Monday, August 09, 2010


By Bernal Diaz

This is a grunt’s eye view of Cortes’ conquest of Mexico. Bernal Diaz was a gentleman soldier who came to the New World to seek his fortune. He saw Spain’s greatest conquest at first hand in all its grit, glory, and gory excess. The book is not exactly an apologia, few thought an apology necessary at the time. Rather it was written to set the record straight regarding other Spanish chroniclers who Diaz felt had distorted Cortes' record.

Diaz was not much of a stylist and translator JM Cohen has cut down the narrative to a manageable size. What is left has the immediacy of vivid, first-hand recollections. Diaz probably spared the reader quite a bit, but what he put in can be horrid enough. He describes Spanish soldiers using fat from Indians’ corpses to make grease for their weapons. Along with the greed, inhumanity, and fanaticism there are human touches. He describes Montezuma (who Diaz guarded) as a kindly gentleman, who offered to arrange marriages for his captors with Aztec ladies, an offer Diaz accepted. The friars are present always, and Diaz describes how they often moderated demands for immediate, forcible conversion. Perhaps it was respect, but it was also pragmatism. There were a lot of pagans, and not all were ill-disposed to the Spanish, but would be if pushed.

Diaz is a man who was born in the Middle Ages and helped create the Modern Era. This isn’t just the story of exploration, or conquest, or adventure, or genocide. It is literally a day-by-day account of how the world, for better or worse, changed.
-Dave Hardy

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