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
But once more he was to suffer great
Before sending the manuscript to
The old man, with his boasting and his
fanciful tales, was probably not taken very seriously by the younger generation
of colonists in
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
His wife, Teresa, must have cherished
with Bernal his hopes and dreams that the original manuscript sent to
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.
Not until many years later did a Spanish
historian, Antonio de Herrera, searching through the records of the Council of
It was not until 1632, however, more than
half a century after Bernal Díaz sent it to
Throughout the colonization period, books
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
3 Fuentes y Guzmán’s subsequent Recordación
the old Bernal Díaz
manuscript. As he read it and made comparisons with the editions published in
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
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.
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
The Guatemalan government eventually came
into possession of the
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
6 In the introduction to
his 1904 edition, Genaro García
describes his various attempts to copy the
This edition was used by A. P. Maudslay for his English translation, published in
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
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
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
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
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
Heinrich’s studies soon revealed the
handwriting in the
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-
ceed simultaneously. This was a regular practice of medieval copyists among the monks and friars.(9)
With regard to the signature at the end
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
9 Analysis of the
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
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
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
When she was unable to recover the
10 Cabañas, III, 385-87.
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
11 This manuscript was
found in the possession of Don Jose Alegria, whose
family had obtained it from a priest who died in
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
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
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;
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
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.
From the very first, historians have
combed Bernal Díaz’ work for material they could not
Bernal had a good hunch that he was
writing, not for his king, not for the Council of the