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The Spanish Conquest of Central and South America was, for the most part, undertaken with relentless greed and cruelty only rarely tempered by idealism. One of its objects, the bringing of Christianity to the New World, was achieved in the same spirit of fanaticism that had earlier brought about the revival of the Inquisition in Spain. Yet there were individuals who stood out against such high-minded barbarity, and came to be aware that their culture was not supreme in every respect.
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490-c.1560) was born into a family of great nobility. His paternal grandfather was the conqueror of Gran Canaria (a conquest carried out with almost unbelievable brutality), and he himself was no stranger to warfare, having taken part in the slaughter of the battle of Ravenna in 1512. It was certainly not out of altruism that in 1527 he joined the expedition to Florida of Panfilo de Naraez as treasurer to the fleet.
Like many others of the time, this expedition was undertaken with little preparation or forethought. Unsubstantiated (and in the event unfounded) rumours of the great wealth to be found in Florida attracted an army of six hundred men. Within little over a year the effects of storms, the inhospitable country, hostile natives, lack of food and water, and sheer ignorance of the practicalities of survival had reduced that number to twelve.
Cabeza de Vaca was himself left for dead by his companions; but he survived, living among the native Indians, through incredible hardship. After more than six years on his own he met again with three others of the company who had somehow kept themselves alive. The four of them undertook an immense journey through the interior, finally reaching the western coast by way of North Mexico in March 1536, where, nine years after the fleet had set sail, they found Spanish settlements.
The Great Journey tells this story in Cabeza de Vaca’s own words. His report to the Emperor Charles V is very long and involved, and also very guarded: frequently the most important elements of the narrative are only hinted at or almost lost in a mass of what seems to be insignificant detail. But what is clear is that, by the time he reached civilisation again, Cabeza de Vaca had become a very different man. His life with the Indians had given him a great sympathy for and understanding of them, and the Christianity which had sustained him had been tempered by a humanity and humility that were totally at odds with the spirit of the Conquistadors.
His later life was irretrievably marked by his experience. Six years after his return to Spain he was rewarded with the governorship of Paraguay, but his attempt to benign rule was a disastrous failure. He was brought back to Spain, tired, and imprisoned. He died obscure and dishonoured.
Parts I and II of The Great Journey (‘Shipwreck’ and ‘Landing’) describe the arrival of the expedition, the disasters that overtook them, and the first contact with the Indians. Parts III and IV (‘Flight’ and ‘Return’) tell of the journey into the interior, and its end. Much of the music is based indirectly – and also directly – on music by the earliest known Mexican composer Fernando Franco (c.1520-1585), who emigrated from Spain and spent the last thirty years of his life in Guatemala and Mexico City. The coming of western music led to the early disappearance of the indigenous music, which survives only in contemporary descriptions.
The text is taken from Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion published in 1542, as translated into English in Hakluytus Posthumus or: Purchase his Pilgrimes (1625). I have, of course, had to reduce the narrative drastically: the translation (which is itself abbreviated from the original) runs to nearly thirty thousand words. But the essence of the story remains in its author’s own words, and in a few places I have retained in the printed text passages which I have not set, but which are important for the narrative. The only liberty I have taken is with the final words of the text, which I have imagined as being written by Cabeza de Vaca during the years of his imprisonment.
The Great Journey was commissioned in 1981 by Dr Robert Waterhouse: I am grateful to him for his patience in waiting so long for what neither he nor I expected to be a work of this length. It is dedicated to him, and also to my friends, the Nash Ensemble, who with David Wilson-Johnson gave the first performance of Parts I and II in 1983, the first complete performance at the Almeida Festival in June 1988, and who recorded the work for Virgin Classics in the summer of 1990.
The Times (Stephen Pettitt), 14 June 1988