Pánfilo De Narváez: Bad Choices Or Just Bad Luck? Part Ii

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I left off last week at the point where Pánfilo de Narváez, who had lost an eye to a crossbow bolt, was appointed adelantado of Florida by Charles V, King of Spain. The appointment meant that he was governor of Florida — provided he could conquer it.

I hereby appoint you governor of Mars, Johnny. Go get it!

So, from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, near Cadiz, on June 17, 1527, sailed five ships containing de Narváez, 600 men, and 80 horses.

Nine months later, on Sarasota Bay, Florida, in April 1528, arrived four ships containing de Narváez, 400 men, and 42 horses.

Only a few of the 200 missing men had died. With his usual luck, de Narváez managed to lose most of them to desertions as he put in at Spanish-held islands. Horses, however, do not do well in sailing vessels in bad weather, and de Narváez had lost 38 of them to two full-blast tropical hurricanes.

And the 42 horses remaining were half-starved, emaciated, and barely able to carry a rider.

Second in command to de Narváez was one of the most amazing men who ever lived: Álvar Núñez de Vera Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca is the man who made it back to Spain to write the book I mentioned last week: “The Relación of Cabeza de Vaca.” It was Cabeza de Vaca’s report to King Charles V.

More about Cabeza de Vaca later. Much more ...

So what was de Narváez doing in Florida? The great Aztec Empire had just fallen. The Inca Empire in Peru was known, though only by word of mouth so far. The Spaniards could hardly believe their good luck in having found two places where gold and silver abounded in such quantities. And rumors of a third great Indian empire, this one in Florida, were rampant.

It was, however, to be another four years before Peru was conquered. Pizarro had headed two expeditions south from Panama along the Pacific coast. He was certain he was nearing the great Inca Empire, and news of the immense wealth awaiting him there had spread through the Spanish possessions. And so de Narváez believed he too was on his way to fame and fortune.

“Huh?” you may be asking. “Fame and fortune? A great empire in Florida? Miami Beach is that old?”

What? You mean you never heard of Apalachen? The great Indian Empire down there in Florida? Another empire just like the Aztec and Inca Empires? A place loaded with gold and silver?

No? Well the Spaniards had.

And before you start saying how gullible they must have been, stop and think. The Spaniards had just conquered the Aztec Empire. Silver and gold was on its way home by the shipload. The Indians of the Pacific coast of South America spoke of another place like it, only richer. And Pizarro and his men had seen some of the Inca gold. So why should there not have been a third such place?

There is one odd thing, though. The minute de Narváez and his men hit the ground in Florida, the Indians began pointing north and telling them of a place of great riches. That puzzled me when I first read it, but then the light dawned ...

Why would they tell de Narváez and his 400 men about a place that didn’t exist? Easy. If you had 400 guys running looking for a place to loot, eyeing the little you had, and eating up everything in sight, what would you do? I know what I’d do, I’d be telling some big whoppers about gold, silver, platinum, a cure for hemorrhoids, or anything else I thought might get rid of them. Wouldn’t you?

Anyway, having landed in Sarasota Bay and traveled the 45 miles to Tampa Bay in only 12 days, de Narváez made his next great decision. As any military man will tell you, you never split your force in the face of an enemy of unknown size, but that is exactly what he did. Despite the fact that Cabeza de Vaca argued long and hard against it, de Narváez ordered a quarter of his men aboard the ships, and sent them to find the Rio Grande and Tampico, which he thought were just 30 to 45 miles away.

In his usual way he slightly underestimated the distance.

By how much? Oh, roughly 1,800 miles.

And so off into the Florida swamps marched de Narváez, 300 men, and 42 weakened horses. And they covered the 196 miles to Apalachen in just 46 days. But they had a problem.

Six of them in fact:

• Since he had planned to travel only 45 miles to the Tampico, de Narváez had issued only two pounds of biscuit and a half pound of bacon to each man.

So they were a mite hungry after 46 days.

• Apalachen was just a large, but quite ordinary, village.

• Apalachen tribesmen turned out to be excellent bowmen, with 6-foot-long bows as thick as an arm that fired yard-long arrows.

• Armor made no difference.

• One-third of the men had contracted malaria in the swamps.

• There were no ships to be found. Not then, not ever.

So what did those half-dead, half-starved men lost in some of the worst marshland on the planet do? Did they give up? Did they abandon the sick and wounded and flee? Did they lie down and die?

They did not! Those incredibly brave Spaniards did something hard to imagine. Cabeza de Vaca says they had no craftsman with them, that knew little about building anything. And yet, they made bellows from skins and wood. They made charcoal. And they took off their armor, spurs, and weapons, and melted them down into ...

Nails and tools — axes, saws, chisels and hammers!

And in a little over a month and a half, eating one horse every three days, they built five barge-like boats, caulked them with oakum made from the pounded leaves of palmetto palms, sealed them with pine pitch, made sails for them out of their own shirts, and wove ropes for rigging from horsehair and plant fibers.

Then the 242 of them remaining alive, many of them desperately ill, embarked in those boats, headed to they knew not where.

Those were brave men! I salute them! Every one of them! Not many people could have done what they did.

Next week: Cabeza de Vaca: A man who made his own luck.

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