The following selections come from the True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492-1580), who was a foot soldier in the army of Hernán Cortés that conquered the Aztec empire in the period 1519 to 1522. Bernal Díaz composed his account in the 1560s, decades after the events he described, yet he wrote with supreme confidence in his ability to recall details from an earlier time.
Bernal Díaz had a purpose in mind for his work: he sought to set the record straight by responding to the works of contemporary historians who wrote in a more polished style but had no knowledge of the campaign in New Spain (Mexico). The historian Francisco López de Gómara had attributed the campaigns success entirely to the leadership of Cortés, while the missionary Bartolomé de las Casas had attacked the Spanish forces for excessive cruelty. Bernal Díaz admired Cortés and often praised him in his own account, but he insisted that the campaigns success was the result of a joint effort of all troops from the commander to the lowliest foot soldier. As for charges of excessive cruelty, Bernal Díaz scorned them and accounted for the campaigns brutality as the inevitable result of war and the treacherous situations the Spanish forces faced.
Bernal Díazs perspective on the conquest of Mexico differed not only from those of contemporary historians but also from the story related by the commander Hernán Cortés himself. Although he did not prepare a formal historical account, Cortés dispatched a series of five lengthy epistles to the king of Spain. In these letters, composed between 1519 and 1526, Cortés recounted his armys experiences and explained his decisions in such a way as to justify his actions as commander. From a strictly legal point of view, Cortés was a rebel, or at best an insubordinate adventurer, so he argued tenaciously that his actions enhanced the kings power, wealth, and glory. Cortés emphasized that he had conquered a vast empire for the king and provided him with new sources of wealth. Moreover, he offered a convenient justification for the conquest of Mexico: since the native peoples observed degrading customs, including human sacrifice, it was essential to conquer them and convert them to Christianity. Thus Cortéss characterization of native peoples played a pivotal role in his effort to justify his own actions to the king of Spain.
While military affairs were the focus of Bernal Díazs account, he also devoted ample attention to the peoples and customs he encountered during the course of the campaign. The following passages bespeak his wonder at some dimensions of Aztec society and his horror at others. Quotations are from Bernal Díaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. by J. M. Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), pp. 148-49, 214-15, 236-37.
The first passage offers insight into the nature of conflict as Cortéss army made its way through Mexico:
What an opportunity for fine writing the events of this most perilous and uncertain battle present! We were four hundred, of whom many were sick and wounded, and we stood in the middle of a plain six miles long, and perhaps as broad, swarming with Indian warriors. Moreover we knew that they had come determined to leave none of us alive except those who were to be sacrificed to their idols. When they began to charge the stones sped like hail from their slings, and their barbed and fire-hardened darts fell like corn on the threshing-floor, each one capable of piercing any armour or penetrating the unprotected vitals. Their swordsmen and spearmen pressed us hard, and closed with us bravely, shouting and yelling as they came. The steadfastness of our artillery, musketeers, and bowmen did much to save us, and we inflicted great casualties on them. Their charging swordsmen were repelled by stout thrusts from our swords, and did not close in on us often as in the previous battle. Our horsemen were skillful and fought so valiantly that, after God who protected us, they were our chief bulwark.... The Indians were charging us in such numbers that only by a miracle of sword-play were we able to drive them back and re-form our ranks. One thing alone saved our lives: the enemy were so massed and so numerous that every shot wrought havoc among them. What is more, they were so badly led that some of their captains could not bring their men into battle.
Comment: Throughout his work, Bernal Díaz manifested great respect for the warriors who challenged Cortéss army during its march through Mexico. He commented on their light but effective cotton armor as well as their weapons, including slings, darts, arrows, and obsidian swords with lethal cutting edges. He often mentioned their strength, bravery, courage, and cleverness in devising tactics to exploit weaknesses of the invading force, although he occasionally pointed out that Mexican armies did not fight in highly disciplined fashion. His account also makes it clear that steel swords, crossbows, firearms, cannons, and horses provided the Spanish army with powerful tools for battle. Quite apart from their advanced weaponry, military discipline enabled Cortéss army to survive clashes with much larger opposing forces. Bernal Díaz often mentioned that the Spanish forces fought to keep their ranks in good order, and so long as they did so, their opponents made little headway against them. Indeed, Bernal Díazs account sheds considerable light on military organization of both Spanish and Mexican societies.
The next passage describes what Bernal Díaz and his fellow soldiers beheld as they approached and entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán:
And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [i.e. Tenochtitlán], we were astounded. These great towns and cues [i.e., temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before. . . .
And when we entered the city of Iztapalapa, the sight of the palaces in which they lodged us! They were very spacious and well built, of magnificent stone, cedar wood, and the wood of other sweet-smelling trees, with great rooms and courts, which were a wonderful sight, and all covered with awnings of woven cotton.
When we had taken a good look at all this, we went to the orchard and garden, which was a marvelous place both to see and walk in. I was never tired of noticing the diversity of trees and the various scents given off by each, and the paths choked with roses and other flowers, and the many local fruit-trees and rose-bushes, and the pond of fresh waterū. Then there were birds of many breeds and varieties which came to the pond. I say again that I stood looking at it, and thought that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world.... But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing.
Comment: Spanish forces entered Tenochtitlán after almost nine months of traveling and fighting their way from Veracruz on the Gulf coast across rugged terrain to central Mexico. They fought numerous skirmishes and several major battles along the way. Their small band of only a few hundred soldiers faced enemy forces with thousands of warriors. Nevertheless, through iron discipline and astonishingly clever diplomacy, most of Cortéss army survived to see the Aztec capital. After months of continuous danger and deprivation, it is hardly surprising that Bernal Díaz and his fellow soldiers reacted to the comforts of Tenochtitlán as they did. From his almost lyrical descriptions of Tenochtitlán, it is clear that Bernal Díaz had high respect for Aztec political and social organization, for the skills and talents of Aztec workers and craftsmen, for the remarkable city that stood on pilings and built-up land in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Bernal Díaz described the vast palaces of the Aztec emperor, with its armory, gardens, aviary, and chapels. He also took his readers on an extended tour through the vast markets of Tenochtitlán, describing the foods, fine textiles, jewels, precious metals, chocolate, paper, tobacco, human slaves, and other goods on offer there. Indeed, his account provides perhaps the best description of Aztec society on the eve of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
The last passage describes images of Aztec gods and shrines holding the remains of sacrificial victims that Bernal Díaz and his fellow soldiers saw in the great temple at Tenochtitlán:
On each altar was a giant figure, very tall and very fat. They said that the one on the right was Huichilobos [i.e. Huitzilopochtli], their war-god. He had a very broad face and huge terrible eyes. And there were so many precious stones, so much gold, so many pearls and seed-pearls stuck to him with a paste which the natives made from a sort of root, that his body and head were covered with them. . . .
There were some smoking braziers of their incense, which they call copal, in which they were burning the hearts of three Indians whom they had sacrificed that day; and all the walls of that shrine were so splashed and caked with blood that they and the floor too were black. Indeed, the whole place stank abominably. We then looked to the left and saw another great image of the same height as Huichilobos, with a face like a bear and eyes that glittered, being made of their mirror-glass, which they call tezcat. Its body, like that of Huichilobos, was encrusted with precious stones, for they said that the two were brothers. This Tezcatlipoca, the god of hell, had charge of the Mexicans souls, and his body was surrounded by figures of little devils with snakes tails. The walls of this shrine also were so caked with blood and the floor so bathed in it that the stench was worse than that of any slaughter-house in Spain. They had offered that idol five hearts from the days sacrifices.
At the very top of the cue [temple] there was another alcove, the woodwork of which was very finely carved, and here there was another image, half man and half lizard, encrusted with precious stones, with half its body covered in a cloakū. Here too all was covered with blood, both walls and altar, and the stench was such that we could hardly wait to get out. They kept a large drum there, and when they beat it the sound was most dismal, like some music from the infernal regions, as you might say, and it could be heard six miles away. In that small platform were many more diabolical objects, trumpets great and small, and large knives, and many hearts that had been burnt with incense before their idols; and everything was caked with blood. The stench here too was like a slaughter-house, and we could scarcely stay in the place.
Comment: Archaeological excavations have borne out much of Bernal Díazs descriptions of Aztec temples and sacrificial ceremonies. There is no doubt that human sacrifice played a large role in Aztec society. Yet the very prominence of human sacrifice might have provoked reflective individuals to ask why such extreme and costly customs loomed so large in Aztec society? Bernal Díaz was a practical mana foot soldier and conqueror rather than a historian or anthropologistand he never seems to have probed deeply into the cultural logic of the Aztecs sacrifices of human victims. For Bernal Díaz, a conventionalif not particularly piousRoman Catholic Christian of the early 16th-century, it was sufficient to recognize that Aztec customs profoundly violated his own faith. Some commentators, including Hernán Cortés and other contemporary historians, argued specifically that Aztec religious practices constituted justification for the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Bernal Díaz certainly portrayed himself as one working to serve God, but he felt little need to rationalize conquest by emphasizing the brutality of human sacrifice. Nevertheless, his eyewitness portrayals of human sacrifices and his graphic descriptions of blood-drenched shrines contributed to the characterization of Aztec society as one ripe for conquest and conversion to Christianity.
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