CHAPTER 1: The Sailing of the Armada

ON 17 JUNE 1527, Governor Pámfilo de Narváez left the port of San Lúcar de Barrameda authorized and commanded by Your Majesty to conquer and govern the provinces which should be encountered from the River of Palms [the Río Grande] to the cape of Florida. His expedition consisted of five ships with about 600 men and the following officers (for they will have to be mentioned): Cabeza de Vaca, Treasurer and alguacil mayor [provost marshall]; Alonso Enriquez, Comptroller; Alonso de Solfs, Quartermaster to Your Majesty and Inspector; Juan Suárez, a Franciscan friar, Commissary; and four more Franciscan friars.

We arrived at the island of Santo Domingo [about September 17] and there tarried nearly 45 days gathering provisions and particularly horses, during which time the local inhabitants, by promises and proposals, seduced more than 140 of our men to desert.

From that island we sailed to Santiago [de Cuba] where, for some days, the Governor recruited men and further furnished himself with arms and horses. lt fell out there that a prominent gentleman, Vasco Porcallo, of Trinidad, a hundred leagues northwest on the same island, offered the Governor some provisions he had stored at home if the Governor could go pick them up. The Governor forthwith headed with the whole fleet to get them, but, on reaching Cabo de Santa Cruz, a port half way, he decided to send Captain [Juan] Pantoja [who had commanded the crossbowmen on Narváez's 1520 expedition to Mexico] to bring the stores back in his ship. For greater security, the Governor sent me along with another ship, while he himself anchored with the remaining four (he had bought an additional ship at Santo Domingo).

When we reached the port of Trinidad, Vasco Porcallo conducted Captain Pantoja to the town, a league away, while I stayed at sea with the pilots, who said we ought to get out of there as fast as possible, for it was a very bad port where many vessels had been lost. Since what happened to us there was phenomenal, I think it will not be foreign to the purpose of my narrative to relate it here.

The next morning gave signs of bad weather. Rain started falling and the sea rose so high that I gave the men permission to go ashore; but many of them came back aboard to get out of the wet and cold, unwilling to trek the league into town. A canoe, meanwhile, brought me a letter from a resident of the town requesting me to come for the needed provisions that were there. I excused myself, saying I could not leave the ships. At noon the canoe returned with a more urgent letter, and a horse was brought to the beach for me. I gave the same answer as before, but the pilots and people aboard entreated me to go in order to hasten the provisions as fast as possible; they greatly feared the loss of both ships by further delay in this port.

So I went to the town, first leaving orders with the pilots that should the south wind (which is the one which often wrecks vessels here) whip up dangerously, they should beach the ships at some place where the men and horses could be saved. I wanted to take some of the men with me for company, but they said the weather was too nasty and the town too far off; but tomorrow, which would be Sunday, they intended to come, with God's help, and hear Mass.

An hour after I left, the sea began to rise ominously and the north wind blow so violently that the two boats would not have dared come near land even if the head wind had not already made landing impossible. All hands labored severely under a heavy fall of water that entire day and until dark on Sunday. By then the rain and tempest had stepped up until there was as much agitation in the town as at sea. All the houses and churches went down. We had to walk seven or eight together, locking arms, to keep from being blown away. Walking in the woods gave us as much fear as the tumbling houses, for the trees were falling, too, and could have killed us. We wandered all night in this raging tempest without finding any place we could linger as long as half an hour in safety. Particularly from midnight on, we heard a great roaring and the sound of many voices, of little bells, also flutes, tambourines, and other instruments, most of which lasted till morning, when the storm ceased. Nothing so terrible as this [hurricane] had been seen in these parts before. I drew up an authenticated account of it and sent it back to Your Majesty.

On Monday morning we went down to the harbor but did not find the ships. When we spied the buoys belonging to them floating on the water, we knew the ships had been lost. Hiking along the shore looking for signs of them, we found nothing, so we struck through the marshy woods for about a quarter of a league [about three fourths of a mile] and came upon the little boat of one of the ships lodged in some treetops. Ten leagues farther, along the coast, two bodies were found, belonging to my ship, but they had been so disfigured by beating against the rocks that they could not be recognized. Some lids of boxes, a cloak, and a quilt rent in pieces were also found, but nothing more.

Sixty persons had been lost in the ships, and twenty horses. Those who had gone ashore the day of our arrival - they may have numbered as many as thirty - were all who survived of both ships.

For some days we struggled with much hardship and hunger; for the provisions had been destroyed, also some herds. The country was left in a condition piteous to behold: parched, bereft of grass and leaf, the trees prostrate.

Thus we lived until November 5, when the Governor put in with his four ships, which had run into a safe place in time to live through the great storm. The people who came in them, as well as those on shore, were so unnerved by what had happened that they feared to go on board in the winter. Seconded by the townspeople, they prevailed on the Governor to spend it in Cuba. He put the ships and crews in my charge to take to the port of Xagua [Jagua, at the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos], twelve leagues away, to pass the winter. There I remained until February 20.