To mark Columbus Day, let me suggest a book: The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo.
Itâs not as current as Conasonâs Big Lies or Frankenâs Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. It was written a bit more than four-hundred years ago. But I think it holds up pretty well.
Diaz was born in 1492 and was one of the small band of soldiers under Hernan Cortes who landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519 and eventually conquered most of what we now call Mexico. Whatever political implications and questions linger over the conquest today, this is a truly amazing story, and one that is difficult to fully explain even today.
Diaz was part of Cortesâ expedition. But he was also on two previous, less ambitious, voyages of exploration and potential conquest to these lands in the years just before 1519. For all these reasons he was uniquely qualified to tell the story of what happened. And he was also blessed with an unadorned but gripping and graphic writing style which brings the events marvelously alive.
Diaz finished the book when he was seventy-six, an old man living on an isolated estate in what is now Guatemala. He died in 1580.
As some of you know I spent most of my twenties studying the 17th century North American colonies, particularly New England --- my dissertation was about the first decades of contact between English settlers and Algonquian Indians in southern New England. My great interest in Anglo-Indian contact in that period was the profound alienness of each group in the eyes of the other.
When I was in grad school I also prepared a field in Colonial Latin American history. And thatâs where I first came across Bernal Diazâs book --- which is one of the basic primary documents of the Conquest. (I'm rereading it now.) That same sense of the unknown, the mix of bewilderment, horror and fascination with which each group views the other, is what I find so gripping about it.
As Cortes and his small group make their way into the interior, the Indians they come into contact with have difficulty making sense of whether the Spaniards are even human or some sort of gods. At least at first, they think the men on horses are actually one single creature. Horses turn out to have been a profoundly important military asset. Fire-arms, though not as decisive as a weapon as you might imagine, were literally terrifying.
As 'my' settlers did in 17th century New England, the Spaniards made conscious and quite effective use of terror (not in the sense we now commonly use the word) as a weapon.
The Spaniards meanwhile are fixed on two things: finding gold --- and miscellaneous other precious objects --- and compelling the Indians to accept Christ. Given that human sacrifice was an essential part of religious practice in pre-Columbian Mexico, itâs not surprising that the Spaniards found the Indians' religion shocking and revolting. And as they make their way into the interior --- first defeating and then making alliances with various city-states --- they are constantly demanding that their new allies destroy their idols, end human sacrifice, ban sodomy and adopt various other au courant codes of behavior. This is usually accompanied by whitewashing one or more temples, setting up a cross, and giving a brief lesson on the basic tenets of Christianity, before they move on their way towards Tenochtitlan.
If you like reading history, and discovering unknown, alien worlds, I think youâll like this book.