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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1496–1584)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
BERNAL DÍAZ DEL CASTILLO, one of the chief chroniclers of the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, was born at Medina del Campo in Old Castile. Concerning the date of his death, authorities differ widely. He died in Guatemala.  1
  Of humble origin, he determined while still a youth to seek his fortune in the New World. In 1514 he went with Pedrarias to Darien and Cuba. He was a common soldier with Córdoba in the first expedition to Yucatan in 1517. He accompanied Grijalva to Mexico in the following year, and finally enlisted under the banner of Cortés. In every event that marked the career of that brilliant commander in Mexico, Díaz had a part; he was engaged in one hundred and nineteen battles, and was present at the siege and surrender of the capital in 1521. Of unswerving loyalty and bravery, according to his own naïve statement, he was frequently appointed by Cortés to highly important missions. When Cortés set out to subdue the defection under Cristoval de Olid at Honduras, Díaz followed his old chief in the terrible journey through the forests and swamps.  2
  On his return he presumably adopted the life of a planter, although he had complained loudly of the meager allotment of land and laborers which the conqueror gave him. In 1568, however, after the lapse of half a century, when Cortés had been dead twenty-one years, we find the veteran comfortably established as regidor (a civic officer) of the city of Guatemala, and busily engaged on the narrative of the heroic deeds of his youth. In his introduction to the ‘Historia’ Díaz frankly admits that his principal motive in taking up his pen was to vindicate the valor of himself and others, who had been completely overshadowed by the exaggerated reputation of Cortés.  3
  When fairly started, he happened to run across the ‘Crónica de la Nueva España’ (Saragossa, 1554) of Gomara, secretary and chaplain to Cortés, 1540–47. At first the rough old soldier threw down his pen in despair, on noting the polished style of the scholar; but when he became aware of the gross inaccuracies of his predecessor, who had never even set foot in America, he determined, so he declares, to write above all things a faithful narrative of the stirring events in which he had participated. Thus was completed his ‘Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España.’ For some reason this valuable manuscript lay neglected in a private library for about sixty years. Finally it fell into the hands of Father Alonso Remor, a sagacious priest, who published it at Madrid in 1632.  4
  The narrative of this soldier historian, although clumsy, full of digressions and repetitions, and laying bare his ignorance, simplicity, and vanity, will nevertheless always be read with far more interest than the weightier works of Las Casas, Gomara, or Herrera. Prescott explained the secret of its fascination when he said:—
          “Bernal Díaz, the untutored child of nature, is a most true and literal copyist of nature. He transfers the scenes of real life by a sort of daguerreotype process, if I may so say, to his pages. He is among chroniclers what Defoe is among novelists…. All the picturesque scenes and romantic incidents of the campaign are reflected in his pages as in a mirror. The lapse of fifty years has had no power over the spirit of the veteran. The fire of youth glows in every line of his rude history, and as he calls up the scenes of the past, the remembrance of the brave companions who are gone gives, it may be, a warmer coloring to the picture than if it had been made at an earlier period.”
  5
  An excellent translation of his work is to be found in the Publications of the Hakluyt Society, ‘A True History of the Conquest of New Spain’ (5 vols., 1908–1916).  6
 
 
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