by affliction (only rarely one sound and firm). Their eyes followed us every moment. I do not forget those eyes. Those eyes — they thrust me out of myself, into a world where nothing, if done for another, seems impossible.
Months went by as in a dream. The nerve of vision no longer rendered plausible that European world of which we had been a part. That world grew fantastic, and fantastic our countrymen there. We ourselves were only too real. From lack of clothing we had big sores and deep skin fissures on our backs and shoulders, and it hurt us to carry the hides we slept in. It hurt us to find firewood among the cactus. My thighs and arms bled so much I stood it only by remembering — and yet whom or what did I remember? Was it a person? Was it a quality of life? Was it an emotion? Was it even a remembering? Was it not perhaps a listening?
Often for a time it rained gently at dusk, soothing our thighs and arms. In one such dusk we encountered squinting women in an opening. They were afraid to run away from the three pale figures and the shadowy blackamoor, for they took us to be gods floating about in the mist and rain. They led us to a village of fifty huts. Here we cured, and cured.
Our journey westward was but a long series of encounters. Your Majesty, encounters have become my meditation. The moment one accosts a stranger or is accosted by him is above all in this life the moment of drama. The eyes of Indians who crossed my trail have searched me to the very depths to estimate my power. It is true the world over. It is true of a Spaniard meeting another on the road between Toledo and Salamanca. Whoever we meet watches us intently at the quick strange moment of meeting, to see whether we are disposed to be friendly.
Seeing our bodies, seeing my own, and Alonso’s, and Andrés’, and the black Moor’s, sometimes I think how once I was different, how we all were. What would Doña Alonza Maldonado and her husband Dr. Castillo of Salamanca think if they could see their little boy Alonso striding ahead of me, lashed by starvation, scorched and baked by the sun, his hair and beard unkempt, small about the flanks, his body shriveled like a mummy?
In youth the human body drew me and was the object of my secret and natural dreams. But body after body has taken away from me that sensual phosphorescence in which my youth delighted. Within me is no disturbing interplay now, but only the steady currents of adaptation and sympathy.
It was dawning only slowly upon me, your Majesty, that I had it in my discretion to grant life and health to others. Imagine me then perturbed; you are aware of what my training had been as one of your Majesty’s soldiers.
The Arab negro from Azamor endured every privation and still his black limbs shone with superfluous sweat. For this blackamoor was I specially grateful. His reflections on our suffering did not reduce him to apathy. No adverse heats and chills deprived his loins of their strength. He was a sight to see, carrying a copper rattle in his hand, and on his shoulder a green and orange parrot.
There was the afternoon we crossed a big river, more than waist deep, as wide as the Guadalquivir at Sevilla, and with a swift current. I speak of it again because I loved it.
There was the village where each Indian wished to be the first to touch us, and we were squeezed almost to death in the sweating crowd. There was the village so solicitous to be blessed that Alonso fainted of exhaustion. And the village where a new custom began: the Indians who came with us took from the villagers all their bows, arrows, shoes, and beads. From that time on, those who accompanied us took tribute of those to whom they brought us. It made us uneasy, but the victims reassured us. They said they were too glad to see us to feel the loss of their property — and besides, they could make good their losses at the next village, where the Indians were very rich.
There was the plain where first we saw mountains, very low, like white sheep lying down; and the village where they were so pertinacious about touching us all over that in three hours we could not get through with them; and the village where many had one eye clouded, and others were totally blind.
To clarify the same occurrences, words can be arranged differently, as no one knows better than your Majesty. It was a drunkenness, this feeling I began to have, of power to render life and happiness to others. Yet I was concerned about it. I did not wonder about the nature of the power, how widespread it might be, how deep, whether Andrés or Alonso or Estevanico had it in equal measure with me. What occupied me was whether I myself knew how to use it, whether I could master it, whether indeed it was for me to master — perhaps being a self-directing power that came through me. But after one accustoms oneself to the idea, it is good to be able to give out health and joy, whether one man have it, or whether we all have it. Had this thought ever occurred to your Majesty? Never before had it occurred to me.
I said to Andrés, “If we reach Spain I shall petition His Majesty to return me to this land, with a troop of soldiers. And I shall teach the world how to conquer by gentleness, not by slaughter.” “Why then a troop of soldiers?” asked Dorantes, smiling. “Soldiers look for Indian girls and gold.” “Perhaps I could teach them otherwise.” “They would kill you, or tie you to a tree and leave you. What a dunce you are, Alvar Núñez!”
“And what will you do if we reach Spain again?” I asked Andrés. “It will be enough to reach Mexico,” he answered. “I may look about for a rich widow, and spend the rest of my life as a rancher.” “I could not care for such a life,” I said. “To each his adventure,” replied Andrés.
It occurred to me that Andrés might be afraid of the great power within us. I inquired of him. “Yes, I am afraid — who would not be?” he answered earnestly.
Another day, after he had been silent a long time, Andrés said to us, “If I could always heal these people and help them, I might be willing to stay among them. I don’t know. But our present relation to them is caused by our novelty, our transience, and the surprise at our good works. That state of things would wear off. Besides, it is not miracles these people need. They need everything fate has stripped us of in bringing us amongst them naked and on equal terms. Yet not quite equal: we can remember childhood and youth in a land where people live in stone houses, till the same fields year after year, build barns to store the harvests. The towns are related to one another and support the mutual good. Each nobleman and alcalde is an avenue leading to the king; and king, alcalde, thief, and villager all bow to the will of God through Holy Church.”
I took my time thinking these words over. They were true and yet I could not assent to them. Then I answered Andrés, “When these Indians call upon us to have mercy and heal them, is the power they feel in us derived from stone houses, barns, and tilled fields — from alcalde or nobleman, or from Holy Church, for that matter? Let the truth be said, Andrés: all that we learned across the water we have had to throw away. Only what we learned as babes in our mothers’ arms has stayed with us to help others.” “And what did we learn in our mothers’ arms, good dunce?” asked Andrés, putting his arm around my shoulder.
Those eyes — they thrust me out of myself, into a world where nothing, if done for another, seems impossible.
Those eyes — they thrust me out of myself, into a world where nothing, if done for another, seems impossible.
We met a man who some years ago had been shot through the left side of the back with an arrow. He told me the wound made him feel sick all the while. I observed that the head of the arrow lay in the cartilage. I prayed for an hour, and then grasped the very sharp thin stone which served me as a knife, and cut open the breast. Feeling for the arrowhead, I thrust my hand into the palpitating tissue of the body. Your Majesty, that we human beings should be made of limp wet meat appeared to me as strange as that we should be also air and spirit; and in that hour nausea and a quick curiosity mingled with my pity.
This cure was a misfortune to us; it gained us fame in every direction. We soon had with us three or four thousand persons. It went past human endurance to breathe on and make the sign of the Cross over every morsel they ate. In these parts mountain deer, quail, birds, and rabbits abounded, and what the Indians killed, they set before us. They would not touch it and would have died of hunger had we not yielded the blessing they asked for. Besides, they asked our permission for various things they felt like doing, and it soon wore us out. Even doing good, it appears, can lead to ennui, even the sight of the happiness one causes can satiate. And yet your Majesty will rejoice that heaven vouchsafed us a weariness such as this, perhaps never before experienced by a European.
Tribe after tribe, language after language . . . nobody’s memory could recall them all. Always they robbed one another, but those who lost and those who gained were equally content.
Estevanico, the good black, was a link between the aloofness of white men and the warm spermatic life of the Indians. Men, women, and children joked and played with him. No matter what he did, he was not wearied of it; the mystery failed not to act through him to heal and restore.
We traveled fifty leagues through a land of desert, with nothing to eat and little to drink. Through villages where the women dressed in white deerskin and people lived in real houses; these people were the best formed we had seen, the liveliest and most capable, and those who best understood us.
One moonlit evening in another adobe village, we four alternately stood or lay down in the center of the plaza, and the Indians ran to us from all the houses with gifts, touching us and running back to their houses for more gifts, running to us again and touching us — a living glistening cobweb of runners in the moon — keeping up for hours this naked flash to and fro from center to periphery, periphery to center.
Your Majesty, such were the scenes in which I found myself treating all human beings alike. I screw up my courage to confess it. Perhaps it is the secret thing which life has it in itself to become — a long, long march on the road, meeting people, thrown into relations with them, having to meet demands often terrible, and without the aid of mysterious power, impossible: demands of healing and understanding, and constantly the exorcism of fear.
And who is any of us, that without starvation can go through the kingdoms of starvation?
We shared a sunset, on a plain between very high mountains, with a people who for four months of the year eat only powdered straw.
And more starvation.
Later, we came across villages with permanent houses once more, where maize was harvested, and where they gave us brightly decorated blankets. For a hundred leagues we saw good houses and harvested crops, the women better treated than anywhere else. They wore shoes, and blouses open in front and tied with deer string. At sunrise these people lifted their clasped hands to the horizon and passed them over their bodies. At sunset they repeated the gesture. As I watched them at these devotions, I recalled a youngster from Cádiz, one of those who died of thirst beside me in the open boat. That boy drank in the beauty of Florida, watched palm and headland along the coast even in his final delirium. I was sorry he had not lived on to see these natives laving their golden figures in the gold of dawn.
At last we found a sign of our countrymen — what through months and years we had been praying for. On the neck of an Indian a little silver buckle from a sword belt, with a horseshoe nail sewed inside it . . . We questioned him. He said that men with beards like ours had come from heaven to that river; that they had horses, lances, and swords, and had lanced two Indians.
The country grew more and more doleful. The natives had fled to the mountains, leaving their fields. The land was fertile and full of streams, but the people were wan. They told us our countrymen had burned all the villages, taking with them half the men and all the women and children. . . .
Then one day the Indians said that on the night before they had watched the Christians from behind some trees. They saw them take along many persons in chains.
Our countrymen, these slave-catchers, were startled when they saw us approaching. Yet almost with their first words they began to recite their troubles. For many days they had been unable to find Indians to capture. They did not know what to do, and were on the point of starvation. The idea of enslaving our Indians occurred to them in due course, and they were vexed at us for preventing it. They had their interpreter make a fine speech. He told our Indians that we were as a matter of fact Christians too, but had gone astray for a long while, and were people of no luck and little heart. But the Christians on horseback were real Christians, and the lords of the land to be obeyed and served. Our Indians considered this point of view.
They answered that these Christians apparently lied, that we could not possibly be Christians. For we appeared out of sunrise, they out of sunset; we cured the sick, while they killed even the healthy; we went naked and barefoot, while they wore clothes, rode horseback, and stuck people with lances; we asked for nothing and gave away all we were given, while they never gave anybody anything and had no other aim than to steal.
Your Majesty will remember my indignation in my first narrative, that Christians should be so wicked, especially such as had the advantages of being your subjects. I did not at the time understand the true source of my indignation. I do now, and I will explain it. In facing these marauders I was compelled to face the Spanish gentleman I myself had been eight years before. It was not easy to think of it. What, your Majesty, is so melancholy as to confront one’s former unthinking and unfeeling self?
It was many days before I could endure the touch of clothing, many a night before I could sleep in a bed.
Shoes were the worst. In the Spanish settlements I dared not go barefoot, for provincials are the most easily shocked of Spaniards. I had not valued enough the pressure of earth on my naked feet, while permitted that refreshment.
At first I did not notice other ways in which our ancient civilization was affecting me. Yet soon I observed a certain reluctance in me to do good to others. I would say to myself, need I exert what is left of me, I who have undergone tortures in an open boat and every privation and humiliation among the Indians, when there are strong healthy men about me, fresh from Holy Church and from school, who know their Christian duty? We Europeans all talk this way to ourselves. It has become second nature to us. Each nobleman and alcalde and villager is an avenue that leads us to this way of talking; we can admit it privately, your Majesty, can we not? If a man needs a cloak, we do not give it to him if we have our wits about us; nor are we to be caught stretching out our finger in aid of a miserable woman. Someone else will do it, we say. Our communal life dries up our milk: we are barren as the fields of Castilla. We regard our native land as a power which acts of itself, and relieves us each of exertion. While with the Indians I thought only about doing them good. But back among my fellow countrymen, I had to be on my guard not to do them positive harm. If one lives where all suffer and starve, one acts on one’s own impulse to help. But where plenty abounds, we surrender our generosity, believing that our country replaces us each and several. This is not so, and indeed a delusion. On the contrary, the power of maintaining life in others lives within each of us, and from each of us does it recede when unused. It is a concentrated power. If you are not acquainted with it, your Majesty can have no inkling of what it is like, what it portends, or the ways in which it slips from one.
In the name of God, your Majesty,