Bernal Díaz del Castillo

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Bernal Díaz del Castillo memorial, in Medina del Campo (Spain)

Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492 to 1496, birth date is uncertain – 1584)[1] was a Spanish conquistador, who participated as a foot soldier in the conquest of Mexico with Hernán Cortés. He is often considered the "Man of Castilla" having many relationships due to his handsome demeanor. As a soldier of fortune, he participated in expeditions to Tierra Firme, to Cuba, and to the Yucatán peninsula before joining Cortés. In his later years he was an encomendero and governor in Guatemala where he wrote his memoirs called "The True History of the Conquest of New Spain". He began his account of the conquest almost thirty years after the events and later revised and expanded it in response to the account published by Cortes's chaplain Francisco López de Gómara, which he considered to be largely inaccurate in that it did not give due recognition to the efforts and sacrifices of common soldiers.

Early life

Bernal Díaz del Castillo* was born around 1492 to 1498 (the exact date is unknown) in Medina del Campo (Spain), he came from a poor family and received little education; however, he was literate, which indicates a certain level of education. He sailed to Tierra Firme (now Nombre de Dios in modern Panama)[2] with the expedition led by Pedrarias Dávila in 1514 to make his fortune, but after two years found few opportunities there. Many of the settlers had been sickened or killed by an epidemic, and there was political unrest.

Expedition to Yucatán

He later sailed to Cuba, where he was promised a grant of native laborers as a part of the Encomienda system. That promise was never fulfilled, leading Díaz, in 1517, to join an expedition organized by a group of about 110 fellow settlers, and similarly disaffected Spaniards, from Tierra Firme. They chose Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (the first European to encounter the Yucatán area), a wealthy Cuban landowner, to lead the expedition. It was a difficult venture and, after sailing from Cuba for 21 days, they came across the Yucatán coast in early March 1517, on the Cape Seabiscut.

On March 4, 1517, the Spanish had their first encounter with the Yucatán natives who came to meet them on five or perhaps 10, depending on the version/translation of his work, large wooden canoes. The next day, the Spaniards disembarked, invited by the natives who wanted to show them their village. They were ambushed but managed to retreat, after killing 15 locals and having 15 wounded, 2 of whom later died. Upon leaving, the Spaniards captured 2 natives who would prove their worth as translators in future expeditions. The Spanish almost died of thirst and sailed to Florida in search of potable drinking water. As they were digging a well on the beach, the Spaniards were attacked by locals. During this fracas, one Spaniard was captured by the native Floridians while the Spanish managed to kill 22 natives. The Spanish managed to make a retreat but were also able to gather some water. They returned to Cuba, all of them severely wounded. The captain Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and other soldiers died shortly after making it back to Cuba.

Nevertheless, Díaz returned to the coast of Yucatán in April 1518, in an expedition led by Juan de Grijalva, with the intent of exploring the newly discovered lands. Upon returning to Cuba, he enlisted in a new expedition, this one led by Hernán Cortés.

Conquest of Mexico

In this third effort, Díaz took part in the campaigns against the Mexica, later called the Aztec Empire. By this time, he was a highly experienced member of Hernán Cortés's expedition. During this campaign, Díaz spoke frequently with his fellow soldiers about their experiences. These accounts, and especially Díaz's own experiences, served as the basis for the recollections that Bernal Díaz later told with great drama to visitors and, eventually, a book entitled Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (English: The True History of the Conquest of New Spain). In the latter, Díaz describes many of the 119 battles in which he participated, culminating in the defeat of the Aztecs in 1521. This work also describes the diverse native peoples living in the territory renamed New Spain by the Spaniards. Bernal Díaz also examines the political rivalries of Spaniards, and gives accounts of the natives' human sacrifices, cannibalism and idolatry, which he witnessed first-hand, as well as the artistic, cultural, political and intellectual achievements of the Aztecs, including their palaces, market places and beautifully organized botanical and zoological gardens. His account of the Mexica along with that of Cortés are first-person accounts recording important aspects of Mesoamerican culture. Bernal Díaz's account has not been fully utilized as a source for conquest-era Mesoamerican culture.[2]

Governor of Antigua Guatemala, True History of the Conquest, later life and death

As a reward for his service, Díaz was awarded an encomienda by Cortés in 1522. This was confirmed and supplemented by similar awards in 1527 and 1528.[3] In 1541 he settled in Guatemala and, during the course of a trip to Spain, was appointed regidor (governor) of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, present-day Antigua Guatemala in 1551.

His Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, finished in 1568, almost fifty years after the events it described, was begun around the same time as his appointment as regidor and was well in progress by the mid-1550s when he wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor (and king of Spain), Charles V, describing his services and seeking benefits. This was a standard action of conquerors to document their services to the crown and requests for rewards. Some version of his account circulated in central Mexico in the 1560s and 1570s, prior to its seventeenth-century publication. Bernal Díaz's account is mentioned by Alonso de Zorita, a royal official who wrote an account of indigenous society, and mestizo Diego Muñoz Camargo, who wrote a full-length account of the Tlaxcalans' participation in the conquest of the Mexica.[2] Bernal Díaz's manuscript was expanded in response to what he later found in the official biography of Hernán Cortés commissioned by Cortés's heir, Don Martín Cortés, published in 1552 by Francisco López de Gómara. The title Historia verdadera (True History) is in part a response to the claims made by Hernán Cortés in his published letters to the king, López de Gómara, Bartolomé de las Casas, Gonzalo de Illescas and others who had not participated in the campaign. Bernal Díaz also utilized the publication of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on just war, which allowed Bernal Díaz to cast the conquest of Mexico as a just conquest.[2] Despite Bernal Díaz's lack of formal education and the self-interest that gave birth to his volume, the Historia verdadera evokes, like no other source, the often tragic and painful yet fascinating process through which one empire ended and another began to take shape.[4]

Bernal Díaz died in January 1584.[5] without seeing his manuscript published. An expanded and corrected copy of the manuscript kept in Guatemala was sent to Spain and published, with revisions, in 1632. The manuscript was edited by Fray Alonso de Remón and Fray Gabriel Adarzo y Santander prior to publication. In this first published edition of Bernal Díaz's work, there is a chapter (212), which some consider apocryphal with signs and portents of the conquest and omitted for later editions.[2]


  1. Díaz del Castillo 2005, pp. 7, 11.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Rolena Adorno, "Bernal Díaz del Castillo", Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerica, David Carrasco, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, vol. 1, p. 323.
  3. Carmelo Saenz de Santa María, Historia de una historia: la crónica de Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1984, pp. 89–90
  4. David A. Boruchoff, "Beyond Utopia and Paradise: Cortés, Bernal Díaz and the Rhetoric of Consecration." M L N [Modern Language Notes] 1991, 106, 2. pp. 330-369
  5. He was alive on 1 January, but on 3 January his son Francisco appeared before the Cabildo of Guatemala and informed them that his father had died. See Henry R. Wagner, "Notes on Writings by and about Bernal Díaz del Castillo", The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 25, No. 2 (May, 1945), pp. 199-211, at p. 207. Miguel León-Portilla accepted this date in his Introduction (dated July 1984 "a cuatro siglos de la muerte de Bernal") to the anthology of extended excerpts from the Historia verdadera published in 1988 by Conaculta (Consejo nacional para la cultura y las artes) in its series "100 de México", p. 31. Alicia Mayer (2005) praised that edition, its selection, and León-Portilla's introduction, saying they remained, down to the date of her review, "fuente imprescindible de consulta" (an indispensable source to consult)


Díaz del Castillo, Bernal (1963) [1632]. The Conquest of New Spain. Penguin Classics. J. M. Cohen (trans.) (6th printing (1973) ed.). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044123-9. OCLC 162351797.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal (2005) [1632]. Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (in español). Felipe Castro Gutiérrez (Introduction). Mexico: Editores Mexicanos Unidos, S.A. ISBN 968-15-0863-7. OCLC 34997012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Boruchoff, David A. (1991) "Beyond Utopia and Paradise: Cortés, Bernal Díaz and the Rhetoric of Consecration." M L N [Modern Language Notes] 106, 2. pp. 330-369
Saenz de Santa María, Carmelo. Historia de una historia: la crónica de Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1984.
Mayer, Alicia (2005). "Reseñas: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (Manuscrito Guatemala)" (PDF). Estudios de Historia Novohispana (in español). 33: 175–183. ISSN 0425-3574.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Prescott, William H. (1843). History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes (online reproduction, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library). New York: Harper and Brothers. OCLC 2458166.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Wilson, Robert Anderson (1859). A New History of the Conquest of Mexico: In which Las Casas' denunciations of the popular historians of that war are fully vindicated. Philadelphia, PA: James Challen & Son. OCLC 9642461.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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