Bernal Diaz del Castillo was one of the soldiers who joined the expedition of Hernan Cortes, who conquered the Aztec empire, between 1519 and 1521.
Bernal was Castilian. Born 1492 in Medina del Campo (Spain), also some sources say that he was born around 1495 or 1496. The date is vital to understand how the Spaniards grew at that time. America was already discovered and stories was invented about the New World ran like wildfire. There were people coming from America to talk about the strange animals on the hot weather; about hurricanes, about the grueling journey … In this atmosphere of honor, fantasy and poverty grew Bernal Diaz del Castillo. He crossed the Atlantic in 1514 in the great expedition that Ferdinand rode Pedrarias commanding.
He later sailed to Cuba, where he was promised a grant of Indian slaves (as a part of the Encomienda system). That promise was never fulfilled, leading Díaz, in 1517, to join an expedition being organized by a group of about 110 fellow settlers, and similarly disaffected Spaniards, from Tierra Firme. They chose Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, a wealthy Cuban landowner, to lead the expedition. It was a difficult venture and although they discovered the Yucatán coast, they later returned to Cuba in ruins.
Nevertheless, Díaz returned to the coast of Yucatán the following year, in an expedition led by Juan de Grijalva, with the intent of exploring the newly discovered lands. Upon returning to Cuba, he enlisted in a new expedition, this one led by Hernán Cortés.
Conquest of Mexico
In this third effort, Díaz took part in the campaigns against the Aztec. During this campaign, Díaz spoke frequently with his fellow soldiers about their experiences, collecting them into a narrative. The book that resulted from this was Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (English: The True History of the Conquest of New Spain). In it he describes many of the 119 battles in which he participated, culminating in the defeat of the Aztecs in 1521. In the book, Castillo describes the Conquest of the Aztecs, in which he describes the Indoamerican cultures predominant in Mexico at that time. He also gives accounts of the human sacrifices, cannibalism and idolatry that he witnessed first hand.
Governor of Antigua Guatemala and later life and death
As a reward for his service, Díaz was appointed governor of Santiago de los Caballeros, present-day Antigua Guatemala. He finished writing his history in 1568, almost fifty years after the events described, a work he had begun (probably in the mid-1550s) in response to an alternative history written by Cortés’s chaplain, who had not actually participated in the campaign. He called his book the Historia Verdadera (“True History”), in response to the claims made in the earlier work.
Díaz died in 1585 in Guatemala, without seeing his book published. A manuscript was found in a Madrid library in 1632 and published, providing an eye-witness account of the events, told from the perspective of a common soldier.