Bernal Díaz del Castillo
Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1498 – 1585) was a Spanish conquistador, who participated as a foot soldier in the conquest of Mexico with Hernán Cortés. In his later years he was an encomendero and governor in Chiapas and Guatemala where he wrote his memoirs called "The True History of the Conquest of New Spain". He wrote his account of the conquest almost thirty years after the events in response to the account published by Cortes' chaplain Francisco López de Gómara which he considered to be largely fictitious. As an encomendero Diaz del Castillo was an outspoken opponent of Bartolome de las Casas the Bishop of Chiapas who was working for securing better circumstances for the indians working under Spanish encomenderos.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo was born 1498 in Medina del Campo (Spain), he came from a poor family and received little education. He sailed to Tierra Firme with the expedition led by Pedrarias Davila in 1514 to make his fortune, but after two years found few opportunities there. Many of the settlers had been sickened or killed by an epidemic, and there was political unrest.
Expedition to Yucatán
He later sailed to Cuba, where he was promised a grant of Indian slaves (as a part of the Encomienda system). That promise was never fulfilled, leading Díaz, in 1517, to join an expedition being organized by a group of about 110 fellow settlers, and similarly disaffected Spaniards, from Tierra Firme. They chose Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, a wealthy Cuban landowner, to lead the expedition. It was a difficult venture and after sailing from Cuba for 21 days, they discovered the Yucatán coast in early March 1517, on the Cape Cotoche. On march 4, 1517, the Spanish had their first encounter with the Yucatán natives who came to meet them on five large canoes. The next day, the Spaniards disembarked, invited by the natives who wanted to show them their village. They were ambushed but managed to retreat, after killing 15 locals and having 15 wounded, 2 of which later died. Upon leaving, they captured 2 natives who would later prove to be worthy as translators in future expeditions. They almost died of thirst and sailed to Florida in search of drinkable water. As they were digging a well on the beach, the Spaniards were attacked by locals but managed to kill 22 of them and retreat with some water, leaving one Spaniard captive ashore. They returned to Cuba, all of them severely wounded. The captain Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and other soldiers died shortly after making it back to Cuba.
Nevertheless, Díaz returned to the coast of Yucatán in April 1518, in an expedition led by Juan de Grijalva, with the intent of exploring the newly discovered lands. Upon returning to Cuba, he enlisted in a new expedition, this one led by Hernán Cortés.
Conquest of Mexico
In this third effort, Díaz took part in the campaigns against the Aztec. During this campaign, Díaz spoke frequently with his fellow soldiers about their experiences, collecting them into a narrative. The book that resulted from this was Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (English: The True History of the Conquest of New Spain). In it he describes many of the 119 battles in which he participated, culminating in the defeat of the Aztecs in 1521. In the book, Castillo describes the Conquest of the Aztecs, in which he describes the Indoamerican cultures predominant in Mexico at that time. He also gives accounts of the human sacrifices, cannibalism and idolatry that he witnessed first hand.
Governor of Antigua Guatemala and later life and death
As a reward for his service, Díaz was appointed governor of Santiago de los Caballeros, present-day Antigua Guatemala. He finished writing his history in 1568, almost fifty years after the events described, a work he had begun (probably in the mid-1550s) in response to an alternative history written by Cortés's chaplain, who had not actually participated in the campaign. He called his book the Historia Verdadera ("True History"), in response to the claims made in the earlier work.
Díaz died in 1585, without seeing his book published. A manuscript was found in a Madrid library in 1632 and published, providing an eye-witness account of the events, told from the perspective of a common soldier.
Among the greatness of the Aztec culture, Bernal describes a pretty well organized market place and beautifully arranged botanical and zoological gardens.
- Díaz del Castillo 2005, pp. 7, 11.
- Díaz del Castillo, Bernal (1963) . The Conquest of New Spain. Penguin Classics. J. M. Cohen (trans.) (6th printing (1973) ed.). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044123-9. OCLC 162351797.
- Díaz del Castillo, Bernal (2005) . Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España. Felipe Castro Gutiérrez (Introduction). Mexico: Editores Mexicanos Unidos, S.A. ISBN 968-15-0863-7. OCLC 34997012. (Spanish)
- Mayer, Alicia (2005). "Reseñas: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (Manuscrito Guatemala)" (PDF). Estudios de Historia Novohispana 33: pp. 175–183. ISSN 0425-3574. (Spanish)
- Prescott, William H. (1843). History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes (online reproduction, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library). New York: Harper and Brothers. OCLC 2458166.
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