The Moor’s Account is a fascinating historical fiction novel based on a real-life journey to Florida by 300 Spanish conquistadors in 1528. The story is told by Mustafa, a Moroccan slave who accompanied his master on the expedition and was one of only four survivors.
I read The Moor’s Account as part of the 2022 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. February’s challenge was to read a book by an African author in honor of Black History Month. The author, Laila Lalami, was born and raised in Morocco and now lives in California. The Moor’s Account was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.
The Moor’s Account is essentially a retelling of the official account of the doomed expedition. The official chronicle was written by another survivor, a Spaniard named Cabeza de Vaca, and was one of the earliest, detailed records of the New World and the tribes that lived there. The official document mentions that one of the survivors was a slave from a city in Morocco, but no other information was included, leaving the author with a lot of room for poetic license.
Throughout the course of the book, we learn that Mustafa is the oldest of four children who rebelled against his father’s wish for him to become a notary, choosing a life of a merchant instead (which his father considered unsavory). Due to an unfortunate chain of events, Mustafa sold himself into slavery so his starving family could have the money to buy food.
Another chain of events leads to Mustafa being owned by a Castilian sea captain who’s about to embark on a journey to “La Florida.” They find a nugget of gold when they first land, which leads to a hairbrained scheme to head inland to find more.
The conquerors are soon conquered by a combination of a harsh environment (imagine what Florida was like in 1528!), hostile natives, disease, bad weather, and starvation. Mustafa and his fellow travelers are ill-suited to survive in the wilderness and have to rely on various Indian tribes to keep them alive. They lived this way for eight years.
Throughout the story, Mustafa dreams of gaining his freedom and returning to his family in Morocco. He ultimately finds freedom and a family, but under different circumstances than he imagined.
I really enjoyed The Moor’s Account. The descriptions of unsettled America and the native tribes were fascinating and made me feel like I was actually there. And the constant hunger and discomfort and occasional shocking violence reinforced the idea that I could never be a settler. I never even liked camping!
In addition to a well-written setting, the characters were interesting, there was plenty of action, and I learned quite a bit about a period of history that I’ve never studied or even thought about.
I thought the theme of the conquerors being conquered was particularly insightful. When the Spaniards first arrived, they arrogantly pillaged tribal villages, gave everything they encountered an “official” Spanish name, and claimed all the land for the king. Their arrogance was quickly erased when the wilderness and its inhabitants brought them to their knees.
It was a little difficult to figure out where in America they were in certain parts of the story. Through this website I figured out that after they left Florida on crudely made rafts, they were shipwrecked on the Texas coast on what they called “The Island of Misfortune.” If you look at the map, you’ll notice that they wandered along the Texas coast with the nomadic tribes they were living with. This website will be helpful if you end up reading the book, or if you already read it and were as confused as I was.
All-in-all, The Moor’s Account is an excellent book and I think historical fiction fans will enjoy it.
How about you? Did you read a book by an African author in February? Tell us about it in the comments section.
Reminder: March’s challenge is to read a book by an Irish-American author. If you need some ideas, here are ten options.