Chronicles of the Conquest

The Conquistadors: First-person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico

edited and translated by Patricia de Fuentes
Orion, 250 pp., $8.95

Cortes: The Life of the Conqueror

by his Secretary Francisco Lopez de Gomara, translated and edited by Lesley Byrd Simpson
University of California, 425 pp., $8.50

The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain

by Fray Diego Durán, translated by Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas
Orion, 382 pp., $12.50

Every history, even a badly written one, pleases.” To judge from the appearance of these three handsome volumes, all relating to the history of Mexico around the time of the Conquest, Lopez de Gomara’s optimistic doctrine is shared by American publishers; and since the histories they contain are both well written and well translated, one hopes that the optimism is justified. An impressive amount has been done in recent years to make available to non-Spanish readers the Spanish records of the New World and of the manner of its conquest. These three editions of sixteenth-century chronicles and relations help to fill some of the outstanding gaps, and at the same time provide an excellent opportunity to compare the attitudes of different kinds of Spaniards to the land and the peoples so providentially added to the realms of the kings of Spain.

First came the soldiers, whose widely dispersed eye-witness accounts of the Conquest have been most usefully collected in Patricia de Fuentes’s The Conquistadors. But a difficulty confronts the editor of any such volume—a difficulty which Miss Fuentes has not really been able to resolve. In the nature of things, one can hardly expect every soldier to carry a literary masterpiece in his pack; and one of the most remarkable features of the Conquest is that no less than two of the Conquistadors, Cortés himself, and Bernal Díaz, were also superbly effective writers. But the accounts of both of them are long, and they are also readily available in English. Take them away, and what remains? Not, it must be confessed, a great deal. While entirely omitting Bernal Díaz, Miss Fuentes has found it necessary to add substance to the volume by reproducing Cortés’s third letter, containing the story of the siege, in the old translation by MacNutt. If this is set to one side, we are left with five short chronicles, and two matter-of-fact letters by Pedro de Alvarado. Among the chronicles, that of the so-called Anonymous Conquistador is, to say the least, highly dubious, and it is curious that the editor makes no reference to the theory that, far from being an eye-witness account, it was composed by a Spaniard resident in Venice, on the basis of Cortés’s letters of relation. Most of the remaining chronicles reproduced in this volume help to emphasize, by their very deficiencies, the remarkable skill of Bernal Díaz in bringing the story of the Conquest so vividly to life. Yet even the most simple and uninspired of them reflect something of the qualities displayed by Bernal Díaz, and the best, the chronicle of Francisco de Aguilar, conveys a terrifyingly claustrophobic impression of the Conquistador’s life in Mexico City, hemmed in by an increasingly hostile native population.

It is, above all, this impression of immediacy which gives the Conquistadors’ accounts of the Mexican campaigns their freshness and readability. One senses the comradeship in arms—“there was no rioting or quarrelling, but on the contrary, everything was shared equally, and whatever belonged to one belonged to the others.” This close-knit little band of Conquistadors was moving through a strange and alien world, surrounded by a population that appeared treacherous, guileful, and appallingly barbarous. Overshadowing every account is the sense of almost stunned horror at the idolatry and cannibalism of the natives. Even Francisco de Aguilar, who said he had delved into the history of Greece, Rome, and Persia, and had read about the rites performed in Portuguese India, considered that in none of these countries were there “such abominable forms of worship as they offered to the Devil in this land.”

The great gulf that separated the religion of the conquerors from that of the conquered made it terribly difficult for the Spaniards to understand the New World that they were now attempting to incorporate into the Old. But in the greatest of them, Hernán Cortés, the horror of idolatry did not prevent a genuine appreciation of the constructive achievements of the Aztecs, and a high hope that, once their idols were cast down, they would be ready to take their place as worthy citizens of the empire of Charles V. Cortés’s third letter, dominated as it is by the gruelling story of the siege and conquest of Tenochtitlán, inevitably reflects less sympathy for certain aspects of the Indian character and achievement than his first two letters do, but it does, on the other hand, bring out very clearly his increasing admiration for the Indians as fighters. Cortés conveys memorably the heroism of Aztec resistance during the final days of the siege, and it was precisely the valor and the heroism of the vanquished which were to provide Cortés’s secretary and chaplain, Lopez de Gomara, with the ideal background for the great history of the Conquest that he published in 1552.

Gomara, a Renaissance historian profoundly influenced by classical models, needed the brave Indian warrior as a foil for his portrait of the still braver, and still more skilful, Spanish warrior, Hernán Cortés. For his story of the Conquest of Mexico is essentially a story of heroic warfare on the classical pattern, with the figure of Cortés as its hero. The second part of his Historia General de las Indias, which he called The Conquest of Mexico, is in fact a narrative of the deeds of the commander of the expedition, and Professor Simpson has sensibly given his translation the more accurate title of Cortés. Gomara’s preoccupation with the figure of Cortés at the expense of his captains and men—a preoccupation which so infuriated Bernal Díaz—has had much to do with the neglect and disparagement of his work over the past four centuries. Professor Simpson’s translation, the first to appear in English since a truncated Elizabethan version, shows how unwarranted were both the disparagement and the neglect. Apart from anything else, there is Gomara’s literary style, concise and ironical. Gomara himself was the most conscious of stylists, and once made a special plea to translators, “for the love they have for histories,” to preserve carefully the spirit of the original Spanish, which often contains “large arguments in few words.” Professor Simpson would undoubtedly have won his judicious approval as a translator. The economy of language of the original, and its delicate shafts of irony, are most effectively reproduced, and Gomara is allowed to appear as the superb narrative historian that in reality he was.

Yet Gomara, like Bernal Díaz, has his limitations. The classical models are too close, and Mexico too far away. The New World, remote and incomprehensible, is little more than a spectacular, if carefully painted, back-cloth against which the deeds of his hero are enacted. He is capable of pity for the Indians, just as he is also capable of an occasional devastating irony at the expense of the greed and folly of the Conquistadors. He is ready to express admiration for the Aztecs’ skill in craftsmanship and construction—an admiration no doubt fostered by his conversations with Cortés, although one is left with an uneasy feeling that he is at the same time exploiting the achievements of the Indians in order to heighten the drama and to dispel any impression that Cortés was expending his military genius in a series of skirmishes against a bunch of savages. But the Indians remained for him, as for the majority of the Conquistadors, a barbarous race, “by nature frivolous and turbulent,” given to the most bestial practices, and notoriously prone to consort with the devil.

Was the gulf between Christian Spaniard and heathen Indian so wide, then, as to be insurpassable? Gomara, like most of his countrymen, lacked even the desire to understand. The very identification of the Indians with the devil and all his works made the mental effort of comprehension too great for a people that was consciously dedicating its energies to a relentless war on the Anti-Christ. And was not this spiritual warfare itself the supreme, and perhaps the only, justification of the Conquest? Religion, therefore, appeared to bar the way against any attempt by the conquerors to see the world, however dimly, through the eyes of the conquered.

Yet paradoxically it was, in the long run, to be the very differences in religion which brought the first glimmers of understanding. How this came about is shown in a remarkable work, The History of the Indies of New Spain, by Fray Diego Durán, which is here partially translated into English for the first time. In some respects this edition of the first seventy-eight chapters of Durán is even more valuable than that of Gomara, for the one Spanish edition of Durán is hopelessly inadequate and antiquated and Durán’s prose style is likely to induce despair even among the most fervent admirers of the Aztecs.

While the English edition is prefaced by a useful introduction about the work and its author, it is, however, unfortunate that the translators missed the opportunity to include the few pages printed in the Spanish edition as a continuation of chapter 1xxviii, for these pages offer a remarkable insight into Durán’s character and his motives for writing the book. He had come to New Spain as a child, and entered the Dominican Order in Mexico City in 1556. As a missionary, and especially as one who had been brought up in close contact with the Indians and spoke their language perfectly, he was uniquely placed to understand them, assuming he wished to do so. It was precisely his religion which, instead of inhibiting the attempt at comprehension, provided the vital stimulus. “I have been moved,” he explains, “to undertake this task and to recount the ancient idolatries and false religion…by realizing that those of us who are concerned in teaching the Indians will never fully succeed in getting them to know the true God unless the superstitious ceremonies and worship of false gods can first be obliterated from their memories.” But this could never be achieved unless the missionaries first understood the nature and the magnitude of the problem with which they were faced, and this required a deep knowledge of native history and mythology.

As a result, Durán set out to relate the story of Aztec history as seen through Aztec eyes. His chronicle can not, for this very reason, be taken as a reliable guide to the history of Mexico in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It inevitably lacks perspective, in that it is focused on the Aztecs of Mexico-Tenochtitlán to the virtual exclusion of the various other tribes and kingdoms; and one would imagine from reading it that, in the long and sanguinary list of wars, the Aztecs were invariably the innocent, and victorious, victims of unprovoked aggression. But as an insight into the Aztecs view of their own past, Durán’s chronicle is of inestimable value, and if the reader tires of the long catalogue of deceit, treachery, and bloody battles, he can find relief in Durán’s retelling of a number of pofgnantiy beautiful legends.

Durán’s work is of great interest for historians of the Conquest not only because it culminates in a description of the Conquistadors through Aztec eyes, but also because of Durán’s personal attitude and reactions to the scenes that he describes. In spite of the gruesome stories he relates, his understanding of, and sympathy for, the Indian emerges in his occasional personal asides, and in his unflagging willingness to take the Aztec narrative of events on its own terms. In one passage of the chronicle, not reproduced in this edition, he asks: “In what land on earth have there been so many just and well-devised laws as in this land, and where else have kings been so obeyed and their laws so scrupulously observed?” But he always remains this side of uncritical admiration. He knows his Indians too well to entertain many illusions. All he asks is that they should be seen as they really are, and understood in their own context. If this is done, the comparisons between Indians and Spaniards are not quite so unflattering to the Indians as contemporaries often made them appear.

In Durán, therefore, the apparently unbridgeable gulf is at last beginning to be bridged. The horror of idolatry remains But the stunned reaction of the Conquistadors, and the uncomprehending irony of Gomara, are here replaced by a dawning comprehension. In the person of Diego Durán, a first-generation Mexican, the history of the Conquest becomes for the first time the history not of the conquerors but of the conquered, and a fresh dimension—the dimension of sympathetic understanding—is tentatively added to the process by which the Old World took possession of the New.