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The Conquest of New Spain Vivid and absorbing, this is a first person account of one of the most startling military episodes in history the overthrow of Montezuma s Aztec empire by the ruthless Hernan Cortes and his band of adventurers Bernal D az del Castillo, himself a soldier under Cortes, presents a fascinatingly detailed description of the Spanish landing in Mexico in , their amazement at the city, the exploitation of the natives for gold and other treasures, the expulsion and flight of the Spaniards, their regrouping and eventual capture of the Aztec capital The Conquest of New Spain has a compelling immediacy that brings the past to life and offers a unique eyewitness view of the conquest of one of the greatest civilizations in the New WorldJ M Cohen s clear, fluent translation is supplemented by an introduction that illuminates the life and memories of Bernal D az and explores changing views of the conquest, and there are also maps of the conquered territory Anthony read this book in college and recommended it to me I read it during our flights to and from Iceland and loved it It gives a first hand account of Cortes and his conquest over the Aztec empire and the defeat of Montezuma Translated from the diary of Bernal Diaz a solider who accompanied Cortes it creates vivid pictures and insight of the trials and successes of the Spanish. When we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded These great towns and cues and buildings rising from the water all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to descriWhen we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded These great towns and cues and buildings rising from the water all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before p 214.This translation is an abbreviated version of Bernal Diaz del Castillo s account of the conquest of modern Mexico, starting from landings on the coast in Maya areas Most of the text is taken up by the conquest of the Aztec Empire and occasionally interrupted by troubles with potential colonial rivals back on Hispaniola.It is a breathless account of a culture clash between the Castilians with their horses, steel weapons and armour, attack dogs, artillery and firearms on the one side and the rich, sophisticated world of late stone age Mexico on the other As a result the text overflows with details about the lifestyles and peoples the Spanish come across, fight against, and work with and they would not have succeeded without their local allies drawn from the Aztec s rivals particularly Tlaxcala to topple the chocolate drinking Montezuma view spoiler the Aztecs though preferred to drink their chocolate cold and unsweetened hide spoiler It s not a fine example of prose but the author s sense of wonder and amazement pulls you along through the negotiations, canoe building, town founding and inevitable hauling of artillery pieces up from the coast to the centre of the country.The Amadis mentioned in the quote above is The Amadis of Gaul one of the favourite books of Don Quixote In one way the actions of the conquering Spanish seem no less incredible, audacious, destructive, or even insane than those of the Quixote, while in another the same spirit and dreams of great deeds of heroism and chivalry inspired them both The only difference being that Bernal and his companions won the governorships of islands that were only ever promised to Sancho Panza An absolutely astonishing first hand account of the conquest of Mexico, written some decades after the conquest took place It s fair to say that D az del Castillo portrays the conquistadores in afavourable light than they generally receive Some of the worst excesses during the conquest are either played down or not mentioned at all He clearly resents some of the criticisms levelled by Bartolom de las Casas D az does though portray the conquistadores unbridled greed, often in strongl An absolutely astonishing first hand account of the conquest of Mexico, written some decades after the conquest took place It s fair to say that D az del Castillo portrays the conquistadores in afavourable light than they generally receive Some of the worst excesses during the conquest are either played down or not mentioned at all He clearly resents some of the criticisms levelled by Bartolom de las Casas D az does though portray the conquistadores unbridled greed, often in strongly critical terms, and several times describes how local caciques were variously bullied, tortured and even hanged by conquistadores seeking to extort gold Elsewhere, he describes how people who rebelled against Spanish rule were enslaved, and were branded on the face to show their status to all.Not that pre Columbian Mexico was exactly Utopia, and through D az s eyes we can catch a few glimpses of this unique culture He describes his shock and revulsion at the heaps of skulls collected from human sacrifices, and of how, as is well documented, the various city states of Mesoamerica were probably the only highly organised societies ever to have institutionalised cannibalism The Indians ate human flesh in the same way as we do that of oxen, and there were large wooden cages in every town in which men, women and children were fattened for their sacrifices and feasts Both the Spanish invaders, and the Mesoamericans, seem to have treated women appallingly, and caciques who wanted to curry favour with the Spaniards frequently gave them women as presents Interestingly, homosexuality and transgenderism seem to have been accepted D az was outraged Most of the Indians were given to unnatural lusts To such a dreadful degree was this practised, that men went about in female garments, and made a livelihood by their diabolical and cursed lewdness Clearly, in this aspect of Mesoamerican society, most modern readers would be less judgemental than D az The most dramatic sections of the book are those which feature the conquistadores arrival in Mexico, and after their initial expulsion, the titanic 93 day battle for the city D az memorably describes his astonishment at his first sight of the great city of Mexico, it is impossible to speak coolly of things which we had never seen nor heard of, nor even could have dreamt of , everything was so charming and beautiful that we could find no words to express our astonishment , but he continues, there is not a vestige of this remaining, and not a stone of this beautiful city is now standing A hint of regret perhaps, from D az, for the destruction he helped bring about The 93 day siege of the city, and its grim outcome, is told in compelling form No one knows how many Mexicans perished during their ferocious resistance, despite their having weapons of only very limited effectiveness Some historians estimate the number in six figures D az describes the aftermath in sobering terms Not that the Spaniards always had things their own way, and one incident, in which 62 captured Spaniards were sacrificed at the top of the Mexicans main temple a sight clearly visible to their comrades seems to have left D az with what we would now recognise as a form of PTSD Cort s comes over as a truly remarkable figure repulsively greedy and cruel, utterly ruthless, determined and single minded a risk taker to the point of recklessness and a skilled dissembler who cleverly exploited rivalries between the Mesoamericans to add native allies to his army.Really there is so much I could quote from this account, but my review would go on for ever The book has its weaknesses It is at times repetitive, and the last quarter meanders into political machinations at the Spanish court, but the conquest itself was one of the most amazing, and momentous, events in history Reading this you get the impression that, looking back, D az himself could scarcely believe that they pulled it off The author started writing this when he was over 70, made his fair copy of it at age 76, and wrote a preliminary note for it at age 84 Five years later, he was dead.Arguedas s Deep Rivers and Galeano s Genesis Memory of Fire 1 , which I recently read, both have an unmistakable bias against the Spanish conquistadores of the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries Here, for a change, I listen to one of these conquistadores, for the author Bernal Diaz del Castillo was a Spanish soldier w The author started writing this when he was over 70, made his fair copy of it at age 76, and wrote a preliminary note for it at age 84 Five years later, he was dead.Arguedas s Deep Rivers and Galeano s Genesis Memory of Fire 1 , which I recently read, both have an unmistakable bias against the Spanish conquistadores of the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries Here, for a change, I listen to one of these conquistadores, for the author Bernal Diaz del Castillo was a Spanish soldier who served under Hernando Cortes, conqueror of the Aztec empire based then in Mexico The events narrated here happened between 1519 to 1521 when the author was in his mid 20s.For a 70 year old guy you will be amazed not by how much Diaz had forgotten noted in the translator s footnotes but how much he remembered of events which took place half a century before He was a wonderful storyteller Some things I learned about life in that part of the world almost 500 years ago 1 the Indians Aztecs practiced sodomy, human sacrifice and cannibalism They open up the body while the poor victim is very much alive, scoop out his her heart, and offer his her still beating heart to their gods idols in their temple The limbs they eat, the rest they throw away 2 their own kind whom they intend to sacrifice and turn into their favorite dishes they first fatten up inside cages like they re domesticated pigs or cattle being prepared for slaughter 3 a patriarchal society, it seemed that women among the Indians had no role except do menial jobs, bear children and be given by their fathers as gifts to other men There was only one Indian woman here who sort of stood out from Diaz s entire narrative She was given as a gift to Cortes who, in turn, gave her to his favorite officer, and who later acted as their interpreter in dealing with the Indians Fond of juicy gossips, Diaz didn t fail to mention that Cortes had a child by her later 4 for the Spaniards, the way to get rich then was to go out there, discover new lands, conquer their people and get their gold in the name of the Spanish monarch Whatever they get the latter is automatically entitled to one fifth thereof, the so called Royal Fifth and 5 these Spanish adventurers would first try to befriend the native Indians, try to convert them to Catholicism and to make them vassals of Spain If friendly persuasion doesn t work, they subdue them by force of arms and take everything they want.In the book s blurb there is the claim that t he defeat of the Aztecs by Hernan Cortes and his small bad of adventurers is one of the most startling military feats in history This could mislead As if Cortes 500 or so Spanish soldiers were, by themselves, able to defeat the Aztecs numbering tens of thousands Actually, several Indian tribes fought along Cortes and although Diaz was silent about this did most of the dying I agree, however, that Cortes was a brilliant military leader BRAVE he fought with his soldiers, got wounded and almost died several times , CUNNING he made Indians fight fellow Indians, outmaneuvered not only his Indian enemies but his Spanish enemies as well and LUCKY maybe because he was so damn brilliant that he became a living demonstration of the chess players well known adage A good player is always luckyBernal Diaz praised Cortes to high heavens but he likewise didn t mince words in implying that this great leader was also a thief or maybe Diaz was also praising Cortes as a good BUSINESSMAN An amusing anecdote he related towards the end of this book where, after the conquest of Mexico, the common soldiers like Diaz were grumbling about the very little share they will get of the booty While Cortes was at Coyoacan, he lodged in a palace with whitewashed walls on which it was easy to write with charcoal and ink and every morning malicious remarks appeared, some in verse and some in prose, in the manner of lampoons One said the sun, moon, and stars, and earth and sea followed their courses, and if they ever deviated from the plane for which they were created, soon reverted to their original place So it would be with Cortes ambition for command He would soon return to his original humble condition Another said that he had dealt us a worse defeat than he had given to Mexico, and that we ought to call ourselves not the victors of New Spain but the victims of Hernando Cortes Another said he had not been content with a general s share but had taken a king s, not counting other profits and yet another My soul is very sad and will be till that day when Cortes gives us back the gold he s hidden away It was also remarked that Cortes fellow adventurer Diego Velazquez had spent his whole fortune and discovered all the northern coast as far as Panuco, and then Cortes had come to enjoy the benefit and rebelliously taken both the land and the treasure And other words were written up too, unfit to record in this story When Cortes came out of his quarters of a morning he would read these lampoons Their style was elegant, the verses well rhymed, and each couplet not only had point but ended with a sharp reproof that was not so naive as I may have suggested As Cortes himself was something of a poet, he prided himself on composing answers, which tended to praise his own great deeds and belittle those of Diego Velazquez, Grijalva, and Francisco Hernandez de Cordova In fact, he too wrote some good verses which were much to the point But the couplets and sentences they scrawled up became every dayscurrilous, until in the end Cortes wrote A blank wall is a fool s writing paper And next morning someone added A wise man s too, who knows the truth, as His Majesty will do very soon Knowing who was responsible for this a certain Tirado, a friend of Diego Velazquez and some others who wished to make their defiance clear Cortes flew into a rage and publicly proclaimed that they must write up nolibels or he would punish the shameless villanins Many of us were in debt to one another Some owed fifty or sixty pesos for crossbows, and others fifty for a sword Everything we had bought was equally dear For God, Country and King No Then, and as always, it has always been about the gold, stupid

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