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Volume 53, Number 2March/April 2002

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Esteban of Azemmour and His New World Adventures

Written by Kitty Morse
Photographed by Owen Morse

In the spring of the year 1539, a tall black man lay mortally wounded by Zuni arrows in the village of Hawikuh, in what is today northwestern New Mexico. If he prayed in his last breaths, he surely addressed God as "Allah." How did a Muslim come to visit—and die in—New Mexico in the early 16th century? I had never come across such a figure during my university history studies in the United States, nor had I read of him in French history books at the lycée in Casablanca, Morocco, where I grew up. I heard of him only quite recently, by accident.

My father lived in Morocco for more than 50 years until his death in 1994. He left to me and my brothers a restored pasha’s residence in the old city of Azemmour, near the Atlantic coast. While sorting through his personal papers, I came upon a small sketch in a leather-bound guest book. It portrayed a handsome young man with full lips and high cheekbones. A solitary feather adorned a head of tight curls. The drawing bore the signature of John Houser of El Paso, Texas.

Intrigued, I called the artist on my return to the United States. He explained that his drawing was the likeness of a 16th-century North African slave called "Esteban" or "Estebanico" by his Spanish masters, a man better known in his native Morocco as "al-Zemmouri" ("the man from Azemmour"). He was, in fact, one of the first natives of the Old World to explore the American Southwest.

In 1993, Houser had been a guest in my father’s home while he worked at the nearby studio of noted Zemmouri sculptor Abderrahmane Rahoule. Over a period of three weeks, using a Moroccan model, Houser created a clay bust of the "black Arab, and...native of Azamor" whom we know today thanks to the lengthy, detailed memoir of conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, which carries the title La relación y comentarios del governador Alvar nuñez cabeça de vaca, de lo acaescido en las dos jornadas que hizo a las Indias (The Account and Commentaries of Governor Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, of What Occurred on the Two Journeys That He Made to the Indies).

Al-Zemmouri’s town derives its name from a Berber word for "wild olive tree." Today, the reflection of the town’s massive white ramparts in the Oum er Rbia River is one of Morocco’s more picturesque landmarks. The walls surround the labyrinthine madinah, or old city center, as well as the 500-year-old ruins of a Portuguese garrison, established there during a 30-year occupation. Portuguese cornices, decorated in the ornate Manueline style, still frame the majestic windows of their 16th-century military headquarters.

Long before the Portuguese occupation, however, Phoenicians and, later, Romans traveled down the Atlantic coast to trade with the indigenous Berbers of Azemmour. By the 12th century, the town had become a center of Islamic culture; philosophers like Moulay Bouchaib Erredad attracted disciples there from across the Arab world. One of them, Lallah Aicha Bahria, undertook the long journey from her native Baghdad to visit Erredad, but she died on the northern bank of the river, just a stone’s throw away from her long-awaited meeting with her mentor and lifelong correspondent. The town erected a monument to her at the river’s mouth and to this day women from around the country visit the site to seek guidance in resolving affairs of the heart.

Three centuries after Lallah Bahria’s death, the Republic of Azemmour was composed of a patchwork of tribes and shaykhdoms. At the time of al-Zemmouri’s birth, around 1500, skirmishes between local Berbers and Portuguese invaders were on the rise. In 1508, the king of Portugal exacted an annual tribute in kind from the town: 10,000 achabel, a species of shad prized as much for its delicious flavor as for its oil, which the Portuguese burned in their lamps.

In 1513, Shaykh Moulay Zeyyam defiantly withheld the tribute. Portugal responded with a flotilla of 400 ships bearing 8000 men and 2500 horses. On August 27, during a fierce battle that lasted more than four hours, the Portuguese set fire to barges on the river and delivered a crushing military blow to the Zemmouris. Their dominance restored, the Portuguese regained access to the achabel—and also to wheat, wool and horses, which they traded for gold and slaves in sub-Saharan outposts.

As a young man, al-Zemmouri may have heard rumors and stories of adventure from Portuguese sailors. There was no shortage of adventure to be had: Prior to his circumnavigation of the globe, Ferdinand Magellan was among those who spent time in Azemmour, and in fact was severely wounded in a battle with Berbers.

In 1521, drought and famine ravaged the Maghrib. Shad, once so plentiful, virtually disappeared from the shrinking Oum er Rbia. The fertile Doukkala plains surrounding Azemmour became parched and barren. Many starving Zemmouris were captured by Portuguese and sold into slavery; others sold themselves to the Portuguese in exchange for food. The exact circumstances of al-Zemmouri’s enslavement remain a mystery. We do know that a Spanish aristocrat of modest means, Andres de Dorantes, looking for a personal servant, purchased him in a slave market of Castile.

In 1527, Dorantes’s royal connections won him a commission and orders to join the expeditionary force of Pámfilo de Narváez, a one-eyed, red-haired veteran of the conquests of Cuba and New Spain (now Mexico) who was already infamous for his cruelty toward the people of the Americas. Esteban, as he was now known, accompanied Dorantes. King Charles V of Spain granted him the authority to settle all of La Florida, a territory that stretched from the southern tip of the Florida peninsula westward to the "Rio de las Palmas," today’s Soto de la Marina River in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico.

The route of the Narváez expedition remains subject to debate. Cabeza de Vaca, the group’s treasurer, did not write his Relación until 12 years afterward, and it includes great miscalculations of distances and dates, and confused chronology.

The expedition’s departure from Spain, however, is well documented. On June 17, 1527, Narváez and his crew of 600 set sail in five caravels from San Lucar de Barrameda in Andalusia. It would become, according to translators Martin A. Favata and José B. Fernández, "one of the most disastrous enterprises in the annals of Spanish history."

The Atlantic crossing proved so arduous that 140 men jumped ship upon reaching the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Soon afterward, 60 people and 20 horses perished in a hurricane off the coast of Trinidad. The Spaniards finally dropped anchor off the La Florida coast on April 12, 1528, somewhere near today’s Old Tampa Bay (or perhaps Sarasota Bay). Narváez took formal possession of La Florida on May 1 of that year.

He then decided to send his ships and 100 of his men ahead to their final destination, Pánuco, on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, while he led the rest of his force there overland—a journey whose length he apparently underestimated.

Narváez, Esteban and the rest of the expedition headed north to the province of Apalachee, near the present city of Tallahassee, where, according to captured Timicuan Indians, there were great quantities of gold. Instead, the Spaniards found 15 huts and a few meager plots of maize. Narváez was bitterly disappointed.

The ensuing weeks were fraught with fever, drownings and Indian attacks. To ward off starvation, some of the men resorted to eating their horses. Only the threat of mutiny persuaded Narváez to abandon the march on August 4. He gave orders to return to the coast. There, he and his men built five small boats. "And we agreed that we would make nails, saws, axes and other necessary tools out of our stirrups, spurs, crossbows and other iron items we had, since we had such a great need for this," noted Cabeza de Vaca. They used horsehair to fashion riggings and rope, and sewed their shirts together for sails. They "skinned the legs of the horses in one piece and cured the hides to make skins for carrying water."

By the time they set sail, they had lost more than 40 more of their number to illness and starvation, not counting those killed by Indians. Only one horse remained. Esteban, his master Dorantes, Castillo and a crew of 45 left the "Bay of Horses"—possibly in today’s Apalachee Bay—on September 22. "So great was our hardship," wrote Cabeza de Vaca, who took the helm of another of the boats, "that...it forced us...to go out into such rough seas without having anyone with us who knew the art of navigation."

The water bags made of hide rotted within a few days, and the men who attempted to drink seawater died in agony. The meager rations of raw corn were soon depleted. Yet Esteban and his companions clung to life. At the mercy of capricious winds, they drifted westward along the Gulf Coast, coming ashore periodically to forage for food and replenish their water supply. In this manner, they covered more than 1500 kilometers (930 mi) in just over 40 days.

At the mouth of the Mississippi, strong currents pushed two of the boats, including the one piloted by Narváez, out to sea. They were never seen again. Relief came to the others on November 6, when, according to Cabeza de Vaca, "a great wave took us and cast the boat out of the water as far as a horseshoe can be tossed. The boat ran aground with such force that it revived the men on it, who were almost dead." They were on the island of Malhado near modern-day Galveston Island, Texas.

The Indians inhabiting the island, while friendly at first, quickly turned against the expedition. Fifteen of the survivors—including Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban—were enslaved and dispersed among several local tribes—an ironic twist for the already enslaved Zemmouri.

The Indians, in awe of their prisoners’ mental and physical fortitude, ordered them to act as medicine men during an epidemic of dysentery. Cabeza de Vaca relates that "they wanted to make us physicians, without testing or asking for any degrees, because they cure illnesses by blowing on the sick person and cast out the illness with their breath and their hands. So they told us to be useful and do the same. We laughed at the idea, saying they were mocking us and that we did not know how to heal. They in turn deprived us of our food until we did as they ordered."

Castillo was the first to try his hand at healing, and—doubtless to his own surprise—he was successful. As word spread, he enlisted the aid of Dorantes and Cabeza de Vaca. Esteban, too, soon became a healer, ministering to increasing numbers of patients. Cabeza de Vaca wrote, "Our fame spread throughout the area, and all the Indians who heard about it came looking for us so that we could cure them and bless their children.... People came from many places seeking us, saying that we were truly children of the sun. Up to this time Dorantes and the black man had not performed any healings, but we all became healers because so many people insisted. They believed that none of them would die as long as we were there."

Nonetheless, the "children of the sun" still hoped to reach Pánuco. On September 15, 1534, when their captors were busy harvesting prickly-pear fruit, they made an escape, and were taken in by another tribe that had heard of their abilities. The four began performing minor surgical procedures, using European techniques of the day: On one occasion they opened a man’s chest to remove an arrowhead. "The entire village came to see [the arrowhead] and they sent it further inland so that the people could see it. Because of this cure, they made many dances and festivities as is their custom...and this cure gave us such standing throughout the land that they esteemed and valued us to their utmost capacity."

The Spaniards thought it wise to appoint Esteban as intermediary between themselves and any natives they might encounter in their wanderings, for only he had learned six of the local dialects. Cabeza de Vaca explained another reason as well: "We enjoyed a great deal of authority and dignity among [the Indians], and to maintain this we spoke very little to them. The black man always spoke to them, ascertaining which way to go and...all the other things we wanted to know."

Esteban’s abilities, and the position of the four men as wanderers in a new world where their very survival was in question, made his status that of companion rather than slave. And none of the four men could have imagined how their understanding of native medicine was to change their status, and their standard of living, among all the other tribes they would encounter.

As their medical miracles multiplied, so did the gifts. The four were held in such awe that they could lay claim to anyone or acquire possession of anything. Yet they sought no riches. "After we had entered their homes," writes Cabeza de Vaca, "they offered us everything they had.... We would give all these things to their leaders for them to distribute."

Medicine men from the Arbadaos tribe, who made their home on the banks of the Concho River near present-day Big Spring, Texas presented Esteban and the others with two sacred gourds and an engraved copper rattle. These objects greatly added to their credibility as shamans. "From here on we began to carry the gourds with us, and added to our authority with this bit of ceremony, which is very important to them." For the Indians, hollow gourds with pebbles in them were "a sign of great solemnity, since they bring them out only for dances and for healing ceremonies, and no one else dares touch them.... They say that those gourds have powers and that they came from heaven, because there are none in that land.... They are washed down by the rivers during the floods."

Around Christmas 1536, the four healers and the legions of Indian followers they had acquired reached the Pueblo de los Corazones ("Village of Hearts"), today the town of Ures, 160 kilometers (100 mi) from the Gulf of California, in the state of Sonora, Mexico. "At this time," Cabeza de Vaca writes, "Castillo saw a buckle from a sword belt around an Indian’s neck, with a horseshoe nail sewn to it.... We asked the Indians what it was. They replied it had come from heaven. We questioned them further, asking who had brought it from there. They told us that some bearded men like us, with horses, lances and swords, [had done so]."

Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and probably Esteban as well, desperately wanted to make contact with their countrymen, the first they had heard of in more than eight years. De Vaca’s Indian companions, however, were reluctant to search for them. They knew of Spanish plunder, slave raids and brutal killings, and that local Indians did not plant crops for fear of attracting the attention of the avaricious Spaniards. De Vaca writes: "When I saw [the Indians’] unwillingness,... I took the black man and eleven Indians and, following the trail of the Christians...caught up with four...on horseback, who were quite perturbed to see me so strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They looked at me for a long time, so astonished that they were not able to speak or ask questions. I told them to take me to their captain.... After I spoke to him, he told me that he had quite a problem because he had not been able to capture Indians for many days...[so] he and his men were beginning to suffer want and hunger.... He wanted me to ask [the Indians] to bring us food, although this was not necessary since they always took care to bring us everything they could."

The fact that their countrymen were taking slaves, and indeed demanded that de Vaca turn his Indian followers over to them, caused Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo and Dorantes great distress, and made the long-hoped-for reunion only bittersweet. "They said that they were lords of that land, and that the Indians should obey and serve them, but the Indians believed very little or nothing of what they were saying," especially that there was some kind of bond between the slave-raiders and the "children of the sun." "Speaking among themselves, [the Indians] said instead that the Christians [the Spaniards] were lying, because we [the children of the sun] had come from the East and they [the Spaniards] had come from the West; that we healed the sick and they killed the healthy; that we were naked and barefoot, and they were dressed and on horseback, with lances; that we coveted nothing but instead gave away everything that was given to us and kept none of it, while the sole purpose of the others was to steal everything they found, never giving anything to anybody."

Cabeza de Vaca could not hide his dismay at the other Spaniards’ cruelty and greed, and in fact in his Relación he would urge more humane policies on the Spanish crown. Years later, as governor and captain-general of the South American province of Rio de la Plata, de Vaca would initiate a number of progressive reforms in Indian affairs.

Under Spanish escort, the four reached San Miguel de Culiacan, 150 kilometers (90 mi) away, where they met with the mayor, Captain Melchior Diaz. He seemed to lend a more receptive ear to their pleas of leniency towards the Indians. Diaz instructed the Indians that if they professed a belief in God, they would be left in peace. (His promises were broken before the four Narváez survivors had reached Mexico City.)

On July 24 in Mexico City, Antonio de Mendoza, the viceroy of New Spain, greeted the four with fanfare, but their return to the Spanish fold was not without difficulty. For almost nine years, they had gone naked and lived off the land like the Indians. They found it hard to adapt to contemporary Spanish life.

For his part, Esteban became a well-known figure on the streets of Mexico City, and he enjoyed relative freedom. However, his linguistic abilities soon caught the viceroy’s attention. He acquired Esteban from Dorantes, and appointed the Moroccan interpreter and scout for the expedition of the French-born Franciscan Fray Marcos de Niza, who was being sent north to investigate rumors of great wealth beyond the northern border of New Spain.

Hernando de Alarcón, a contemporary of Esteban’s who would later investigate his death, describes the dashing Moroccan’s departure from Mexico City on March 7, 1539 with an entourage of women, Indians and several Spanish friars, including Fray Marcos, the titular head of the expedition. Esteban was wearing "certain things which did ring, ...bels and feathers on his armes and legs," and he was flanked by a pair of what were probably Spanish greyhounds. The animals must have been a comforting presence to Esteban, since this breed of gazehound is descended from the North African saluki, a dog believed by Moroccans to possess baraka, or a blessing.

The Moroccan and the friar did not see eye-to-eye. Pedro de Castañeda, a soldier who accompanied Coronado on a subsequent northward expedition, gives us this explanation:

"The Negro did not get on well with the friars, because he took the women that were given him and collected turquoises.... Besides, the Indians in those places through which they traveled got along better with the Negro, because they had seen him before."

Esteban traveled some distance ahead of the main body of the expedition. Near their destination, in spite of strict orders to await Fray Marcos, he pressed onward to the village of Hawikuh, 20 kilometers (12 mi) southwest of today’s Zuni Pueblo. He apparently expected the Zunis to greet him with the same fanfare he had experienced when visiting other tribes. He was, it turned out, overconfident.

He sent messengers ahead to the fortified village bearing his gourd rattle adorned with a white and a red feather. But the village chief reacted with scorn, either because the decorated gourd came from a hostile tribe, or because Esteban had unknowingly disrupted a sacred ceremony. According to Nick Houser, an anthropologist and project historian for the Twelve Travelers Memorial of the Southwest, "al-Zemmouri was probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The chief denied Esteban and his entourage entry to the pueblo, and ordered them confined outside the village. For three days, they were denied food and water while the council of elders debated. Some suspected Esteban of being a Spanish spy. Others thought it unreasonable that the white-skinned Spaniards would send a black man as a herald to their pueblo, as the Moroccan had claimed.

According to a secondhand account in Fray Marcos de Niza’s Relación, which is taken from testimony of surviving Indian members of Esteban’s party, "in a great rage [the chief] threw the mace to the ground and said: ‘I know these people; these bells are not of the same style as ours; tell them to go away at once, because otherwise there will not be one of them left alive.’" Unfortunately, as they were virtually imprisoned, leaving "at once" was not possible. Desperately thirsty, Esteban attempted to reach water at a nearby river, and was immediately shot down by Zuni bowmen. According to Alarcón, the chief appropriated Esteban’s precious belongings, including "four green dishes which he had gotten, together with that dogge, and other things of a blacke man."

Learning of the massacre at Hawikuh, Fray Marcos retreated to Mexico City, where his account of the journey referred to the village and others around it—which he had not laid eyes on—as "The Seven Cities of Cibola," and described them as immensely rich. Scholars disagree on the reason for his mendacity; perhaps it was simply a desire to have something positive to report to the viceroy. The result, in any case, was Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s expedition of 1540 to conquer what by then were believed to be cities of gold.

Five hundred years later, a centenarian Zuni oral historian told the following story in the 1992 television documentary Surviving Columbus: The Story of the Pueblo People, produced by the Institute of American Indian Arts for PBS:

      The people who lived at the steaming springs had a giant who led them, who
      walked ahead of them as their guide. And the people from Hanihipinnkya had
      the twin war gods as their leaders. The Sun Father knew that the giant could 
      not be killed, so that when they brought the weapons to the twin war gods they
      pierced them with arrows, but the giant wouldn’t die.... Sun Father said: ‘His 
      heart is in the gourd rattle. The gourd is his heart, and if you destroy it you will
      kill him, and your way will be cleared.’ The younger war god stepped forward
      from the fighting and shot the gourd rattle. The giant fell and all of his people ran away.

Could this legend be a reference to Esteban?

Four hundred fifty years after his death at Hawikuh, Esteban returned to the American Southwest in the form of John Houser’s clay bust. After plaster impressions, waxing and investing, a bronze replica was finally cast, and it is currently on display at the XII Travelers Gallery in El Paso. Nick Houser hopes that a two-meter (12’) statue of Esteban al-Zemmouri will be unveiled soon as one of the 12 such statues commissioned by the city of El Paso to commemorate the most important explorers of the American Southwest.

Kitty Morse (www.kittymorse.com) was born in Casablanca. She is the author of nine cookbooks, most recently The Scent of Orange Blossoms (co-authored with Danielle Mamane, Ten Speed Press, 2001). For assistance during her research she thanks archeologist Aboulkacem Chebri, historian Guy Martinet and Nick Houser.

Owen Morse is a free-lance food and travel photographer whose work has frequently illustrated his wife’s books. 

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the March/April 2002 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2002 images.