The Spanish soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo (ca. 1496-ca. 1584) was a member of the expedition that conquered the Aztec empire. His "A True History of the Conquest of New Spain" is the most complete contemporary chronicle of that event.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo was born in Medina del Campo of a respectable although not distinguished family. He was enchanted by tales of the fortunes to be found in newly discovered America, and in 1514 he left for the New World in the entourage of Pedrarias, who had been appointed governor of Castilla del Oro (the Isthmus of Panama and adjacent mainland of South America). Díaz was soon disenchanted with the prospects in this area and moved on to Cuba. While based there, he participated in two expeditions which explored the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico in 1517 and 1518, respectively.
In 1519 Díaz joined the expedition organized by Hernán Cortés for the conquest of Mexico and participated in the campaigns which led in 1521 to the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. His exact status in the enterprise is not clear. He intimates that he exercised some authority and enjoyed the confidence of Cortés, but other evidence indicates that he was little more than a common foot soldier.
After the conquest of the Aztecs, Díaz settled in the province of Coatzacoalcos, southeast of Veracruz, where he had been awarded grants of land and native labor. These properties, however, provided him with only a modest livelihood, so in 1540 he went to Spain to plead for more substantial recognition of his merits and services. He was rewarded by a somewhat better allocation of lands and indigenous people in the province of Guatemala. Here he settled, probably in 1541, and became a respected citizen, a municipal official, and the father of a numerous progeny, legitimate and illegitimate. But until his death about 1584, he complained of poverty and bemoaned the inconspicuous rewards he had received for his services to the King.
History of the Conquest
Possibly while still in Mexico, Díaz conceived the idea of recording his memories of the Conquest, but it was not until the early 1550s that he really began to write. The project progressed slowly. Then in the 1560s he read a book entitled The History of the Conquest of Mexico (1552), written by Francisco López de Gómara, a former chaplain of the Cortés family. Gómara's account appeared to glorify the role of Cortés at the expense of the common soldier, an interpretation that Díaz resented; it provided him with an incentive to complete his own account, which he entitled A True History of the Conquest of New Spain. In 1568, about age 72, he completed his task and in the mid-1570s sent a copy of the manuscript to Spain for publication. It did not appear in print, however, until 1632 and then only after the editor, Friar Alonzo Remón, had considerably altered the text. It was not until 1904-1905 that a true edition appeared, prepared by the Mexican historian Genaro García from the original manuscript, which had survived in Guatemala.
The True History begins in 1517 and terminates in 1568, but the bulk of it concentrates on the epic years 1519-1521. Díaz admitted and deplored his unpolished style, and it is in fact that of a common soldier. The narrative is prolix and digressive; events are sometimes transposed and observations and interpretations often naive. Yet he possessed a deep honesty and remarkable memory. For the most part his account is factually correct. He was also a superlative raconteur with a deep sense of personal involvement and a flair for the dramatic. The True History is not only a major historical document but also one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.
Further Reading on Bernal Díaz del Castillo
Genaro Garcia's edition of Díaz's history was translated into English by Alfred Percival Maudslay and published by the Hakluyt Society as The True History of the Conquest of New Spain (5 vols., 1908-1916). Volume 1 contains useful notes on Díaz and his work. Several abridged English editions appeared subsequently. A good, recent biography of the chronicler is Herbert Cerwin, Bernal Díaz: Historian of the Conquest (1963).