American Literature Week 2 Cabeza de Vaca vs Las Casas

Prompt: “Which book was more memorable, Cabeza de Vaca’s or Las Casas’s? Why?”

Cabeza de Vaca’s memoir Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America was an autobiography describing his experience exploring the previously unknown Americas. He befriended native tribes, acting as a traveling doctor. Although some details of his account can be seen as unrealistic, his memoir became a very popular adventure story throughout Europe. People were thrilled to hear tales of the new land, and Cabeza de Vaca’s unique and descriptive writing style captured peoples imaginations.

Las Casas wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, a historical account of what he witnessed while exploring central America. He described the Spaniards attacking, butchering, and enslaving millions upon millions of natives. While his story may not have always been completely accurate, he may have exaggerated because he was strongly advocating for their human rights. He was one of the first social reformers, pushing for the natives to be treated with humane dignity. To fight for their rights he wrote detailed accounts of the horrors befalling them. He called the Spaniards devils disguised as Christians, for according to their beliefs they were sending all the unbaptized natives straight to hell.

Both pieces of literature are interesting and memorable in their own ways, but if I had to personally choose to read one a second time I would go with Cabeza de Vaca’s memoir. The main difference between the two accounts are their tones. Vaca’s memoir is a classic adventure tale, a story of a man traveling lands unknown and helping those he meets along the way. His vocabulary is so descriptive that its easy to get sucked into the world, and I can imagine it being extremely engaging to a 16th century European.

Casas’s account, although well meaning, was much darker. As someone with some native blood the details and descriptions can be very disturbing. Its a piece of literature that tells the reader all about mass racial extermination and enslavement, and most of the time it doesn’t hold back on the unsavory details of it all. Casas tends to exaggerate throughout it, giving very unlikely first person testimonies. For example he tells of a slave ship carrying natives, its destination no farther away than a week long journey. But for whatever reason natives begin starving by the hundreds while aboard this ship, and the crewmen are forced to throw their corpses overboard. So many corpses get thrown into the water below that it creates a trail of death, and Casas explains that one could follow the slave ship based off the numerous dead bodies floating in the river.

Perhaps I’m yellow bellied, but that sort of visual doesn’t sit the best with me. I can see how someone could really enjoy Casas’s descriptive vocabulary and his heartfelt fight against mindless violence, but this account gives so many detailed examples of mindless violence that it left me feeling rather woebegone. That’s just my personal opinion on the matter, i’d prefer to read the upbeat adventure story rather than the mass murder tales.

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