Book of a lifetime: True History of the Conquest of New Spain, By Bernal Díaz


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The Independent Culture

I read Bernal Díaz's 'True History of the Conquest of New Spain' about 30 years ago in JM Cohen's 1963 translation for Penguin Classics. It is an eyewitness account of Hernan Cortes's expedition to Mexico in 1519 by one of his principal captains, a soldier from Medina del Campo.

Except to check the Spanish text, I have not opened the book again until now. I have not read the letters of Cortes to Charles V or the histories of Lopez de Gomara and Bartolome de las Casas, kept abreast of modern Spanish and Mexican historical scholarship on the Conquest, or returned to Mexico. Cohen translated only the first 157 chapters of Díaz's narrative and I have not read on. I can take so much and no more.

In 1519-21, two civilisations smashed each other to bits and the force still reverberates in my imagination. Certain scenes from Díaz have never been far from my thoughts: the sight of the city of Mexico across the lake, the night battle on the Causeway, the death of Montezuma, the graffiti on the wall of Cortes's house in Coyoacan saying, "My soul is sad because Cortes has hidden all the gold!"

Here is humanity at its best and its very worst, often in the same sentence, and always set down without affectation. At times, I feel like Bernal himself on his farm in Guatemala, old, riddled with wounds and dirt-poor, and so troubled by nightmares that he must leave his bed to lie on the ground under the stars (unless there happened to be gentlemen in the district).

Bernal's style is said by experts to be not of the very best, but these sentences seem to me pretty good whether in English or Spanish: "I must say that when I saw my comrades dragged up each day to the altar, and their chests struck open and their palpitating hearts drawn out, and when I saw the arms and legs of these 62 men cut off and eaten, I feared that one day or another they would do the same to me.

When I remembered their hideous deaths, and the proverb that the little pitcher goes many times to the fountain, and so on, I came to fear death more than ever in the past. Before I went into battle, a sort of horror and gloom would seize my heart, and I would make water once or twice [y orinaba una vez o dos] and commend myself to God and His blessed Mother."

James Buchan's 'Days of God: the Revolution in Iran and its consequences' is published by John Murray