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Reflection on Chronicles of the Indies

Chronicles of the Indies might be considered as an important part of the reflection of the conquistadors’ aspirations and actions of the period. Hence, a discussion on the prominent participants’ works related to the period seems relevant to undertake. This paper will focus on Shipwreck, True History of the Conquest of New Spain, and Letters of Relation, as well as their comparison, to determine their primary characteristics.

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As a conquistador from the detachment of Cortes, who was directly involved in the events of 1519–1521, Bernal Diaz del Castillo mentions the appearance on the eve of their arrival in Tenochtitlan signs in heave. Here, he referred to the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan and Texcoco, who told him about these signs. In his True History of the Conquest of New Spain, written only in 1568-1575, he devoted an entire chapter to signs, prophecies, and extraordinary events in the history of the conquest of Mexico and Central America. He also “manifested great respect for the warriors who challenged Cortés’s army during its march through Mexico” (World history sources). Nevertheless, according to Díaz del Castillo, he considered Aztec society as an object that was ready for conquest and conversion to Christianity (1721).

Reading Shipwrecks, one cannot help but respect the author’s memory: dates, names, events, and their sequence – everything is reproduced with significant fidelity. Cabeza de Vaca’s report contains valuable scientific information. It has been an important scientific source for scholars of various specialties. It describes the flora and fauna of the vast territories of the North American South and Southwest of the pre-colonial period. The author of Shipwrecks was a pioneer in the full sense of the word: almost everything that he saw and described, he saw and described first. Thanks to his inquisitiveness, observation, and retentive memory, Europeans learned about the existence of a land of continental proportions to the north and northeast of Mexico. He was the first to talk about many of the customs of the Indians, the peculiarities of their family life, and social structure. However, the essential thing is in the discovery of the Indians themselves – in the call for the humane treatment of the inhabitants of the New World (Cabeza de Vaca 43).

Then, Cortez’s Letters of Relation contained a story about the discovery and conquest of the Aztec state. These Letters are the vital historiographic source about the conquest of Mexico. At the same time, many episodes of the conquest – as presented by its leader – were later questioned. This reveals the artistic and documentary nature of Cortez’s letters, where not only individual historical facts are interpreted subjectively, but the entire version of events is deliberately corrected. The reasons that prompted Cortez to act in this way are primarily related to the personal circumstances of the position of an illegal conquistador Cortés, “Letters”). A headstrong hidalgo, Cortez, not content with a quiet life, went in search of new lands despite the ban of the island’s ruler Diego Velazquez. This made Cortez, with the help of Letters, seek formal recognition of merit and support from the king (Cortés, “Hernán Cortés to Emperor” 73). Thus, in comparison with the two works above, Cortez’s one is characterized by a more considerable presence of a fictional element.

At this point, several essential characteristics of the gender of the chronicles might be visible. The most apparent one seems to be an exact extent of historical inaccuracy within the scope of depicting the conquest. In particular, Castillo perceives the Aztecs – despite the expressed respect – as an object for conversion to Christianity and narrates from this perspective. Cabeza de Vaca was concerned – in the first turn – about decreasing violence towards the aborigines. Then, Cortez had several political reasons for writing his Letters, which affected their content substantially. It might be assumed that all of the listed points contribute to the blurring of historical reliance and sequence of events. Moreover, some similarities may be found in other chronicles, such as Oveido’s one. He sincerely claimed, “I do not write on the authority of any historian or poet, but as an eye-witness of the greater part of everything I shall treat here” (Turner 274). Oveido stated that in this regard, he would rely on reports of trustworthy persons.

Nevertheless, another visible peculiarity of the chronicles might be their significance in the historical framework – although this contradicts the previous one. Given the bright scenes and the context of eye-witnessing, humanity was provided with the opportunity to get acquainted with the process of the conquest from the first person. A plethora of remarkable academic investigations was founded on the chronicles, which led to many notable findings. These chronicles might not thoroughly reveal the sequence of events, but they shed vital light on the crucial period of American history.

To conclude, although Cabeza de Vaca and Diaz del Castillo tend to demonstrate an exact extent of bias in their works to the aborigines, they pay respect to them. The former even was first to call for a humane attitude towards these aborigines. However, Cortez’s chronicle – given his aims and aspirations – seems to deceit several aspects regarding the events and depict the conquistadors as ones better than his adversaries – Aztecs. Finally, it was found that the primary characteristics of the chronicles contradict each other as they refer both to historical significance and inaccuracy.

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Works Cited

Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Núñez. “Naufragios.” Library of Congress, 1749, Web.

Cortés, Hernán. “Letters from Hernán Cortés.” American Historical Association,1866, Web.

Cortés, Hernán. Hernán Cortés to Emperor Carlos V., 1522. In Hernán Cortés: Letters from Mexico. Translated and edited by Anthony Pagden, 72–74. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. Chap. 22–23 in The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517–1521. 1585. Translated by A. P. Maudsley. Noonday Press, 1965.

Turner, Daymond. “Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo’s Historia General y Natural – First American Encyclopedia.” Journal of Inter-American Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 1964, pp. 267–274.

World History Sources. “Sample Analysis: True History of the Conquest of New Spain.” Web.

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