Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review: A Voyage Long and Strange

Written by Tony Horwitz in 2008, A Voyage Long and Strange examines the history of the lesser revered explorers who made their way to North America before the Pilgrims washed up on a Massachusetts beach and even before Columbus made his way to Cuba and Haiti (but not the continental US).  It is a fascinating read, not only because most of the early explorers discovered so much more than Columbus, but Horwitz actually goes to the trouble of retracing their routes while commenting on their impact and what the sites look like today.

Native Americans are descendants of Asians who crossed the land bridge between Alaska and Russia some 12,000 years ago.  The first Europeans showed up roughly 11,000 years later and were Vikings who had made their way first to Iceland, then Greenland and finally Newfoundland - there are stone settlements there attributed to Leif Eriksson, son of Eric the Red.  The Vikings did not stay for long - maybe only a few years - and unlike their Spanish successors, made no lasting impression.

1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue - but never landed on the mainland.

On the other hand, another Spaniard Ponce de Leon spent the years 1513-14 sailing around Florida and gave the state its name.  He was looking for the Fountain Of Youth but in 1521 met with something more tangible: an Arrow of Doom.  A poison tipped arrow of a Calusa Indian caused PdL's demise.  The very rocky relationship between explorer and Indian was on.

The next major explorer is my favorite.  Who could not love Head of a Cow, Cabeza de Vaca?  In 1527 he was part of an expedition to colonize La Florida.  They landed near present day Tampa with about 600 men and from then on, things deteriorated quickly.  Lack of food, tropical disease and skirmishes with Indians reduced their ranks quickly.  They wandered inland looking for gold but the swamps consumed them.  CdV and 40 men made it back to the coast of northern Florida after six months of futility and made rough rafts with a plan of sailing south towards Mexico.  Instead, they got blown west and wrecked near Galveston, Texas. 

For the next seven years, CdV and four others traipsed through Texas and New Mexico and finally in 1536 made his way south to Mexico City.  En route he traded with Indians and gained a reputation as a healer.  It was the most incredible journey, covering thousands of miles on foot with almost no resources only a will to get back to his own people.  He was empathetic to the natives and was not the typical gold hungry conquistador.

On the other hand, the Spanish explorers that came later, Coronado and particularly de Soto were exactly that: out to conquest.  De Soto was brutal,  He landed in Florida in 1539 and fought with Indians all thorough out the southeast.  He stole from them, enslaved them and his men spread European disease to those they came in contact with.  When you get to the part where de Soto dies in 1542, you will cheer.  He was a nasty piece of work.

The later and mostly English explorers are kind of lame by comparison.  Roanoke, John Smith, Plymouth Rock... yawn.  It is mouthwatering to think that Cabeza de Vaca wrote The Account, a chronicle of his travels and it has been translated into English...  That is on my Half Priced Books wish list.

All in, A Voyage Long and Strange is an excellent book.

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