The Slave Who Found a New World

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Reviewed by David Blight
Sunday, December 14, 2008


The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South

By Robert Goodwin

Harper. 414 pp. $25.95

Many American history textbooks mention the African explorer Esteban Dorantes. Some voice certainty about his participation in the first, ill-fated Spanish expedition across the American South in 1528 and his discovery in 1538-39 of Arizona and New Mexico. Others cautiously place him in a mixture of fact and mythology.

In Crossing the Continent, Robert Goodwin, a British historian and expert on the Spanish colonial empire, takes us on a scholarly and geographical journey in search of the real Esteban. And Esteban was real. He was born somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa around 1500. He was sold into slavery in the coastal town of Azemmour, Morocco, and arrived in Spain in 1522. In the large slave market in the teeming city of Seville, he was sold again, this time to Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, a captain and conquistador. And that, in short, is how Esteban came to be aboard one of five ships that sailed from Spain in 1527, first to Santo Domingo and then on to Florida in search of gold and glory.

The expedition, under the command of Pánfilo Narváez, landed near Tampa Bay and almost immediately fell apart. Most of its 300 members succumbed to starvation, disease or drowning. But a few traversed what is today Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana before arriving in small vessels on the coast of Texas, where for nearly five years a dwindling number (first eight, then only four) lived among the Karankawa Indians. Besides Esteban, the survivors were his owner, Dorantes; Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish nobleman who lived to write a famous account of the adventure; and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, a greedy and ambitious conquistador. The four traveled across northeastern Mexico and then south until they encountered Spanish slave traders with ghastly gangs of Mexican Indians in shackles. Soon they reached the stunningly cosmopolitan Mexico City, the seat of Spanish power in the New World, where they became "celebrities," as Goodwin nicely shows, by living off their greatest possession: their story.

And that story -- not just the reality of their journey -- is Goodwin's subject. He presents at least three narratives: one, the actual history of the great crossing and Esteban's place in it; two, the way history and myth have intertwined in this particular tale; and three, the author's own adventures as he tried to sift fact from fantasy. The book is, he acknowledges, a mixture of "uncertainty, conjecture, and historical truth." Goodwin's prose is studded with such caveats as "perhaps," "it seems" and "must have," and while he often dispels myths, he sometimes adopts them. He hyperbolically calls Esteban the "first African-American," for instance, even though Esteban was neither the first African to come to the Americas nor the first to die here. He was merely the first to achieve fame.

At times, the triple narrative drags, weighted down by long digressions on the architecture and festivals of Seville, the exotic cosmopolitanism of Mexico City and the aridity of the Southwest. But we do learn a good deal about slaving and war-mongering in the Spanish colonies, and the book contains as vivid a description of sickness and disease during a 16th-century Atlantic crossing as one would ever want to read. Goodwin's commentary on the two published versions of the four survivors' story -- Cabeza de Vaca's Shipwrecks and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo's General and Natural History of the Indies -- is an unusually engaging treatment of the differences between popular and scholarly history in their day. (Oviedo was a Spanish court historian who sought out real sources and, according to Goodwin, fully deserves the label of "first European historian of America.")

Among the book's most engaging passages are Goodwin's account of his research in Spain and Havana, his excursions to northern Mexico and the ancient Zuni pueblos in Arizona where Esteban died, and especially his discoveries in New York City, where he read an original edition of Oviedo's History, long hidden away at the Hispanic Society of America on 155th Street, and Cabeza de Vaca's romantic Shipwrecks, preserved at the more glitzy New York Public Library. Goodwin's personal travelogue, though jarring to the historical narrative, is nevertheless interesting.

But Esteban's exploits are the heart of the book. By an imaginative reading of the evidence, Goodwin argues that Esteban became the leader of the "famous four" and their "great communicator" to the many Indian groups they met. Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo and Dorantes may have gone native, but, according to Goodwin, Esteban was the real thing: Adorned with strings of sea shells on his arms, feathers on his head, bright-colored clothing and a rattle made from a dried gourd, he became a successful shaman who practiced healing arts on sick and dying Indians and gained access to their villages and food supplies. In so doing, Goodwin argues, Esteban achieved a kind of frontier equality with other Spaniards. When he led the expedition into what is now the southwestern United States, he became, in Goodwin's view, a "runaway slave" seeking not a conquistador's wealth and glory but his own freedom and a new home. This is surely a plausible interpretation, though much is uncertain. The author gave up in frustration, for example, after trying to discern exactly how Esteban died in 1539.

In Crossing the Continent, Goodwin succeeds in lifting an important historical figure out of the fog of myth. But in building up such a heroic portrait of Esteban from the maddeningly partial evidence, he is left with his own verdict on this romantic story: "Esteban now lives on in the modern mythology of the American dream, another heroic protagonist in some semi-documented legend about the origins of a stolen continent." ·

David W. Blight teaches American history at Yale University and is the author of "A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped from Slavery, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation."

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