Men of iron mounted on strange beasts out to conquer an Empire
There can be few more substantial and all embracing accounts of the Conquistadors than that of Bernal Diaz del Castillo. Whilst all first-hand accounts are invaluable it is unusual to find them as comprehensive as that of Bernal Diaz particularly from the 16th century. His work is so expansive it fills two substantial volumes in this special Leonaur edition. The deeds of the Conquistadors—literally conquerors—are broadly known by all. Here were small armies of determined and ruthless men from the Old World sailing perilous oceans into the unknown to set foot in the equatorial jungles of a New World. They came for fame, discovery, new lands to expand European Empires—and for gold. They brought organised war to an unsuspecting indigenous people and they toppled civilisations with sword, lance and gunpowder—men mounted on beasts of war unlike anything their more numerous enemy had ever beheld. This is the common view of a far more complex time. Diaz lived through the conquests in New Spain and Mexico and recounts a time of violence and blood perpetrated seemingly without let by both sides; and he reports the constant infighting and divisions between the Conquistadors themselves in such a way that far off times come vividly back to life and legend takes the form of real men as his words whisper history into our imaginations. This is an exceptional two volume set of books by any standards. For those who know something of the history of the Conquistadors it will be an essential addition to their libraries and for the curious it will be a revelation. Available in softcover and hardback with dust jackets for collectors.
When Sandoval was about to mount his horse, Cortes embraced him, with these words: “Go, for heaven’s sake! You see I cannot be everywhere at the same moment: to you I entrust the chief command of the three divisions for the present, as I am wounded and almost exhausted with fatigue. I beg of you rescue our three divisions from destruction. I doubt not that Alvarado and his troops have defended themselves like brave warriors; yet I cannot help fearing he has been forced to succumb to the overwhelming numbers of these dogs, for you see how I have fared with my division, and it may have gone worse with his.”<br>
Upon this Sandoval and Lugo threw themselves on horseback and galloped off for our encampment, where they arrived about the hour of vespers, but we had received intelligence of Cortes’ defeat many hours beforehand. They still found us engaged with the Mexicans, who were doing their utmost to storm our camp from that side of the causeway where we had pulled down several houses, while, at the same time, they attacked us with their canoes from the side towards the lake. They had driven one of our brigantines between the stakes, killed two of the men, and wounded all the rest.<br>
When Sandoval saw how I and many of my comrades stood up to our middles in the water to get the brigantine clear of the stakes, he applauded our courage, and bid us do our utmost to save the vessel from falling into the hands of the enemy, as the Mexicans had already fastened many ropes to her, and were trying to tow her off into the town behind their canoes. Sandoval’s encouraging words were not lost upon us, and we fought with such determination that at length we rescued the vessel. On this occasion I was wounded by an arrow.<br>
While we were fighting for the possession of this brigantine, fresh bodies of the enemy kept continually crowding up the causeway. We received many more wounds, and even Sandoval was hit in the face by a stone at the moment Alvarado was coming up to his assistance with another small body of the cavalry; and when Sandoval saw how daringly I, with many of my comrades, opposed the enemy, he ordered us to retreat slowly, that all our horses might not be sacrificed. As we did not immediately obey his commands, he cried out to us, “Are we then all to perish for your sakes? For heaven’s sake, my brave companions, make good your retreat!” These words were scarcely out of his mouth when both he and his horse were again wounded. We now ordered our Indian allies to move off the causeway, and we began to retreat slowly but with our faces always turned towards the enemy. Our musketeers and crossbow-men kept up a continued fire upon them; the cavalry at intervals charged the enemy’s line at half speed, and Pedro Moreno thundered away with the cannon. But whatever number of the infuriated enemy we might mow down, it mattered not, they still continued to follow us, for they had made up their minds to overcome us that very night and sacrifice us to their idols.<br>
After we had at last, with excessive toil, crossed a deep opening, and had arrived at our encampment, where we were pretty secure from the enemy’s attacks, Sandoval, Lugo, Tapia, and Alvarado stood together relating what had befallen each of the respective divisions, when all in a moment the large drum of Huitzilopochtli again resounded from the summit of the temple, accompanied by all the hellish music of shell trumpets, horns, and other instruments. The sound was truly dismal and terrifying, but still more agonizing was all this to us when we looked up and beheld how the Mexicans were mercilessly sacrificing to their idols our unfortunate companions, who had been captured in Cortes’ flight across the opening.<br>
We could plainly see the platform, with the chapel in which those cursed idols stood; how the Mexicans had adorned the heads of the Spaniards with feathers, and compelled their victims to dance round the god Huitzilopochtli; we saw how they stretched them out at full length on a large stone, ripped open their breasts with flint knives, tore out the palpitating heart, and offered it to their idols. Alas! we were forced to be spectators of all this, and how they then seized hold of the dead bodies by the legs and threw them headlong down the steps of the temple, at the bottom of which other executioners stood ready to receive them, who severed the arms, legs, and heads from the bodies, drew the skin off the faces, which were tanned with the beards still adhering to them, and produced as spectacles of mockery and derision at their feasts; the legs, arms, and other parts of the body being cut up and devoured!<br>
In this way the Mexicans served all the Spaniards they took prisoners; and the entrails alone were thrown to the tigers, lions, otters, and serpents, which were kept in cages. These abominable barbarities we were forced to witness with our own eyes from our very camp; and the reader may easily imagine our feelings, how excessively agonizing! the more so as we were so near our unfortunate companions without being able to assist them. Every one of us thanked God from the bottom of his soul for His great mercy in having rescued us from such a horrible death!<br>
While we were thus gazing upon this dismal scene, fresh troops of Mexicans came storming along in great numbers, and fell upon us from all sides with the fury of wild beasts; and continually cried, “Only look up to the temple! such will be the end of you all! This our gods have often promised us!” but the threats which they threw out against our Tlascallan friends were even more terrible. They threw among them the bones of the legs and arms of their countrymen and of ours which had been roasted and the flesh torn off, crying out at the same time, “We have already satiated ourselves with the flesh of your countrymen and of the teules; you may, therefore, as well enjoy what remains on these bones! Do you see the ruins of those houses there which you have pulled down? you will soon have to build us up much larger and finer ones. Only remain faithful to the teules, and we promise you you shall be with them when we sacrifice them to our gods!”<br>
Quauhtemoctzin, after gaining this victory, forwarded the feet and hands of our unfortunate countrymen, with their beards and skins, as also the heads of the horses they had killed, to all our allies and his own relations, accompanied by the assurance that more than half of the Spaniards had been killed, and that he would soon have the rest in his power. He therefore ordered those towns which had entered into our alliance immediately to send ambassadors to Mexico, otherwise he would march against them and put the whole of the inhabitants to death. <br>
From this moment the enemy attacked us without intermission day and night; but as we were always upon our guard, and kept in a body together, we gave them no opportunity of taking us by surprise.
Our officers shared the hardships with the meanest soldiers, and the horses stood always ready saddled, one half on the causeway, the other at Tlacupa. Whenever we filled up any opening, the Mexicans were sure to return and open it again, and throw up more formidable entrenchments on the opposite side. Our allies of the towns which lay in the lake, who had up to this moment assisted us with their canoes, began to fall off after they had lost so many of their men and numbers of their canoes, and though they lent no aid to the Mexicans, yet they only awaited the final issue of the siege to forsake us altogether.