Pánfilo De Narváez: Bad Choices Or Just Bad Luck?


While attending college I ran across a book that led me to believe that Pánfilo de Narváez, one of the conquistadors, either made a lot of bad choices or was cursed with very bad luck.

I found the book quite by accident in the university library, a place I really enjoyed. Having access to a large, several story high library stocked with books I hadn’t read made me feel like a kid who’d been let loose in a candy store.

I like to read, but what I really like is learning something new. And the newer the better, by which I mean the less I know about something, the happier I am when I run across books on the subject. So I walked into the library one day with time to kill and was headed for the science floor, but a stray thought crossed my mind: I had been on every floor except one.

“Huh!” I said. (I say that a lot.) “I wonder why not?”

So I hopped in the elevator and got off at the floor I hadn’t seen. And lo and behold! One look at the large sign over the shelves facing me told me I had found the mother lode. Guess what it said? LOGIC. Who could pass on that, Johnny?

However, three hours later I went off to another floor, and I never went back to that one again. You know what they had on all those shelves?

Philosophy books. I learned something that day all right — and you philosophy majors can kill me for saying it — there ain’t nothin logical about philosophy. Not to a science major.

You know the kind of things they talked about in those big, fat (and dusty!) books? Get this: “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”

You know how deep that is to a science major? About as deep as asking somebody standing by the window if it’s raining outside. All you have to do to answer the great “tree falling” question is define one word: “sound.”

If by “sound” you mean something someone hears, then the answer is — obviously — no, there was no sound. If by “sound” you mean air vibrations between 20 and 20,000 cycles per second, then the answer is — equally obviously — yes, there was a sound.

After that day I knew why Bill Cosby shook his when he met a good looking philosophy major who went around asking, “Why is there air?” As Bill says, “I know why there’s air. There’s air to blow up footballs and basketballs. Any phys-ed major knows that.”

I can see that.

But that’s not what I started out to tell you about. I wanted to tell you about one of the greatest discoveries of my life, a little book called, “The Relación of Cabeza de Vaca.”

You see, after spending two hours with those fat old tomes I needed two things: One was fresh air. The other one was something logical to think about. So, after class that day I went back to the library, got in the elevator, pushed a button at random, rode up to some floor or other, turned in a direction I had never been, and put my hand on the first book I came to. (That’s really true!)

It was small red book about the size of my hand, which made me happy. Why?

Because back when I was a teen I read a book just the same size and color — Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Campaigns,” which turned out to be the best book I had read up till then.

Never read it? Do it! For one thing, you’ll read how Caesar laid siege to a large city in Gaul in which he trapped the Gallic Chieftain Vercingetorix — after which the whole fighting population of Gaul showed up and surrounded Caesar. It’s a heck of a story!

From what Caesar writes (yes, he wrote it himself!) somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 angry Gauls showed up around his camp. So he ended up building a large set of fortifications around the city he was besieging to keep one bunch of Gauls in, and a larger set around his camp to keep another bunch of Gauls out.

And then he proceeded to whip up on both of them.

Remembering that little red book of Caesar’s the size of my hand, and eyeing the one I had in it at the moment, I figured I had come upon a small treasure. Rarely have I ever been so right!

What a find! I still can hardly believe my good luck.

I’m going to tell you about two men. One who may be the wisest man who ever found himself in a great military disaster, and one who was either one of the unluckiest all around characters who ever walked the planet, or one of the worst decision makers.

The wise one? Álvar Núñez de Vera Cabeza de Vaca, the first European ever to set foot in Arizona. The other one? Pánfilo de Narváez, who missed the boat every time it sailed. Literally.

What did de Narváez do? Let’s start with this:

Obviously, you’ve heard of Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztec Empire.

Cortés was married to the daughter of the governor of Cuba, one Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, but even so his father-in-law was jealous of him, as often happens when a great man works for a not-so-great one. With the begrudging approval of Velázquez, Cortés sailed for Mexico with 1,100 men, intent on conquest. But when he reached Veracruz, and rightfully suspicious of Velázquez, Cortés placed himself under direct orders of the King of Spain.

Velázquez justified his suspicion by sending Pánfilo de Narváez after Cortés with a large force. But with the whole Aztec empire on one side, and de Narváez on the other, Cortés not only beat de Narváez, he got his men to join him.

What did de Narváez get out all this? Brace yourself. It even hurts to read it: A crossbow bolt in the eye. And two years in prison under Cortés at Veracruz. Sadly, de Narváez didn’t do the Aztecs any favors either. One of his men was carrying smallpox, which spread rapidly, killing thousands upon thousands of men, women and children.

Eventually, de Narváez was released by Cortés, and having traveled back to Spain, he was appointed adelantado (literally “first man” or “governor and justice”) of Florida.

Of course, Florida had yet to be conquered ...

Next week: Six hundred men set sail for Florida.

And some even get there.


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