The Conquest of New Spain

As an eyewitness to the actual conquest of New Spain it is often assumed that Bernal Diaz’s account of the event is one of a rare and credible pieces surrounding the event. Whilst this extract enables us to analyse and explain particular historical questions we should not, without discrediting Diaz, immediately assume its reliability without criticism.

Taking the document in isolation with disregard to authenticity and reliability, it is a useful piece of historical evidence, since it helps us to investigate a period of time where limited primary evidence and documentation exists. In this extract Bernal Diaz gives an extensive description of the city of Iztapalapa and he notes, ” Today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing”. This commentary emphasises the historical importance of Diaz’s account and also those of other contemporary eyewitnesses.

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Diaz is noted for his graphic descriptions and this document is a perfect example. It provides the reader with a sense of how the Aztecs lived, as well as what the towns, cities and temples would have looked like and an introduction to their methods of worship. Bernal Diaz is also know for his crude and unrefined testimonies, especially in his referral to the sacrifices to the Aztec gods. In a similar account of the same event Hernan Cortes’ narrative makes no reference to the bloody walls or the temple that Diaz depicts as Hell, so Diaz’s version may be one of the few accounts we have of these descriptions.

From Diaz’s graphic recollections one must wonder how reliable they are especially since there is an extensive period of around fifty years between witnessing these events to actually writing them down. One could assume his memory would have lapsed slightly, as he was about 71 when he began his narrative. However some credibility can be given to the fact that his descriptions and actual quotes fall in line with Cortes’ narrative.

Whilst the time of writing is an important factor in determining it’s reliability it is equally important to consider the writers intentions and underlying prejudices. The possible reasons behind Diaz’s intent to write his narrative is that Diaz set out to correct the inaccuracies made by other authors and therefore may assume it to be more reliable. Whether Diaz was writing for the benefit of prosperity is difficult to establish and if it was his intent may have neglected certain details deemed unnecessary surrounding his time. It is hard to ascertain whether he even intended on it being published, as it lay neglected and unpublished after his death ruling any notions of prosperity out. There are also accounts, which may be subject to debate, where Francisco de Fuentes, who claimed to be a descendant of Diaz, declared the work that was eventually published was not that written by Diaz from the original manuscript. This leads to further doubts over its authenticity.

As we have mentioned, in his writing Diaz includes graphic details of the sacrifices, which he repeatedly touches on within this article. You can’t help feeling that perhaps he was so alarmed and passionate by the disgrace of it all that he may have sub-consciously attempted to over exaggerate and to embellish it thus making it not as reliable a source.

Further provenance can be gained by looking at Hernan Cortes’ accounts of the same events in the document, although as both authors had different motives and intentions for their writing even this isn’t strictly reliable. Cortes was writing letters back to Charles V and may have omitted cetain accounts deemed unnecessary, whilst Bernal Diaz may have felt important to include them. On a whole the descriptive accounts of both Iztapalapa and the market in Mexico are both very similar in both Diaz and Cortes’ accounts, although Cortes does go into more detail, probably due to the fact that his letters were more contemporary to the events.

Despite all intensive questioning to the document’s reliability, what allows us to consider it as a valuable piece of documentation is its consistency with other primary sources of the exact same account and therefore we can confidently use it as an important piece of historical evidence.