Bernal Diaz del Castillo: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

Bernal Diaz del Castillo was a notable Spanish conquistador and historian. This lesson examines the life of Diaz, from his humble origins in Spain, to the publication of his famous historical work.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo: Historian of the Spanish Conquest

One of the most famous chroniclers of Spain's conquests in the Americas came from humble origins. Bernal Díaz del Castillo was born to a poor family in Medina del Campo, Castile in the mid-1490s. The exact date of Díaz's birth is hard to pin down, but the events he detailed are well-known in world history. Díaz stood alongside Hernán Cortés in 1519 when Cortés and his conquistadors conquered the Aztec Empire. Decades later, Díaz wrote down his recollections of the conquest in La historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, or The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. Díaz's journey began in 1514, when he left Spain for the Americas.

A 1904 depiction of Bernal Diaz del Castillo
Díaz portrait

Díaz Goes to the Americas

Díaz, like many of his fellow conquistadors, came from a poor economic background and saw adventuring in the Americas as a path toward wealth and fame. He sailed to the Indies in 1514 and found himself in Cuba just as a series of major expeditions to the American mainland began. Díaz first travelled to the Mexican coast under the command of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1517, when Córdoba's expedition discovered the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Díaz would take part in two more expeditions, one with Juan de Grijalva in 1518, and another with Hernán Cortés in 1519. Whether Díaz knew it or not, the Cortés expedition was about to make history.

From 1519 to 1521, Díaz claimed he was by Cortés' side in over 119 battles against the Aztec Empire, including the climactic capture of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, in 1521. While on campaign with Cortés, Díaz took the time to speak with his fellow soldiers about their experiences and ideas about the conflict. These discussions, and Díaz's own memories of the conquest, would be the basis of his True History of the Conquest of New Spain decades later.

A depiction of the conquest of Tenochtitlan.
Conquest of Tenochtitlan

Later Life and the Writing of the True History

'I say again that I stood looking at it, and thought that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world.... But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing.' - Excerpt from Díaz's True History, describing the destruction of the Aztec Empire.

After the conquest of Mexico, Díaz was handsomely rewarded for his services. Díaz gained his own tract of land and enslaved labor, known as an encomienda. Eventually, he was named Governor of Santiago de los Caballeros, in modern-day Antigua Guatemala, in 1551. Díaz began writing the True History in 1568, partly in response to various conflicting accounts of the conquest that were floating around at the time. Francisco López de Gómara, another historian, claimed that Cortés deserved all credit for the conquest. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican missionary, historian, and notable critic of Spain's cruel treatment of American indigenous peoples, decried Spanish atrocities during the Aztec conquest.

The first page of The True History of the Conquest of New Spain.
First page of True History

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