To deal with the history first: In 1527, Panfilo de Narvaez led a disastrous expedition from the newly-conquered Spanish territories of Mexico to La Florida. Of the 300 men who were under his command, only four returned. These were Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andres Dorantes de Carranza and his black Moorish slave called Estebanico. According to the author, all we know about the latter, who is the central character in this book, is found in one line of Cabeza de Vaca’s account of what happened – “the fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor.” This is not quite true because we know that Dorantes sold him to Governor Mendoza of Mexico. As this was a commercial transaction between two noblemen, there is no record of why Dorantes did this. My suspicion is that he did not want to have a daily reminder of his eight years among the Native Americans. On the other hand, he may just have needed the money to woo the rich widow he eventually married.
Cabeza de Vaca’s account tells us what happened to some of the expedition. They died of disease, starvation, murder, and being eaten by alligators. But Narvaez and most of his men simply disappear from history when a storm at sea separates their rafts from each other. It is presumed that Narvaez and those with him drowned.
When the four returned to Spanish-held territories, the accounts of three of the survivors were recorded in the official archives of the Spanish Empire, and Cabeza de Vaca eventually published his account of what happened. The fourth survivor was simply ignored, because he was a slave, a Moor and black. That is the theme that Laila Lalami is exploring in this book. Estebanico was the first recorded black man to visit the Americas, and yet we know nothing about him because his story was not perceived to have any value.
So the task that Laila Lalami sets herself is that of writing a story for Estebanico that is coherent and credible, creating a man who the reader can understand and relate to. She succeeds because she does not create an “Incredible Crichton”, who saves the aristocracy in their dire distress, but who reverts to servant status when they are rescued because that is what duty requires. In other words, this is not a comic novel.
Leila Lalami creates a man who has hopes, fears and desires, who has become a slave through circumstance, and who wishes above all things to be free. This is a story about how the marginalised are ignored by history although they help to create it. It is a story about how the powerful can decide what is recorded even when they are describing situations in which they were powerless. It is a story about how historical accounts are distorted through the mores and prejudices of the time in which they are written, and how history is written by the victor.
This is also a tale that imagines a truth beneath the historical accounts. Lalami asks some very simple questions. Did these men behave like monks for eight years, or did they have sexual relations with Native American women? If the latter, what happened to those women, especially when Cabeza de Vaca went home, and the other two hidalgos married wealthy widows? If the latter, were there children, and what happened to them? How was the master/slave relationship between Dorantes and Estebanico maintained during those eight years? Or did it lapse, and did Dorantes reassert it when they returned to Spanish-ruled territory? How did they survive? That at least is clear from the historical account. They became a part of Native American society, travelling from encampment to town in the American South-West and working for their living as they went. That must have been particularly galling for the three hidalgos, as it levelled them with Estebanico, who was a Moor, black and a slave.
Laila Lalami has a very wide scope because the historical accounts avoid these issues, and Cabeza de Vaca, who wrote the published account, was not with his companions throughout the whole period, having become separated from them, and then meeting up with them again. What we can be sure of is that the Narvaez expedition landed at Tampa Bay (based on the description) and that the four survivors returned to Spanish-ruled territory at Culiacan in Mexico eight years later. This leaves plenty of space, and territory, in which the author can develop a plausible story for what actually happened, as opposed to what is admitted in the historical accounts.
And the author finds a plausible reason for Estebanico to disappear from history and to gain his freedom alongside Oyomasot, his Native American wife, and the baby that they are about to have.