The History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo (ed. David Carrasco)

I just finished the 376 page abridgment of Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s “true” History of the Conquest of New Spain selected, edited and translated by David Carrasco. I stumbled across this book in a reference, an extended quote, from another book I was reading on the history of the feather (Feathers by Thor Hanson). A vivid description of the splendor of the aviaries in Tenochitlan, and their subsequent targeted destruction by burning by Cortés.

Though I didn’t find either of the quotes in this selection, it did provide an extremely thoughtfully contextualized overview of the Spanish perspective of the conquest of Latin America. Abridged from a much longer document, the sections included describe in (sometimes excruciating, sometimes tedious) detail the progression of the Spanish invasion, their relationships with native city-states, their duplicities in negotiating, the extreme cruelty on both sides of the wars, and the fascinating religious and political justifications for the two infamous massacres perpetrated by the Spanish in cities that were not warring. Woah, that was a long sentence, sorry about that.

The essays following address women’s roles in the conquest as property, anchors, and interpreters; the exaggeration and distortion of the practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism; and the political motivations for the composition of this text in the first place. A really accessible, fascinating collection of scholarly essays.

A great engaging text, and a wonderful translation. The translation renders the language simultaneously accessible (the tone is clear, crisp, the usage mostly standard) and poetic. Diaz del Castillo was a skilled storyteller, and was using his skills for gain. The motivations behind the composition are exquisitely evoked throughout the translation. Carrasco leaves in gestures that continuously remind readers of their distance from the text in space, time, and language, while making sure that it remains engaging. A perfect balance for a text like this.

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