If you are jonesin’ for Game Of Thrones

may I recommend:


Never read the Game Of Thrones books.  Don’t know why, that specific kind of nerddom is not my kind.  I bet George RR Martin has read this book.  It is fucking incredible.

You are very busy so let me summarize it for you.  I’m reading the translation by JM Cohen:


(I’m about to quote pretty generously from it.  If any of the attorneys who read Helytimes could advise me on the legality of that, it’d be great.  I think it’s ok, because I’m not making any money from this, and the whole point is to encourage you to buy this book.)

Bernal Diaz was eighty-four, blind, on an estate in Guatemala when he decided to dictate what he remembered from when he was twenty-seven, in 1519, when he went along with Hernan Cortés on an expedition to the interior of Mexico.

This is the best source, as far as I can tell, for what happened.  Cortés wrote letters to the king of Spain, but if you read them you won’t come away with the impression you can trust him.

There exists also a sort of “Aztec” (not the preferred nomenclature) source: the Florentine Codex:

FC 1which has its own insane story, it was written by a Franciscan friar who learned Nahautal and went around listening to and summarizing oral histories.  So this is written by a Spanish guy, too, history is written by the winners, but at least he was asking around.

I’m gonna steal from the drawings inked into the codex.  If you want you can look at it yourself here or here:


Diaz says, when they landed:

There were five hundred and eight not counting the ships’ captains, pilots, and sailors, who amounted to a hundred,


sixteen horeses or mares, the latter all fit to be used for sport or as chargers.

Some Campeche Indians saw them and shouted castilan!  castilan!

Like, “Castilian”?  What the fuck?  How did they know where they were from?

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The natives communicated somehow that there were other Spanish people there.

So Cortés wrote down a letter, and bribed the natives with beads to bring it to them.

Some days later there arrived a man in a canoe:

As he leapt ashore, [he] exclaimed in inarticulate and clumsy Spanish: “God and the blessed Mary of Seville!”

This was Jeronimo de Aguilar.  He was a Franciscan friar and he had survived a shipwreck, eight years before.  Maybe fifteen other people had survived, too, including two women:

He, his companions, and the two women had then got into the ship’s boat, thinking they could reach Cuba or Jamaica.  But the currents were so strong that they were thrown ashore in this country, where the Calachiones of the district had divided them up, sacrificing many of his companions to their idols.  Some too had died of disease, and the two women only recently of overwork, for they had been made to grind corn.  The Indians had intended to sacrifice him, but one night he had escaped and fled to that Cacique with whom he had been living ever since.  Now, he said, the only survivors were himself and a certain Gonzalo Guerrero.

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When Aguilar got Cortes’ letter he was ecstatic.  He sent a letter to Guerrero, who lived several villages away.

Guerroro wrote back (paraphrasing): I have a face tattoo now.  I have an Indian wife, and half-Indian kids.  I’m with these guys now.

Aguilar says this is true, Guerroro was actually famously respected for his courage.  Aguilar wrote him again, saying like “but what about your Christian soul?” Guerrero didn’t write back to that.

When Cortés heard this he exclaimed: “I wish I could get my hands on him.  For it will never do to leave him here.”

Years later, it’s said, the dead body of Guerrero was found after a battle in Honduras.  He got shot fighting with the local tribes against the Spanish.

Aguilar was happy to go with his countrymen.  He told them how he had been entirely true to his vow of chastity even despite the local chief tempting him:

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So says Washington Irving.

Aguilar could translate the local languages.  The Spanish unloaded their ships:

When the horses came ashore they were very stiff and afraid to move, for they had been on board for some time.  Next day, however, they moved quite freely… The best horses and riders were chosen to form the cavalry and little bells were attached to the horses’ breastplates.  The horsemen were ordered not to stop and spear those who were down, but to aim their lances at the faces of the enemy.

aztec gods

Down the coast, they were spied on and then attacked by, says Diaz, the locals.  This built into a massive battle:

I remember that whenever we fired our guns, the Indians gave great shouts and whistles, and threw up straw and earth so that we could not see what harm we had done them.  They sounded their trumpets and drums, and shouted and whistled, and cried “Alala!  Alala!”*

Just at this moment we caught sight of our horsemen.  But the great host of Indians was so crazed by their attack that they did not at once see them approaching behind their backs…

When it was over, we bandaged our wounded with cloths, for this was all we had, and sealed the wounds of our horses with fat from the corpse of an Indian that we had cut up for this purpose.  We then went to look at the dead that were lying about the field, and found more than eight hundred, most of whom had been killed by sword-thrusts, and the rest by cannon, muskets, or crossbows.

On the Spanish went.

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On the morning of March 15, 1519 [Cohen says this date is incorrect, but that’s what Diaz says]:

many Caciques and important persons came from Tabasco and the neighboring towns and paid us great respect.  They brought a present of gold, consisting of four diadems, some ornaments in the form of lizards, two shaped like little dogs and five like ducks, also some earrings, two masks of Indian faces.

These gifts were nothing, however, compared to the twenty women whom they gave us.

Among these women was one who ended up with the name Dona Marina.  Diaz says you could tell just by looking at her that she was a princess and a “mistress of vassals,” though he doesn’t explain that.

Cortés doled these women out to his top officers.  He gave Dona Marina to Alonso Hernandez Puertocarrero, but when he went back to Spain, Cortés himself impregnated her.

Dona Marina could speak several of the local languages, including one Jeronimo Aguilar understood, so between them they could translate.  Over and over again she warned Cortés about traps he was going to fall into, plots he wasn’t seeing.  Diaz says he’s sure he and all the rest of the Spanish would’ve been killed without her.

la malinche

Cortes asked them where they procured their gold and jewels, and they answered from the direction of the sunset, saying “Culua” and “Mexico.”

Onward they go.  A scout reports unsettling discoveries:


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Some Indians come up to them to more or less surrender, and offer their allegiance.  They’d decided Cortés, and the new guys, must be better than the man who was boss for five hundred miles, Montezuma:


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Some of Cortés’ guys wanted to get back on the ships and go back to Cuba.  “We’ve done enough!” was more or less their argument.

Cortés says, “Fine.  Go ahead.  Get on a ship.  I’m not stopping anybody.”  They’re kinda confused.  Nervously a few of them get on a ship.  They start getting ready, and are just about to leave, when Cortés drags them all back.  Cortes is like “you assholes.  You’re not going anywhere.”  Just to make sure, says Diaz:


It’s time to go.  Cortes gives a final speech, and he rounds up 200 of his new allies to help:


Time to go inland:


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Along the way, they meet the locals, who all tell them more about Montezuma:



Scary warnings:


more sacrifice

Different methods of religious conversion are discussed, and the terrifying hound:


Another battle:


Strange discoveries, the bones of a giant:

IMG_7416Some of Cortes guys’ want to quit.  To which he says, basically, “we ain’t going back”:



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Montezuma, meanwhile, was freaking out:




Diaz says they got to the town of Cholula – maybe twenty thousand people, who are not sure what to make of what’s happening.  The Spanish round up the nobility of the town in the central square, and then, on the signal of a gunshot, they start massacring them all.


Diaz says this was all justified:


head rack

On the Spanish go.  By now they have a growing mob of natives with them.

They come to a fork in the road.  One side is blocked by pine trees.  That’s the road that leads to Montezuma’s capital.

The Spanish climb over the ridge.  And when they saw what was down there, Diaz says:

We were astounded… Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not a dream… it was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.

Next time on helytimes: the city of Tenochtitlan.

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*Several times in his letters Cortés describes native temples as “mosques,” mezquilas.  Kind of interesting.  The Spanish had been fighting the Islamic Moors of North Africa for seven hundred years.  Recent historians of all this consider this “Reconquista” important context for how Cortés and his guys did their thinking. 

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