Nature & Landscape: The Conflicting Views of Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca

Europeans ventured to the New World for a variety of reasons–religious freedom, a new start, to expand the empire of their homeland–but one of the most common reasons was to extract resources from the land and bring them back to Europe in order to make large sums of money. One country that was very motivated to explore the possibilities of monetary gain in the New World was Spain, and two of Spain’s most noteworthy explorers were Christopher Columbus and Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. Considering the similarities between the two, it is quite interesting to note one discrepancy in their writings and recordings of their trips to the new world: their view towards the landscape and nature of the New World. When one looks at the writings of Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca, specifically “Journal of the First Voyage to America” and “Relation of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca,” it is critical to note that both explorers are writing to the same audience: the Spanish Royalty. Columbus describes the landscape and wildlife of the New World in a very exaggerated and spectacular manner, while Cabeza de Vaca is very straightforward, only going into detail when describing the adverse and difficult conditions of the landscape that he traversed. Considering the fact that both men are describing essentially the same region of the world, it is curious as to what causes the disagreement between the two. However, when one considers the fact that the men are writing to the king and queen, things fall into place. Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca’s different portrayals of the landscape and fertility of the land can be attributed to their goals in writing to the king and queen. Columbus’ writings portray the land as fruitful and wonderful in an attempt to make the king and queen believe that his venture was worth their investment, while Cabeza de Vaca, who was stranded in the new world for nine years, is trying to make the land seem as challenging and infertile as possible in an attempt to make his survival seem heroic and admirable in the eyes of the monarchy.

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Columbus

In Columbus’ “Journal of the First Voyage to America,” he immediately begins to describe how marvelous the land is. He tells the king and queen that:

“This island even exceeds the others in beauty and fertility. Groves of lofty and flourishing trees are abundant, as also large lakes surrounded and overhung by the foliage, in a most enchanting manner. Everything looked as green as in April in Andalusia. The melody of the birds was so exquisite that one was never willing to part from the spot, and the flocks of parrots obscured the heavens…A thousand different types of trees, with their fruit were to be met with, and of a wonderfully delicous odor…I am certain they are all valuable…Going round one of these lakes I saw a snake, which we killed, and I have ket the skin for your highnesses…” (Columbus 138-39).

Clearly, Columbus is doing everything within the power of his writing to ensure that the king and queen do not regret financially supporting his voyage. By explaining how the island is fertile, he is making it clear to the king and queen that it will be a productive and prosperous agricultural settlement; he even, later on in the work, tells the king and queen that he has found aloe plants, which he believes are valuable. He wants to show that he has been successful from the very second he set foot on land and give the impression that he has only scratched the surface of the resources that could be harvested from this place. He also tries very hard to make the island he is on seem like a perfect paradise. He emphasizes the songs of the birds and the smell of the fruit on the trees, neither of which are really relevant to whether or not he is being productive on his expedition. The only purpose Columbus could possibly have had in describing the pleasantries of nature in the new world would be to develop an image of some Garden of Eden like wonderland in the minds of the king and queen, encouraging them to fund more trips, send more supplies, and hold Columbus in even higher regards. To even further develop the monarchy’s trust in him, Columbus also mentions the killing of a snake, which symbolizes the ease with which Spain will be able to conquer nature and use it as a means to gain wealth. In Columbus’ account of the new world, he writes with every intention of showing the king and queen that he is off to an auspicious start in order to keep their support, and he does so by exaggerating the beauty and fertility of the land in the new world.

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Cabeza de Vaca

Cabeza de Vaca exaggerates the landscape of the new world in the opposite way, as he was trying to show the king and queen the harsh nature of the new world, the harsh nature that he survived for nine years, in an effort to portray himself as a hero. While Columbus spent so much effort describing the wonderful songbirds, Cabeza de Vaca addresses the birds in one sentence: “Birds are of various kinds” (Cabeza de Vaca 160). And again unlike Columbus, who wrote of rivers deep enough for large ships and easily traversable landscapes, Cabeza de Vaca wrote that “the country [was] very thinly peopled and difficult to travel for the bad passages, the woods, and lakes…dense forests, immense deserts and solitudes” (Cabeza de Vaca 161). Clearly, Cabeza de Vaca is trying to convey a different image of the new world to the king and queen. Starkly contrasting Columbus’ accounts of man conquering nature, Cabeza de Vaca tires very hard to show the king and queen that nature, especially in the new world, was something that could easily conquer man. He wrote:

“I [gathered] some bundles of the coarse straw that there abounds, with which I covered myself in the hole. In this way I was sheltered at night from cold. On one occasion while I slept, the fire fell upon the straw, when it began to blaze so rapidly that notwithstanding the haste I made to get out of it, I carried some marks on my hair of the danger to which I was exposed. all this while I tasted not a mouthful, nor did I find anything I could eat. My feet were bare and bled a great deal. Through the mercy of God, the wind did not blow from the north in all this time, otherwise I should have died” (Cabeza de Vaca 165).

Immediately, it is clear that Cabeza de Vaca’s view of nature is a stark contrast to that of Columbus. While Columbus writes of the plentifulness of fruit and birds, all that Cabeza de Vaca says is plentiful is coarse straw, which he slept in. Immediately the reader, who was initially only meant to be the king and queen, feels a respect for Cabeza de Vaca simply due to the fact that he endured these conditions sleeping in a hole stuffed with straw. Furthermore, Cabeza de Vaca makes it clear that there was no food to be found anywhere around him, as “all [the] while he tasted not a mouthful.” This is interesting, considering that in the scheme of things Cabeza de Vaca was not too far from where Columbus was, the island where there were “a thousand different trees, with their fruit to be met with” (Columbus 139). One of the most evident differences between the two passages is that Columbus’ ends in man conquering nature, but Cabeza de Vaca’s ends in nature almost conquering man. Something as simple as the direction of the wind could have killed Cabeza de Vaca. Both men are describing the same region of the world, but their outlooks on nature are polar opposites.

It is unlikely that a change in the direction of the wind could have been a problem strong enough to kill Cabeza de Vaca, and it is also unlikely that every single fruit Columbus saw was valuable in the European market, but it is interesting to trace their hyperbolic writings back to their inner motivations in writing to the Spanish king and queen. Columbus simply wanted to have them maintain their support of his expeditions, so he went out of his way to make his discoveries seem better than they actually were by exaggerating the abundance of resources in nature in the new world. Cabeza de Vaca also had a selfish goal in writing to the king and queen, but his goal was to assert himself as a hero after his nine years of surviving in the new world. Nobody would admire Cabeza de Vaca for surviving nine years in a land of abundant fruit and animals that could be easily slaughtered, so he makes sure to describe the new world as a desolate, unforgiving, and barren land where one can go miles without seeing any sign of nourishment. Clearly, it is questionable as to whether either of the accounts of the landscape and natural abundance of the new world are accurate, because both explorers exaggerated in order to make their stories seem more admirable than they may have been. Regardless of who was more accurate in their description of the new world, as that may never be found out, both writers were influenced by their personal agenda in how they represent the natural landscape and fertility of the new world in their writings to the king and queen of Spain.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Columbus gets so much attention. Good to read about Cabeza de Vaca. Sounds like they might have been fundamentally different people, too, i.e. optimist vs pessimist, in their outlook on the world. Great post!

    Like

    1. James Freitas says:

      Thanks! Glad somebody out there actually finds this interesting!

      Like

      1. I’m a nerd. 🙂 Trying re-learn early American history as it really happened, rather than believing the stories we were told.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. James Freitas says:

        A noble cause!

        Like

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