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Estevan – A FIGURE OF MYTH & HISTORY

By: Susan Bonnefond & Jack Evins, Volunteers at The Bryan Museum

Painting, Estavanico by Granger. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Estevan – an enslaved Moor among the first European party to explore the interior of Texas – is a figure of myth and history.

Few details regarding Estevan’s background, education, and possible special skills are known to us.  We know that he was an African of Moroccan ancestry and born into the Muslim faith.  He was first enslaved by the Portuguese in 1522 and sold soon thereafter to Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, a Spaniard.  It is difficult to imagine the terror he must have felt upon his enslavement. or the circumstances surrounding his capture.  Like many Africans, he came to the New World as a slave of Spanish conquistadors.

He was a convert to Christianity, whose original African name may have been Hispanicized at the time of his baptism.  Different contemporary accounts and subsequent historians variously identify him as Estevan, Esteban, Estevánico, Estebánico, Mustafa Zemmouri, Esteban de Dorantes, Stephan Durantes, and Black Stephen.

Because Estevan was Christian, he probably received better treatment during his servitude than would otherwise have been the case. Like the other African conquistadors, he would have participated fully, though perhaps under pain of death for any disobedience, in all of the New World activities of the Spanish conquerors he accompanied.

Estevan was one of a party of survivors of the ill-fated 1527 attempt by Pánfilo de Narvaez to explore Florida.  A group of survivors, led by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de la Vaca, washed ashore on Galveston Island in 1528. That party eventually diminished to four persons, including Estevan and his “master,” Dorantes.  These survivors became the first explorers from the Old World to visit the interior of present-day Texas.  Often accompanied by Native American guides, they managed to travel on foot from the Gulf coast to the Pacific coast of Mexico, then on to Mexico City, a journey that covered about 2,400 miles.  Cabeza de Vaca’s party frequently sent Estevan ahead, when encountering new Native American peoples, to act as an intermediary.

Upon returning to Mexico in 1536, Estevan became involved in a second expedition, an attempt by the conquistador Fray Marcos de Niza to locate and take possession of the legendary golden cities of Cibola.  Estevan’s participation in this exploit was not voluntary, but at the direction of his new “master,” the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico. Estevan served de Niza’s group as a guide, advance scout, and insulating buffer between the Spanish and the Native Americans. In that capacity, he became the first conquistador to set foot in what is now northwestern New Mexico.

He was killed in 1539 by the Pueblo inhabitants of Zuni under disputed circumstances.

Our only knowledge of Estevan comes from the firsthand accounts of Cabeza de Vaca and de Niza. Both confirm his centrality to their expeditions of conquest.

It is important to note that slavery under the Spanish conquistadors was very different from the version that was ultimately practiced in the United States. It was transracial and cross-cultural, based largely on religion rather than skin color.  Some converts to Christianity, though enslaved, were afforded opportunities to advance, gain their freedom, and even amass wealth.  However, only a very small number were able to benefit from such practices, and there is no evidence that Estevan was among them.

The accounts of Cabeza de Vaca and de Niza praise Estevan’s talents as an intermediary and communicator. He certainly spoke Spanish as well as his native language. He is described as talented, as well, in the use of signing to communicate with the Native peoples his parties encountered. It is said that he deployed implements of Native culture in order to communicate with or impress local tribes. According to Cabeza de Vaca, Estevan’s own status as well as the prestige of the others in his group, was enhanced by his participation — at the juncture of science, magic, and religion — in the reported healing activities of that party during their travels among the Natives.

However appealing as these admiring descriptions may be, it is important to remember that the apparent benevolence of the conquistadors often concealed real cruelty.  Further, the first-hand accounts that include Estevan were often intended as testimonials that would lead to the financing of additional New World expeditions and solidify the reputations of the writers. It is therefore reasonable to view such accounts as potentially suspect. The narratives of Cabeza de Vaca and de Niza cannot help but reflect their personal perspectives and agendas as much as any objective reality. It is perhaps most accurate, therefore, to observe that Estevan is both known and unknowable — a tragic as well as a heroic historical figure.

There have been several recent tributes to Estevan and current renderings of his story, such as:

  • The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2015. It is a fictional telling of Estevan’s story which, as indicated by the title, is intended to present his side of the matter.
  • “Estavanico” is a 2017 poem by PEN award-winning author Jeffrey Yang. It portrays Estevan as a physical and moral guide.
  • Estevan appears as a character in Europa Universalis 2013 – a “grand strategy” video game. He is also featured in a Japanese/French animated series called “Esteban, Child of the Sun/The Mysterious Cities of Gold.”
  • Rapper and educator A.I. has said that his nickname, “Black Stephan,” is an homage to Estevan.

These portrayals illustrate Estevan’s enduring legacy, and his importance as a figure of contemporary cultural, as well as historical significance.