490 years ago, a group of ambitious Spaniards ascended the southeastern slope of the Sierra de Ahualco, a large mountain that overlooked the lush Mexican landscape. Upon reaching the stony top, these men gazed upon a civilization unlike anything that existed in Europe. Tenochtitlan, the native “Aztec” people called it, was a prosperous city nestled neatly into the beauty of the Mexican valley. The panorama of cultivated fields, irrigated by complex water networks was no doubt a charming sight to behold. Towering buildings adorned with gold glistened in the sunlight, enhancing the Spaniards thirst for plunder. Led by the ambitious Hernan Cortes, these Spaniards would stop at nothing in order to seize the riches that lay before them. Unfortunately for the people of Tenochtitlan, these first "explorers" from Spain would turn out to be the beginning of the end for their civilization. Their subsequent conquest and subjugation to the Spanish eventually led to the demise of the Aztec world and the continued rise of Spanish colonization in the "New World."
Over the years the story of Hernan Cortes has been both praised and scrutinized by a wide range of critics. Even his contemporaries were divided over the achievements Cortes had accomplished. Many considered him to be one of Spain’s greatest villains, while others were quick to call him a national hero. Amongst those that rose to defend the acts of Cortes and the conquest of "New Spain" was a poor peasant Spaniard turned conquistador named Bernal Diaz del Castillo. As a loyal soldier in Cortes’s army, Diaz became an eyewitness to the Spanish conquests of Mexico. In the latter years of his life, Diaz wrote his life experiences as a conquistador in his infamous history, The Conquest of New Spain. Though not always kind to Cortes, Diaz gives a predominantly favorable view of Spain’s most legendary conquistador, and the actions of the men that followed him. Over the years, however, the history of Bernal Diaz has been interpreted from many different perspectives. To understand the historiography of Bernal Diaz, a general inquiry into his motivations for exploration, combined with an analysis of how Diaz’s record was perceived by his contemporaries vs. its current historical significance, are essential components in appreciating the historical significance of Diaz’s work.
To understand the record of Bernal Diaz, one must first understand his motivations for becoming a conquistador. Spanish society in the sixteenth century was a world deeply divided by social and economic inequality. A massive number of Spaniards lived in the depths of poverty, expecting little chance to improve their social or economic status. As J.S. Elliot points out, "Cortes, along with the vast majority of explorers, belonged to an overpopulated social class for whom Spain had little to offer." Bernal Diaz also belonged to this low social class. Born in Medina del Campo, Diaz’s childhood was full of scenes of poverty and violence. Having been raised in such an environment, Diaz became acclimated to many of the violent struggles he would face in Mexico. Like Cortes, Diaz longed for the opportunity to make something of himself. The lure of New World conquest became the opportunity he longed for. Historian Rolena Adorno points out that for Diaz, "His primary goal was to achieve economic prosperity for himself and his heirs, and he was fairly successful."
Diaz, however, was not motivated exclusively by economic factors. Upon his arrival to the "New World," Diaz was overcome by the religious fervor that infected most of the Spanish. "Our desire was to throw their [the Aztecs] idols out of the temples, for they were evil and led them astray...we gave them a cross, which would always aid them, bring them good harvests and save their souls." The Spanish were easily able to justify these actions of religious bigotry and hatred. Since 1493 the Spanish (along with other European nations) lived under the delusion that the New World was in fact divinely theirs. With the discovery of the New World, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal decree that promised Spain all the undiscovered lands 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. As a result, Spain was guaranteed its "legitimate" claim to colonize the New World. Queen Isabella even declared the inhabitants of the New World to be her "subjects and vassals."
With such powerful religious conviction behind them, Cortes and his band of soldiers had all the justification they needed to rationalize their brutality towards the natives. Seeing that the Aztecs "eat the flesh of roasted legs of Indians and the arms of soldiers”, Cortes and his men felt it their Christian duty to "purify" the heathen natives and their lands. Backed by the threats of execution, Cotes and his men obligated many native communities to "give up human sacrifice and robbery and the foul practice of sodomy, and to cease worshiping their accursed idols," or, "be absolutely prepared to fight and die." As a result, entire villages of natives were annihilated. As Diaz wrote, "We found the houses full of corpses, and some poor Mexicans still in them who could not move away. Their excretions were the sort of filth that thin swine pass which have been fed on nothing but grass."
The earliest trends in the historiography of Bernal Diaz and the conquest of Mexico have often praised the conquistadors for their remarkable bravery. In the middle part of the nineteenth century, William H. Prescott published his now infamous book, History of the Conquest of Mexico and Peru in which he stated, "The subversion of a great empire by a handful of adventurers...has the air of romance rather than sober history." Prescott interpreted the works of these early conquistadors (including Diaz) in a quasi-poetic fashion. Though occasionally critical of the conquistadors, Prescott gives a great amount of praise to the conquistadors in his narrative. Prescott also credits Diaz for his objective account of the conquest of Mexico. Many of these early interpretations of Spanish colonization were deeply influenced by a Western superiority complex that negated the concerns of native people. Whether in the fictional works of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, or in the words of the conquistadors themselves, European supremacy was asserted to the highest degree.
Bernal Diaz’s work was also rarely scrutinized. Though not published until after his death, Diaz’s account of the conquest of Mexico was taken virtually at face value by the majority of European readers. Even William Prescott rarely challenged the accuracy or prejudice of Diaz. After all, Diaz was "among the writers who defined what was unique about Spain’s early experience in America." His work was seen as central to the historiography of Cortes and Mexican conquest. Questioning Diaz’s work seemed like a ridiculous suggestion for the early scholars of Spanish colonialism.
For the most part, the history of Bernal Diaz remained unchallenged even into the early parts of the twentieth century. Though often harangued on various mundane issues, Diaz’s history rarely received any direct attacks. The only disputations over Diaz’s history centered on various comments that were found to be, "exaggerated or misplaced." The only major issue in the historiography of Bernal Diaz had to do with his clash against the records of Bartolome de Las Casas and Francisco Lopez de Gomara. Both Las Casas and Gomara asserted that the actions of Hernan Cortes and his soldiers were utterly reprehensible, due to their barbaric acts of cruelty during the conquest of Mexico. Diaz’s record, however, seemed to eclipse the histories of Las Casas and Gomara by suggesting that the acts of Mexican conquest were never as destructive as some suggested. In his record, Diaz repeatedly mentioned how he and the other men "tired of war," almost suggesting that they fought because they had no other choice. Diaz also tried to diffuse the notion that he and his fellow soldiers reaped huge economic gains from their plunder. "We captains and soldiers were all somewhat sad when we saw how little gold there was and how poor and mean our shares would be." Of course Diaz neglected to mention the fact that he and others received enormous estates, titles and slaves upon the completion of their murderous rampage.
Recent scholarly inquiry into Bernal Diaz and the conquest of Mexico has made some significant changes to its historiography. As stated before, for centuries the conquistadors rarely received any direct challenge to their legacy. It was not until the latter parts of the twentieth century that the first major attacks to the historiography of the conquistadors were made. The initial question historians made concerning the conquest of Spain was, "is the conquest of Mexico justified?" For the first time historians began to read the words of Diaz in a new light. Instead of interpreting their actions through the lens of European prejudice, the conquistadors were exposed for what they truly were. The conquest of the Aztec civilization was no longer appreciated for its ability to spread Christianity or subdue the "heathens." Instead of being honored for their bravery in battle or glorified for their defense of Christianity, men like Bernal Diaz were recognized primarily for their greed. Though Cortes and his men, "delighted in their new great fortune," which came at the expense of the native people, and after "all the gold and silver and jewels in Mexico had been added together," the conquistadors still could not escape the fact that they were, in the end, thieves and murderers. For the first time, Diaz’s account was subjected to scholarly investigation and genuine criticism. Historians began to suggest that much of Diaz’s work was, "an attempt to keep abreast of the paste of events that profoundly threatened his economic well being." In other words, much of what Diaz wrote was done to defend his social and economic status, not to mention his reputation.
To be certain, Bernal Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain has played an essential role in the overall historiography of Mexican conquest. It has provided us with an eyewitness account of the destruction, subjugation and assimilation of the native people in and around Tenochtitlan. Though clearly prejudicial and xenophobic in his approach to this historical event, Diaz’s record still remains an important (and hotly debated) primary source document of Spanish conquest. As the interpretation of Diaz’s work has changed over the years, scholars have been able to make significant changes to the historiography of Spanish conquest. Instead of being seen as stalwart Christian heroes, the greedy motives of the conquistadors have been exposed, and the true nature of Spanish conquest revealed. One can only imagine what future historical inquiry will reveal.