Bernal Díaz del Castillo 1496–1584
Although he identified himself primarily as a soldier, or conquistador, Bernal Díaz del Castillo has also claimed a place in world literature for his efforts as a historian. Díaz participated in the sixteenth-century expedition to Mexico led by explorer Hernán Cortés, which brought the powerful Aztec nation under Spanish control. Late in his life, chagrined by his disagreement with the chronicles of the conquest published by Francisco López de Gómara and Bartolomé de las Casas, among others, Díaz decided to record his recollection of the events, and completed Historia verdadera de la Conquis ta de la Nueva España [1632; True History of the Conquest of New Spain]. The "truth" Díaz emphasises in his title proceeds from his direct involvement in the history he describes—a status that distinguishes him from other historians, with the exception of Cortés. Unlike his commander, however, Díaz recorded events from the soldier's point of view, and it was this attention to evoking the specific and highly personal details of history that has contributed to the favorable reputation of his account.
Bernal Díaz was born in Medina del Campo, in Spain, and biographers place his uncertain date of birth anywhere from 1492 to 1496. Since his family, albeit of good reputation and possibly noble lineage, had only a modest income, Bernal set out to make his own fortune in 1514. He spent approximately three years with Spanish settlements in Panama and Cuba, before conceding that an advance in wealth would require more drastic measures. Consequently, he joined several expeditions to Central America, with the hope of acquiring riches either in gold or colonization of the land. After several luckless efforts with different commanders, Díaz joined the explorer Hernán Cortés, who was to become one of the most famous and infamous commanders in Spanish imperial history. The expedition encountered the Aztecs, a powerful nation ruled by the emperor Montezuma. What were, at first, peaceful relations, eventually degenerated into violence and spurred Cortés to amass an army that would quell the empire, reducing the Aztecs and many other Central American tribes to colonized peoples. Cortés's conquest
would never have proceeded, as the True History consistently reminds its readers, without the forces he brought to Mexico. Once the Aztec empire was broken, Díaz and his comrades expected to make their homes in the new colony, filling government posts and directing the labor of local Indians, who were granted to colonial representatives in large groups called encomiendas. Díaz, however, felt less than adequately compensated for his service and—although provided with encomiendas in Guatemala after 1541—spent much of his later life suing the Spanish crown in an attempt to acquire more Indians.
Díaz's True History of the Conquest of New Spain, in its unedited form, is an extensive document that the impromptu historian began in 1552 and worked on for many years, allegedly spending entire days writing his memories. There are competing theories regarding the motivation that drove the former soldier's pen, but the greatest consensus conflates his historical project with his effort to be remunerated for his military services. In general, critics assume that Díaz began writing in or around 1552 with the aim of securing recognition for his own efforts and those of his comrades. Twelve years later, as he tells the story, he read for the first time the Crónica de la Nueva España, the history written by Cortés's chaplain, Francisco López de Gómara. This document and Cortés's letters present the conquest as Cortés's singular achievement, rarely mentioning the names of any of his captains. Díaz's own writing, in response, became all the more fervent and purposeful.
Díaz completed a first draft of the True History in 1568 and sent a manuscript to Spain in 1575, but it would not see publication until 1632, fifty years after his death in 1584. When Friar Alonso de Remón brought out the first edition in 1632, the book met with immediate popularity; readers embraced the old conquistador's memories, although they criticized the editor's abridgements and interpolations. Remón's faulty text went through many more printings before Genaro Garcia returned to Díaz's original manuscript to create a corrected edition in 1904. In the centuries since its first publication, the True History has seen many translations, including several into English, the latest of which is J. M. Cohen's abridged edition for Penguin in 1963.
Díaz's True History tells the story of Spain's conquest of Mexico. Unlike Cortés, Gómara, and Las Casas, however, Díaz emphasizes the details of a conquistador's everyday life; he also consistently draws the spotlight away from the general and shines it on the men who served him, remembering such minutia as their nicknames, habits, armor, and horses. Critics have catagorized the text as both a history and a memoir, because it adheres so closely to the author's life. In the Preliminary Note with which it opens, Díaz proclaims his intention to "describe quite plainly, as an honest eyewitness, without twisting the facts in any way." He begins with a brief history of his family and the circumstances that took him to the New World, then proceeds to the relation of his time in Cortés's command, which constitutes the great bulk of the history. We see the initially friendly, if cautious, relationship with Montezuma, followed by rising conflicts that lead to Cortés's abduction of Montezuma, the Mexican attack on Spanish soldiers known as La Noche Triste, and the seige that ultimately broke Mexico's strength and brought it under Spanish control. Díaz then relates the personal trajectories of his main characters, especially that of Cortés and himself. When editors abridge an edition for publication, it is often this dénoument that they cut, although they then sacrifice Díaz's emphasis on his fortunes after the conquest. Having established an estate and a family in Guatemala, the former soldier dedicated himself to securing their fortune. Both the growth of his family and his efforts on their behalf—letters to the King in Spain, for example—figure prominently in the last part of the True History.
Despite the protests regarding Remón's errors in the first edition of the True History, the work met with immediate popularity among Spanish readers and brought its author considerable posthumous fame. His currency remained steady in the ensuing centuries, then experienced a peak in the nineteenth century during a resurgence of interest in Spanish colonial history. Several translations appeared in English, including Maurice Keatinge's in 1800 and John Ingram Lockhart's in 1844. Historians, many of whom considered Díaz vital to Mexican history, drew very liberally from the True History, creating texts that were amalgems of his work, that of other commentators, and the historian's. In these circumstances, writers invoked Díaz as part of a general discussion on the benefits and dangers of imperialism—questions central to the nineteenth century, since England and the United States were involved in their own imperialist enterprises. While many took issue with Díaz's justifications for conquest, most held his unembellished narrative style in high esteem, taking its simplicity for wholly reliable narration. Twentieth-century critics, on the other hand, while still very concerned with the study of imperialism, became more interested in the history's textuality. Discussions have focused on the True History as a literary document that drew upon certain literary conventions in order to make its unfamiliar world available to Spanish readers, and that contributing to the development of the novel. Consequently, the True History's centrality as a historical document is now matched by its reputation as a work of literature.