History is written by the victors, as the saying goes. What we know of the conquest—or the invasion—of the Americas tends to come from those who conquered the land. This book gives another perspective—the narrator, Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, is among the Spanish conquistadores, but not one of them. He is different, both in the colour of his skin and his standing: he whom the Spaniards call Estabanico, is a slave from Morocco.
Mustafa was part of the Navraez expedition—named after the man who led it, Pánfilo de Navraez—which landed in Florida. Among the 600 men on the expedition were Mustafa’s master, Andrés de Dorantes, his brother Diego, Alonso del Castillo, a young nobleman and a friend of Andrés, and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the treasurer of the expedition.
We learn of Mustafa’s back story. He becomes a merchant because of the wealth it brings rather than a notary, like his father. He ignores his father’s warnings. “He warned me that trade would open the door to greed and greed was an inconsiderate guest; it would bring its evil relations with it.” And so it does. Almost casually, Mustafa slips into trading in slaves.
Things come full circle. Mustafa’s father dies, leaving him to look after his mother and his young brothers. He loses his job and finally resorts to selling himself as a slave. He is bought by a Spanish man, Bernardo, who owns a textile shop. And when Bernardo runs up gambling debts, he sells Mustafa to Dorantes, with whom he crosses “the Ocean of Fog and Darkness” to the New World.
Once they land in Florida, Navraez decides that they will leave their ships and go inland to look for gold. It does not go well, either for the Spanish or the Native Americans they meet. They encounter several tribes on their way, some friendly, some not. Some of them get diseases that the men have brought with them over the ocean. Before long, most of the Spanish men are dead or have disappeared, leaving the five men mentioned above. By then, Mustafa is being treated as an equal. His gift for languages stands him in good stead as he learns the different languages of the tribes and becomes the interpreter. He is also learning about healing with plants and words.
The men head north and then west. Gold has become a distant fantasy; they are merely trying to survive. Desperate for food, they try and live off the tribes, but the Native Americans aren’t going to stand for parasites. They are fairly contemptuous of these men who cannot provide for themselves and treat them like slaves, refusing to let them go. But the Mustafa and his companions manage to get away, and finally find refuge with a tribe where Mustafa’s healing skills come in useful. Some of them, including Mustafa, take Native American wives.
When the four survivors of the expedition (they lose one on their journey) arrive at the Spanish settlement in Mexico, the three Spaniards are asked to report on what happened to them. No one thinks to ask Mustafa, a mere slave. But Mustafa realizes that the three men have glossed over some of the events and adjusted the truth to suit their needs. Therefore, he tells his story to set the record straight.
The book is a perfect example of the writer’s imagination being fired by a sliver of history. The Navraez expedition did take place. Laila Lalami based the book on a single sentence in the account of Cabeza de Vaca: “The fourth [survivor] is Estabanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor.” Most of the accounts left to us make no mention of the non-White races that went with them across the world.
I enjoyed hearing about this well-known story from another perspective, deepening my knowledge of this part of history. Of course, we will never really know what really happened, but any account that attempts to give voice to those who have been voiceless is welcome.
This is also a book about the power of the story and who tells it. At the end when Mustafa thinks he has lost everything, he remembers: “I still had one thing. My story. I had journeyed through the Land of the Indians and had witnessed many things that my companions had preferred to revise, embellish, or silence. What had been changed, perverted or left out was the heart of our history, the part that could not be explained, but could only be told. I could tell it. I could right what had been made wrong.”