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  • The History of the Conquest of New Spain
  • Scott Eastman
The History of the Conquest of New Spain. By Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Edited by Davíd Carrasco. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. 504 pp. $27.95 (paper).

Born into a family of local prominence in Old Castile, Bernal Díaz del Castillo rose in rank from foot soldier to captain and, toward the end of his life, transcribed his memories of multiple expeditions to Mesoamerica and of his participation in the legendary offensive that brought down the Aztec empire. Although circulated among an elite few in the sixteenth century, Bernal Díaz's epic history was not published until 1632, and his original manuscript in Guatemala came to light only in 1904. The English-speaking world did not have access to an accurate version until pioneering archaeologist Alfred Maudslay published a five-volume English translation between 1908 and 1916, followed by a concise edition in 1927. Drawn from Maudslay's original work, this new abridgment, edited by Davíd Carrasco, professor of anthropology and religion at Harvard University, gives students and teachers alike a balanced interpretation of Bernal Díaz's influential text La verdadera historia de la conquista de Nueva España. Tellingly, Carrasco omits the word "true" from the title, providing a window into the analysis offered in a series of short essays that accompany the narrative. In the introduction, Carrasco successfully situates Bernal Díaz within sixteenth-century polemics over the nature of the conquest and his often vitriolic debates with men like Francisco López de Gómara and Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose works had preceded his own. Carrasco encourages the reader to consider the veracity of the account presented rather than assume Bernal Díaz is an unbiased, objective witness to history. Material drawn from Miguel León-Portilla's The Broken Spears, for example, illustrates the indigenous perspective on defining events such as the massacre at Cholula and Mexica (Aztec) rites and rituals. Significantly, in this new version, the Spanish conquest does not end with the defeat of the Aztecs in 1521. Whereas earlier editions, such as Maudslay's 1927 The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and J. M. Cohen's 1963 The Conquest of New Spain, portrayed Cuauhtemoc's dramatic surrender of Tenochtitlan as the climactic denouement of two years of brutal fighting, [End Page 757] Carrasco insists that we view the aftermath of the war and analyze tales of further Spanish conquest and the cultural changes that took place. Within this context, readers are not awed by "the heroism of the Spaniards," a theme pursued by earlier editors such as Cohen (Cohen, p. 10). Rather, the book surveys the concrete realities faced by societies in transition and provides a clear sense of the cosmovision of both the Spanish and the indigenous during a liminal time in history.

The abridged text, spanning a period rife with conflict and turmoil, ends with events in the year 1538, prior to the enactment of the New Laws of 1542 and the consolidation of an administrative regime for Spanish America. The last chapter centers on a festival held in Mexico City that vividly demonstrates the transformation of both the visual and cultural landscape. By the 1530s, Africans, Europeans, mestizos, and Indians peopled the diverse urban environments of New Spain. While the great cathedrals and monasteries mentioned exemplify the destruction of the indigenous way of life, colonial religion might have received additional coverage. The 1524 arrival of the Twelve Franciscans is included, for example, but later chapters on conversion and religious practices in the 1540s (chapter 209, volume 5 of Maudslay's original), written with numerous references to popular customs in Guatemala, have been excised.

Taken as a whole, the essays that follow the text offer important insights into the society that produced the conquistadores and the cultural interactions between Spaniards and Mesoamericans. In a short piece on Bernal Díaz, Rolena Adorno recovers the Spanish juridical traditions that informed the tone and content of the account. Adorno shows that Bernal Díaz relied on testimony and eyewitness accounts of the kind that would have been persuasive in official legal proceedings...


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