The importance of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s True History of the Conquest of Mexico is well known to anyone who has even a passing interest in the story oh Cortés and his expedition. Less well known, and inevitably still unknown in some ways, is the story of the old soldier in Guatemala who provided this basic chronicle. Cerwin has attempted to provide the reader with “a better insight into Bernal Díaz’s life, his character, and the period in which he lived.” This he has done in a scholarly and entertaining manner. In some respects this book is only a synthesis of available historical scholarship, but the synthesis has been compiled with care and with enough additional information to make it valuable. Cerwin says of Bernal Díaz’s account, “It is gossipy, full of human interest, and it has by now become a classic.” This biographical study probably will not become a classic but it does qualify for a similar description on the first two counts.
Taking advantage of his personal knowledge of Guatemala (The author was born in Guatemala City and, while compiling this book, traveled over a part of the territory to which Bernal Díaz refers), and making use of pertinent archives in Mexico, Spain, and Guatemala, Cerwin has pieced together as much as he could of the personal life and fortune of this famous conquistador. Bernal Díaz emerges as a human being with predictable virtues and faults and as a persistent. if only partially successful, lobbyist on behalf of the soldiers of the Conquest. Two trips to Spain to plead his personal case before the king and the Council of the Indies made him no less the spokesman for others like him. His True History was in part a propaganda document aimed toward the same end.
All of the uncertainties concerning the life of Bernal Díaz have not been resolved by this work. The date of his birth, the actual date of the writing of the True History, the question of his participation in the Yucatán expedition of 1518, the relationship of the colonists to specific colonial officials—these and other such items are still subject to dispute. Cerwin, however, has presented such disagreements fairly and without excessive dogmatism. He does attempt to establish his own belief that the manuscript in the Guatemala archives, long considered the original, is a copy, and his evidence is convincing. It is not apparent, however, what real difference this makes in the uses that have been made of the True History.
This is a worthwhile book for students of Latin American history and should be a most entertaining book for the general reader. Cerwin writes clearly, interestingly, and well. The University of Oklahoma Press has done its usual excellent job in the preparation and presentation of the book.