This novel takes one of the many, infinite silences of history and gives it a voice. The voice is that of our narrator, Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, and the story is ‘a true account of his life and travels from the city of Azemmur to the Land of the Indians, where he arrived as a slave and, in his attempt to return to freedom, was shipwrecked and lost for many years.’ Or, Estebanico, which he was given at the moment of his forced conversion to Christianity after being enslaved by the Portuguese and taken to Spain.
The whole book is in the first person, and the reader is addressed directly on numerous occasions, bringing you into the story. The narrative presented here by Mustafa is a conscious corrective to those given by three key companions in the travels and sufferings of the Narvaez expedition, which landed in Florida in 1527 to settle and colonise the lands north of Mexico, search for gold and emulate the success of Cortez and Mendoza. It is a chronologically and geographically hugely wide ranging novel, taking the reader from the slave trade of Barbary, and north African famine, to Imperial Spain, and to where the bulk of the book is set: the New World, La Florida.
This is not a simplistic tale of coloniser and colonised, however; the Castilians from the moment of landing immediately run into serious trouble, struggling to deal with the climate, the terrain, the flora and fauna and most problematically, the ‘Indians’ they encounter. Their first such encounter is with four scouts, who they capture and torture to extract information about a city they are convinced is dripping with gold. It is clear that their motivations are greed – to capture in the easiest format (gold) great riches; but they are also motivated by the ideals of conquest, naming every river and landscape feature they come across. However, they make numerous mistakes and misjudgements, leaving their ships behind to take an inland route, coming under attack from the now-hostile and suspicious tribes they come into contact with.
No one is exempt from complicity in this doomed mission, not even Mustafa, as he readily admits. Slowly, the party of over 400 Castilians – soldiers, officers, settlers – is decimated by attacks and disease, and by the last section of the book they have been fragmented and atomised across different tribes, who take them in in exchange for work, in situations little better than slavery and which are often fatal.
Indeed, much of the novel is a discussion of the experience of slavery, from the eyes of someone who sold himself into slavery to save his family from famine. It is through these layers of complexity of experience that the novel is so richly rewarding; we have the narrative told from the perspective of a slave, who was once a free man, and who is now part of a sometimes violent and brutal colonising mission. His relationship with – in addition to the other Spaniards’ relationships with – the Indians helps the reader understand their point of view, although they never successfully form fully rounded characters. Perhaps this is deliberate on the part of the author, reminding us that, just like Mustafa and his Spanish masters, we can never fully reconstruct their experience and to do so would only illuminate our prejudices and preconceptions, rather than provide insight to their feelings about the great changes brought by the Spanish.
The author captures the historical detail wonderfully; from the ships, to the food, to the weapons and social mores. But what is more successful even than the details which ground the story in its place and time, is the multitude of ways in which the themes tackled – slavery, colonialism, morality – can be considered in a much wider context, chronologically and geographically, because the story concerns itself with the construction of narratives and truth as its fundamental theme.