Just as Prescott was a romantic historian, so too the authors of his sources were romantic chroniclers. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Francisco López de Gómara, Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, Hernán Cortés himself—all were men who, like Cervantes’ magnificent creation, “se daba á leer libros de caballerías con tanta afición y gusto, que olvidó casi de todo punto el ejercicio de la caza, y aun la administración de su hacienda. . . .” Seemingly hypnotized by the romances of chivalry so popular in their day, these men were bent on transferring their romantic visions to posterity either through their chronicles, or, as in the case of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, through a romantic novel as well.1

The chroniclers, like Prescott, approached their work with what David Levin has described as “romantic formulas”; therefore, Prescott found no need to “impose” his own “romantic formula” on that of his predecessors.2 Prescott’s main problem was to extract from his sources some kind of consensus on the details of his narrative. Only in his rejection of the essence of Las Casas’ arguments did Prescott “impose,” and then reluctantly.

Perhaps Prescott’s romanticism, brilliantly portrayed by Levin, made him more fit to translate the chroniclers than to “impose” on them or even incorporate them as sources for a “true” history. Díaz, López de Gómara, and Herrera, in their affection for Cortés and the Crown, were not only eloquent and abundant in detail—they were also romantic, superstitious, and credulous. They lacked the moral indignation of Las Casas which, while perhaps not praiseworthy per se for the writing of history, did serve to dissipate the clouds of praise surrounding the Conquest.

One need consider but three examples in Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico which might have benefitted from the critical observation of a Las Casas: Cortés’ winning over of the Totonacs in Cempoalla, the seizure of Montezuma in the Aztec capital, and the alleged “humanity” of Cortés (602-603).3

Appreciating Cortés’ political acumen, Prescott notes that Cortés won the support of many Totonacs by imprisoning twenty of Montezuma’s tribute collectors, while at the same time he gained the respect of the Emperor by liberating two of them—with neither side aware of the duplicity involved (192-193). Prescott’s source for this allegation is primarily Díaz (with support from López de Gomara and Herrera). The difficulty is that not one of these chroniclers, much less Prescott, was willing to suspend his romantic vision long enough to suspect that Cortés’ trickery was easily observed by both sides. A messenger from Montezuma greeted Cortés in the town square and told him of the emperor’s gratitude for his having liberated the two collectors. Yet, we are told, not one of the Totonacs standing nearby overheard this blatant proof that Cortés had tricked them or suspected his real motives.4 On the contrary, the Totonacs were dumbfounded by Cortés’ ability to win over the emperor in spite of his having jailed the collectors: “Their feelings of admiration were heightened into awe for the strangers who, at this distance [from the capital], could exercise so mysterious an influence over the terrible Montezuma (193).”

Prescott next describes an incident of Cortés’ strict discipline over his soldiers, in which a Spaniard was almost hanged for having robbed the natives. Cortés “then returned to Cempoalla, where he was welcomed with joy by the people, who were now impressed with as favorable an opinion of his moderation and justice, as they had before been of his valor (193).” Seemingly it does not occur to Prescott to wonder if the Totonacs were impressed with Cortés’ “justice” or with his complete mastery.

Here Prescott is clearly following Díaz, as the footnotes indicate. It is only by consulting Las Casas that one can realize the importance of the power of arms and authority—Cortés’ physical mastery, rather than moral “justice.” Significantly, Las Casas does not even treat these incidents at Cempoalla. Rather, he discusses in detail Indian uprisings against Cortés.5 On these points Las Casas is not at all credulous and romantic. The scholar must read his account if he wishes to break through the closed circle of romantic praise for the conquering hero—a circle which Prescott seems unwilling to break, because of his fondness for romantic history and romantic chroniclers.

Again, one may consider Prescott’s awe at the seizing of Montezuma, surrounded by the evidences of power in his own capital:

. . . that all this should have been done by a mere handful of adventurers, is a thing too extravagant, altogether too improbable, for the pages of romance! It is, nevertheless, literally true (349).

At this point, Prescott does not doubt his sources, which, needless to say, do not include Las Casas. Later a solitary footnote casts considerable doubt on the authenticity of Montezuma’s willing surrender:6

Oviedo considers the grief of Montezuma as sufficient proof that his homage [to Spain], far from being voluntary, was extorted by necessity. The historian appears to have seen the drift of events more clearly than some of the actors in them [e.g., Díaz] (362, fn. 4).

What is noteworthy about this footnote is that Prescott apparently realizes the bias and bravado of his sources but nevertheless is so much enchanted with their romantic tales that he follows them faithfully throughout.

In summing up the character of Cortés, Prescott rather reluctantly acknowledges the epic hero’s cruelty, though he does not dwell on the point. Instead, Prescott emphasizes the apparently humane and “repeated efforts on the part of Cortés to bring the Aztecs peaceably to terms” (602). If we are to believe the footnotes, the testimony to these efforts was “most emphatic and unequivocal.” The exact opposite was claimed by Las Casas in Brevísima Relación . . ., or Very Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552), which Prescott unwisely chooses to reject as a worthy source of information.

These three examples raise fundamental questions which must now be answered. First, what were the principal sources that Prescott used? Second, how did Prescott use his sources, and were their differences crucial to him? Third, how much and how accurately did Prescott actually utilize Las Casas’ voluminous writings? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what was Las Casas’ role in sixteenth-century Spain itself, and did his bias destroy the value of his histories ?

An examination of the chroniclers consulted by Prescott—their credentials, their biases, and Prescott’s trust or distrust of their works—reveals that Prescott relies largely upon Díaz, López de Gomara, Cortés, Herrera, and, with greater reservations, Las Casas. Fortunately Prescott provides us with biographical articles on all of the principal chroniclers except Cortés, whose role as central character of the narrative makes up in part for the lack of a biographical addendum. While a more critical commentary on the dispatches of Cortés might have been helpful,7 Prescott nevertheless includes ample data on his sources.

Prescott states that Díaz and López de Gómara (referred to as Gomara in The Conquest of Mexico) are “the two pillars, on which the story of the Conquest mainly rests” (502), principally because these two men shared the experiences of Cortés, one physically and the other orally. Prescott is aware of Díaz’ credentials: a long life in the New World, rising from common soldier at Cortés’ side to regidor of Guatemala City in 1568, when he sat down to recount his experiences as a faithful follower and confidant of Cortés. Equally does Prescott realize Díaz’ biases: his disapproval of López de Gómara’s excessive praise for Cortés; his desire “to vindicate for himself and his comrades that share of renown in the Conquest, which fairly belonged to them” (503); his “vulgar vanity” (504); and yet his obvious admiration of Cortés. Díaz was very much a product of his times. A true soldier of the Cross, he viewed the Conquest as noble, even in its covetousness. He tells us that the conquerors “died in the service of God and of his Majesty, and to give light to those who sat in darkness,—and also to acquire that wealth which most men covet (504).”8 It is as a reflection of the times that Prescott appreciates Díaz’ history, with its “spirit of truth” which “shows us situations as they were, and sentiments as they really existed in the heart of the writer” (505).

López de Gómara became Cortés’ chaplain after the Conquest. He did not begin his Crónica de la Nueva España until after Cortés’ death, publishing it in 1553. He never travelled to the New World, a fact which Prescott chooses to treat lightly, since López de Gómara had unique access to Cortés’ own documents and all “the highest sources” (502). Nevertheless, Prescott realized that López de Gómara was strongly biased, noting that his Crónica constituted an endless panegyric of Cortés (502).

Both of the “two pillars” then, Díaz and López de Gómara, were worthy apologists for Cortés and the conquistadores. Along with Cortés’ dispatches, their writings are the sources used most often by Prescott.

Prescott uses Cortés’ dispatches to Emperor Charles V to narrate all key incidents of the Conquest. Unfortunately Prescott usually cites Cortés’ descriptions of what happened without noting what he omitted or showing any awareness of his unique motivations in composing the dispatches. Cortés knew that his dispatches were crucial for his own success. Thus he often flattered Charles V and exaggerated the potential riches in order to win the Emperor’s favor. Engaged in a difficult political battle with Velázquez, the governor of Cuba, Cortés necessarily colored the encounter with Narváez and related incidents. These motivations explain some of the omissions in his dispatches. Wishing to have credit accrue to himself in order to establish firmly his own leadership, he mentioned few of his soldiers (a defect which Díaz hoped to remedy). Cortés also omitted any references to Marina or to his children by her and by Montezuma’s daughters, as well as details of Montezuma’s death. Nor did he offer reasons for the Indians’ savage war against his troops during the Noche Triste.

Nevertheless, as in the cases of Díaz and López de Gómara, the dispatches are an invaluable primary source, if the historian keeps in mind Cortés’ motivations. Here again Prescott’s source is romantic and filled with the knight-in-armor motif. Cortés’ dispatches showed the conqueror’s conscientious devotion to the chivalrous code of conquest for God, Crown, and riches. Cortés typically ended a description of a battle with the pious observation: “And thus, it pleased God to give us a greater and finer victory even than we had prayed or longed for.”9

While Prescott cites Las Casas often in the footnotes, he actually uses the Brevísima Relación only through 1520 or the end of Book II (the “Discovery of Mexico”), which concluded with the action at Cempoalla instead of following Cortés to Tenochtitlán. By 1520 Las Casas had already earned his title of “Protector General of the Indians,” but his pro-Indian bias does not destroy the value of his knowledge of occurrences prior to 1520. Therefore, Prescott uses Las Casas’ Historia de las Indias to confirm many details of the narrative. (It is a sign of Prescott’s wisdom that in reprimanding Las Casas for his vituperative pen he does not fall into the error of blaming Las Casas for the introduction of Negro slavery into the New World.)10

Nevertheless, while recognizing the credentials of Las Casas as an on-the-scene observer and prolific writer, Prescott laments that Las Casas’ Brevísima Relación “was ever written” (206). According to Prescott, the book’s moral outcry against the Spaniards’ maltreatment of the Indians is so exaggerated in its examples and statistics that it “borders on the ridiculous” (206). In an important sense, Prescott is reluctant to use Las Casas as a valid source, since his propensity for “glorious moral truths” made him steep “his pen in the gall of personal vituperation, led him into gross exaggeration and over-coloring in his statements, and a blind credulity of evil that rendered him unsafe as a counsellor, and unsuccessful in the practical concerns of life” (207).

Even when praising Las Casas, Prescott is sufficiently uncertain about him to make questionable statements, as in the following example:

He lived to see the fruits of his efforts in the positive amelioration of their [the Indians’] condition, and in the popular admission of those great truths which it had been the object of his life to unfold. And who shall say how much of the successful efforts and arguments since made in behalf of persecuted humanity may be traced to the example and the writings of this illustrious philanthropist (208, emphasis added)?

First, and most obviously, Las Casas was not a philanthropist but an agitator. Second, there is no evidence that, in the short span between the signing of the New Laws and their effective revocation (1545), the condition of the Indians was “ameliorated.” There was hardly time for the new viceroys to implement Law No. 35, which forbade further allocation of encomiendas11 to Spaniards. In Peru civil war broke out, and angry colonists decapitated Viceroy Blasco Núñez Vela shortly after his arrival.12 In Mexico Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza stalled the publication of the New Laws, held weekly courts to hear Indian grievances, and waited out the tense period until Law No. 35 was revoked.13 To be sure, in 1550 the mightiest emperor in the world ordered the conquest to cease until his government should decide if it were “just” or not, but there followed no change in the encomienda system. After Las Casas’ death the Standard Law of 1573 merely replaced the word “conquest” with “pacification” and urged the Spaniards to moderate their use of force.14

Prescott’s main conclusion is that Las Casas suffered from a “defect as a historian,” namely, falling “under the influence of a dominant idea” (208). Yet did not Díaz, López de Gómara, and Cortés also suffer such influence? Naturally Prescott does not regard their “dominant ideas” as defects, since they fall into the epic mold which he prefers as a romantic historian.

Prescott never knows how far he can trust Las Casas. After all, Las Casas had an obvious bias in favor of Velázquez and a “profound contempt” for Cortés; then too, there was that “defect” of pro-Indianism. Yet Herrera, writing in 1600-1601, referred constantly to Las Casas’ works in compiling the first official history of the Conquest. In great part, therefore, Las Casas’ details of narrative had to be accepted. Thus Prescott is led to conclude his biographical account of Las Casas with an appearance of trust: “In the statement of fact, too, however partial and prejudiced, no one will impeach his integrity; and, as an enlightened contemporary, his evidence is of undeniable value (208).”

Acknowledging the historiographer of the Indies’ huge indebtedness to Las Casas’ work, Prescott forgives the pro-Spanish bias of Herrera where he does not forgive the pro-Indian bias of Las Casas. In sum, Herrera’s Historia general de las Indias Occidentales has “extraordinary merit . . . a completeness beyond what is to be found in any other on the same subject . . . a noble monument of sagacity and erudition” (309). What Prescott fails to mention—Herrera’s motivation—is even more indicative of his selection and use of sources. Herrera undertook his study upon the request of the king “so that foreign nations might know that these Catholic kings and their councilors have complied with the provisions of the papal bull [of Pope Paul III, 1537, declaring the Indians free], and have not simply despoiled those lands, as some [e.g., Las Casas] say.”15

Prescott also consults the works of Motolinía, Martyr, Oviedo, Camargo, and Solís. However, since he depends far more on Díaz, López de Gómara, Cortés, Herrera, and Las Casas—listed according to frequency of citations—these other sources will not be investigated here.16 Prescott also uses a variety of other works, mainly dealing with pre-conquest times in Mexico. These included Torquemada, Clavigero, Sahagún, Gama, Hernández, Boturini, Ixtlilxóchitl, the Mendoza Codex, and the Aztec MSS. brought to light by Lord Kingsborough.17

Prescott strives for a consensus among his sources on the details of the narrative, relegating most differences to footnotes. For example, in Book II there occur fourteen joint references to Díaz and Las Casas, but only three additional footnotes explaining differences on specific points, two of which are minor.18

It is striking that Prescott, perhaps to compensate for his frequent use of Díaz, notes whenever possible his rejections of the Captain. For example:

The account given in the text of the destruction of the fleet is not that of Bernal Díaz, who states it to have been accomplished, not only with the knowledge, but entire approbation of the army, though at the suggestion of Cortes.. . . But Cortés expressly declares in his letter to the emperor, that he ordered the vessels to be sunk, without the knowledge of his men, from the apprehension, that, if the means of escape were open, the timid and disaffected might, at some future time, avail themselves of them (203, fn. 25).

The cavaliers Montejo and Puertocarrero, along with Narváez, Las Casas, Oviedo, López de Gómara, and Martyr, attributed the act to Cortés alone—most with praise, but Las Casas and Narváez with disapprobation. Adding his common sense to this array of sources, Prescott concludes :

The veteran [Díaz], in writing his narrative, many years after, may have mistaken a part for the whole, and in his zeal to secure to the army a full share of the glory of the expedition, too exclusively appropriated by the general, (a great object, as he tells us, of his history,) may have distributed among his comrades the credit of an exploit which, in this instance, at least, properly belonged to their commander. Whatever be the cause of the discrepancy, his solitary testimony can hardly be sustained against the weight of contemporary evidence from such competent sources (203, fn. 25).

The same kind of disagreement occurs between Díaz and Prescott concerning the capture of Montezuma:

Bernal Díaz gives a very different report of this matter. According to him, a number of officers and soldiers, of whom he was one, suggested the capture of Montezuma to the general, who came into the plan with hesitation. This is contrary to the character of Cortés, who was a man to lead, not to be led, on such occasions. It is contrary to the general report of historians, though these, it must be confessed, are mainly built on the general’s narrative. . . . We cannot but think that the captain here, as in the case of the burning of the ships, assumes rather more for himself and his comrades, than the facts will strictly warrant; an oversight, for which the lapse of half a century—to say nothing of his avowed anxiety to show up the claims of the latter—may furnish some apology (341-342, fn. 3).

Díaz is again rejected concerning the purpose of the expedition to Mexico: “Bernal Diaz denies that the original object of the expedition, in which he took part, was to procure slaves, though Velasquez had proposed it. . . . But he is contradicted in this by the other contemporary records above cited” (124, fn. 11).

These occasional rejections are as nothing compared to Prescott’s frequent citations of Díaz. On the person and dress of Cortés, as well as on statistics of the cavalry and the army, he regards Díaz as the most competent source (143-144, passim). He makes innumerable references to the “honest Bernal Diaz,” and in his grandiloquent flourishes about the courage and tenacity of Cortés and his troops, he continuously quotes Díaz. Even when he expresses a certain doubt about the extent of rational detachment in a source, Prescott’s romantic preference is manifest. On one such occasion he writes in the text:

The particulars they [the conquistadores] gleaned were not of a kind to tranquillize their minds, and might well have made bolder hearts than theirs pause, ere they advanced. But far from it. “The words which we heard,” says the stout old cavalier, so often quoted, “however they may have filled us with wonder, made us—such is the temper of the Spaniard—only the more earnest to prove the adventure, desperate as it might appear” (216).

However, in a footnote he adds:

There is a slight ground-swell of glorification in the Captain’s narrative, which may provide a smile,—not a sneer, for it is mingled with too much real courage, and simplicity of character (216, fn. 16).

Following his romantic predilections, Prescott is unwilling to question the loyalty of the troops to Cortés after the tragic defeat of the Noche Triste—for part of his vision of the Conquest is the loyalty which Cortés inspired. Instead Prescott rebukes López de Gómara for not having distinguished between “the old soldiers and the levies of Narvaez” (471-472, fn. 17), while he accepts Díaz wholeheartedly. Yet well might Prescott have recalled that Díaz’ natural bias in favor of his comrades-in-arms was bound to affect this judgment. It is precisely this bias which causes Prescott earlier to reject Díaz’ account of the sinking of the fleet and to accept López de Gómara and similar “contemporary evidence from such competent sources.”

A careful check shows that on the few occasions when Prescott chooses to overrule Díaz, Cortés is the preferred source.19 Often the disagreement is minor, as in the case of one battle outside Tenochtitlán, where Prescott relegates Díaz to a footnote and adds in Cortés’ favor :

Cortés is so compendious in his report, that it is often necessary to supply the omissions with the details of other writers. But where he is positive in his statements—unless there be some reason to suspect a bias—his practice of writing on the spot, and the peculiar facilities for information afforded by his position, make him decidedly the best authority (480, fn. 14).

Like Prescott, many of the chroniclers themselves (e.g., Herrera) depended heavily on Cortés’ dispatches. It is unfortunate that Prescott’s most frequent reprimands of Díaz are on the grounds of his having criticized Cortés, since this was not the “loyal Captain’s” most obvious bias. Moreover, in some of his criticisms of Cortés, Díaz showed penetrating insight. For example, one footnote by Prescott completely misses the point:

Alonso de Avila went as the bearer of despatches to St. Domingo. Bernal Díaz, who is not averse, now and then, to a fling at his commander, says, that Cortés was willing to get rid of this gallant cavalier, because he was too independent and plainspoken (486, fn. 32).

A less romantic observer than Prescott might have noted that Cortés was shrewdly consistent in sending his leading aides to faraway assignments, where they would represent little threat to his authority. Instead, Prescott emphasizes the generosity of Cortés in awarding his chief officers posts in distant provinces :

The chivalrous bearing of the general was emulated in full measure by Sandoval, De Leon, Olid, Alvarado, Ordaz, and his other brave companions, who won such glory under the eye of their leader, as prepared the way for the independent commands which afterwards placed provinces and kingdoms at their disposal (419).

In spite of the occasional differences cited above, Prescott succeeds in raising a veritable bulwark of footnotes, based usually on Díaz, Cortés, López de Gómara, and Herrera, to suggest unanimity of opinion in the original sources. In point of fact, their differences are unimportant. What is important is that Prescott glosses over the radical differences between these pro-Cortés chroniclers and Las Casas. A detailed consideration of Prescott’s use of Las Casas will establish how crucial certain of these differences actually were to him.

Prescott refers to Las Casas’ writings often, but with a mixture of respect and doubt. On the need for peaceful instead of forced conversions of the Indians to Christianity, Prescott agrees with Las Casas, “whose enlightened views in religion would have done honor to the present age” (150). However, his humanitarian zeal causes Prescott to doubt his figures: “Probably the good Bishop’s arithmetic, here, as in most other instances, came more from his heart than his head” (49, fn. 28). On his criticism of the conquistadores’ cruelty, Prescott says that “charity—and common sense—may excuse us for believing the good father has greatly overcharged” (123, fn. 7). In brief, Las Casas’ piling up of “details of blood and slaughter, from their very extravagance, carry their own refutation with them” (275, fn. 6).

Consequently, Prescott chooses to reject more of Las Casas than he includes. In one immense footnote, the Brevísima Relación . . . is dismissed as the product of a “warped . . . judgement” (274-275, fn. 6).20 When most critical, Prescott rejects even the Historia de las Indias, noting that Herrera

made a decided improvement on the manner of his original, reduced his cumbrous and entangled sentences to pure Castilian, omitted his turgid declamation and his unreasonable invectives. . . . he rendered the publication of Las Casas’ history, in some measure, superfluous (309, fn. 41).

Prescott’s ambivalent respect for Las Casas, however, leads him simultaneously to condemn Herrera for editing out the bishop’s “moral sensibility.”

Because of his doubts about the relability of Las Casas’ works, Prescott actually distorts references to him and omits key points that might undercut his own romantic vision of the Conquest. Five examples make this especially clear.

First, Prescott mistakenly places Las Casas at the head of a long list of chroniclers who unanimously testified to the popularity of Marina, Cortés’ Indian translator: “The name of Malinche—the name by which she is still known in Mexico—was pronounced with kindness by the conquered races, with whose misfortunes she showed an invariable sympathy” (163). In point of fact, Las Casas provided no evidence for such a claim.21 Instead, he ridiculed Marina:22 “Porque pláticas tan grandes con tan poco experto intérprete y que apenas sabía hablar en vocablos de aquella lengua comunes, como daca pan, daca de comer, y toma esto por ello, y todo lo demás por senas, no se sufría.”

Second, Prescott incorrectly cites the earlier writer as providing testimony about Cortés’ reluctant punishment of mutinous soldiers and the army’s election of Cortés as “Captain General and Chief Justice of the colony” (181-183). Upon investigation, it becomes clear that Díaz is Prescott’s main source for these stories. Las Casas, in fact, ridicules Cortés’ election as “esta elección tan maliciosa y absurda.”23 Cortés’ messages to the King on the subject are characterized as “afirmando muchas otras falsedades y mentiras y aun dando a entender que si otro alguno enviase a gobernallos no lo recebirían.”24 Las Casas sympathizes with the rebel soldiers in their “afirmando ser traición la que contra Diego Velázquez se cometía y horrenda maldad y fealdad detestable.”25

Prescott omits all reference to Las Casas’ accusation of “treason” by Cortés; yet, the indignant bishop devoted many pages to showing “las mercedes que el rey hizo a Diego Velázquez, por donde la rebelión y maldad que Cortés le hizo más clara y fea y más culpable parecerá.”26 While Velázquez had “pardoned, honored, and elevated” Cortés, the latter had treated his former superior unjustly: “Le alzó y lo robó y despojó, sin que le valiese razón y justicia: y de todo ello nunca vimos en Cortés señal de restitución y satisfacción, sino siempre con la sangre y trabajos ajenos triunfar.”27

When Prescott later recounts how Cortés meted out death sentences, this time relying on the additional evidence of Cortés’ dispatches, the historian again includes an incorrect reference to Las Casas and concludes with a sentiment drawn from Díaz : “The general, on signing the death-warrants, was heard to exclaim, ‘Would that I had never learned to write!’ It was not the first time, it was remarked, that the exclamation had been uttered in similar circumstances” (200). The footnoted reference to the bishop is false.

Third, Prescott is dishonest or at least careless in citing Las Casas as evidence for Montezuma’s fear that the white deity Quetzalcoatl might return. The passage to which Prescott refers (171) says nothing whatsoever about Quetzalcoatl. Rather, Las Casas merely attempts to show the timid character of Montezuma, who “vivía siempre con temor y en tristeza y sobresaltado, y así lo significaba su nombre, porque Moteczuma quiere decir en aquella lengua hombre triste y enojado.”28 Lest this sound too anti-Indian for the great “Protector,” Las Casas adds: “También significa hombre grave y de grande autoridad, y que es temido, todo lo cual en él se hallaba.”29 But nothing of Quetzalcoatl. Sahagún provided a description of the familiar myth which Prescott cites earlier but not as evidence of Montezuma’s fear of the god’s return.30 Montezuma may have held such a fear, but Prescott should have checked his sources more meticulously.

Fourth, Prescott is similarly inaccurate in citing both López de Gómara and Las Casas to substantiate his statement that stories were told to persuade the Indians of the Spaniards’ need for gold (166). Actually the bishop attacked the chaplain for the deception of the story in question: that gold was a remedy for a heart disease suffered by the Spaniards. Moreover, no such fabrication was necessary, “sino aquello que por señas bien se podía entender, como era el ansia que mostraban de haber oro.” Las Casas viewed López de Gómara’s “ficciones” as an attempt to whitewash the crimes of the conquistadores:31

. . . con lo demás cuando se atraviesa decir favor de Cortés y excusa de lo que obró, porque ni lo entendían ni lo podían entender, sino cuando mucho dos palabras, daca y toma, y lo más era por señas, mostrándoles oro y las cosas de Castilla que les ofrecían por ello a dar; y bastaba la afición que manifestaban tener al oro.

Here too, it is clear that Las Casas doubted whether the Spaniards could even communicate such tales orally, as a few signs were all that the Indians could understand.32

Fifth, Prescott mistakenly cites Las Casas as the principal source for the initial proceedings at Cempoalla and for Cortés’ prompt realization that he might capitalize on sentiment against Montezuma. Here Prescott must have been using López de Gómara as his source, for Las Casas gave no hint of the Indians’ genuine pleasure at Cortés’ coming—or, indeed, of his leaving after “talks” which the bishop judged impossible except by hand signals. Las Casas gave no indication of Cortés’ “comfortable and polite vaunt” or “affectionate leave” (188). Rather, he wrote:33

Dice Gómara que se quejó a Cortés del rey Moteczuma, que lo tenía tiranizado; pero como está dicho, todo se ha de tener por artificio de Cortés y gran maldad y que el mismo Cortés los debía de alborotar y meter cizanias y decir que no acudiesen con los tributos a Moteczuma; y ellos, por miedo de los tiros de pólvora y de los caballos, no osaban hacer cosa en contrario, habiendo entendido los estragos que habían hecho en Tabasco.

Las Casas went on to question Cortés’ moral right to insist that the Indians not pay their tributes to Montezuma and to deny the truth of López de Gómara’s interpretation:34

claro está que podían y pudieron mentir los indios de Cempoal, diciendo que Moteczuma los tenía por fuerza de armas subjuzgados y hechos tributarios . . . y si así lo hiciera Cortés con los cempoalenses, si fuera verdad estar injustamente a Moteczuma subjetos, perdida su libertad, pudiéransele deber con razón las gracias y nombre de salvador y defensor dellos; pero hízolo por el contrario, privando a los de Cempoal y también al gran rey señor dellos y de otros muchos, Moteczuma, de todos sus señoríos, de todo su honor, de las vidas, y no sólo de su libertad. . . .

Again, Prescott’s use of Las Casas for otherwise persuasive points is misleading.

Presumably Prescott cited Las Casas in such a distorted fashion in order to bolster his use of diverse sources and thereby deter the reader from believing that he was overly dependent upon Díaz, López de Gómara, and Cortés. Clearly, Las Casas’ interpretation of the Conquest contradicted the romantic version of Prescott (and the early chroniclers). The bishop was not a consistent realist, as his Rousseau-like vision of the Indians makes manifest. Nevertheless, his angry protests undercut the “romantic formulas” of the epic historians just enough to complicate their too easy explanations of the Conquest.

The fact that Las Casas’ voice was listened to carefully in sixteenth-century Spain suggests that not all his judgment was “warped” and that his writings, for all their bias, were as valuable then as they are now. As Lewis Hanke has shown, Las Casas published with unusual freedom, often drawing more respectful attention from the Crown than did apologists for the Conquest. The attitude of the Council of the Indies seemed to be that “Las Casas was such a venerable and respectable figure that he should not be attacked, but rather defended and explained.”35

Since Las Casas was only one of many priests who protested the conquistadores’ cruelty in the New World, he deserves only partial credit for the promulgation of the New Laws. However, his stature was assured by 1550, when he and Sepúlveda began the great Valladolid debates. Finally, after his death, Las Casas’

manuscript writings were so highly esteemed that they were brought to the Council of the Indies for official use and eventually were turned over to the royal chronicler Antonio de Herrera, who termed Las Casas “an author in whom great confidence may be placed” and used his writings extensively in the preparation of the standard work on the history of Spain in America.36

Because so many historians have honored Las Casas’ writings, including sometimes Prescott himself, it is difficult to accept Prescott’s statement that the publication of any of his works could be “superfluous.”

As we have seen, the frequent and at times erroneous references to Las Casas in the footnotes of The Conquest of Mexico confirm rather than disprove Prescott’s romantic bias. Thus, in spite of his monumental contribution to the understanding of the Spanish Conquest, it remains for some future historian to transcend the simplistic explanations offered by the followers of either the romantic chroniclers or Las Casas. Only then can we see the Conquest as a complex of good and evil deeds which affected the Indians in diverse ways and caused the Spaniards centuries of uneasiness.


Oviedo’s Don Claribalte was published in 1519, prior to his chronicles; see Sterling A. Stoudemire, trans. and ed., Natural History of the West Indies (Chapel Hill, 1959), xi-xiii.


Thus, Levin’s question at the end of History as Romantic Art (Stanford, 1959), 230 is answered as quickly as it is raised: “. . . one might like to know just how deliberately the [nineteenth-century] historians imposed the romantic formulas on the historical record.”


All page numbers in parentheses are from Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico (New York, 1936).


The Totonacs could understand Aztec at least in part, since they had understood the Aztec spoken by the original tax collectors.


Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (2 vols., Madrid, 1957), II, cxxv ff.


Oviedo, incidentally, shared the opinions of the conquistadores and was diametrically opposed to Las Casas.


Pp. 681-687 provide a summation of Cortés’ character, but not of his dispatches.


Prescott quoting Díaz. Note the romantic convention of bringing civilization to the barbarians, a “formula” which Levin attributes to Prescott but which dates back to both Prescott’s sources and earlier times. Cortés was more blunt than Díaz: “I came to get gold, not to till the soil like a peasant.”


Hernando Cortés, Cartas de relación de la conquista de México (4th ed., México, 1961), Third Dispatch, 160.


Prescott, Conquest of Mexico, 204. Las Casas confessed in Historia de las Indias, which he began writing in 1527, that his suggestion of freeing the Indian by enslaving the Negro was inhuman and wrong, and both Prescott and Lewis Hanke recognize the error as short-lived. Hanke is the leading modern authority on Las Casas—see his Bartolomé de Las Casas, Bookman, Scholar, and Propagandist (Philadelphia, 1952) and The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (Philadelphia, 1949).


Originally thought to be Indian lands with Indian labor.


Hanke, The Spanish Struggle, 96.


Lesley Byrd Simpson, Many Mexicos (Berkeley, 1960), 51-55.


For details, see Hanke, The Spanish Struggle, 109-172.


Ibid. (citing Herrera), 148.


But see Prescott, Conquest of Mexico, 309-12, 409-12, and 616-19.


See Book I.


On the population of Cempoalla, Prescott accepts the lower estimate of Las Casas and does not cite Díaz specifically. Prescott’s choice here, as so often elsewhere, is based on common sense rather than on some unfair bias in the sources. (187, fn. 17). On the other hand Díaz is preferred to Las Casas in determining the number slain in a battle. Las Casas’ exaggeration is ridiculed: “It is Las Casas, who, regulating his mathematics, as usual, by his feelings, rates the Indian loss at the exorbitant amount cited in the text” (158, fn. 27). Finally, in a rare instance of Prescott’s preference of Las Casas, Díaz’ assertion that Cortés parted cordially from Velázquez is rejected: “The text conforms in every particular to the statement of Las Casas, who, as he knew both the parties well, and resided on the island at the time, had ample means of information” (140, fn. 4).


In only one instance of any importance is Díaz clearly preferred to Cortés, and this is in the case of the execution of Cuauhtémoc. Cortés viewed the execution as “just,” but Díaz noted that it was “most unjust,” and Preseott agrees: “In reviewing the circumstances of Guatemozin’s death, one cannot attach much weight to the charge of conspiracy brought against him” (648-650).


In part, Prescott might be granted the benefit of the doubt for his implicit rejection of the Black Legend: “The present expedition . . . had probably been stained with fewer of such [cruel] acts than almost any similar enterprise of the Spanish discoveries in the New World.”


Indeed, it would be out of character for Las Casas to take this position. Díaz, on the other hand, naturally inclines to such a viewpoint and is described by Prescott as “the best authority” on Malinche. Cortés is reticent on the subject, as has been noted.


Las Casas, Historia, cxxii.


As close as Las Casas comes to honoring Cortés’ “election” is to confess that the trickery was “grande,” even if full of “desvergüenza.” Las Casas, Historia, cxxiii.


Ibid. It is only fifteen pages later that Prescott notes Las Casas’ accusation about “mentiras,” and then in another context and without comment.




Ibid., cxxiv ff.




Ibid., cxxi.




See Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (3 vols., México, 1829-1830).


Las Casas, Historia, cxxi.


Not on this point, but in general terms, Prescott belatedly notes Las Casas’ anger at López de Gómara when taking up the latter’s biography (502). Prescott defends López de Gómara.


Las Casas, Historia, cxxii.




Hanke, Bartolomé de Las Casas, 50.



Author notes


The author is Humanities Teaching Associate at Antioch College.