Moor, Estévanico the (1500?-1539)
Estévanico the Moor (1500?-1539)
Spanish slave, explorer, and interpreter
Early Life. Estévanico the Moor was born at the beginning of the sixteenth century in the small town of Azamor (today Azemmur) on Morocco’s western coast. Raised in the Islamic world of northwestern Africa, at some point in his young life the black Moor was taken from his homeland and transported to Christian Spain as a slave. He might have been captured by slave raiders who worked the African coast or been taken captive in one of the military clashes between Spain and Morocco that followed the final reconquest of Spain from the Moors in 1492. He became nominally Christian under the tutelage of his Spanish owners and was baptized and given the name “Estévanico.” By 1527 he was in the Caribbean as the property of Andrés Dorantes, commander of a company of infantry in the expeditionary force being formed to accompany Panfilo de Narváez on his exploration of the northern Gulf Coast.
The Narváez Expedition. As the slave of Dorantes, Estévanico’s initial duties on the Narváez expedition probably involved acting as the personal servant of his master, and Cabeza de Vaca makes little mention of him during the early months. Once the shipwrecked survivors of the disastrous expedition washed ashore near Galveston Island in the fall of 1528, however, Estévanico began to assume a more prominent role. By the following spring only sixteen of the eighty men cast ashore remained alive on their “island of misfortune,” among them Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Estévanico. In April 1529 Dorantes, Estévanico, Castillo, and ten others crossed to the mainland, leaving behind Cabeza de Vaca and two others who were ill. On the mainland they fell into the hands of the hostile Karankawas and were enslaved. Within eighteen months all but Dorantes, Estévanico, and Castillo had died from hard labor, exhausting travel, and harsh treatment by their captors.
Reunion. In the spring of 1533 an Indian informed the three captives that he had heard news of another white man living with a neighboring band, and shortly thereafter they were reunited with Cabeza de Vaca. Dorantes and his companions were “very astonished” to see the leader they had left ailing on the island years before, “for they had thought me dead for many a day,” remembered Cabeza de Vaca. “That day was one of the happiest we had had in our lives.” Together again, the four began planning their escape to Mexico. While awaiting a suitable opportunity, Dorantes and Cabeza de Vaca became slaves of the same family while Estévanico and Castillo were traded to a neighboring band. After some months apart the four again met and made good their escape. On their long route to Mexico the intrepid, resourceful travelers made good use of the knowledge and talents each had acquired during their ordeal. Cabeza de Vaca had traveled extensively as a trader and healer and had garnered considerable knowledge of the natives’ customs and languages. They assumed the role of healers, or medicine men, and as their fame spread, the Indians welcomed them and treated them kindly. The three Christians usually posed as the principal shamans, and Estévanico acted as their interpreter and go-between. This role, though subordinate, suited the Moor, who apparently had an easygoing manner and an aptitude for languages. He “talked with them constantly, found out about the ways we wanted to go and what towns there were and the things we wished to know.” In addition to spoken language, Estévanico had also mastered their sign language, for as Cabeza de Vaca recalled, “even though we knew six languages we could not make use of them everywhere.” Eventually the wayfarers reached Culiacán on Mexico’s west coast, where Spanish officials welcomed them warmly.
Fray Marcos. As news of the survivors’ adventures spread throughout New Spain, officials began planning further explorations of the region to the north. In 1538 the viceroy of Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, organized a reconnaissance mission under Fray Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan brother. Mendoza hoped to convince Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, or Dorantes to assist the expedition as guide, but when they refused, he settled on Estévanico instead. Also among the group were a number of the Indians who had accompanied the four survivors to Mexico two years earlier. Once the party passed beyond the reach of the Spanish military and entered “unknown” territory, Estévanico began to take on a more prominent role, much to the chagrin of Fray Marcos. Both the territory and the people were familiar to Estévanico, as he was to them. The Moor became the de facto leader of the expedition, talking and negotiating with the natives and providing information and advice to his Franciscan “masters.”
Franciscans. As Estévanico moved among the Indians, he acquired considerable personal baggage and a large entourage suitable for the leader of an expedition. The Moor acquired a harem of native girls, who followed in his wake to the consternation of the friars, and two greyhounds accompanied him everywhere. He adorned himself with clusters of bright feathers and wore a crown of plumes on his head. Small bells fastened around his ankles chimed as he walked, and coral and turquoise ornaments presented to him by the Indians decorated his chest. Described as a large, strong man, Estévanico must have made an impressive sight, particularly in comparison to the frugal clothing and effects of the Franciscans. Although Fray Marcos was honored as the emissary of the Spaniard’s God, Estévanico received much more attention and willingly joined in native ceremonies and festivities. Not surprisingly, the Moor “did not get along well with the friars because he took the women that were given him and collected turquoises” and other goods. The Indians got along better with Estévanico because they had seen him before and because he seemed to accept them and understand them.
Death. Probably because of his exasperation with the Moorish guide, Fray Marcos decided to send Estévanico on ahead of the main body in the spring of 1539 “to see whether, by that route, information could be obtained of what we were seeking.” Fray Marcos ordered Estévanico to go no more than 150 miles, and if he learned of “some inhabited and rich country” to stay put and send word. Within four days Estévanico sent a messenger with news that he had met people who told him of seven great cities to the north. Fray Marcos sent word to the coast and waited for additional information. By the time the Franciscan moved out to rejoin Estévanico, the Moor had already advanced. For more than two weeks Fray Marcos chased his disobedient guide. Although declining to await the rest of the expedition, Estévanico did prepare the natives along his route for the Franciscans’ arrival, and Indians welcomed the friars warmly when they appeared. Word of Estévanico continued to filter back to Fray Marcos. He was apparently still hot on the trail of the seven magnificent cities and had acquired an entourage of more than three hundred Indians who traveled with him. By this time Estévanico had entered unknown territory and had to rely on his Indian escorts. As Estévanico’s party approached the first Zuni village, which he called Cibola, the confident Moor followed his normal procedure and sent messengers ahead to tell of his arrival. The Zunis did not react as expected; instead of welcoming the traveler, they admonished him to stay away or be killed. Unfortunately, Estévanico ignored their warning. When he entered the pueblo, he and his entire escort were confined without food until the next day, when most were killed. Word of Estévanico’s demise was carried back to Fray Marcos by a few of the survivors. The Franciscan prudently declined risking his own life and returned to Mexico with news of Estévanico’s discovery. The following year Fray Marcos served as Francisco Vásquez de Corona-do’s guide on a renewed quest for the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola.
Anne B. Allen, “Estévanico the Moor,” American History (August 1997): 36–41;
Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Castaways, edited by Enrique Pupo-Walker, translated by Frances M. López-Morillas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993);
John Upton Terrell, Estévanico the Black, Westernlore Great West and Indian Series XXXVI (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1968).
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