Bernal Díaz del Castillo

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Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1490 – 1584) was a Spanish conquistador, who participated as a soldier in the conquest of Mexico under Hernán Cortés and late in his life wrote an account of the events. As an experienced soldier of fortune, he had already participated in expeditions to Tierra Firme, Cuba, and to Yucatán before joining Cortés. In his later years he was an encomendero and governor in Guatemala where he wrote his memoirs called The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. He began his account of the conquest almost thirty years after the events and later revised and expanded it in response to the biography published by Cortes's chaplain Francisco López de Gómara, which he considered to be largely inaccurate in that it did not give due recognition to the efforts and sacrifices of others in the Spanish expedition.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo* was born around 1492 to 1498 (the exact date is unknown) in Medina del Campo (Spain), he came from a poor family and received little education; however, he was literate, which indicates a certain level of education. He sailed to Tierra Firme (now Nombre de Dios in modern Panama) with the expedition led by Pedrarias Dávila 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.

He later sailed to Cuba, where he was promised a grant of native laborers as a part of the Encomienda system. That promise was never fulfilled, leading Díaz, in 1517, to join an expedition organized by a group of about 110 fellow settlers, and similarly disaffected Spaniards, from Tierra Firme. They chose Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (the first European to encounter the Yucatán area), a wealthy Cuban landowner, to lead the expedition. It was a difficult venture and, after sailing from Cuba for 21 days, they came across the Yucatán coast in early March 1517, on the Cape Catoche.

On March 4, 1517, the Spanish had their first encounter with the Yucatán natives who came to meet them on five or perhaps 10, depending on the version/translation of his work, large wooden 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 whom later died. Upon leaving, the Spaniards captured 2 natives who would be translators in future expeditions. The Spanish almost died of thirst and sailed to Florida in search of potable drinking water. As they were digging a well on the beach, the Spaniards were attacked by locals. During this fracas, one Spaniard was captured by the native Floridians while the Spanish killed 22 natives. The Spanish managed to make a retreat but were also able to gather some water. 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 lands. Upon returning to Cuba, he enlisted in a new expedition, this one led by Hernán Cortés.

In this third effort, Díaz took part in the campaigns against the Mexica, later called the Aztec Empire. By this time, he was a highly experienced member of Hernán Cortés's expedition. During this campaign, Díaz spoke frequently with his fellow soldiers about their experiences. These accounts, and especially Díaz's own experiences, served as the basis for the recollections that Bernal Díaz later told with great drama to visitors and, eventually, a book entitled Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (English: The True History of the Conquest of New Spain). In the latter, Díaz describes many of the 119 battles in which he claims to have participated in, culminating in the defeat of the Aztecs in 1521. This work also claims to describe the diverse native peoples living in the territory renamed New Spain by the Spaniards. Bernal Díaz also examines the political rivalries of Spaniards, and gives accounts of the natives' human sacrifices, cannibalism and idolatry, which he claims he witnessed first-hand, as well as the artistic, cultural, political and intellectual achievements of the Aztecs, including their palaces, market places and beautifully organized botanical and zoological gardens. His account of the Mexica along with that of Cortés are first-person accounts recording important aspects of Mesoamerican culture. True History remains one of the best accounts we have of Mexico at the time of the conquest, but its purpose and style betrays some of the biases that appear in this so-called truthful history. Bernal Díaz's account has not been fully utilized as a source for conquest-era Mesoamerican culture.

This page was last edited on 12 April 2018, at 15:35.
Reference: under CC BY-SA license.

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