The Conquistadors: First-person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico
Cortes: The Life of the Conqueror
The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain
“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 …