When it became available on streaming services, I watched the anime TV series The Mysterious Cities of Gold which originally aired in 1982. The series tells the story of the main character, a boy named Estevan, who leaves Barcelona in the 16th century to go to the New World. With a strong man conquistador named Mendoza as a guardian and guide, he is enlisted to find the titular Mysterious Cities of Gold and picks up some companions along the way. Eventually the group makes their way the Inca empire and has many adventures across South and Central America. The series begins as a convincing tale of historical fiction, entertaining for all ages, as they say. After a few episodes, it goes off the historical rails and includes lost civilizations, fantastic inventions, aliens from other planets (spoiler: the Olmecs), etc. but all in good clean fun.
In due time I learned that the series was inspired by the Scott O’Dell novel The King’s Fifth. Scott O’Dell was an author of historical fiction and he took delight in aiming most of his work at a younger audience1.
His books are what we now call Young Adult novels, written for a younger audience, but still dealing with serious themes. Except for seeing a movie adaptation of his novel Island of the Blue Dolphins at a family drive-in outing as a young boy, I knew nothing about his work until I sought out The King’s Fifth.
In the novel, the character Estevan is a young map maker who gets to join the Coronado expedition into the American southwest in the 16th Century. A Conquistador named Mendoza is also part of the expedition, though with ambitions of his own. During the expedition, Mendoza saves Estevan’s life during the battle of Hawikuh, and Mendoza leads Estevan and some other characters on their own side trip as Mendoza seeks a gold fortune for himself.
In spite of the differences between the TV series and the novel (not the least is the setting, the Inca empire in South America vs, the American southwest), the attention to historical authenticity is evident in both the novel and the TV series, at least until the latter veers off in other directions.
Scott O’Dell was deeply interested in history and researched the historical back grounds for all his novels, to include visiting the locales when possible2. Given the names he chose for his characters, I suspect he drew inspiration for The Kings Fifth from the expedition into the American Southwest led by Fray Marcos de Niza in 1538. The de Niza expedition preceded the Coronado expedition, indeed, de Niza’s Relacion, or report, is what motivated Spain to launch the Coronado expedition. The expedition was launched under orders of the Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. One of the members of the de Niza expedition was an individual named Estavanico, little Estevan in Spanish.
Estevanico plays an interesting role in history as he had already been part of the Narvaez expedition to conquer and colonize Florida in 1527. Originally, he was a Moor from North Africa, captured by the Portuguese and sold into slavery to the Spanish. His owner, Andrés Dorantes, brought him to America, and took him along on the expedition to Florida.
The expedition to Florida ended in disaster and after several years four survivors managed to raft and walk all the way back to Mexico, as later documented by survivor Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. One of the survivors was Estevanico. In order to survive, Cabeza de Vaca, Estevanico and their companions had to haggle, escape, and negotiate with the natives during their journey, to the point of convincing them they were shamans and healers. Cabeza de Vaca’s account of the journey is a rare document that describes the American peoples before contact with Europeans.
Once back in Spanish territory, Estevanico was returned to slavery, this time to the Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza. Mendoza heard the survivors tales of large, wealthy cities and in 1538 sent the expedition to investigate the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola led by Friar Marcos de Niza. Estevanico’s experience with the Indians led to him being included as interpreter and guide.
During the expedition, he went scouting far ahead of the main party and reached the Zuni village of Hawikuh (in modern New Mexico) where he disappeared, probably killed by the Indians, but nobody knows for sure. The expedition retreated back to Mexico at this point, never actually reaching Hawikuh.
Dennis Herrick has written the definite historical account of Estevanico in his book Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America (2018). Mr. Herrick has examined all the historical sources and competently synthesized them for modern readers. He also includes some informed speculations, such as that Estevanico’s original name was Mustafa (Esteban being a Spanish corruption) and the possibility that his death was staged so as he could live his life out with the Indians at Hawikuh. There is even a possibility that Indians have carried a memory of him in a Katsina doll.
Estevanico led an epic life story in spite of his untimely demise, so it is not surprising that he would inspire historical fiction. The Mysterious Cities of Gold TV series was aired in 1982 and enjoyed a small revival once it came to online streaming services. The interest was enough to convince producers to make three additional seasons starting in 2012. (these new seasons have Esteban travelling to China, so much for history). In 2015, a new historical fiction novel was published with Estevanico as the titular character. In The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, Estevanico tells his story in the first person.
- The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza by Cleve Hallenbeck (1949, reprinted in 1987) includes an English translation of de Niza’s Relacion, along with extensive commentary.
- An English translation of Cabeza de Vaca’s account is published in The Account: Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion (Recovering the Us Hispanic Literary Heritage) Paperback – April 10, 2001
by Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca (Author), Martin A. Favata (Translator), Jose B. Fernandez (Translator)
- Cabeza de Vaca’s Account is available (in 16th century Spanish) as a free Kindle download from Amazon:
Naufragios (Spanish Edition) Kindle Edition by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
This site contains a wealth of information and references on the de Niza and Coronado expeditions.
The 1982 anime TV series is listed here, though not the seasons produced in 2012 and later.
Scott O’Dell’s website, author of The Kings Fifth (1966)
Dennis Herrick’s website for his historical account Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America (2018)
Laila Lalami’s website on her novel The Moor’s Account (2015)