If you were paying any attention in school, you know of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico with only a few hundred soldiers, and Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Inca Empire in Peru with only a few hundred soldiers. What about Panfilo de Narvaez?
Like Cortes and Pizarro, Narvaez was a Spanish commander who had a desire to conquer an important part of the New World. He landed his army of about 400 in Florida with the goal of conquering all of the land from Florida to Texas. Members of his expedition became the first Europeans to cross the North American continent. Eight years later, there were only four naked, starving savages left in that vast area. Four naked, starving European savages, that is. Unlike Cortes and Pizarro, Narvaez did not find a fabulous city full of gold and riches to conquer. He did encounter natives, but they were bigger and stronger and had more suitable military technology and tactics than Narvaez and his companions. Those Spaniards whom the natives did not kill succumbed to disease and starvation—in a fascinating reversal of what happened elsewhere.
I had not heard of Narvaez either. I came across his story in an interesting book by Paul Schneider: Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2006).
It is not surprising that Narvaez is so little known. People don’t often write books about failures.
That reminded me of another historical event. Some scholars have raised questions about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt under Moses. They suggest that it did not happen since there is no record of it in Egypt. But most of the recorded Egyptian history that has survived is carved in stone, in monuments to commemorate rulers and their victories. Nations don’t raise monuments to commemorate their defeats.
People don’t write books about failures. Nations don’t raise monuments to commemorate their defeats. Perhaps they should, since we learn much more from our failures than our victories.