Bernal Díaz del Castillo. The True History of The Conquest of New Spain. Translated with an introduction and notes by Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2012. xlvii + 448 pp. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-60384-290-7; $48.00 (library), ISBN 978-1-60384-291-4.
Reviewed by Timothy C. Hemmis (University of Southern Mississippi)
Published on H-War (June, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
A Diary of the Spanish Conquest
Recently, on a warm summer Sunday morning while walking through the streets of Antigua, Guatemala, I noticed a plaque on the ruins of an old church. The inscription honored a man named Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador and colonial governor of Guatemala. Coincidentally, only a few months before I had been asked to review a new translation of Diaz’s diary. That hot day in Antigua, I witnessed history come alive in very city where Diaz lived out his final days. This review of The True History of the Conquest of New Spain took on new meaning.
The recent resurrection of Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain demonstrates the fascination our modern society has with the New World conquest. The life story of Bernal Diaz is an amazing tale of participation the Spanish invasion of the Americas, told from the perspective of a foot soldier. Diaz wrote his account several decades after the events took place and the manuscript was lost after his death. Discovered and published in 1630s, Diaz’s narrative tells the story of his life as a soldier serving under Hernando Cortes. He survived many near-death encounters with the Native Americans and claimed to be one of the few to have fought in so many different battles. His narrative seems outrageous at times because of all his close brushes with death. Nonetheless, he is an excellent eyewitness to the history of the Spanish conquest.
Castillo begins his autobiography by explaining his own existence and quickly describes how he joined Hernando Cortes on his journey to Mexico. He gives a detailed account of the capture of Montezuma and the Spanish demands. Many times in passing, Castillo evinces nostalgia for his past conquests. At times he drifts off into a monologue about random matters, such as his sleep habits (p. 258). These moments bring humor and a personal touch to the larger narrative. The audience catches a glimpse into the daily life of the conquistador.
Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey have translated an excellent firsthand account of the conquest of Mexico. Although scholars have known about Diaz del Castillo’s autobiography for almost a century, most of it has not been available in English until now. Their work is the most complete English translation in existence. In addition to their outstanding translation, the scholarly duo also brings expert analysis of Diaz del Castillo’s life. The introduction and epilogue provide deeper analysis of his role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. They place Diaz del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain in the historical context provided by the latest scholarship. In addition to the historical analysis, the new translation also includes various images such as maps and depictions of Aztec warriors from the Codex Mendoza, which bring a new perspective to the autobiography. At times, this reader wished for more maps, which would have better explained the events in the diary. However, that is the only shortfall of this work.
Overall, the new translation of Diaz del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Burke and Humphrey makes a classic Spanish source accessible and engaging to an English-speaking audience. The new translation brings an old story to a new audience and is highly recommended for both scholars and history buffs alike. Additionally, this translation would be a superb primary source to use in classes devoted to Latin American and world history.
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Timothy C. Hemmis. Review of Díaz del Castillo, Bernal, The True History of The Conquest of New Spain.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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