Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 23 (Bernal Díaz del Castillo )

Díaz del Castillo, Bernal
The Discovery &
Conquest of Mexico

I bought this for a dollar at the Strand. I think I was still living in New York at the time. I have a memory of combing through the dollar racks on the sidewalk and finding a stash of older history books, including this one, all priced at a dollar. I think this is the only one that has survived the several moves since that time, and it is certainly the only one I have read.

I am pretty sure I also put it on my history of history oral exam list in college, though I had read it before that. As an eyewitness account of Cortez' destruction of Tenochtitlán, it's essential reading in the history of the Americas, though his unrepentant defense of the actions of the Conquistadors ("we came to serve God -- and to get rich!") is repugnant. That said, it is a gripping read, on a par with any adventure tale I have read or any adventure film I have seen, and his descriptions of the Aztec capital, as well as Moctezuma II, almost all there is to go on in terms of understanding what was there before the conquest.

from Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España:

Early next day we left Iztapalapa with a large escort of those great Caciques whom I have already mentioned. We proceeded along the Causeway which is here eight paces in width and runs so straight to the City of Mexico that it does not seem to me to turn either much or little, but, broad as it is, it was so crowded with people that there was hardly room for them all, some of them going to and others returning from Mexico, besides those who had come out to see us, so that we were hardly able to pass by the crowds of them that came; and the towers and cues were full of people as well as the canoes from all parts of the lake. It was not to be wondered at, for they had never before seen horses or men such as we are.

Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we,—we did not even number four hundred soldiers! and we well remembered the words and warnings given us by the people of Huexotzingo and Tlaxcala and Tlamanalco, and the many other warnings that had been given that we should beware of entering Mexico, where they would kill us, as soon as they had us inside.

Let the curious readers consider whether there is not much to ponder over in this that I am writing. What men have there been in the world who have shown such daring? But let us get on, and march along the Causeway. When we arrived where another small causeway branches off (leading to Coyoacan, which is another city) where there were some buildings like towers, which are their oratories, many more chieftains and Caciques approached clad in very rich mantles, the brilliant liveries of one chieftain differing from those of another, and the causeways were crowded with them. The Great Montezuma had sent these great Caciques in advance to receive us, and when they came before Cortés they bade us welcome in their language, and as a sign of peace, they touched their hands against the ground, and kissed the ground with the hand.

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