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Review of "The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico" by Bernal Diaz
Gun Watch ^ | June 4, 2017 | Dean Weingarten

Posted on 03/16/2024 5:10:39 AM PDT by marktwain

The American edition, published in 1956, 468 pages, Translated by A.P. Maudsley

The Diaz account is the best history book that I have read. It has all the advantage of a first person account and reads like a well written adventure novel.

The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo is the only extant first person account of the campaign under the command of Hernando Cortez from 1519 to 1520. The campaign resulted in the discovery and conquest of the Aztec civilization in Mexico. Cortez himself wrote five long letters to Carlos V in Spain. Parts of them are included in this edition to help explain the narrative. But Cortez' letters were essentially reports of a Conquistador commander seeking favor, and explaining his actions, which were mostly extralegal.

The entire Conquest was a massive verification of the adage that "It is easier to obtain forgiveness than permission."

Bernal Diaz' account is a first person narrative of the entire campaign, with the amazing detail of a foot soldier who is vitally interested in food, women, weapons, and gold. He includes accounts of two separate expeditions before Cortez.

Bernal Diaz made extensive remarks on the use of firearms in his narrative. The initial numbers were tiny, but contributed significantly to the success of the conquest.  Of the initial 400 to 500 men under the command of Cortez, there were 16 with horses, 13 with individual guns, four small cannon, "some brass guns" (more cannon), and 32 crossbowmen. The 13 personal guns were almost certainly arquebuses, the first really practical personal gun, with early matchlocks. Diaz mentions "much powder and ball".

Diaz rated the crossbowmen and the "musketeers" about equal in effectiveness. The cannon were extremely effective both as destructive weapons and for their psychological effect.  It is hard for modern man to realize how quiet the world was before gunpowder and modern engines. The loudest noise was thunder, often equated with supernatural power. Firearms duplicated the intensity of that noise, at least at close range.

The soldiers of the Conquest spent considerable time on the maintenance of their weapons and armor. Not much has changed in 500 years. They adopted whatever of the enemies weaponry that they found useful. The Spanish quickly appropriated the quilted and compacted cotton armor of the natives, to augment what steel armor they had with them.

The conquest would likely have failed without two recent inventions in Europe, corned gunpowder and portable guns.  Corned gunpowder had only been perfected about 50- 20 years previously. Moistening the mix, then pushing it through sieves made a gunpowder that was much more powerful, durable, and resistant to absorbing moisture from the air.

It is unlikely that simple mixtures of gun powder would have survived the trip across the Atlantic; and likely two to three times as much would have been required. The new gunpowder allowed for much smaller, lighter, faster firing and reliable guns, both cannon and arquebuses.

Bernal Diaz was literate, educated, and makes reference to the literature of the time.  He shows a keen understanding of tactics, strategy and the importance of various players in the complicated, Machiavellian game of life, death, and power played out by Cortez, Montezuma, and various native allies, especially the Tlaxcalans, one of the few groups not subject to the Aztecs.

The manuscript was published after the authors death, first in 1632 by Friar Alonzo Remon from a manuscript found in Madrid. Several secondary editions were published from that version. People who had read the original manuscript kept in Guatemala, wrote that the published version differed in a number of details from the original. In 1895, a photo copy of the Guatemalan manuscript was furnished to Senor Don Genaro Garcia of Mexico, who published a true version of the Guatemalan text. The A.P. Maudley translation is of that publication.

There are indications that the manuscript was written over a considerable period of time. In one preface, a "day book" was noted as a source. Did Diaz keep, in effect, a diary? We do not know. The work was well under way by 1552, 30 years after the conquest. In those 30 years it would be reasonable that Bernal Diaz had many conversations with his former comrades in arms. He likely took notes. Pedro de Alvarado, one of Cortez' Lieutenants, was made Governor of Guatemala in 1524. Guatemala is where Bernal Diaz was granted his estate as a reward.  In the Conquest, Diaz had served under Alvarado a number of times. Different versions show manuscript completion dates of 1568 and 1572.

Diaz gave the native warriors high marks for courage and skill at warfare. He writes of their weapons and tactics. They devised defenses to horses, using traps and captured steel swords; they formed looser formations as a defense against cannon. Many of these adaptations worked for short periods. But the Spanish adapted as well. The Spanish had launches built to to navigate the lake around Mexico City, mounted cannon on them and propelled them with sails and oars. They dominated even the largest Aztec dugout canoes.

The Spanish gained tens of thousands of allies from the Tlaxacans and the liberated subjects of the Aztecs. Cortez promised to rule with justice and good works, based on Christianity.  The Spanish insisted on an end to humans sacrifice and cannibalism. It was not a popular decree, at least at first. The priests with the expedition insisted that conversions to Christianity be voluntary.

The Conquest was no cakewalk. The Conquistadors came very close to being wiped out, several times. Diaz was serious wounded numerous times. As a personal guard of the captured Montezuma, Montezuma gave him gold, cotton cloth, and the beautiful daughter of a high ranking Aztec.  Montezuma likely thought it cheap insurance. Diaz lost most of it after Montezuma was killed when the Aztecs revolted. The Spanish had to fight their way out of Mexico City. They barely succeeded.

Diaz' account makes clear that both Cortez and Montezuma were world class Machiavellian politicians. They continually lied to each other, their allies, and their men, as the situation required. They jockeyed for position, and worked hard to understand the other and their vulnerabilities. Montezuma was at a disadvantage, because the Conquistadors, their capabilities and weapons were new and unknown. Cortez knew more of the world. Both knew how to make and break alliances to their advantage. Cortez had the disadvantage of having to work through translators for most of his interactions with allies, enemies, and spies. Diaz says the acquisition of Doña Marina(her converted Christian name) in the early part of the Conquest, was critical to Cortez' success.  She was a talented translator, shrewd advisor, and companion of Cortez. She later bore him a son.

Diaz' narrative contains numerous remarks on the human sacrifice and cannibalism that were frequently encountered during the Conquest. It was not limited to the Aztecs, but included the Tlaxcalans and the tribes conquered by the Aztecs. At one "cue" or temple, he writes that he found human skulls arranged in such an order that he could determine the number through counting. He calculated that there were 100,000 of them, and emphasized the accuracy of the estimate. Slavery was common to both the native tribes and the Spaniards. The Church insisted on a formal decree from Spain that free Indians could not be made into slaves in New Spain.  It took decades to enforce the decree.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of the Americas and the early use of personal firearms in warfare.  I purchased the earlier 1928 version, and gave several 1956 editions as gifts. They can be had for as little as $2 on the used market.

©2017 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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TOPICS: Books/Literature; History; Military/Veterans; Religion
KEYWORDS: banglist; bernaldiaz; cortez; godsgravesglyphs; history; mexico; pages
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This book review was first published about six years ago. It was recently republished on AmmoLand, so I decided this Gun Watch Version could be published in full on Freerepublic.
1 posted on 03/16/2024 5:10:39 AM PDT by marktwain
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To: marktwain

Interesting, thanks for posting.

2 posted on 03/16/2024 5:24:51 AM PDT by gattaca (Once a nation loses control of its borders, it is no longer a nation...Ronald Reagan)
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To: marktwain

I purchased the same book off of ebay and I definitely enjoyed reading Bernal’s first-hand account.

If you enjoy first-hand historical writings - as I do, then I would highly recommend reading this book.

Fascinating stuff. Unbelievable how a Cortez took a small group of conquistadors and was able to subdue the Aztec empire of Montezuma. Of course, he couldnt have done it without the help of neighboring groups who hated the Aztecs and also with a lot of deceit & trickery.

3 posted on 03/16/2024 5:24:54 AM PDT by texanyankee
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To: marktwain

It is an enlightening book, my dad had originally recommended it to me many years ago.

4 posted on 03/16/2024 5:31:29 AM PDT by ansel12 ((NATO warrior under Reagan, and RA under Nixon, bemoaning the pro-Russians from Vietnam to Ukraine.))
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To: marktwain

If you havent read “The DeSoto Chronicles” then I would urge you to do so. I have the 2 volume set. It’s a compilation from several authors of DeSoto’s expedition thru the southern US.

In addition, there is “The LaSalle Expedition To Texas.”
The first-hand account of Henri Joutel.

Both great reads in the same genre as Bernal’s.

5 posted on 03/16/2024 5:42:18 AM PDT by texanyankee
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To: texanyankee
Sounds good. I read a short book about Coronado's expedition, but I do not know if there are first person accounts readily available.

Do you know of any?

6 posted on 03/16/2024 5:55:55 AM PDT by marktwain (The Republic is at risk. Resistance to the Democratic Party is Resistance to Tyranny. )
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To: texanyankee

Who is the author for the DeSoto Chronicles? My searches are not finding the book.

7 posted on 03/16/2024 5:59:14 AM PDT by marktwain (The Republic is at risk. Resistance to the Democratic Party is Resistance to Tyranny. )
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To: marktwain

Also available here for free

Fascinating read.

8 posted on 03/16/2024 5:59:57 AM PDT by logitech
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To: logitech

A different translation. I expect to read it.

9 posted on 03/16/2024 6:06:26 AM PDT by marktwain (The Republic is at risk. Resistance to the Democratic Party is Resistance to Tyranny. )
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To: marktwain

I searched for a first-hand account of Coronado’s and came up empty as well.

As far as the DeSoto Chronicles - it’s a compilation of several authors who wrote of the expedition after the fact.
These books are recent translations of the four major accounts of the De Soto expedition - the Gentleman of Elvas, Luys Hernandez de Biedma, Rodrigo Ranjel, and Garcilaso de la Vega, based on the account of the soldier Gonzalo Silvestre.

I dont believe it would truly qualify as a ‘first-hand account’ except there are short portions included from those who participated.

The 2 volume set I acquired from Amazon -

10 posted on 03/16/2024 6:19:35 AM PDT by texanyankee
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To: marktwain

I read the book last year. It was well worth the time.

11 posted on 03/16/2024 6:19:59 AM PDT by arthurus ( covfefe Cs)
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To: texanyankee

I got the book for 1$ at the library. The library has a room stocked with discards and donations. I read a lot and get books there. It has led me to areas I would not have considered and I am much the better for it. I read no fiction any more. just history and historical fiction. I have read about the Gulf War in books by each of the commanders participating, and I have read about the CIA from the viewpoints of 5 different men who were involved directly and peripherally between inception and near present That set has given me insight into the causes and conduct of the Vietnam War among other things.

12 posted on 03/16/2024 6:27:45 AM PDT by arthurus ( covfefe Ba)
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To: marktwain

One observation in the book is that the crossbowmen were scarier and more effective than the musketeers. The Mexicans got used to the noise of the muskets quickly but the crossbows reloaded much faster and actually had more effective range.

13 posted on 03/16/2024 6:30:18 AM PDT by arthurus ( covfefe Hf)
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To: arthurus

Yeah, library sales are good spots to search for bargain deals.

I dont read fiction either. I was always a nut for books dealing with history. I have found a few good ‘historical fiction’ books. The first that comes to mind is the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell.

14 posted on 03/16/2024 6:33:00 AM PDT by texanyankee
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To: arthurus; texanyankee

that’s historical biography, not historical fiction. That’s a glitch in getting in a hurry.

15 posted on 03/16/2024 6:35:09 AM PDT by arthurus ( covfefe W)
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To: marktwain
Many thanks for the reference. The book I'm writing touches upon Cortez' Mexican conquest.

I suspect that the Aztec ritual of eating the beating heart of a sacrificial victim was at least in part a consequence of the consumption of peyote, common among the priestly class in ancient Mexico. The self-justification and detachment necessary to perpetrate such ritual abominations were consequent to the sense of inviolable certainty and purpose psychedelic drugs do elicit.

European knowledge of hallucinogenic cacti from the Western Hemisphere was first published in 1570 Spain in the Florentine Codex. Again I suspect that its usage was not uncommon among the aristocratic class of Europe since that time, only later filtering down to the artistic community as is suggested in French impressionism.

16 posted on 03/16/2024 6:36:02 AM PDT by Carry_Okie (The tree of liberty needs a rope.)
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To: marktwain

Another recommendation. You might check out the first hand account of Cabeza de Vaca. It’s not a thick book but it is a fascinating read nonetheless.

17 posted on 03/16/2024 6:42:43 AM PDT by texanyankee
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To: marktwain
Bernal Diaz’ account is not the only primary source or account about The Conquest. The Relations were a series of letters Cortez wrote to Charles V at the time intended to justify his actions since his only official mission was to explore the coast for the governor of Cuba. There are also fragments of a lost first-hand account by “The Unknown Conquistador”.

Bernal Diaz was a very interesting man who wrote the narrative some twenty years after the event. I alway thought one of the more intriguing passages was about the Noche Triste. Apparently, Diaz had what he called “a familiar spirt” which warned him to be ready that night and it saved his life.

Two other books well worth reading are by Thomas Hughes, The Conquest, and one by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. De Vaca was a conquistador who survived a shipwreck off the east coast of Florida about five years after The Conquest. He then spent the next seven years wandering around from Florida to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, as a captured slave and finally as a sort of prophet. It reads almost like science fiction, and is available in PDF for free on the internet.

18 posted on 03/16/2024 6:52:22 AM PDT by PUGACHEV
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To: texanyankee
About $200 for the set!

Seems ripe for a reprint.

19 posted on 03/16/2024 7:01:16 AM PDT by marktwain (The Republic is at risk. Resistance to the Democratic Party is Resistance to Tyranny. )
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To: marktwain

I bet you can find it much cheaper if you do some searching - ebay, etc.
I never came close to paying that much for any book.

20 posted on 03/16/2024 7:15:21 AM PDT by texanyankee
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