Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492 to 1498, birth date is uncertain, – 1584) 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 began his account of the conquest almost thirty years after the events and later revised and expanded it in response to the account 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 common soldiers.
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. He sailed to Tierra Firme 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.
NOTE* - "Díaz del Castillo" is the complete last name of the person in question, who was also known as "Bernal Díaz."
Expedition to Yucatán
He later sailed to Cuba, where he was promised a grant of Indian 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, 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 Seabiscut.
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 prove their worth as 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 managed to kill 22 Indians. 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 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 Mexica or Aztec Empire. 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 participated, culminating in the defeat of the Aztecs in 1521. This work also describes 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 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.
Governor of Antigua Guatemala and later life and death
As a reward for his service, Díaz was awarded an encomienda by Cortés in 1522. This was confirmed and supplemented by similar awards in 1527 and 1528, according to documents cited by Carmelo Saenz de Santa María (pp. 89–90). In 1541 he settled in Guatemala and, during the course of a trip to Spain, was appointed regidor (governor) of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, present-day Antigua Guatemala in 1551. His Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, finished in 1568, almost fifty years after the events it described, was begun around the same time as his appointment as regidor and was well in progress by the mid-1550s when he wrote to the emperor, describing his services and seeking benefits; it was then expanded in response to what he later found in an alternative history published in 1552 by Francisco López de Gómara. The title Historia verdadera (True History) is in part a response to the claims made by Gómara, Bartolomé de las Casas, Gonzalo de Illescas and others who had not participated in the campaign. Despite Bernal Díaz's lack of formal education and the self-interest that gave birth to his volume, the Historia verdadera evokes, like no other source, the often tragic and painful yet fascinating process through which one empire ended and another began to take shape. (See the article by Boruchoff below)
Bernal Díaz died in January 1584, without seeing his book published. An expanded and corrected copy of the manuscript kept in Guatemala was sent to Spain and published, with revisions, in 1632.
- Díaz del Castillo 2005, pp. 7, 11.
- He was alive on 1 January, but on 3 January his son Francisco appeared before the Cabildo of Guatemala and informed them that his father had died. See Henry R. Wagner, "Notes on Writings by and about Bernal Díaz del Castillo", The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 25, No. 2 (May, 1945), pp. 199-211, at p. 207. Miguel León-Portilla accepted this date in his Introduction (dated July 1984 "a cuatro siglos de la muerte de Bernal") to the anthology of extended excerpts from the Historia verdadera published in 1988 by Conaculta (Consejo nacional para la cultura y las artes) in its series "100 de México", p. 31. Alicia Mayer (2005) praised that edition, its selection, and León-Portilla's introduction, saying they remained, down to the date of her review, "fuente imprescindible de consulta" (an indispensable source to consult)
- 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)
- Boruchoff, David A. (1991) "Beyond Utopia and Paradise: Cortés, Bernal Díaz and the Rhetoric of Consecration." M L N [Modern Language Notes] 106, 2. pp. 330-369
- Saenz de Santa María, Carmelo. Historia de una historia: la crónica de Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1984.
- Mayer, Alicia (2005). "Reseñas: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (Manuscrito Guatemala)" (PDF). pp. pp. 175–183. ISSN 0425-3574. http://www.ejournal.unam.mx/historia_novo/ehn33/EHNO3304.pdf. (Spanish)
- Prescott, William H. (1843) (online reproduction, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library). History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes. New York: Harper and Brothers. OCLC 2458166. http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/PreConq.html.
- Wilson, Robert Anderson (1859). A New History of the Conquest of Mexico: In which Las Casas' denunciations of the popular historians of that war are fully vindicated. Philadelphia, PA: James Challen & Son. OCLC 9642461.
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