The Moor’s Account
By: Laila Lalami
Format/Source: Advanced Reading Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster CA
In 1527, the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez left the port of San Lucar de Barrameda in Spain with a crew of more than five hundred men. His goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown and, in the process, become as wealthy and as famous as Hernán Cortés. But from the moment the Narváez expedition reached Florida it met with incredibly bad luck – storms, disease, starvation, hostile Indians. Within a year, there were only four survivors: the expedition’s treasurer, Cabeza de Vaca; a Spanish nobleman named Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; a young explorer by the name of Andrés Dorantes; and his Moroccan slave, Mustafa al-Zamori.
The four survivors were forced to live as slaves to the Indians for six years, before fleeing and establishing themselves as faith healers. Together, they traveled on foot through present-day Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, gathering thousands of disciples and followers along the way. In 1536, they crossed the Rio Grande into Mexican territory, where they stumbled on a group of Spanish slavers, who escorted them to the capital of the Spanish empire, México-Tenochtitlán.
Three of the survivors were asked to provide testimony of their journey—Castillo, Dorantes, and Cabeza de Vaca, who later wrote a book about this adventure, called La Relacíon, or The Account. But because he was a slave, Estebanico was not asked to testify. His experience was considered irrelevant, or superfluous, or unreliable, or unworthy, despite the fact that he had acted as a scout, an interpreter, and a translator. This novel is his story.
I’ve been seeing growing buzz about this book on the internet which piqued my own curiosity about it; Simon & Schuster CA kindly provided me with an ARC of this novel for review. I sort of had to think a bit, but in the end I added this book to the Everything Espana Reading Challenge 2014 that I am participating in as parts of this novel was set in Spain 😉 This book will be available on 23 September 2014.
I admit, it’s not exactly my favourite part of history–the exploration of the New World, colonial history–probably because we studied it and read it to death (err, no pun intended, truly) in elementary. However, this venture by Pánfilo de Narváez was something I didn’t know too much about, and the story was based on accounts of the four who survived, but from the perspective of the Moroccan slave. The choice of telling the story from Mustafa’s perspective was what intrigued me about the book, and provides the author with creative room to approach the expedition and the experiences of these characters from another angle.
The storytelling itself was very interesting, initially going back and forth between the exploration in the New World and flashbacks to Mustafa’s story prior to his inclusion in the expedition. I honestly found his backstory more interesting than present events in the New World, which in the process revealed the realities of slavery and the times in which he lived in. But his story in the “present day” of the exploration was also revealing and just as gritty: the hunger they experienced, disease, the in-fighting amongst the survivors, the uncertain terrain they faced…It was all quite realistic and brutal. I also forgot how cannibalism occurred in some of these ventures, which this book reminded me of (and left me rather D= while reading in transit).
Overall, The Moor’s Account was a fascinating look at 14th century Spain and the experiences of being on a New World expedition from a different perspective. Readers of historical fiction and fiction involving the New World will want to check this out.