The Mystery of Miracles: Examining Religious Providence in the Sixteenth-Century Captivity Narratives of Hans Staden and Cabeza de Vaca
Rolena Adorno introduces what may seem a surprising assertion – that the natives constructed this miraculous reality to gain favor from surrounding aboriginal communities: “…He [Cabeza de Vaca] described how the natives instructed other groups to spread this account of the Spaniards to inspire aboriginal generosity toward them. Did he see this declaration not as the belief of some native groups but as a ruse perpetrated by others?” she asks.28 This could explain the widespread and unexplained healing that took place, particularly the resurrection of the dead man. Was it all a show by the natives? There are certain problems with this theory, of course – how would all of them have agreed upon such a complicated plan, and when would they have had time to do so? Cabeza de Vaca was neither an expected nor a recognized visitor. Nonetheless, the idea is an interesting and a viable one. Other historians, including Santiago Juan-Navarro and Theodore Young, support Adorno’s hypothesis: “The miracles could very well be due to the active propaganda effected by those indigenous people who accompanied Cabeza de Vaca and who benefitted from the healing practices.”29 This may take blame off of the Narváez crew, but could such a theory be extended to Staden as well? Could native collusion and conscious self-fashioning on the part of European explorers both have occurred?
Obviously, the subject of miracles is no easy one to decipher. There are many possible explanations for them, explanations that lead to an infinite combination of feasible truths. Juan-Navarro and Young, however, warn us to be cautious even when using the word “miracle” – it was a modern historian, López de Gómara, who first used the word to describe the healing practices of Cabeza de Vaca, a description which we have now come to accept but which was never explicitly used by either explorer:30 “While the terms in which Cabeza de Vaca describes these events are ambiguous, those in which later historians pronounced were less and less so, eventually becoming certitudes.”31
Is it possible that these men simply wrote what they experienced, innocently translating memories – which were tainted by fear and desperation – into religious providence? Perhaps it is us who have made more of these “miracles” than they merit. If divine intervention cannot explain the extraordinary experiences of Cabeza de Vaca and Hans Staden, the truth certainly lies within the complex field of human psychology.
Adorno, R. The Negotiation of Fear in Cabeza de Vaca’s ‘Naufragios’. Representations 1991; 33:163–199.
Cabeza de Vaca, Á.N. Naufragios. In: Adorno, R., Pautz, P.C., eds. The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 1–146.
Jong Lee, K. Pauline Typology in Cabeza de Vaca’s ‘Naufragios’. Early American Literature 1999; 34.3: 241–262.
Juan-Navarro, S., Young, T.R. A Twice-Told Tale: Reinventing the Encounter in Iberian/Iberian American Literature and Film. (Newark: The University of Delaware Press, 2001), 74–75.
Reff, D.T. Text and Context: Cures, Miracles, and Fear in the Relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Journal of the Southwest 1996; 38.2:115–138.
Staden, H. The True History and Description of a Country Populated by Wild, Naked, and Savage Man-munching People, Situated in the New World, America… In: Whitehead, N.S., Harbsmeier, M., eds. Hans Staden’s True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), xv–176.
TenHuisen, D.R. Providence and Passio in Hans Staden’s ‘Warhaftig Historia’. Daphnis-Zeitschrift für Mittlere Deutsche Literatur 2004; 33.1-2:213–254.
Villas Bôas, L. Wild Stories of a Pious Travel Writer: The Unruly Example of Hans Staden’s ‘Warhaftig Historia’. Daphnis-Zeitschrift für Mittlere Deutsche Literatur 2004; 33.1-2:187 –212.
1.) Adorno & Pautz, 14.
2.) Cabeza de Vaca, 86.
3.) Whitehead & Harbsmeier, c.
6.) Villas Bôas, 192.
7.) Whitehead & Harbsmeier (Dryander), 10.
8.) TenHuisen, 216.
9.) Ibid., 217.
10.) Ibid., 248.
11.) Jong Lee, 242.
12.) Ibid., 243.
14.) Ibid., 241-242.
15.) Reff, 117.
17.) de Vaca, 93.
19.) Adorno, 168.
20.) de Vaca, 114.
21.) Ibid., 117-118.
22.) Ibid., 119.
23.) Staden, 75.
25.) Ibid., 71.
27.) de Vaca, 146.
28.) Adorno, 192.
29.) Juan-Navarro & Robert Young, 75.
30.) Ibid., 74.
31.) Ibid., 75.