Hernán Cortés, the humanitarian

Historian argues conquistador authored renowned critical account of Mexico conquest

Engravings depicting the conquest of America.
Engravings depicting the conquest of America. Repro

The French historian and anthropologist Christian Duverger, a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, has just dropped a bomb in the calm waters of Spanish literary history and of Spaniards' and Mexicans' understanding of their past. In his new book, Crónica de la eternidad (or, Chronicle of eternity), Duverger demonstrates that La historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (or, The truthful history of the conquest of New Spain), a critical early account of the Spanish conquest of the New World, could not have been written by its attributed author, Bernal Díaz de Castillo, and is in fact the work of none other than the renowned conquistador Hernán Cortés.

It is a discovery that pushes the chronicler-soldier Díaz de Castillo out of history and transforms Renaissance adventurer Cortés, demonized by history as a warlord, into a humanist leader. What's more, adds Duverger, it also makes him "the true founder, as Carlos Fuentes de Bernal said, of the Latin American novel."

Written as a police investigation and the product of 10 years of research, Duverger's study details the reasons why Bernal Díaz de Castillo could not have been the author of the work. First, though, how is it that nobody was able to identify them before in all these years? "Many people had their doubts, but the strength of mental preconceptions, of prejudices, dissuaded them," he explains. "I belong to a school of historians who promote doubt as a method. And the first thing that surprised me was that Bernal opens his account saying, 'I finished writing it on February 26, 1568, in Santiago de Guatemala, the seat of the Audiencia [de los Confines]...', when in those days the Audiencia was in Panama! Nobody checked that. Why didn't my colleagues discover it?"

Duverger details the reasons why Díaz de Castillo could not have been the author

That was the first clue, but more were to follow. For example, Díaz del Castillo makes a big thing about his close relationship with Cortés during the conquest in the chronicle. However, his name never comes up in Cortés' Cartas de Relación - the five letters he wrote to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V giving his personal account of the conquest - nor appears on any of the lists from the time of the just over 500 men who accompanied the conquistador to the New World.

The reasons go on piling up. Díaz del Castillo started to write his account at the age of 84, which would make it a remarkable feat of memory. He says he wrote it to amend the picture painted in the supposed official account by Brother Francisco López de Gómara, Historia de la conquista de México , published in Zaragoza in 1552, but that chronicle was banned by the Inquisition the following year and never made it to the Americas. Díaz del Castillo claims to be a humble private but shows great erudition, using classical Greek and Latin quotations that would be unthinkable for someone of his background.

French historian Christian Duverger with his book.
French historian Christian Duverger with his book.Pep Companys

What's more, says Duverger, analysis of the chronicle's style shows it to be full of constructions from both Latin and the Aztec language of Náhuatl that only someone like Cortés, "fascinated by Mexico and absorbed in a process of cultural inter-breeding, might have allowed to seep into his way of writing in Spanish."

Duverger proceeded to go on crossing off other possible author candidates among the dozen of Cortés' colleagues who knew how to read and write - none of them could have witnessed everything related in the chronicle - until he ran into Cortés himself.

Crónica de la eternidad is the second volume of Duverger's Cortés, la biografia más reveladora (or, Cortés, the most revealing biography), published in 2010 and the mystery is revealed when it starts examining Cortés' final years after his return to Spain, a period that has been little studied. Contrary to the traditional idea of Cortés as isolated and a loser, the book focuses on the time he spent in Valladolid from 1543 to 1546 and discovers an intellectually active man, who organized an academy in his home where he gave appointments to the city's dignitaries.

It was in those years that, having seen that all his letters to Charles V had not only been banned but publicly burnt in 1527, that he came up with his plan. "He is proud of what he did and conscious that the mark a man leaves on the Earth is more fleeting than books. If the Crown wants to kill off his memory, he knows that posterity is his ally," Duverger writes.

He claimed to be a humble private but used classical Greek and Latin quotations

Cortés contracted López de Gómara, entrusting him with his archives so he could write the official story, at the same time as he penned his memoirs "inventing the character of an anonymous soldier with the freedom of a novelist," says Duverger.

After Cortés' death in 1547, Gómara's book was banned and Cortés' manuscript lay hidden for two decades. The book eventually made its way to Guatemala where Díaz de Castillo, one of the supposed survivors of the conquest, lived. His son, Francisco, inserted the name of his father into the text in order to enhance his position.

The text underwent various changes until its definitive edition was published in Madrid in 1632 with the title we know and Díaz de Castillo as the author.

In Duverger's work, Cortés comes across as the hero and Charles V the villain. The conquistador is shown as someone who sought to avoid the acts of genocide practiced in the Caribbean. "The mixed-race Mexico we know today is the product of Cortés' vision," says the historian, who is eagerly awaiting reaction to his discovery and hopes that, maybe one day , La historia verdadera... is published under the name of its true author: Hernán Cortés.

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