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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 28 - Dónde Está Tu Oro? (Conquistador Week)

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: History's least successful conquistador, Pánfilo de Narváez, and the disastrous Narvaez Expedition.

The conquistadors were by and large horrible people who delighted in the suffering of others. Even supposedly the kindest ones were absolutely horrific human beings – Rodrigo de Bastidas was known as the kind-hearted conquistador, but when his ships were sunk in a storm off Haiti in 1502, he rescued all his gold loot and pearls and left the slaves on board shackled to drown. And he was the nicest one.

So I thought it would be fun to look at the least successful Conquistador to add a sense of karma.

And his name is Panfilo de Narvaez. He was generally not a very good soldier, sailor OR explorer, and I'm going to look at one particular exploit which has gained him some infamy, and shows just how terrible he was at all three – the 1527 Narvaez expedition.

So, Panfilo. Not to be confused with his cousin wok shortcrust. He was born in Castille in Spain some time in the 1470s, and was closely related to guy who would become the first Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, and had served under him in the conquest of the island and in Jamaica. So he had close links with the new world. We've got a description of him as well – he was tall, blonde, and prone to sunburn. So there you go.

According to writers at the time, particularly the famous historian and social commentator Bartolomé de las Casas, he was an absolute knob, slaughtering whole native communities even after they welcomed and offered to support the Spaniards.

Fortunately, handling anything more dangerous than unarmed women and children was too much for Narvaez to handle as a commander, and he was absolutely crushed when he was sent from Cuba to stop Hernan Cortes from conquering Mexico in 1520. Despite his force of 600 men outnumbering Cortes 3-1 he was surrounded, most of his army deserted to join the expedition to conquer the Aztecs, and he was captured, losing an eye in the battle and spending two years in a Mexican prison before being shipped back to Spain.

So, not very successful. But he wasn't about to give up on the riches of the new world, Tom. Oh no. On Christmas day 1526 he got a wonderful gift from King Carlos I – a licence to claim the Gulf Coast and what is now Florida. But it was a tough mission, so tough it sounds pretty much like the victory conditions for a computer game. He had just one year to raise an army, sail to the coast, found two towns of 100 people each, and build two forts. He also had to raise the cash himself, which he did through selling shares, and set sail with about 450 men and 150 or so slaves, family members and priests in June 1527. In August, they arrived in the Dominican Republic, where it all started to go wrong. Some 100 of the soldiers met the remnants of a previous expedition heading the other way and promptly deserted as soon as they heard how shitty it was and that 75 percent of the expedition had died.

In September, the expedition arrived in Cuba, where Narvaez pulled in some favours to get more horses, food and troops, sending two ships to collect the supplies from Trinidad, where they were immediately wrecked.

It took another couple of months for the remaining ships to navigate the Cuban coast, and the expedition decided to give up and overwinter in Cuba as the weather got worse and worse. In February they set off again, with 400 men, 80 horses and five ships. Among the new recruits was a navigator, Diego Miruelo, who claimed to have extensive knowledge of the coast and seas. And it all started to go wrong again immediately. When the expedition tried to dock in Havana, heavy winds blew them away into the Gulf and they couldn't get back, so they just gave up and decided to sail on to either Florida or Mexico. Both of which were only 160 miles from Havana, but it took them a month to make the crossing due to the Gulf currents. So that averages about five useful miles a day.

From this point, most of what we know about the expedition comes from one of the few survivors, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who wrote up his experiences in 1542 in a book entitled La relación y comentarios, or "The Account and Commentaries", which was later renamed Shipwrecks. You'll see why.

They eventually spotted land just north of what is Tampa, halfway up the Florida coast, so a bit further but still only about 300 miles from Havana as the crow flies. They wasted another two days trying to find a safe harbour Miruelo insisted existed but actually didn't, much like trying to find a parking space on a Saturday, and just gave up and landed after another of their ships was wrecked just trying to find somewhere to park. So by this stage, 300 men made it ashore Half of the original 600 already gone along with three ships.

They popped ashore, pretty quickly found a friendly village, traded some glass beads for fish and meat, set up a camp, and promptly read a declaration – in Spanish - that this land belonged to Spain, and Narvaez was in charge, and everyone had to become Catholic or they'd be murdered. Which did confuse the locals a bit since they had no clue what was going on. Fortunately, waving their guns at them soon got the message across.

Miruelo was given one of the ships and told to find his great harbour or head back to Cuba for supplies, and promptly neither he or the ship were never seen again – although he did actually return with supplies, but far too late. Spent too long trying to find somewhere to park.

They started exploring the area, finding friendly villages which they looted along the way. In fact they found one where the locals were burying their dead – many of whom were succumbing to foreign diseases - in old Spanish shipping chests. So they seized and burned the chests because they were Spanish boxes and how dare you take these boxes to bury the dead we're responsible for killing. Exactly the way to treat friendly people, right?

Anyway, the expedition was split and most of it headed North on foot to try and find Tampa, which was to the South. Around 100 men took the rest of the ships and headed south, to Tampa, which is where Tampa was. So the foot party were very lost, as were all their supplies. They marched for two weeks with no food before stumbling on some, again, friendly villages which they enslaved and stole all their food. Around this point they learned of the great riches of the Apalachee people, and set off further North to see what they could steal, being aided along the way by a couple of tribes who were at war with the Apalachee – though they quickly fell out and, surprise surprise, the Spanish raided their village and captured a few of their former allies to use as guides and slaves.

At this point the local tribes started to become much more aggressive. The Spanish captured a couple of Apalachee villages which the Apalachee responded to by attacking and harrying the Spanish and burning the houses and their provisions, so the Spanish had to set off again, bouyed by repeated promises that there was a shit tonne of gold and food over the next hill or across the next swamp, where in fact the guides probably had no idea and were just trying to avoid getting themselves killed. And it started to get really bad. The Spanish were starving, and because word spread that it wasn't a good idea to help them, every village they reached had been abandoned and burned, with very little food left. Every time they tried to cross a swamp, they'd be attacked by hit and run war parties armed with bows as soon as they got to waist height water. Because it was wet their guns wouldn't work and their crossbows went saggy, their armour was weighing them down so had to be carried above their heads or abandoned, and they were getting showered with arrows. Dozens were getting killed or badly wounded, they were starving, it was bad times.

Some of the men openly began to discuss cannibalism, and a few of the more senior knights on the expedition – the ones who had their own horses, began to openly discuss stealing everything they could and running away. And then something actually pretty amazing happened, Tom. At the beginning of August 1528, someone had a plan. The survivors would build a forge, melt down their armour to make tools and nails, and build some new ships to sail to Mexico. And they only bloody did it. They made a forge in an old tree trunk, with deer skins for bellows (great mental image of two deer just being squeezed). They made nails, hammers and saws to cut down trees, used pine sap to waterproof them, used all their clothes to make sails and the hair or the horses they were having to kill and eat to make rope. They couldn't venture far from the camp because anyone who did was immediately killed by the Apalachee war parties, but within six weeks these guys – who as far as I know had no experience of ship building, managed to build five ships, each of which was about 30 feet long or ten metres, and could carry 50 survivors. Properly A-team stuff.

Unfortunately, lest we forget, they were appalling sailors. Around 250 men took to the water in September, and within a month or so, there were just 80 left. Well over 160 men died of shipwreck, storms or starvation. Including Narvaez himself, who was last seen vanishing on his raft as it drifted into the horizon.

Those who survived, around 80 men, ended up not in Mexico but in Texas, around the area of Houston. So they did make it a hell of a long way around some really pretty treacherous coast – hugging the coastline they covered about a thousand miles. And it was now pretty much hopeless. The 80 survivors spent the next four years trying to live among the locals and getting themselves into all kinds of scrapes and they begged, borrowed, enslaved and stole what or who they could to survive, generally making a nuisance of themselves.

By 1532, there were just four men left - Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Estevanico, a north African slave.

By this time, they were an odd cultural mix of Spanish and native American petty criminals, traders and wondering jobsmen. De Vaca, for example, once a shining beacon of Catholic expansionism, had become a faith healer and shaman.

And at this point they decided enough was enough and they had to get home to Mexico City. It was all starting to get a bit hippy for their liking. Apart from all the murdering and such. De Vaca was talking to his dream catcher again and smoking the peace pipe 24/7. De Carranza was painting peace signs all over his VW campervan and listening to too much Hendrix. So they set off from Texas and headed, for reasons unknown, West. We don't know exactly why, or where they ended up, but it's believed they got through all of Arizona and New Mexico, reaching the Pacific coast – so corssing the US – before heading South. Bear in mind they'd spent four years living among the natives in Texas and a year dicking around getting slaughtered and slaughtering in Florida. It took them another FOUR YEARS to complete their journey before they were eventually found by Spanish slavers on the Mexican pacific coast in July 1536.

So a journey of nine years and hundreds of deaths. Frankly they deserved it, the dicks. Apart from possibly Estevanico, the slave. He had nothing to do with this, although he did spend the rest of his life as a guide leading further Spanish expeditions into central America.

Tom's notes:


La Malinche, Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero

Who were the Conquistadors?

· Spanish and Portugese knights, explorers and general adventurers who explored the New World during the Age of Discovery in the late medieval and early modern period. Really stated with Colombus discovery the West Indies in 1492 but there were also Portuguese explorers earlier in the 15th Century like Henry the Navigator who had explored the coast of Africa.

Did you hear the one about a Mexican slave, a lost friar and a shipwrecked sailor?

· I’m going to talk about 3 very different but connected individuals who lives provide a lively and colourful insight into life in the Spanish Main in the first half of the 16th Century.

o Spanish Main; the middle of the Americas!

The Mexican Slave: La Malinche (La Malinchey)

· More correctly, she was Nahua; a tribe from modern day Mexico under the control of the Aztecs but on the fringes of Aztec and Mayan control

· She was probably a noble women

· As a youth, her father died and her adopted father lovingly sold her into slavery. She ended up being passed between a few different rival tribes and in the process, learnt a second language

· As a slave, she encountered Gerónimo de Aguilar (Agular) who is the lost friar who I will discuss shortly. He taught her Spanish.

· In 1519, the Spanish Conquistador leader, Hernan Cortes, defeated an army of Mayans in battle. La Malinche was given to Cortes as a gift by the defeated Mayans.

o She was apparently very pretty but more importantly, a useful translator alongside Geronimo

o Initially she was given to a Spanish noble by Cortes; a chap called Puetocarrero

o Cortes then got cosy with her himself, and they had a son called Martin Cortes

§ Martin Cortes is one of the earliest Mestizos; a term for a descendent of a European and an indigenous American

o Later, she shacks up with a Spanish chap called Jaramillo and they have a daughter

· She was exceptionally important to Cortes

o There is an illustrated manuscript from the time called the History of Tlaxcala (Class-cala) which displays her very prominently

o She, obviously allowed Cortes to communicate with the native people and engage in diplomacy, conquistador style!

§ These is a belief that she herself was quite a skilled diplomat too; she had a bit of a natural talent

§ She supposedly saved Cortes’s bacon on a number of occasions by discovering plots to attack the Spaniards or kill Cortes

· Malinchism; a pejorative term for the development of a fondness for another culture other than your own

Gerónimo de Aguilar (Agular)

· A Franciscan Friar from Spain

· He made his way to the New World in 1510 where he landed at a colony where there was lots of in-fighting amongst the politicians.

· In 1511, he sets sail for Santo Domingo with 15 other men and 2 women but they are ship wrecked on a sand bar

o Yay! Ship wrecks!

· Most of the people of the ship manage to find their way to the Mexican mainland where they were captured by Maya and prepared for sacrifice to the gods

· Geronimo and a chap called Gonzalo Guerrero (the shipwrecked sailor I mentioned before) managed to escape but everyone else was either sacrificed and eaten, or put in a cage to be fattened or worked to death in slavery by all accounts

· The two individuals were captured by another Mayan chief who was hostile to the original chief who captured them. By all accounts this new chief was a bit nicer!

· In 1519 when Cortes landed an army in modern day Mexico, he heard rumour of bearded Spaniards gone native. Eventually contact was made with Geronimo and he returned to his Spanish compatriots, becoming a translator for Cortes. 11 years after becoming a slave!

Gonzalo Guerrero

· As mentioned, he was enslaved alongside Geronimo by an Aztec chief

· Guerrero went full native

· He earned his freedom and became a celebrated Mayan war leader loyal to a chap called Nachan Can.

o He actually married her daughter and they had 3 children; 3 more of the earliest Mestizos

o He had his face tattooed, his ear’s pierced

· On a few occasions Guerrero is enticed back to the Spanish side, firstly by Geronimo

o On these occasions he encouraged to remember his Christian faith but it would seem that he had spread his roots too far!

· In fact, Guerrero fought against the Spanish forces of a number of occasions

o It is thought that he was killed when he brought a war party of 50 canoes to help a Honduran chief fight Spanish. The Spanish discovered the body of a European after a battle.

· He wasn’t particularly well liked by Spanish Chroniclers because he was obviously seen as a turncoat.

o Much in the same way that La Malinchey is a controversial figure

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