Bernal Diaz del Castillo

Bernal Diaz del Castillo (often shortened to Bernal Diaz) was born in the Spanish town of Medina del Campo, probably around the year 1492. His father, Don Francisco Diaz del Castillo, was a magistrate in town, a respected profession that apparently did not pay too well. Though he often complained of poverty throughout his life, young Bernal could read and write, which was a mark of his family's status, as most soldiers in Spain's armies were illiterate and could not afford even a rudimentary education.

Bernal Diaz came to the New World in 1514 as a soldier-of-fortune, hoping to get rich quick from the ongoing Spanish conquest of the Americas. He started in Panama, under governor Pedro Arias de Ávila, but was dismayed to find that the natives had largely been pacified and that the colony needed settlers rather than soldiers. Also, the climate of Panama was singularly unhealthy to Spaniards, and any number of unpleasant jungle diseases raged through the colony. Undaunted, Diaz packed up and headed east to the island of Cuba, where governor Diego Velázquez was waging a war against the natives. While it is known that he served in Cuba for three years, nothing in the historical record indicates that Diaz did anything of note during that time.

In 1517, he shipped out with an expedition led by the stalwart Francisco Hernández de Córdoba to explore the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. In March 1517, Córdoba and his men met with the natives, who proved to be less-than-happy to see them. Forty-eight Spaniards were killed, two captured and everyone else wounded before Córdoba and the survivors managed to get back to their ships. This experience did not sour Diaz on the idea of exploring the Yucatan; he returned the next year with the expedition of Juan de Grijalba. The natives again proved to be unfriendly, ambushing Grijalba and knocking out his two front teeth. After exploring the region a little further and trading with the natives for some gold, the men demanded to return to Cuba, which Grijalba did.

The rumors of gold and riches in Mexico convinced the Spaniards to continue their attempts to explore the Yucatan, despite the native peoples' hostile reactions. Diaz signed up again, this time with Hernán Cortés, one of Velázquez's lieutenants from the conquest of Cuba. In 1519, Cortés set sail for Mexico and after many setbacks and toppled native idols, the Spanish succeeded in conquering the mighty Aztec empire of Mexico. Cortés became a legend in his own time for orchestrating the destruction of a powerful and militaristic native empire, and many of his soldiers became rich from land grants, captured treasure and enslaved natives.

In 1524, Diaz again accompanied Cortés, this time to Honduras to put down a rebellion led by renegade Spanish conquistador Cristóbal de Olid. The trip was not profitable for Diaz, who had to be cajoled by Cortés into going, as he was much more interested in settling down and farming on his new plantation. The campaign took the better part of two years, after which Cortés rewarded the loyal Captain Diaz del Castillo with a larger land grant and the position of magistrate of the town of Coatzacoalcos.

Civilian life evidently agreed with Diaz, who had spent many years living the hardscrabble existence of a soldier, permanently on the march, with little food and constant harassment from the enemy. After a decade of fighting in the Americas, Diaz was ready to put down roots and live off the rewards from his native-worked plantation. Sometime around 1535, he married Teresa Becerra, the daughter of Bartolomé Becerra, a Spanish conquistador. Through his connections with more powerful Spanish soldiers in the New World, Diaz obtained some land and influence in Guatemala, where he settled in the 1540s.

History would probably have little reason to remember a simple Spanish soldier and bureaucrat such as Bernal Diaz del Castillo if not for a book published in 1552. The book was Francisco López de Gómara's Conquest of Mexico, which recounted the details of Cortés' capture of the Aztec empire. Diaz avidly read López's account, but was angered by the focus on Cortés, with little attention going to the soldiers who did most of the fighting and reaped less of the reward. Later works on the conquest by Paulo Giovio and Gonzalo de Illescas also failed to mention the hardships faced by the common soldiers of Cortés' army. To counter this, in 1568, Diaz began producing an answer in the form of The True History of the Conquest of New Spain.

Diaz admits to being an unpolished writer. His style lacked flair, descriptive imagery and even consistent punctuation. Copies of his manuscript did circulate among the powerful in Spain (King Philip was known to have a copy), but no one published The True History until well after Diaz's death. It wasn't until 1623, that Europe got its first glimpse at the life of one of Cortés' foot soldiers. In his simple, inelegant style, Diaz recounts being one of the first Europeans to gaze on the grandeur of Aztec Mexico. He describes the magnificent temples, the terrifying and bloody religious ceremonies and Aztec methods of waging war. It is a unique view of a conquest that was normally told by rather dreary official correspondence among officers and royal officials. While Diaz obviously admired Cortés, there is often a decidedly negative view of other Spanish officers, who are usually depicted as vain and petty.

The importance of Diaz's work was immediately evident. His fast-moving narrative, unhindered by the usual stilted writing style of the time, proved to be quite popular with European readers. It provided curious historians with an amazingly candid and accessible look at the conquest of Mexico and ranked its author among the most well known of Spain's conquistadors. Diaz died in Guatemala City sometime around 1584.