Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a captain under the command of the conquistador, Hernan Cortez, presents a straightforward, if less than poetic, chronology of his adventures in the New World. Diaz was party to two failed expeditions from the Spanish beachhead on the island of Cuba to the Yucatan prior to the attempt of Cortez, and each was soundly defeated by Maya warriors at Cozumel and Champoton, respectively. Then, in March of 1519, Cortez mounted a larger expedition intending to establish trade with the Maya and perhaps establish a permanent settlement for Spain. Ambition and glory soon eclipse these plans as Cortez’s victories over small bands of Maya lead to gifts of gold and tales of the strength of far-off Montezuma lead to visions of conquest.
At bottom, Cortez is able to take advantage of a Maya civilization in disarray before the violent strength of the Aztecs and he deftly plays one group off against another and all against the Mexicans on his march toward Tenochtitlan. What stands out in stark detail throughout is the degree to which Cortez and his men relied upon their asserted “duty” to spread the word of God to the natives in order to justify their rape and pillage of two decidedly advanced (if not also violent) cultures.
Told in the style of a soldier, the account still makes for fascinating reading. Diaz is sometimes brutally honest (in admitting, for example, that the vast majority of Cortez’s soldiers joined his quest to bring native slaves back to their plantations on Cuba) and sometimes transparent (in repeatedly stating their intent to do God’s work in civilizing the natives, while raping and pillaging from morning until night), and he is always nauseatingly deferential to Cortez (who was supremely powerful in both Spain and New Spain at the time of the book’s publication), but the book remains a good read both for its historical significance and to remind us all that there were fully-functioning societies—no more barbarous than the nations of Europe—long before any white man set foot on what was known to them as the New World.