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Burning hearts: ‘The True History of the Conquest of New Spain’ by Bernal Díaz del Castillo

The conqueror: Statue of Hernan Cortes in Spain   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ IStock

The True History of the Conquest of New Spainis one of the most disturbing books you will ever read. You know how it ends: the Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) defeat the Aztecs and colonise Mexico. But nobody else in the book — the Aztecs and the mercenaries butchering them — knows the outcome because it is written in chronological fashion, like a travel diary. The writer was one of the mercenaries himself — a man named Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492–1584), who writes in the first person.

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Brave fight

He participated in most or all of the over 100 battles and skirmishes that took the Spanish force, numbering only a few hundred, to the capital and led to their ultimate victory over the king of the Aztecs, Montezuma. The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, a man in his 30s, was able to prevail purely because of technology: the Aztecs fought with arrows, darts, slings and daggers made of obsidian, a kind of stone. They wore padded cotton as protection.

The Spaniards carried guns, cannon, crossbows and swords made of steel. They also had over a dozen horses, unknown in the new world and introduced to America by Cortés in 1519. On top, Cortés and his men knew military drill and how to keep formation. The Aztecs had no experience of modern battle.

As a result, although they were brave — Díaz says so — they could not stop the small band of Spanish soldiers from slowly but surely making their way to Mexico City (then called Tenochtitlan) after an expedition that went on over more than 600 km and took nine months.

At the end of it, they forced their way into the palace and held the king hostage for months while enjoying his hospitality. Montezuma was killed on June 29, 1520, apparently by his own people who were angered and ashamed of the humiliation that their nation had been put through.

Díaz was writing a few decades after the fighting began with the aim to correct what had been written about the expedition before him. Previous works by Spanish writers had been critical of the conquistadors’ brutality. Díaz writes that Cortés (whom Díaz admired) and his men did what they had to do.

Díaz was in his 20s when he went on the expedition and wrote the book five decades later, when he was in his 70s. But he likely kept notes because the details he provides are quite vivid. Of the ruler of the Aztecs, Díaz tells us:

“The Great Montezuma was about 40 years old, of good height, well-proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives who were Caciques in their own right, and only some of his servants knew of it.” Unlike others, Montezuma was “quite free from sodomy” (one wonders how Díaz knew that).

Held captive

One of the reasons why the Spaniards were able to distance themselves from their actions was that the Aztecs practised human sacrifice. Díaz describes the scene: “There were some smoking braziers of their incense, which they call copal, in which they were burning the hearts of three Indians whom they had sacrificed that day, and all the walls of that shrine were so splashed and caked with blood that they and the floor too were black. Indeed, the whole place stank abominably… the walls of this shrine also were so caked with blood and the floor so bathed in it that the stench was worse than that of any slaughterhouse in Spain. They had offered that idol five hearts from the day’s sacrifices.”

Díaz is not a scholar, merely an infantryman, and gives us no insight into why the Aztecs did what they did. He merely reports what he sees. There is page after page of detail that puts us at the centre of the action and holds us captive as we all — the conquistadors, the Aztecs, Montezuma and us, the reader — head to that inevitable and unjust end.

Aakar Patel is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 8:14:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/burning-hearts-the-true-history-of-the-conquest-of-new-spain-by-bernal-daz-del-castillo/article33996024.ece

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