HALF-BLIND AND DEAF—
BUT STILL WRITING

 

On completing the first draft of his Verdadera y notable relación del descubrimiento y conquista de la Nueva España, Bernal Díaz must have been convinced that once it was read and published in Spain, it would finally bring recognition to him and to those of his companions who had participated in the Conquest, perhaps even riches and fame, though recognition is what he sought. To be remembered as one of the conquerors of the New World, to have people in Guatemala point him out, not as an aging old soldier, but as the author of an important literary work—this is what he wanted.

But once more he was to suffer great disappointment. In Spain no one considered his story of the Conquest of any value, nor was there even mild interest expressed in having it printed. If his notable relación was read or commented upon at the time, I have found no mention of the fact. The manuscript over which he had toiled so long lay buried among the thousands of papers and reports received each year by the Council of the Indies. The only person who realized its value was Bernal Díaz himself.

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Before sending the manuscript to Spain, Bernal had a copy made, which he kept in his home. With time and age heavy upon him, he began to make corrections and additions to this copy. He was not satisfied with the preface, so he wrote another and still a third. These three introductions to his work were all different in length and wording, but they all said more or less the same thing: he was the oldest conqueror alive and had been a participant in the Conquest, and all that he wrote was the truth as God could bear witness. Bernal worked on this manuscript until he was eighty-four years old.

The old man, with his boasting and his fanciful tales, was probably not taken very seriously by the younger generation of colonists in Guatemala or even his sons. He was just another soldier living in the past. As his children watched him stumbling, half-blind and deaf, through the house, he seemed to them more of a responsibility than an asset.(1)

How were they to know that this manuscript which their father treasured had any real value? Instead of recalling memories of an almost forgotten era, it was too bad that he had not seized more of Montezuma’s wealth, for gold in the hand was certainly better than words on paper—words that no one read. The family lived modestly from the tributes Bernal received from his Indians; there was not even enough money available to buy wine from Spain.

His wife, Teresa, must have cherished with Bernal his hopes and dreams that the original manuscript sent to Spain had intrinsic value. Shortly after his death she tried to recover it from the Council of the Indies and to have it published, but she was unsuccessful in this effort.(2)

1 In his preface Bernal Díaz says that he is eighty-four and is losing his eyesight and his hearing.

2 Cabañas, III, 385-87.

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Not until many years later did a Spanish historian, Antonio de Herrera, searching through the records of the Council of the Indies, come across the Bernal Díaz manuscript. Impressed by the eyewitness account of the old warrior, he copied parts of it. When Herrera’s Hechos de los castellanos was published in Madrid in 1601, it contained liberal extracts from Bernal’s work. Some years after this, Fray Juan de Torquemada used the Díaz manuscript for source material in his Monarquía indiana, published in 1615, and in 1629, Antonio de León Pinelo commented upon it in his Epítome de la biblioteca oriental.

It was not until 1632, however, more than half a century after Bernal Díaz sent it to Spain, that his work first gained recognition. Some years previously the manuscript had been taken from the Council of the Indies by one of its members, Licenciado Lorenzo Ramírez de Prado, who brought it to the attention of a priest, Fray Alonso de Remón. Remón edited the manuscript and, as they say in Spanish, brought it to light in 1632. This was followed soon afterwards by a second printing.

Throughout the colonization period, books from Spain came to the colonies and were placed on sale or went into the libraries in the New World. Among them was the Remón edition of Bernal Díaz.

Bernal’s grandchildren soon learned that their grandfather was becoming a famous man, and they now spoke of him as Capitán Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a title which Bernal never used during his lifetime. As a family heirloom, they kept in their possession the copy of the manuscript which Bernal Díaz had worked on and corrected until the time of his death.

In 1672, Bernal’s great-great-grandson, Antonio Francisco Fuentes y Guzmán, began gathering material for a history on Guatemala which he planned to write.(3) In his search he found

3 Fuentes y Guzmán’s subsequent Recordación Florida del reyno de Guatemala remained in manuscript until Justo Zaragoza had it published in Madrid in 1882.

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the old Bernal Díaz manuscript. As he read it and made comparisons with the editions published in Spain, he came upon what he considered a startling discovery: the manuscript he had and the printed edition were not alike!

Fuentes y Guzmán concluded that the priest, Remón, had taken unusual liberties in preparing and editing the edition. Not only had Remón rewritten certain parts, but he had also made many additions, Fuentes y Guzmán claimed, in order to glorify the role of Fray Olmedo, who accompanied Cortés and was of the same religious order as Remón. He said that “in some places there is more and in others less than what my great-great-grandfather, the author, wrote, for I find corruptions in Chapters 164 and 172, and in the same way in other parts in the course of this history.”(4)

By this time Fray Remón was dead and could not refute the charges. The manuscript Bernal Díaz sent to Spain in 1575 disappeared and has never been found. Those who indict Remón for altering the narrative could well be wrong, for they use for comparison the Guatemala manuscript, which Bernal changed and edited until the very last. It is quite likely that the 1575 manuscript differed from the copy retained in Guatemala.(5)

Nevertheless, the Remón edition remained for years the accepted version of the True History, and all the translations which followed were based on Remón, including the first English

4 Op. cit., I, lib. i, cap. i.

5 Wagner, “Three Studies on the Same Subject,” loc. cit., 168-69, expresses the theory that the manuscript Bernal Díaz sent to Spain was an earlier draft than the Guatemala manuscript and that Remón may not have made all the changes of which he has been accused.

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translation by Maurice Keatinge in 1880 [sic; 1800 –JR], one in German in 1838, another in French in 1876, and a Spanish edition published in Mexico in 1854. William H. Prescott, for his History of the Conquest of Mexico, also relied upon the Remón edition.

The Guatemalan government eventually came into possession of the Guatemala manuscript when Mariano Larrave, a descendant of Bernal Díaz, died in 1840 and left it to the government. For some reason the government guarded the manuscript with great secrecy and would not permit scholars and historians to examine it.(6) But the pressure from the outside grew so strong that finally, in 1895, the Guatemalan government consented to have a photographic copy made of the manuscript. This was presented to the Mexican government as “proof of friendship” by Emilio León, the accredited minister from Guatemala to Mexico, with only one reservation: it could neither be copied nor printed.

One again wonders why the Guatemalan officials acted so mysteriously and tried to keep from print a manuscript that was by now a literary classic and world famous. Did they fear that close scrutiny would reveal that this manuscript was not in the original handwriting of Bernal Díaz as they maintained? If they did, no one questioned the calligraphy, not even that able Mexican historian Genaro García.

In 1901, García wrote to Manuel Estrada Cabrera, then president of Guatemala, asking that a copy be made of the manuscript and that subsequently he should have permission to publish it. Cabrera responded favorably to both requests. Before long García began to receive, in installments, a copy of the Guatemala manuscript, which he compared with the photographic copy on

6 In the introduction to his 1904 edition, Genaro García describes his various attempts to copy the Guatemala manuscript.

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file in Mexico. From this work García arranged the text, which was published at the expense of the Mexican government in 1904-1905.

This edition was used by A. P. Maudslay for his English translation, published in London between the years 1908 and 1916 and later condensed into a single volume for popular reading. García reproduced the Guatemala manuscript as closely as he could, without punctuation or capitalization and, as he says, from the original orthography and as Bernal Díaz wrote it.

García was so immersed in his task, so positive this was the original draft, that it never entered his mind to doubt that the manuscript was in Bernal Díaz’ own handwriting. García’s conclusion was hereafter taken for granted, and, strangely enough, no further inquiries about the manuscript were made. As late as 1945, Henry R. Wagner, writing in the Hispanic American Historical Review on his study of Bernal Díaz, said: “The original manuscript still exists in Guatemala in his handwriting and with his signature.”(7)

The manuscript has always been considered as being in Bernal’s handwriting by Guatemalan and Mexican historians. In the edition of his work published in Guatemala in 1934, there appears this statement: “. . . the original work of Bernal Díaz del Castillo is preserved in the archives of the municipalidad ... it is written in the handwriting of the author, and the letters are clear and well defined and of regular size....”(8)

The paleography of the manuscript contradicts such a statement. The letters are not always “clear and well defined”; one

7 “Three Studies on the Same Subject,” loc. cit., 166.

8 Verdadera y notable relación del descubrimiento y conquista de la Nueva España y Guatemala escrita por el capitan Bernal Díaz del Castillo en el siglo XVI, II, cap. x.

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style of writing which has continued for many pages changes suddenly and definitely. Even the color of the ink varies. If it was written by only one person, how is it possible some parts are quite legible and others difficult to read? Does this mean that Bernal’s handwriting deteriorated as he aged? This seems logical—except that many of the pages written in later years are as legible as the first. None of the corrections or additions matched the script of the text.

It soon became obvious that something was wrong about the Guatemala manuscript. Yet the signature of Bernal Díaz at the end vouched for the authenticity of the manuscript. Could that be a forgery? Impossible, said the director of the archives. The signature had been compared with the Bernal Díaz signature in the cabildo records and they were the same.

In order to clear this confusion, the assistance of Edward O. Heinrich, a nationally known handwriting expert was sought. Mr. Heinrich, formerly on the staff of the University of California and whose services were often employed by the United States government, was more than well qualified to give an opinion on the manuscript. Upon his instructions, new photographs were made of many sections of the manuscript. Photographs were also taken of various signatures of Bernal Díaz as they appeared on the cabildo records.

Heinrich’s studies soon revealed the handwriting in the Guatemala manuscript to be that of at least three different persons. He wrote:

It appears to me that we are dealing with a situation in which the original was to be copied. To accomplish this within a reasonable length of time, the original manuscript was divided among several scribes so the copying of several parts of the manuscript would pro-

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ceed simultaneously. This was a regular practice of medieval copyists among the monks and friars.(9)

With regard to the signature at the end of the Guatemala manuscript, he made this comment:

This purported signature is a freehand attempt to copy the true signature of Bernal Díaz and it is consistent in its details of personal habit with the writing of the text of that page which lies above the signature. This persuades me that this page is a copy and that the copyist felt duty bound to supply the signature as it appeared before him on the page being copied.

He did not succeed very well. The signature of a graphically mature writer is a highly personalized act. The result is so closely identified that he reproduces a characteristic pattern which is constant over long periods of time. The signature of Bernal Díaz del Castillo is no exception to this rule. He puts enough of himself into his “B” alone to produce something very difficult to imitate at the high speed with which Bernal Díaz was accustomed to write his signature, as shown by the authentic specimen of his signature.

In the middle of the second quarter from the top [in Díaz’ rubric], Bernal centered a quadrified design which in its simplest aspect resembled a four-leaf clover. The copyist missed the sequence of the movement and produced a trifoliolate design, or a three-leaf clover.

On the photographic prints of the authentic and questioned signature I have traced out the successive movements of the formation of the “B” and from it one can see readily that they are not at all by the same hand.

Heinrich’s findings that the Guatemala manuscript is a copy

9 Analysis of the Guatemala manuscript was undertaken by Mr. Heinrich at my request, and it was the first time the manuscript was so studied by a recognized handwriting expert.

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are further confirmed by the action of Teresa Becerra, Bernal Díaz’ widow, when she gave power of attorney to Alvaro de Lugo to recover from Spain “the original manuscript written by my husband.” In this document she states that the manuscript cannot be printed or sold because she holds the rights to it and that her husband “went to considerable trouble and expense in having a clean copy made.”(10) There are no records that tell what happened to her efforts, and although she calls it “the original manuscript,” it might not have been any more in Bernal’s handwriting than the one now in Guatemala.

There is every good reason to believe that what happened is as follows: Bernal first wrote what he called a borrador, or draft, of his history. This was probably a rough copy in his flourishing handwriting, with many changes and corrections. He would never have sent such a copy to Spain. He therefore had a clean copy made, and this is the one that was forwarded to the Council of the Indies. At a later time he had a second copy made, probably destroying his borrador, which was entirely in his handwriting.

The second copy is the one on which he kept working for so many years and which has his corrections, changes, and additions. However, it does seem odd that his widow did not know of its existence, for if she did, why would she have made such an effort to retrieve the manuscript sent to Spain? It might well be that she did not want it to fall into the hands of others who would plagiarize it without credit to her husband and without any financial profit to herself and her family. Bernal had obviously convinced her that the manuscript had great value.

When she was unable to recover the manuscript from Spain, it is quite possible that she brought out the copy on which her hus-

10 Cabañas, III, 385-87.

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band had been working. Because he had not completed it and, as he tells us, planned several additional chapters, the manuscript was unsigned. In order to avoid any question of its authenticity, it might well be that the signature of Bernal Díaz was imitated and written in by the same scribe who had copied parts of the manuscript.

All of this is an assumption, for we have no way of really knowing what happened. To complicate the picture further, in recent years there appeared in Spain another manuscript by Bernal Díaz.(11) This one had a different and much longer preface than either the one published by Remón or the one in Guatemala. On the front folio is this wording: “Of Ambrosio del Castillo, the only inheritance he received from his father.” Ambrosio was Bernal’s grandson, and how his father obtained this manuscript is difficult to determine, though not of any consequence because this manuscript is definitely a copy made after Bernal’s death. But it does indicate that writing had become a habit with Bernal and that he authored different prefaces to suit his mood.

The Guatemala copy remains the only authentic one which has parts in his handwriting as well as his corrections. As such it has great historical value and is of course an important document. The manuscript consists of 299 folios, or 598 pages, and contains more than 300,000 words. It was written on paper from Spain, which came in pads of twenty-four folios. There is little doubt that it was copied during Bernal’s lifetime, for the manufacturer’s watermarks on this paper are the same as those on

11 This manuscript was found in the possession of Don Jose Alegria, whose family had obtained it from a priest who died in Spain in 1863. It is clearly a copy and has no corrections. The manuscript has since been published in Spain (Madrid, 1940) under the title Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, for Bernal Díaz del Castillo, edición crítica.

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the paper in the official records of the cabildo. The ink used was the iron-nutgall of that period.

Genaro García says that Bernal Díaz wrote words the same way he pronounced them, for example, augelo for abuelo, albañires for albañiles, gera instead of guerra, and so forth. García also points out that Bernal used his own version of abbreviations, as aide for alcalde, culqr for cualquier, and tro for tesorero. But as any research student who has handled sixteenth-century documents knows, even the public notaries were not too competent at spelling, and each one had his own style of abbreviations or shorthand symbols.

In judging Bernal’s work critically, we must face the fact that he was not the most capable historian of his time. Gómara’s book, which he attacked, is actually an excellent piece of work and not a mass of errors as Bernal would have his readers believe. Others even more proficient were Peter Martyr, Oviedo y Valdés with his many volumes about the New World, and, later, Herrera with his Hechos del los castellanos and Torquemada with his Monarquía indiana. Yet these historians have been virtually forgotten while Bernal’s fame, instead of waning through the years, has increased.

Why does Bernal Díaz’ work stand out from the rest? He was not a scholarly writer, as he was the first to admit. He was an old soldier with little education, and while it is true that he did not write in the flowery language of his time, this alone would hardly be enough to give stature to his work. There had to be more to his writing for it to have endured all these centuries.

One answer seems to be that in the simplicity of his style there is tremendous force and power. When he describes the cold wind on the Mexican Plateau, one feels that wind; when he speaks of Montezuma, the Aztec emperor comes to life again; when he tells of the fears and anxieties of the men, one suffers with them;

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and above all, Bernal takes his readers into his confidence and behind the scenes. He is too naive to create illusion; he presents the harsh and bloody drama of the Conquest as he saw it and felt it.

Bernal Díaz did not have an orderly mind. He frequently gets far ahead of his story, he jumps around and then abruptly returns to catch the loose ends of his narrative. He repeats himself and often he is as prejudiced as he is sentimental; occasionally he produces confusion when there is no need of it. Yet somehow he blunders through with a warmth, a frankness, and a charm that make his manuscript as readable today as when he wrote it more than four hundred years ago.

Other authors suffer in translation, but not Bernal Díaz. He is good in his original Spanish and he is equally good in the English translations which have been adapted from his work. His style and his manner of writing can be conveyed rather easily into other languages and he is quite at home in them.

He had a decided advantage over contemporary historians. He was in on the conquest of New Spain, and he wrote as he had the right to do: as an eyewitness. Because he was not a professional historian and made no pretense at being one, he was able to approach his subject from a highly personalized point of view, with freshness and candor. He told of the things which interested him the most, no matter if they were insignificant details, and in his enthusiasm he was not afraid to make full use of them.

His great curiosity was one of his most valuable assets. There was little which escaped his attention. His big nose was in everything and those big ears of his heard everything. And so it is that these details which others ignored and which he filed away in his mind and then wrote are today as important to the modern historian as any of the gems in Montezuma’s treasure box.

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From the very first, historians have combed Bernal Díaz’ work for material they could not obtain elsewhere. Prescott found it necessary to lean heavily upon Bernal Díaz and used him as one of his principal sources for his own History of the Conquest of Mexico; Bancroft had to rely on Bernal when other contemporary authorities failed him. Archaeologists and ethnologists, digging into the past, have had to turn to Bernal Díaz, as has every historian and author who has ever written about Mexico, about the Conquest, or about Cortés.

Bernal had a good hunch that he was writing, not for his king, not for the Council of the Indies, not for the Spanish people, but for the world; he played his hunch right. It is unfortunate that he did not live to enjoy some of the glory; nothing would have pleased him more. But at eighty-four this old conqueror, with his memories, was still writing and working on his manuscript in a last tussle with Lady Fame.

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