A New History of the Conquest of Mexico


In which Las Casas’ Denunciations of the Popular Historians of that War are fully vindicated. By ROBERT ANDERSON WILSON, Counsellor at Law; Author of “Mexico and its Religion,” etc. Philadelphia: James Challen & Son. Boston : Crosby, Nichols, & Co.


ACCORDING to the well-authenticated legend of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, the Saint, as he lay upon the gridiron, conscious that he had been sufficiently done on one side, begged the cooks, if it were a matter of indifference to them, to turn him on the other. Common humanity demanded compliance with so reasonable a request. We fancy that we hear Mr. Wilson preferring a similar petition ; and we hope we are too goodnatured to be insensible to the appeal. We cannot, at this moment, indeed, think of him otherwise than good-naturedly. With many things in his book we have been highly pleased. The number, the novelty, and the Variety of his blunders have given us a very favorable impression of his ingenuity, and have afforded us constant entertainment in what we feared was to be a drudgery and a task. We had intended to cull some of these beauties for the amusement of our readers and the personal gratification of Mr. Wilson himself. But, as children, gathering shells on the sea-shore, resign, one after another, the treasures which they have collected, and grasp at newer, and, therefore, more pleasing specimens, which are abandoned in their turn, so we, finding our stores accumulate beyond our means of transportation, and tantalized by a richness that made the task of selection an impossible one, have been forced to relinquish the prize and come away with empty hands. If there be, in the compass of what the author calls “these volumes,"-though to us, perhaps from inability to distinguish between unity and duality, his work appears to be comprised in a single tome,-a sentence decently constructed, a foreign name correctly spelt, a punctuation-mark rightly placed, a fact clearly and accurately stated, or an argument that is not capable of an easy reduction to the absurd, we have not been so unfortunate as to discover it. Mr. Wilson is a man who, to use Carlyle’s favorite expression, has “ swallowed all formulas.” The principles that have generally been held to govern the use of language appear to him mere arbitrary rules, invented by the "sevenfold censorship” and the Spanish Inquisition, for the purpose of preventing the tree communication of ideas. All such trammels he rejects ; and, accordingly, we have to thank him, so far as mere style is concerned, for an uninterrupted flow of pleasure in the perusal of his book, adorned as it is with “graces” that are very far indeed “ beyond the reach of Art.”

We come now to those important questions which Mr. Wilson was not, indeed, the first to agitate, but which he has awakened from their profound slumbers in the bosom of the Hon. Lewis Cass and the pages of the “North American Review.’ We are not to be tempted into writing another " New History of the Conquest of Mexico ” ; but we shall endeavor to state with clearness those points on which the world has had the temerity to differ from the “high authorities” we have named. It has been, then, commonly asserted, and is, we fear, by the great mass of our readers still superstitiousiy believed, that, at the time of the discovery of this continent, there existed, in certain portions of it, nations not wholly barbarous, and yet not civilized, according to our notions of that term,-nations which bad regular governments and systems of polity, many correct notions in regard to morals, and some acquaintance with Art and with the refinements of life,-but which were yet, in a great measure, ignorant of the true principles of science, little skilled in mechanics, and addicted to the practice of idolatrous rites. This assertion would seem to have some primâ-facie evidence in its favor. The regions in which these nations are said to have existed lie within the tropics; and it is a well-established principle, that a genial climate, a fertile soil, the consequent facilities for obtaining a subsistence, and the stimulus thus given to the increase of population, are the first elements of an advance from a savage to a civilized state, of the abandonment of rude freedom and nomadic habits, and of the development of a regular social system. This principle is clearly set forth and elaborately illustrated by Mr. Buckle; and we the more readily refer to this author, because he stands high in the esteem of Mr. Wilson, who, in order to prove his own especial fitness for historical composition, and the incompetence of all who have preceded him in the attempt, refers to a passage in Buckle, containing an enumeration of the qualifications which he considers indispensable for the historian. This enumeration includes all the attainments that have ever been in the common possession of the human family. Mr. Buckle remarks, with indisputable truth, that one historian has lacked some of these qualifications, another historian has lacked others of them. Mr. Wilson states that “each and every writer” who has preceded him has lacked them all. Mr. Buckle, by implication, excepts one person, as uniting in himself all the qualifications, he demands. Mr. Wilson thinks he is the exception ; but we are quite sure that the exception intended by the author was-Henry Thomas Buckle.

In the Old World, civilization, as all admit, had its origin in tropical regions. Across the whole extent of the Eastern Continent, races are found inhabiting the warmer latitudes, which are now, or formerly were, in what is popularly called a semi-civilized condition. No one, we believe, has ever been foolish enough to account for this fact by supposing that a single people or tribe, having attained some degree of culture, had diffused the germs of knowledge over so large a portion of the globe. Chinese civilization differs almost as much from that of Hindostan as from that of England or of France. The Assyrian civilization was indigenous on the borders of the Euphrates, and the Egyptian on the borders of the Nile. What is remarkable in these and in all the other cases that might be cited is, that in those regions civilization never reached the high point which it has attained in other parts of the world, less favored at the outset; that it exhibited a grotesque union of refined ideas and strangely artificial institutions, with customs, manners, and creeds that seem to the European mind abhorrent and ridiculous ; and that, the internal impulse with which it started having been exhausted, it either remained stationary, without further development, or sank into decay, or fell before the hostile attacks of races that had never yielded to its influence. Now the civilization which is described as having once existed in America exhibits these general characteristics, while it has, like each of the others, its own peculiar traits. If the discoverers had made a different report, we might have been led to suppose that some such state of things as we have described had previously existed, but had perished before their arrival.

Mr. Wilson, however, does not reason in tins manner. He has found, from his own observation, - the only source of knowledge, if such it can be called, on which he is willing to place much reliance,- that the Ojibways and Iroquois are savages, and he rightly argues that their ancestors must have been savages. From these premises, without any process of reasoning, he leaps at once to the conclusion, that in no part of America could the aboriginal inhabitants ever have lived in any other than a savage state. Hence he tells us, that, in all statements regarding them, everything “must be rejected that is inconsistent with wellestablished Indian traits.” The ancient Mexican empire was, according to his showing, nothing more than one of those confederacies of tribes with which the reader of early New England history is perfectly familiar. The far-famed city of Mexico was “an Indian village of the first class,”-such, we may hope, as that which the author saw on his visit to the Massasaugus, where, to his immense astonishment, he found the people “clothed, and in their right minds.” The Aztecs, he argues, could not have built temples, for the Iroquois do not build temples. The Aztecs could not have been idolaters or offered up human sacrifices, for the Iroquois are not idolaters and do not offer up human sacrifices. The Aztecs could not have been addicted to cannibalism, for the Iroquois never cat human flesh, unless driven to it by hunger. This is what Mr. Wilson means by the “American standpoint ”; and those who adopt his views may consider the whole question settled without any debate.

But there are some slight difficulties to be overcome, before we can embrace these views. Putting human testimony aside, there are witnesses of the past that still give their evidence to the fact, that parts of this continent were once inhabited by races who had other pursuits besides hunting and fishing, and whose ideas and manners differed widely from those of the “red men" of the North. Ruined cities, defaced temples, broken statues,-relics such as on the Eastern Continent, from the Straits of Gibraltar to the shores of the Ganges, mark the sites of fallen empires and extinct civilizations, - relics such as we should have expected, from a-priori reasoning, to meet with in the corresponding latitudes of the New World,-lie scattered through their whole extent, proclaiming themselves the works of men who lived in settled communities and under regular forms of government, who had some knowledge of architecture and some rude notions of the beautiful and the sublime, who had strong feelings and vivid conceptions in regard to the agency of supernal powers in the control of human affairs, but who clothed their conceptions in uncouth forms, and worshipped their deities with absurd and debasing rites. Some of these remains being known to Mr. Wilson, on the evidence of the only pair of eyes in the universe which, in his estimation, have the faculty of seeing, he cannot treat them, according to his usual method in such cases, as fabrications of Spanish priests and lying chroniclers. How, then, does he account for them ? He unfolds a theory on the subject, which he has stolen from the “ monkish chroniclers ” whom he treats with so much contempt, and which has long ago been exploded and set aside. He tells us, that these relics have no connection with the history of the American Aborigines,-that they have a different origin and a far greater antiquity,-that they are proofs, not to be gainsaid, of the discovery of this continent, at a very early date, by Phoenician adventurers, and of the establishment, in the regions where they are found, of Phoenician colonies. These ruins, he tells us, were Phœn cian temples, these statues are the representations of Phoenician gods. In the comparison of facts by which he endeavors to support this theory, we have been surprised to find him admitting the testimony of other explorers. But they are, it seems, reluctant witnesses. Their inferences from the facts which they have themselves collected are directly opposite to his. “ Proving our case,” he says. “ by such testimony, we have admitted their statement of fact, only rejecting their conclusions.” Their proper business, it would appear, was to amass the materials which our author alone was competent to use. He encountered, indeed, a solitary difficulty; but this, in the most astonishing manner, has been removed. “ Thus far,” he writes, “had we carried the argument, but had here been compelled to stop, for want of further evidence ; and the very stereotype plate that at first occupied this page, expressed our regrets that we were not able more completely to identify the Palenque statue as Hercules. At our publishers’, however, the eyes of that distinguished Orientalist, the Rev. Mr. Osborn, chanced to fall upon a proof of the American goddess in the fourth note to this chapter, which he at once recognized as Astarte, represented according to an antique pattern. Her head-dress, he insisted, was in the ancient form of the mural crown, without the crescent, the prototype of that worn by Diana of the Ephesians, and so too, he insisted, was her necklace of ‘two rows.'” Thus the chain of evidence was complete, and, for once, Mr. Wilson derived assistance from eyes not placed in his own head.

But, whatever distinguished Orientalists may say, undistinguished Oceideutalists may be pardoned for inquiring when it was that this stream of Phoenician emigration flowed to the American shores, in what manner such an enormous body of colonists as the hypothesis necessarily supposes were conveyed hither, and what has become of their descendants. With an uncommon indulgence to our weakness of faith, Mr. Wilson condescends to meet these obvious questions. The time he cannot exactly fix ; but it was “thousands of years ago,”-“ before the time of Moses.” To the query in regard to the means of conveyance, he answers, that at that remote period sailing ships were in common use,-as is proved by representations of them found in Egyptian tombs,-although they were afterwards superseded by galleys propelled by oars alone. The reason assigned by Mr. Wilson for this change makes a valuable addition to the stores of Biblical commentary. “ The Greeks,” he says, “appear to have been selected from their imitative powers, to perpetuate such of the arts and civilization of the elder world, as were to be preserved from that decree of extermination, pronounced by the Almighty against its nations. Commerce had been the chief cause of the total demoralization of antiquity, and of this, they were permitted to preserve only a boat navigation.” Coeval with the decline of commerce and the extermination of sailing ships was the cessation of this Phoenician emigration to America. The colonists, having no longer any communication with the mother country, soon dwindled away and perished, in accordance with a well-known law of Nature. “ Extinction is the doom of every immigrant population in an uncongenial climate (habitat) when migration ceases to keep up and renew the original stock.” The same fate is impending over us. “ In our own country various causes have been assigned for the recognized delicacy, which is steadily advancing in what may be called the pure American. The growing smallness of the hands and feet, the shortening of the jawbones, the diminution in the number of the teeth and their rapid decay, are matters of daily comment.” In like manner, the Caucasian race is melting away in the colonies of Great Britain, in South Africa, Australia, and the West Indies, “In these uniform consequences the most obtuse cannot fail to recognise the operation of a universal law, whose primary effects are to diminish migration, and whose ultimate results are the extinction of the exotic population.” We suppose none of our readers are obtuse enough not to be aware of the gradual shortening of their jawbones, a phenomenon especially noticeable in members of Congress and popular lecturers. As for the diminution in the number of our teeth, and their rapid decay, we need, alas ! no Wilson to remind us of these melancholy facts.

What we may call the physical evidence in favor of the Aztec civilization having been thus disposed of by Mr. Wilson, we come now to his treatment of the written and traditional testimony, the accounts that have been handed down to us of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and of the condition of the country at the time when that conquest was made. Mr. Wilson opens his “Chapter Preliminary” with the statement, that, “ in this work, the standard Spanish authorities have been followed as long as they followed the truth.” This declaration excited, we confess, painful misgivings in our mind; for, if Mr. Wilson was already in possession of the truth, independently of historical research, - whether by communications from the spirits of the Conquistadores, or by any other of the easy and popular methods of solving obscure problems, - what need was there of his consulting the standard authorities at all ? But we were somewhat cheered, when, a little farther on, we found him stating, that the writer who enters into these discussions must “ con musty folios innumerable”; that “it will not do to denounce in general terms the venerable precedents [?] so constantly quoted by our annalists,” but that “their defects and their errors must be shown in detail.” For it does appear to us, that, if a great historical question is to be opened, -if a series of extraordinary events, hitherto believed by the world to have really happened, are to be denounced as fabulous, -if numerous writers, whose statements and relations have been regarded in the main as worthy of credit, are now to be rejected as liars and impostors,-it is indispensable that the works containing these relations should be carefully examined, that the statements should be compared and subjected to the severest scrutiny, and that the refutation should proceed, step by step, inch by inch, over the whole field of debate. Has Mr. Wilson taken this course ? Has he met with clear and resolute argument the accounts which he denounces as “fabrications”? Has he diligently and carefully examined the “ standard Spanish authorities ” ? Has he “conned musty folios innumerable”? Has he read all the works in question? Has he ever seen them ?

We may divide these works into three classes,-not with reference to their different degrees of merit and importance, but as regards their accessibility and the relative ease with which they may be consulted. The first class comprises two or three works which have been translated into English; and these translations may be procured with facility and read by any one who has some acquaintance with the English language, though not acquainted with any other. In the second class we may place a considerable number of works which have been published indeed, but only in the original Spanish, or, in a few instances, in French or Italian translations. Some of them are rare, and difficult to meet with ; others may be found in several of our best libraries. The third class embraces relations and documents which have never been translated, which have never been published, of which the originals repose in the Spanish archives at Simancas or the Escorial, or in private collections, jealously guarded, in Mexico or Madrid, and of which the only copies known to exist in this country are in the collection formed, with so much trouble and at so great cost, by Mr. Prescott. Now the writings which come under our first category Mr. Wilson has both seen and read,-to what purpose and with what profit we shall hereafter show. The publications comprised in the second class we feel very confident he has never read. The manuscripts, which come under the last head, we are morally certain he has never seen. That he has not seen them is capable of the strongest proof, short of absolute demonstration. That he had no acquaintance with Mr. Prescott’s collection is a matter within our personal knowledge. Had he been in a position to obtain copies for himself, and had he availed himself of that circumstance, he would not have failed to proclaim the fact in his loudest and shrillest tones. Nor does he pretend that he has ever visited Spain, and had access to the originals. Indeed, we do not think he would have ventured upon such a step. He tells us, that, “ besides the reasons already given for distrusting the correctness of Spanish statements, there is another, more secret in character, but not less potent than all combined-fear of incurring the displeasure of that tribunal which punished unbelief with fire, torture, and confiscation.” If Mr. Wilson, as his language implies, stands in fear of “fire, torture, and confiscation.” and if this is his most potent reason for distrusting the correctness of Spanish statements, we can readily understand why he should have chosen to remain on his native soil and write the history of the Conquest of Mexico from “ the American stand-point.” Lastly, Mr. Wilson makes no allusions to matter contained in the manuscripts which had not been reproduced in the pages of Prescott. He is careful, indeed, to tell us very little of the contents of these works ; but he talks about them with the most gratifying candor, and in his choicest phraseology. He informs us, that “ Sarmiento’s History of the Peruvian Incas altogether surpasses that of Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas and the Happy Valley.” The history of Dr. Johnson’s “Rasselas” is related, we believe, by Boswell. The great moralist composed his beautiful and philosophical, but somewhat gloomy romance, in the evenings of a single week, in order to obtain the means of defraying the expenses of his mother’s funeral. The story is a touching one; but Mr. Wilson’s comparison is so inapt, that we cannot help suspecting him of having had in his mind, not the history of Johnson’s “Rasselas,” but Johnson’s history of Rasselas. We think it rather hard, that, having, in general, such a limited amount of meaning to express, Mr. Wilson should have followed the maxim of Talleyrand, and employed language chiefly as a means of concealing his thoughts.

Mr. Wilson nowhere asserts, in so many words, that he has had access to manuscript authorities. His mode of speaking of them, however, implies as much, and he evidently intends that this inference should be drawn by his readers. In a printed note, addressed to his publishers, disclaiming any intention of " assailing the memory of the dead,”-a disclaimer which was not needed to suggest the reason why his book, loaded with typographical blunders, was hurried through the press,1-he “ insists on the lawyer’s privilege of sifting the evidence-a labor which Mr. Prescott was incapable of performing, from a physical infirmity ”; and he undertakes to prove that Mr. Prescott’s “books and manuscripts were not reliable authorities.” Now even “the lawyer’s privilege” does not extend to sifting evidence which he has never heard ; and if Mr. Prescott was " incapable, from a physical infirmity,” of properly scrutinizing his authorities, it was the more necessary that Mr. Wilson, with his own wonderful eyes, should undertake the task. There is one manuscript which he might be supposed to have had a strong desire to examine. His book professes to be a vindication of “Las Casas' denunciations of the popular historians ” of the Conquest. The work of Las Casas, supposed to contain these denunciations, is his History of the Indies. Mr. Wilson acknowledges that he has never seen this work ; it has, he says, “ been wholly suppressed"; and he is terribly severe on the censorship and the Inquisition for having been guilty of this suppression. But the only suppression in the case is, that the book has never been printed. The original manuscript may be consulted at Madrid. A copy of the most important parts of it is in Mr. Prescott's collection. Mr. Wilson might have seen that copy, had he expressed the wish. He did not, however, give himself this trouble; and we think he was right. The truth is, that, of all the Spanish historians of the Conquest of Mexico, Las Casas is the one who has indulged most largely in hyperbole. Writing, with little personal knowledge, in support of a theory which required him to magnify the ruin accomplished by the Conquistadores, he has exaggerated the population of the Mexican empire, the number and size of its towns, and the evidences of its civilization. It was on this very account that Navarrete, who examined the work with a view to its publication, came to the decision not to print it. We have little doubt as to the propriety of that decision ; and Mr. Wilson, we think, also did well in sticking to Cass and “suppressing” Las Casas.2

Our reason for believing that Mr. Wilson has never read the works, relating to his subject, which have been published only in the original Spanish or in translations into other foreign languages, is a very simple one. He produces no evidence that he has ever read them. Some of them he does not even mention. From none of them does he glean a single fact that was not ready to his hand in the pages of Prescott. Except in two or three instances, where he filches a reference from the citations made by the latter historian, he brings forward no statement contained in any of these books, either to support his own positions or to refute theirs. Why did he take from Prescott-to whom on this occasion he confesses his indebtedness -the facts in relation to the early life of Cortés, (we would he had borrowed the language as well as the matter!) if he had himself the means of consulting the works from which Prescott’s account was derived ? But it is unnecessary to pursue the argument; Mr. Wilson acknowledges that he knows nothing of the works in question. “ For our purpose,” he writes, “ the standard histories of the conquest might as well be blank paper.” We believe him; but had his purpose been, not “to denounce in general terms the venerable precedents so constantly quoted by our annalists, but to show their defects and their errors in detail,” he would hardly have used them, as he has done, as mere wadding for the great gun which he was loading, and which has exploded with such terrible effect. His objection to the “standard histories” is, that their authors were Spaniards, ecclesiastics, royal historiographers,-that they wrote under the eye of the Inquisition and the censorship. Like objections would apply to the whole field of Spanish history. The reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles the Fifth, and Philip the Second must, therefore, be as fabulous as the conquests of Mexico and Peru. Accordingly, Mr, Wilson, when he wishes to study the history of Spain, declines to have recourse to Spanish writers. He goes to writers of other countries, and has a very natural preference for such as speak the English tongue. Besides that valuable work known among mortals as the “ Encyclopaedia Britannica,” but usually cited by Mr. Wilson, in an off-hand and familiar way, as “Britannica,” he draws much upon a treasure of his own discovery, “a ponderous folio” of the seventeenth century, written in English by one Grimshaw, and containing a full and veritable history of Spain from the earliest epochs. He makes much of Grimshaw, styling him “ our chronicler.” He pats the volume fondly, and calls it “my old folio,”-just as Mr. Collier pats and fondles his celebrated old folio. To judge from some specimens which Mr. Wilson gives us, the venerable Grimshaw cannot have the merit of being very easy of comprehension. Here is an extract, just as we find it:- “About the year 756, at which time there were great troops of Turks beginne to disperse themselves over all Armenia, the which did overrunne and spoil the Sarrazin’s country,” And here is another :- “ Over common, then, in Spain, and elsewhere, which nevertheless chastise the world in such sort, but that this sinne is at this day more in use than ever it was, to the dishonor of our God, contempt of his laws, and confusion of all good order.” Apparently, Mr. Wilson, besides writing in a singular style himself, is the cause of singularities in the writings of other men. What is more worthy of note is the credulity with which he swallows the fabulous inventions of the “ monkish chroniclers ” when set before him in English earthenware. We would undertake, for a very trifling consideration, to furnish him with the Spanish originals of the stories of “Hispan” and “Hercules,” and all the other absurdities with which his old folio has supplied him. From what source does he imagine them to have been derived ? Does he think they belong to the stock of traditions in possession of the Anglo-Saxon race,- that Grimshaw got them from Bagshaw, and Bagshaw from Bradshaw ?

Our argument in regard to Mr. Wilson's ignorance of most of the “ standard authorities ” will be strengthened by a review of the works which he actually has used,-or, to speak more correctly, misused,-and an examination of his reasons for selecting them. They are two in number. He can hardly be said to overrate the importance of one of these works,- the celebrated Letters of Cortés. For the events of the Conquest, and the first impressions made upon the minds of the discoverers by the aspect of the country, we could have no evidence of equal value with the dispatches written by the great adventurer from the field of his enterprises and during the course of the operations. Mr. Wilson does not, however, consult the original letters. His strong prejudice against everything Spanish would not allow him to do so. He has studied them through the medium of a translation ; and the reason he assigns for his preference of this version is, that “ it is better than the original.” We have no doubt that it is better for Mr. Wilson’s “purpose”; indeed, we fear, that, had it not been for the labors of the translator, Mr. George Folsom, the letters of Cortés would, like “ most of the standard histories,” have been regarded by Mr. Wilson as “no better than so much blank paper.” Lockhart, by translating the chronicle of Bernal Diaz, has saved it from similar condemnation,-but only that it might incur a still more terrible fate. Mr. Wilson’s theory in regard to the origin and character of this work is no less subtile than startling. According to the common belief, Bernal Diaz was a soldier in the army of Cortés, accompanied him throughout his campaigns, and, at a late period of his life, composed a narrative of the memorable events in which he had participated as an actor or an eye-witness. Writers who knew him in his old ago have left us descriptions of his appearance and character. Mr. Wilson, however, holds that he never existed. The chronicle which bears the name is, according to him, a work of fiction, written by some Spanish De Foe, who had read the common narratives of the conquest of Mexico, but who had no personal knowledge of the scene in which his story is laid. What first excited Mr. Wilson’s suspicions was the charming simplicity and apparent truthfulness which, in common with all readers of Bernal Diaz, he has found to be the distinguishing charaetoristics of the narrative. "A striking feature,” he tells us, “in Spanish literature, is the plausibility with which it has carried a fictitious narrative through its most minute details, completely captivating the uninitiated. If its supporters were not permitted to write truth, they succeeded in getting up a most excellent imitation. In Bernal Diaz the alleged individual affairs of private soldiers are so artfully interwoven with the general history as to give the effect of truth to the whole. There being no fear of contradiction, this practice of inventing familiar details could be indulged in to any extent, while the beauty and simplicity of such a style fixes at once the doubting.”

“Ah! si Molière avait connu l’autre! ”—

Oh that Fielding had known Mr. Wilson ! Partridge, a mere unsophisticated booby, thought simplicity the characteristic of Nature, and therefore out of place in Art. Mr. Wilson, a transcendental Partridge, thinks simplicity the characteristic of Art, and therefore out of place in Nature. He is more than ordinarily severe on Mr. Prescott for not having detected in Bernal Diaz these “ striking marks of the counterfeit instead of the common soldier.” “ We differ,” he says, “ decidedly from Mr. Prescott.” The difference seems to be, that Prescott regarded the appearance of truthfulness in the narrative of Bernal Diaz as primâ facie evidence of its truthfulness, while Mr. Wilson regards the same appearance as the most complete evidence of its untruthfulness.

But we have been anxious to discover some more definite and substantial grounds for Mr. Wilson’s hypothesis. In a couple of closely-printed pages, devoted to the subject, he asks himself, again and again, the questions,-•" Who, then, was Bernal Diaz ? ”-“ Who, then, wrote the history of Bernal Diaz 7 ” Failing to extract any reply from the singular individual to whom these queries are addressed, he winds up with the solemn and emphatic declaration, “ On the evidence hereafter to be presented, we have with much deliberation concluded to denounce Bernal Diaz as myth.” For the evidence here promised we have searched with a patience of investigation which, if applied to the problem of perpetual motion or squaring the circle, could not, we humbly think, have been wholly unproductive; and these are the results. "The author of ‘ Bernal Diaz’ says the march to Jalapa was accomplished in one day ;-a proof that he never saw the country. . . . Cortez makes the ascent the work of three days, and says he did not reach Sicnchimalen until the fourth day.” The main discrepancy here is Mr. Wilson’s own handiwork, as he has confounded the “Sienchimalen” of Cortes with Jalapa, instead of identifying it with the “ Socochima" of Bernal Diaz. But so far as there is any real discrepancy, it may be sufficient to remark, in explanation of it, that Bernal Diaz professes to have written many years after the events which he narrates, and at a distance from the scene, while the letters of Cortés were written in the country, and while the events were taking place. On another occasion, Bernal Diaz represents the Tlascalans as complaining that they could " get no cotton for their clothing.” “If this writer,” says Mr. Wilson, “ had really been acquainted with the tribes of the table-land, he must have known that the fibres of the maguey were, among them, substitutes for that article, and are even now used at the city of Mexico in the manufacture of some fine fabrics.” We do not see how Bernal Diaz could be expected to know that the fibres of the maguey are now used in Mexican manufactures ; neither can we comprehend how his statement, that the Tlascalans had no cotton, is at variance with Mr. Wilson's assertion, that they used the maguey as a substitute. We can imagine, however, that an old soldier, writing for the “ uninitiated,” might prefer to speak of cotton, for which he had a Spanish word, rather than enter into explanations in regard to an Indian substitute for cotton, resembling it in appearance; while it is not easy to believe, on Mr. Wilson’s bare assertion, that an article in common use throughout the Valley of Mexico was wholly unknown to the inhabitants of the table-land.

These, and, so far as we can discover, these alone, are the proofs on which Mr. Wilson convicts Bernal Diaz of being a nonentity, - of having, like Rosalind in “As you like it,” merely "counterfeited to be a man.” As a natural sequitur to this delicious train of reasoning, he proceeds to take this nonentity, this “myth,” as his guide throughout the narrative of the Conquest. “ We may safely follow Diaz,” ho remarks, “in unimportant particulars”; and the “particulars" of the Conquest being, in Mr. Wilson’s narration of them, all equally “ unimportant," he is so far consistent in following Diaz throughout. Surely the Grecian fables will never grow old ; here again we have blind Polyphemus groping in pursuit of cunning Oυτις. But we must be allowed to ask Mr. Wilson why he has not rather preferred to take Gomara as his guide. It is true that he entertains a strong loathing, a rooted aversion, for this harmless old chronicler, whom he calls always “Gomora,”-associating him, apparently, by some confusion of ideas, with the ancient city of bad fame, buried with Sodom beneath the waters of the Dead Sea. But, at least, he does not deny that Gomara had an actual existence, that he was a veritable somebody,-a reality, and not a “ myth,”-that he was the chaplain of Cortés, that he had access to the papers of the great commander, that lie wrote a history of the Conquest, and that this history is still extant. Mr. Wilson himself assorts that the dispatches of Corte's “ and the work of Gomora are the only original documents touching the Conquest of Mexico, its people, its civilization, its difficulties, and its dangers.” After this declaration, it is somewhat remarkable, that, throughout his narrative of the Conquest, while continually quoting front Diaz, he makes not a single reference to Gomara ; and he even censures Mr. Prescott for having pursued a different course. How shall we explain this fact ? Alas for Gomara! he wrote in his native Castilian, no Lockhart or Folsom had done him into English, and so he missed his chance of having his statements cited, and, possibly even, - though we should not like to hazard an assertion on this point,- of having his name correctly spelt, by the author of the “ New History of the Conquest of Mexico.”

It remains only that we should notice, as briefly as possible, the use which Mr. Wilson has made of his two authorities, the translations of Bernal Diaz and Cortés, which, rejecting all assistance from other quarters, he takes for the basis of his narrative. That narrative is constructed on a plan which, we venture to say, is without a parallel in literature. Like whatever else is strikingly original, it cannot be described ; we can only hope to convey a faint idea of it by some random illustrations. To nearly every statement which he notices in the works before him Mr. Wilson offers a flat contradiction. When these statements relate to numbers, his method of treating them is a systematic one. He has picked out of Bernal Diaz, who wrote in an avowed spirit of hostility to Gomara, a pettish remark, that the exaggerations of the latter are so great, that, when he says eighty thousand, we may read one thousand. This piece of rhetoric Mr. Wilson receives literally, and makes it a rule of measurement, applying it with more or less exactness,-not, however, to the statements of Gomara, with whose work he is acquainted only at second hand, but to those of Cortés and of Bernal Diaz himself! Thus, in every computation of the number of the enemy’s forces, or of the Indian allies who joined the Spaniards in their contest with the Aztecs, Mr. Wilson “ takes the liberty,” to use his own phrase, of “dropping” one or more ciphers from the amount. This mode of adapting the narrative to his own conceptions he calls “ reducing it to reality.” When Cortes- not Gomara, be it remembered-computes the number of his allies at eighty thousand, Mr. Wilson says, “Let us drop the thousands, and assume eighty as the actual number. We must do so often.” When Cortés writes “ thirty-five thousand,” Mr. Wilson prefers to say “three hundred or so.” When Diaz writes “ twelve thousand,” Mr. Wilson suggests that we should read “five hundred.” Cortes says that he caused a canal to be dug twelve feet deep. Mr. Wilson, speaking as if he had been an eye-witness, says the canal was only twelve inches deep. In another place he writes, “Accordingly a force of thirteen horse, two hundred foot, and three hundred-not thirty thousand-Indian allies were sent to relieve that village”; merely leaving his readers to the inference that the number placed between dashes is the one given by Cortés. In a single instance, he admits the estimate of Bernal Diaz, who puts the loss sustained by the Indians in a battle at eight hundred : while Las Casas, whose corrections of other writers Mr. Wilson professes to “vindicate,” says the loss of the Indians on this occasion amounted to thirty thousand. Las Casas also reckons the number of natives who fell victims to Spanish cruelty in America at forty millions. This wild estimate has been often quoted. Mr. Wilson, instead of " vindicating " it, as he was bound to do, triumphantly refutes it. “ There never probably existed," he most justly remarks, “ more than forty millions of savage races at one time on our globe."

It is not merely the arithmetic of his authorities that Mr. Wilson undertakes to rectify. When they describe a pitched battle, he asserts that it was a mere skirmish. When they speak of a large town, he tells us it was a rude hamlet. When they portray the magnificence of the city of Mexico, he says that they are “painting wild figments,"-whatever that may mean,-and that Montezuma’s capital was a mere collection of huts. Cortés tells us, that, in his retreat, he lost a great portion of his treasure. Mr. Wilson writes, “ The Conquistador was too good a soldier to hazard his gold ; it was therefore in the advance, and came safely off." Cortés states, that, in a certain battle, he retired from the front in order to make a new disposition of his rear. Mr. Wilson replies, that Cortés did not go to the rear, because, though his presence was greatly needed there, the press must have been too great to allow of his reaching it. The presents which Cortés, while at Vera Cruz, received from Montezuma, he transmitted to the Emperor Charles the Fifth, sending, at the same time, an inventory of the articles, among which was “a large wheel of gold, with figures of strange animals on it, and worked with tufts of leaves,-weighing three thousand eight hundred ounces." The original inventory is still in existence. We have the evidence of persons who were then at the imperial court of the reception of these presents, of the sensation which they produced, and of the ideas which they suggested in regard to the wealth and civilization of the New World ; and we have minute descriptions of the different articles, including the wheel of gold, from persons who saw them at Seville and at Valladolid. Mr. Wilson, without making the least allusion to this testimony, which we cannot help regarding as of the strongest possible kind, intimates that the presents were of very little value,-represents the workmanship, which excited the admiration of the best European artificers, as a mere specimen of “savage ingenuity,”-and as for the wheel of gold, tells us that it “ never existed but in the fertile fancy of Cortez."

In general, Mr. Wilson contents himself with the barest, though broadest, denial of the statements of his authorities, or with silently substituting his own version of the facts in place of theirs. But he sometimes condescends to argue the point. His logic is ingenious, but singularly monotonous. His arguments are all drawn from one source, namely, his own personal experience. The Tlascalan wall, described by Cortés and Diaz, can never have been in existence, for Mr. Wilson has been on the very spot and found no remains of a wall. Other travellers, it may be remarked, have been more fortunate. Cortés states, that, in a march across the mountains, some of his Indian allies perished of thirst. This Mr. Wilson pronounces “ impossible," because he himself travelled over the same route, and did not perish of thirst, as neither did his horse, though the “sufferings of both," from that or some other cause, were great. One of the most remarkable acts in the career of Cortés was his voluntary destruction of the vessels which had brought his litlle army to the Mexican coast, in order, as he avers, that his men might stand committed to follow the fortunes of their leader, whatever might be the dangers of the enterprise. “This event," says Mr. Wilson, “ has been the subject of eloquent eulogies for centuries. Among these Robertson is of course pre-eminent.” We are here left in doubt whether Robertson is to be regarded as a preeminent century or a preeminent eulogy. However this may be, our author denies that the stranding of the vessels was the voluntary act of the Spanish general. He is confident that they were cast away in a storm. His “most potent" reason is, that he himself has “witnessed, not only hereabout, but elsewhere, upon this tideless shore, wrecks by the grounding of vessels at anchor." This he calls “submitting the narrative to the ordeal of proof."

However, as we have already intimated, it is seldom that his authorities are submitted to this “ ordeal," which we admit to be a trying one. Usually they are informed that their assertions “ rest on air,”- that they are “foolish" and “baseless," -“wild figments," or “intolerable nonsense.” Cortés states that some of his men, who had been taken prisoners by the Mexicans, were offered up as sacrifices to the Aztec deities. Mr. Wilson, after telling that their hearts were cut out, and their bodies “ tumbled to the ground,” complains that “to this most probable act of an Indian enemy, is foolishly added - it was done in sacrifice to their idols, though the very existence of Indian idols is still problematical!” Cortés, who had seen too many Indian idols to entertain any doubts of their existence, ought, nevertheless, not to have mentioned them, because to Mr. Wilson the matter is still a problem. Whenever that gentleman finds it inconvenient to “ reduce ” the statements of the Spanish historians to “ realities,” he omits them altogether. Thus, he says not a word of those fearful spectacles which struck horror to the hearts of the Spaniards in their visit to the teocallis,- the pyramidal mound garnished with human skulls, the hideous idols and the bloodstained priests, the chapels drenched with gore, and other evidences of a diabolical worship. Not unfrequently he tills up what he considers as gaps in the ordinary narratives. Thus, he pictures the dying Cuitlahua as “ stoically wrapping himself in his feathered mantle,” and “rejoicing at his expected welcome to the. celestial hunting-grounds,” where he “felt that he was worthy a name among the immortal braves.” This “ wild figment ” from Mr. Wilson’s “fertile fancy” was, perhaps, suggested by Theobald’s famous emendation in the description of Falstaff's deathscene,-“a babbled o’ green fields.” On such occasions, Mr. Wilson explains that he is relating the occurrences “as they are understood by one familiar with Indian aflairs.” A remarkable example of this method of narration shall close our citations from his work.

The reader is, doubtless, acquainted with the tradition, said to have been preserved among the Mexicans, of a fair-complexioned deity, with flowing beard, who had once ruled over them and taught them the arts of peace, and, being subsequently driven from the country, promised to return at some future time. Predictions of his reappearance lingered amongst them, and were supposed to be accomplished in the arrival of the Spaniards. Mr. Wilson tells us that “too much stress” has been laid on this tradition; but we know of no modern writer who has laid any stress on it except himself. It has been usually supposed to be one of those myths in which nations partially civilized embalm the memory of their heroes. Mr. Wilson does not believe the Mexicans to have been partially civilized. He regards them merely as a horde of savages. Nevertheless, he believes that among these savages “ tradition [in the form here noticed] had handed down, through untold generations, from a remote antiquity,” the establishment in America of Phoenician colonies, their history, and their subsequent extinction. Nor is this the whole story. In order to strengthen his argument, he gives a new and corrected version of this tradition. “ It told,” he writes, “ that pale faces had once before occupied the hot country, coming from beyond the great water. Perhaps with this were coupled also tales of suffering and wrongs; perhaps how cruelly they, the natives, had been forced, by these hard task-masters, to labor upon the truncated pyramids and their crowning chapels. With unrequited Indian toil, these men had builded cities and public works which still preserved their memory, though they themselves had long since perished, having fulfilled their allotted centuries. But with their decaying monuments they left a fearful prophecy, and thus it ran: that floating houses would again return to the eastern coast, wafted by like winds, and filled with the same race, to teach the same religion, and to practise the same cruelties, until they again finished their cycle, and gave place to others, such as the laws of climate and population might determine.” When the reader, after perusing this extraordinary relation, recovers his breath, he naturally casts his eye towards the bottom of the page, in the hope of finding some explanation of it. He accordingly discovers a note, in which Mr. Wilson states that he has “given a little different shading to the famous tradition,” but that “ such, translated into Indian phraseology, would be the popular accounts.” Now he had a perfect right to interpret the tradition as he pleased. He was at liberty to conjecture that it related to the Phauiicians, as the Spaniards were at liberty to conjecture that it related to St. Thomas. Of the two interpretations, we prefer the latter. Mr. Wilson, were he consistent, would have done so too; for how could the Aztecs, when they saw the Spaniards desecrating the Phoenician temples and destroying the Phoenician idols, suppose that these people were of the “ same race,” and had come “ to teach the same religion ” ? We care little for his inconsistencies; but the feat which he has here performed, by his “shadings," his “ translations into Indian phraseology,” and his medley of “ pale faces,” “ great waters,” “floating houses,” “ truncated pyramids,” “ hard taskmasters,” “winds,” “climates,” “religions,” and “ laws of population,” we believe to be unsurpassed by anything ever perpetrated in prose or rhyme, by Grecian bard or mediaeval monk.

He appears to think himself justified in taking these liberties with the Muse of History by his anxiety to construct a narrative that should not overstep the bounds of probability. As if all history were not a chain of improbabilities, and what is most improbable were not often that which is most certain! But if, at Mr. Wilson’s summons, we reject as improbable a series of events supported by far stronger evidence than can be adduced for the conquests of Alexander, the Crusades, or the Norman conquest of England, what is it, we may ask, that he calls upon us to believe ? His skepticism, as so often happens, affords the measure of his credulity, He contends that Cortés, the greatest Spaniard of the sixteenth century, a man little acquainted with books, but endowed with a gigantic genius and with all the qualities requisite for success in warlike enterprises and an adventurous career, had his brain so filled with the romances of chivalry, and so preoccupied with reminiscences of the Spanish contests with the Moslems, that he saw in the New World nothing but duplicates of those contests,-that his heated imagination turned wigwams into palaces, Indian villages into cities like Granada, swamps into lakes, a tribe of savages into an empire of civilized men,-that, in the midst of embarrassments and dangers which, even on Mr. Wilson’s showing, must have taxed all his faculties to the utmost, he employed himself chiefly in coining lies with which to deceive his imperial master and all the inhabitants of Christendom, - that, although he had a host of powerful enemies among his countrymen, enemies who were in a position to discover the truth, his statements passed unchallenged and uncontradicted by them, - that the numerous adventurers and explorers who followed in his track, instead of exposing the falsity of his relations and descriptions, found their interest in embellishing the narrative,-that a similar drama was performed by other actors and on a different stage,-that the Peruvian civilization, so analogous to that of the Aztecs and yet so different from it, was, like that, the baseless fabric of a vision,-that the whole intellect, in short, of the sixteenth century was employed in fashioning a gorgeous fable, and that to this end continents were discovered, nations exterminated, countries laid waste, evidences forged, and witnesses invented. And this theory is to be swallowed in one solid and indigestible lump, unleavened with logic, unmoistened with grammar, unsweetened with rhetoric. Let those whose appetites are strong, and whose olfactory nerves are not too delicate, sit down to the repast.

For our own part, we are quite satisfied with the bare contemplation of the fare. Our readers, also, we suspect, have long ago been satiated. They have dropped off, one by one, and left us alone with our kind entertainer. What more we have to say must therefore be bestowed upon his private ear. We shall speak with the greater freedom. We know the exquisite pleasure we have given him. We are sure that he is not ungrateful. When his book comes to a second edition,-with a change of titlepage corresponding to some change in the popular sentiment,-we shall have to submit to the same honors which he has inflicted on Mr. Prescott and “ Rousseau de St. Hilaire ” ; he will reprint our article as “ a flattering notice,”-as the “Atlantic Monthly’s estimate of his researches.” We beg to call his attention to our closing remarks, which, indeed, may serve as a digest of the whole. When he has “translated them into Indian phraseology,” (we regret that we cannot save him this trouble,) and “reduced them to reality,” we shall take our leave of him, not without a mournful presentiment that the separation is to be eternal.

There are many points of difference between his work and Mr. Prescott’s “ History of the Conquest of Mexico”; but the chief distinction, we think, may be thus stated. If the foundations on which Mr. Prescott’s narrative is built should ever be overthrown,- a contingency which as yet we do not apprehend,-that narrative would still rank among the masterpieces of our literature. It could no longer be received as a truthful relation of what had actually happened in the past ; but it would be received as a most faithful and graphic relation of what had been asserted, of what was once universally believed, to have so happened. If the reality appears strange, how much stranger would appear the fiction ! The truth of such a story may seem improbable ; the invention of such a story would be little short of miraculous. Prescott’s work, if removed from its place among histories, must stand in the first rank among works of imagination,-must be classed with the “Odyssey" and the “Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.”

But this book of Wilson’s must, under all conditions, and in any contingency, be regarded as worthless. Be the story of the Conquest true or false, this contains no relation of it, this contains no refutation of it. Not content with vilifying his authorities, with impugning their faith, denying their existence, and mangling their names, he has disfigured their statements, corrupted their narrative, and substituted gross absurdities for what was at least beautiful and coherent, whether it was fiction or reality. His book is in every sense a fabrication. It is no record of the truth; it is not a romance or a fable, artfully constructed and elegantly told ; it is-to use that plain language which the occasion authorizes and demands-a barefaced, but awkward falsification of history. - so awkward, that it has cost us little trouble to detect it,-so barefaced, that it has been a duty, though, of course, a painful one, to expose it.

  1. Author, compositor, and proof-reader were evidently engaged in a “ stampede,"— the (Printer’s) Devil having strict orders to make seizure of the hindmost. Part of a Spanish poem, borrowed, without acknowledgment, from Prescott, seems to have gone to “pie” on the imposing stone, and been suffered to remain in that state.
  2. Mr. Wilson would have been less unfortunate, if he could have “suppressed" the work of Mr. Gallatin to which he has the effrontery to refer as an authority for his ridiculous assertion, that the “so-called picture-writing” of the Aztecs was a Spanish invention. As Mr. Gallatin’s essay is within the reach of any of our readers who may be inclined to consult it, we shall content ourselves with a single remark on the subject. That learned writer, who had made a real and thorough study of the Mexican civilization, (having obtained from Mr. Prescott the books necessary for the purpose,) was so far from denying that hieroglyphical painting was practised by the Aztecs, or that authentic copies, and even actual specimens of it, have been preserved, that he himself constructed a Mexican chronology which has no other foundation than these same picture-writings. There is one remark in Mr. Gallatin’s work on which Mr. Wilson would have done wisely to ponder. It is this:-“ The conquest of Mexico is an important event in the history of man. Mr. Prescott has exhausted the subject."