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Biography of Pánfilo de Narváez

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Biography of Pánfilo de Narváez

The conquest of America, as painted by Diego Rivera in the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca.

Diego Rivera

Pánfilo de Narváez (1470-1528) Spanish Explorer and Conquistador:

Pánfilo de Narváez was born to an upper class family in Vallenda, Spain. Although he was older than most Spanish who sought their fortunes in the New World, he nevertheless was very active in early conquest period. He was an important figure in the conquests of Jamaica and Cuba in the years between 1509 and 1512. He acquired a reputation for ruthlessness: a young Bartolomé de Las Casas, who was a chaplain on the Cuba campaign, recounted horrible tales of massacres and chiefs being burned alive.

In Pursuit of Cortés:

In 1518, the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, had sent the young conquistador Hernán Cortés off to Mexico to begin the conquest of the mainland. Velázquez soon regretted his actions, however, and decided to place someone else in charge. He sent Narváez, with a large force of over one thousand Spanish soldiers to Mexico to take command of the expedition and send Cortés back to Cuba. Cortés, who was in the process of defeating the Aztec Empire, had to leave the recently subdued capital of Tenochtitlán to return to the coast to fight Narváez.

The Battle of Zempoala:

On May 24, 1520, the forces of the two conquistadores clashed at Zempoala, Near Veracruz, and Cortés won. Many of Narváez’s soldiers deserted before and after the battle, joining Cortés. Narváez himself was jailed in the port of Veracruz for the next two years, while Cortés retained control of the expedition and the vast wealth that came with it.

A New Expedition:

Narváez returned to Spain after being released. Convinced that there were more wealthy empires like the Aztecs to the north, he mounted an expedition that was doomed to become one of the most monumental failures in history. Narváez got permission from Charles V to mount an expedition into Florida. He set sail in April of 1527 with five ships and about 600 Spanish soldiers and adventurers. Word of the riches earned by Cortés and his men made finding volunteers easy. In April, 1528, the expedition landed in Florida, near present-day Tampa Bay. By then, many of the soldiers had deserted, and only about 300 men remained.

Narváez in Florida:

Narváez and his men made their way clumsily inland, attacking every tribe they met. The expedition had brought insufficient supplies and survived by pillaging meager native storehouses, which caused violent retaliation. The conditions and lack of food caused many in the company to become ill, and within a few weeks one-third of the expedition were severely incapacitated. The going was tough, as Florida was then full of rivers, swamps and forests. The Spanish were killed, picked off by irate natives, and Narváez made a series of tactical blunders, including frequently dividing his forces and never seeking allies.

The Mission Fails:

The men were dying, picked off individually and in small groups by native attacks. Supplies had run out, and the expedition had alienated every native tribe it had encountered. With no hope to establish any sort of settlement and with no help coming, Narváez decided to abort the mission and return to Cuba. He had lost touch with his ships, and so ordered the construction of four large rafts.

The Death of Pánfilo de Narváez:

It is not known for certain where and when Narváez died. The last man to see Narváez alive and tell of it was Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a junior officer of the expedition. He recounts that in their final conversation, he asked Narváez for help, as the men on Narváez’ raft were better fed and stronger than those with Cabeza de Vaca. Narváez refused, basically saying “every man for himself.” The rafts were wrecked in a storm. Only 80 men survived the sinking of the rafts, and Narváez was not among them.

Aftermath of the Narváez Expedition:

The first major incursion into present-day Florida was a complete fiasco. Of the 300 men who landed with Narváez, only four survived. Among them was Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the junior officer who had asked for help but received none. After his raft sunk, Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved by a local tribe for several years somewhere along the gulf coast. He managed to escape and meet up with three other survivors, and together the four of them returned overland to Mexico, arriving some eight years after the expedition landed in Florida.

The animosity caused by the Narváez expedition was such that it took the Spanish years to establish a settlement in Florida. Narváez has gone down in history as one of the most ruthless yet incompetent conquistadors of the colonial era.

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