Review of “The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico” by Bernal Diaz


The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo

The American edition, published in 1956, 468 pages, Translated by A.P. Maudsley

The Diaz account is the best history book that I have read. It has all the advantages of a first-person account and reads like a well-written adventure novel.

Discovery and Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo

The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo is the only extant first-person account of the campaign under the command of Hernando Cortez from 1519 to 1520. The campaign resulted in the discovery and conquest of the Aztec civilization in Mexico.

Cortez himself wrote five long letters to Carlos V in Spain. Parts of them are included in this edition to help explain the narrative. But Cortez’ letters were essentially reports of a Conquistador commander seeking favor, and explaining his actions, which were mostly extralegal.

The entire Conquest was a massive verification of the adage that “It is easier to obtain forgiveness than permission.”

Bernal Diaz’ account is a first person narrative of the entire campaign, with the amazing detail of a foot soldier who is vitally interested in food, women, weapons, and gold. He includes accounts of two separate expeditions before Cortez.

Bernal Diaz made extensive remarks on the use of firearms in his narrative. The initial numbers were tiny, but contributed significantly to the success of the conquest.  Of the initial 400 to 500 men under the command of Cortez, there were 16 with horses, 13 with individual guns, four small cannon, “some brass guns” (more cannon), and 32 crossbowmen. The 13 personal guns were almost certainly arquebuses, the first really practical personal gun, with early matchlocks. Diaz mentions “much powder and ball”.

The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo

Diaz rated the crossbowmen and the “musketeers” about equal in effectiveness. The cannons were extremely effective both as destructive weapons and for their psychological effect.

It is hard for modern man to realize how quiet the world was before gunpowder and modern engines. The loudest noise was thunder, often equated with supernatural power. Firearms duplicated the intensity of that noise, at least at close range.

The soldiers of the Conquest spent considerable time on the maintenance of their weapons and armor. Not much has changed in 500 years. They adopted whatever of the enemies’ weaponry that they found useful. The Spanish quickly appropriated the quilted and compacted cotton armor of the natives to augment what steel armor they had with them.

The conquest would likely have failed without two recent inventions in Europe: corned gunpowder and portable guns.  Corned gunpowder had only been perfected about 50- 20 years previously. Moistening the mix, then pushing it through sieves made a gunpowder that was much more powerful, durable, and resistant to absorbing moisture from the air.

It is unlikely that simple mixtures of gunpowder would have survived the trip across the Atlantic, and likely two to three times as much would have been required. The new gunpowder allowed for much smaller, lighter, faster firing and reliable guns, both cannon and arquebuses.

Bernal Diaz was literate and educated and made reference to the literature of the time.  He shows a keen understanding of tactics, strategy and the importance of various players in the complicated, Machiavellian game of life, death, and power played out by Cortez, Montezuma, and various native allies, especially the Tlaxcalans, one of the few groups not subject to the Aztecs.

The manuscript was published after the author’s death, first in 1632, by Friar Alonzo Remon from a manuscript found in Madrid. Several secondary editions were published from that version. People who had read the original manuscript kept in Guatemala wrote that the published version differed in a number of details from the original. In 1895, a photocopy of the Guatemalan manuscript was furnished to Senor Don Genaro Garcia of Mexico, who published a true version of the Guatemalan text. The A.P. Maudley translation is of that publication.

There are indications that the manuscript was written over a considerable period of time. In one preface, a “day book” was noted as a source. Did Diaz keep, in effect, a diary? We do not know. The work was well underway by 1552, 30 years after the conquest. In those 30 years it would be reasonable that Bernal Diaz had many conversations with his former comrades in arms. He likely took notes. Pedro de Alvarado, one of Cortez’ Lieutenants, was made Governor of Guatemala in 1524. Guatemala is where Bernal Diaz was granted his estate as a reward.  In the Conquest, Diaz had served under Alvarado a number of times. Different versions show manuscript completion dates of 1568 and 1572.

Diaz gave the native warriors high marks for courage and skill at warfare. He writes of their weapons and tactics. They devised defenses to horses, using traps and captured steel swords; they formed looser formations as a defense against cannons. Many of these adaptations worked for short periods. But the Spanish adapted as well. The Spanish had launches built to to navigate the lake around Mexico City, mounted cannon on them, and propelled them with sails and oars. They dominated even the largest Aztec dugout canoes.

The Spanish gained tens of thousands of allies from the Tlaxacans and the liberated subjects of the Aztecs. Cortez promised to rule with justice and good works, based on Christianity.  The Spanish insisted on an end to human sacrifice and cannibalism. It was not a popular decree, at least at first. The priests with the expedition insisted that conversions to Christianity be voluntary.

The Conquest was no cakewalk. The Conquistadors came very close to being wiped out several times. Diaz was seriously wounded numerous times. As a personal guard of the captured Montezuma, Montezuma gave him gold, cotton cloth, and the beautiful daughter of a high-ranking Aztec.  Montezuma likely thought it cheap insurance. Diaz lost most of it after Montezuma was killed when the Aztecs revolted. The Spanish had to fight their way out of Mexico City. They barely succeeded.

Diaz’ account makes clear that both Cortez and Montezuma were world-class Machiavellian politicians. They continually lied to each other, their allies, and their men, as the situation required. They jockeyed for positions and worked hard to understand each other and their vulnerabilities. Montezuma was at a disadvantage because the Conquistadors’ capabilities and weapons were new and unknown. Cortez knew more of the world. Both knew how to make and break alliances to their advantage.

Cortez had the disadvantage of having to work through translators for most of his interactions with allies, enemies, and spies. Diaz says the acquisition of Doña Marina (her converted Christian name) in the early part of the Conquest, was critical to Cortez’ success.  She was a talented translator, shrewd advisor, and companion of Cortez. She later bore him a son.

Diaz’ narrative contains numerous remarks on the human sacrifice and cannibalism that were frequently encountered during the Conquest. It was not limited to the Aztecs, but included the Tlaxcalans and the tribes conquered by the Aztecs. At one “cue” or temple, he writes that he found human skulls arranged in such an order that he could determine the number through counting.

He calculated that there were 100,000 of them and emphasized the accuracy of the estimate. Slavery was common to both the native tribes and the Spaniards. The Church insisted on a formal decree from Spain that free Indians could not be made into slaves in New Spain.  It took decades to enforce the decree.

I highly recommend this book, The Discovery And Conquest Of Mexico,  to anyone who is interested in the history of the Americas and the early use of personal firearms in warfare.  I purchased the earlier 1928 version, and gave several 1956 editions as gifts. They can be had for as little as $2 on the used market.

About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of constitutional carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and recently retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

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