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Athena Review Vol.2, no.1

Historic sources on 16th century explorers in Yucatán

While the chronicles of the early 16th century voyages describe events of remarkable interest, they also contain conflicting versions, highlighting the different qualities of the contemporary sources.

Peter Martyr d' Anghera (1457-1526), an Italian humanist who tutored the children of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was named Royal chronicler by Charles V in 1520. His history De Orbe Novo is a series of eight letters written between 1493 and 1525 on Spanish findings in the New World. After an account in the 3rd letter of Columbus' last voyage, the 4th letter describes the early explorations of Yucatán, plus a notice of Ponce de León's trip to Florida.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1496-1584) emigrated from Spain in 1514 to Panama, then moved in a few months to Cuba. Unable to secure land after three years, he used family connections with governor Diego Velásquez to join the Córdoba expedition in 1517. He also may have been part of Grijalva's 1518 voyage, although Wagner (1945) doubts his participation. At age 24 he went on the 1519 Cortés expedition, becoming the main chronicler of the conquest of the Aztecs. Bernal Díaz began his History of the Conquest in 1552-1557, expanding it in 1565 to correct inaccuracies in both Gómara's 1552 Historia and Gonzalo de Illescas' 1564 Historia Pontifical y Católica, which Mexican scholar Don Genaro García states "spoke the truth neither in the beginning, nor the middle, nor the end." Bernal completed his True History in 1568, sending it to Spain in 1575. He continued until his death to edit another copy of the manuscript, which remained in Guatemala until being rediscovered in the archives by Genaro García and published in 1904-5.

The manuscript sent to Spain was published by Friar Alonzo de Remón in 1632. In spite of discrepancies with the original, Remón's 1632 edition remained the standard version of the True History by Bernal Díaz (with an English translation by Keatinge in 1800) until Genaro García's 1905 publication of the Guatemala manuscript. This, in turn, was translated into English by Maudslay in 1908. A third manuscript owned by Bernal Díaz's grandson was rediscovered in Spain in 1932. Comparing all three manuscripts, a Spanish edition was published in 1939 by Ramírez Cabañas, with an English translation by Cohen (1963). Wagner (1945) questions the reliability of Bernal Díaz's narrative in a few places, suggesting that his participation in the Grijalva expedition was a fabrication pieced together from other accounts. Yet Bernal Díaz remains the most reliable source on the expeditions of Cortés and Córdoba along the Yucatán and Gulf Coasts, and gives the most details on Cortes' conquest of Tenochtitlán.

[Fig.1: 1524 map of the Gulf of Mexico, from Cortes' expedition (south is at top). Yucatán is (inaccurately) shown as an island.]

Hernando Cortés (ca. 1485-1547) was born in Medellín, Spain, and assisted Diego Velásquez in the 1511 conquest of Cuba. He then led the 1519 expedition after those of Córdoba and Grijalva, resulting in conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521. Three years later he led a march to Honduras, also joined by Bernal Díaz. Cortés wrote six Letters to the Spanish emperor of which four survive (Morris 1928). While partly self-serving, these also remain primary sources for descriptions of populous areas of contact period Tenochtitlán, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Juan Díaz (ca. 1480-1540) was the chaplain for the Grijalva expedition, and also served under Cortés. His Itinerario de Grijalva provides the most thorough extant account of the 1518 voyage. The original Spanish ms. was lost, but it survives in an 1520 Italian translation from Venice, and in a French version published in 1837-41 by Ternaux-Compans in Voyages, Relations et Mémoires (vol. 10). The text was included in a 1942 work on Grijalva by Henry Wagner, and a 1963 anthology edited by Patricia de Fuentes. Juan Díaz was somewhat hostile to Grijalva and, according to Maudslay (1908) his work "should be received with caution." Yet Juan Diaz's Itinerario has details from Cozumel to the Río Panuco available nowhere else, and has remained relatively obscure for such a unique and valuable source.

Francisco (Alonso) de Aguilar (1479-1572) went on the Cortés expedition and played a key role in guarding Montezuma. He became a Dominican monk and wrote his memoirs in ca. 1559 at the age of 80, first published in 1900 as Historia de La Nueva España (ed. Paso y Troncoso; later ed. Tejas 1938; Fuentes 1963).

Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566), son of a member of Columbus' 2nd voyage, went himself to the New World in 1502 to seek his fortune. After becoming a Dominican monk in 1523, he wrote the Historia de las Indias, (not published until 1875-1876), notable for preserving summaries of Columbus' lost journals.  He is best known for devoting his life to securing the rights of native New World peoples, for which he gained considerable influence at the Spanish Consejo de Las Indias (Council of the Indies).

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557), like Peter Martyr, lived in Spain's royal household during Columbus' voyages. After 1514 he held various offices in the New World, and began his Historia general y natural de las Indias in 1521. This included an account of the Grijalva expedition based on a pilot's log (probably that of Anton Alaminos), given to him in 1523 by Diego Velásquez, governor of Cuba. Appointed Chronicler of the Indies by Charles V in 1532, 19 of the 20 volumes of Oviedo's Historia were published in 1535. The 20th appeared in 1557, previously suppressed by Las Casas.

[Fig.2: From the 1st English translation (1578) of Gomara's Historia, originally published in 1552.]

Francisco López de Gómara (1511-1565) met Cortés in Algiers in 1541 and served him as chaplain and secretary until Cortés' death in 1547. Although Gómara never visited the New World, he learned of 1519-21 events from Cortés and his lieutenant Andres de Tapia (who himself wrote a brief account, printed by García Icazbalceta in 1866; Fuentes 1963). Gómara's Historia de la Conquista de México was first published in 1552-1553 (fig.2) along with the more comprehensive work Historia de Indias. The influential Las Casas openly opposed the publication of this double work, and it was suppressed by a Spanish crown order in 1553, probably also due to unwelcome claims of land in Mexico by the Cortés family. A revised version of Gómara's Historia was printed in Zaragoza in 1554 (Warren 1973; Wagner 1945).

Diego de Landa (1524-1579) was a Franciscan friar who arrived in Yucatán in 1549, and twelve years later became the Franciscan Provincial. He recorded many details of the Maya culture through the native informants Gaspar Antonio Chi and Nachi Cocom. His report, Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán ("Account of matters in Yucatán"), was written in 1566 after he was forced to return to Spain in 1563 by Bishop Toral, who had complained to the Council of the Indies about Landa's treatment of the Indians, including his burning of 27 Maya hieroglyphic codices at Maní in 1562 in protest against child sacrifice. Landa returned to Yucatán as Bishop in 1573, replacing the now-deceased Toral.

[Fig.3: Drawing from Landa's 1566 Relación of the main plaza and temple mound at Izamal, a provincial capital in northern Yucatan during the Postclassic period.]

The Relación provides an essential chronicle of Maya life, reporting on their houses, farming practices, religious ceremonies, and calendrics, plus detailed information on Maya hieroglyphs including a partial syllabary. The manuscript for the Relación was probably seen by late 16th century Spanish historians Lopez de Cogolludo and Herrera y Tordesillas (Thompson 1963), and was rediscovered in 1863 by the French antiquary Abbe Brasseur de Bourbourg in the Madrid Biblioteca de la Academia de la Historia. This highly important source, first published in 1864, three centuries after Landa compiled it, has been central in deciphering Maya script.

Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (1559-1625) was the Spanish Chronicler of the Indies from 1596 until his death in 1625. In this role he had access to many documents, including unpublished letters and Bernal Díaz's original manuscript on Cortes' expedition, cited frequently in his 1605-1615 Historia General.

Later Historical Works: 16th century sources are comprehensively used by W.H. Prescott in his 1843 History of the Conquest of Mexico. Among many Spanish archives on Mesoamerica is the Colección de Documentos Inéditos (1864). H.R. Wagner's articles on Peter Martyr and on both Bernal and Juan Díaz are highly useful (1942, 1945, 1946); as are J.B. Warren's Survey of Secular Writings (1973), and H. Thomas' Conquest (1993). Campeche sources include F.V. Scholes and R.L. Roys' The Maya-Chontal Indians of Acalan-Tixchel (1968). For general information, see M. Coe's Mexico (1994) and The Maya (1993); S.G. Morley, G.W. Brainerd, and R.J. Sharer's The Ancient Maya (1983,1995); and M.P. Weaver's The Aztecs, The Maya, and their Predecessors (1993).

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