Until recently, I didn’t even know that the manuscript The Conquest of New Spain, even existed. I picked up the book in a bookstore in Cancun, Mexico, on my way back from Cuba, thinking that it would make a good addition to my recent love of carefully focused history books.
The text, a first-hand account of the conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors, provides a richness and depth of detail that is truly a unique text. Not being a student of history, I’m used to reading someone else’s interpretation of events. It’s a rare pleasure to read a first-hand account of such a crucial event in the history of North America that happened 600 years ago (1498 – 1580)
The author, a soldier named Bernal Diaz, provides a truthful and even-handed account of life as a soldier in Cortes’ army. Like most explorers of his time, he endured great hardships and died broke, despite having opened up a brand new, rich country to Spanish trade.
When Cortes arrived in Mexico, he found the country ruled by Montezuma from his capital in Mexico City, and Montezuma ruled by the war god Huichilobos. Montezuma’s hold on the country was tenuous. His tax collectors and soldiers had savagely collected tribute and wealth from the towns throughout Mexico. Therefore, as Cortes made his way from the coast to Mexico City, he was able to recruit Mexican allies along the way who were all too happy to lend food, shelter, and thousands of additional soldiers to bolster Cortes’ small army of 400.
Additionally, Cortes discovered that there was a legend throughout Mexico that a white men would come from the East to rule over Mexico. Montezuma believed Cortes was the fulfillment of this legend.
All the way to Mexico City, Montezuma would consult his war god through his priests (papas), who gave him conflicting information. Sometimes he would send gifts to Cortes along his march to Mexico City, and then, when the priests channeling the war god’s wishes changed their information, he would send soldiers to attack Cortes. When Cortes finally arrived in Mexico City, he captured Montezuma and held him prisoner while the rest of the country began a slow revolt. Montezuma died in Cortes’ custody, and began a house-to-house and boat-to-boat fight against the remaining soldiers.
Throughout the invasion of Mexico, Cortes’ army had to deal with not simply losing battles, but having the Spanish prisoners that the Mexicans captured be sacrificed to their war god. Cortes, on the other hand, tended to keep prisoners for later use as messengers when negotiating peace with the enemy.
Bernal Diaz’ first-hand account is a soldier’s eye view. It provides excellent detail, as Diaz was an experienced soldier and privy to most of the gossip in Cortes’ camp. I highly recommend it, though you will find it has to be slogged through in places.