Click here to skip to content

De orbe novo: Old World Accounts of Mexico, 1500-1900

These books were chosen to show how Europeans learned about the history, ancient civilisations, society and natural history of Mexico from published sources. They also illustrate the differing perspectives and attitudes of the writers themselves.

Exploration and Conquest of Mexico

Exploration of the Caribbean continued after the arrival of Columbus in the New World. On his second voyage Columbus reached Jamaica and on his third, Trinidad. Cuba, glimpsed by the Spanish in 1492, was settled in 1511 and served them as a base for further expansion. The existence of possible lands westwards of Cuba is indicated in maps and charts of the first decade of the 16th century. Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and Juan Díaz de Solís sailed along the coast of Yucatán in 1508. Systematic exploration of the coast and hinterland began in 1517. Hernán Cortés's expedition that was to topple the Aztec empire set out from Cuba in 1519. In November, his forces entered Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, where they effectively took power by seizing the Emperor, Motecuçoma. In June 1520, however, an uprising forced Cortés to withdraw. Making common cause with enemies of the Aztecs, he mounted a fresh assault in April 1521 which resulted in the almost total destruction of the city and the death of the majority of its native inhabitants.

The earliest accounts of Mexico to reach Europe inevitably tell of exploration, settlement and conquest. Several of them are eye-witness reports, others are closely based on personal testimony. Information about the land, its people, flora and fauna, is incidental to tales of individual and collective achievement.

Interaction of cultures

From the beginning of the Spanish colonisation of the Caribbean islands, relations between the conquistadores and the indigenous peoples were fraught with danger and controversy. Few in number, the settlers were compelled to use native labour and many exploited it ruthlessly in their desire for gain. The missionary Orders, primarily the Dominicans, were shocked at the treatment of the native peoples and protested vigorously. Prominent among them was Bartolomé de las Casas (ca. 1474-1566) who devoted his life to their protection. The issue was not simply one of humanitarian concern: fundamental questions were raised that divided both state and religious authorities. Could settlers exercise property rights over native peoples? Were some races natural slaves? Should the native peoples have the same rights as all other subjects of the Spanish Crown?

The friars provided most valuable descriptions of the indigenous societies, in spite of their antipathy to native religions. Among the most comprehensive is Bernardino de Sahagún's vast Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España ['General History of the Things of New Spain'], an encyclopaedic work on Aztec culture. Like several other works based on native sources, it existed only in manuscript until the 19th century.

Bilingual works in Spanish and native languages were printed and published in Mexico in the 16th century, always with the specific aim of assisting preachers in the work of conversion and preaching. These included not only bilingual catechisms and confessors' manuals, but also grammars and dictionaries of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

Historical narratives of the Colonial Period

One of the most famous accounts of the conquest of Mexico is that of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier in Cortés's army, who completed his memoirs at the age of 76. His eye-witness account embraces the entire period from the exploratory voyages of 1517 to the aftermath of the conquest, subsequent expeditions and the mixed fortunes of the aging conquistadores. His perspective, that of Cortés's soldiery and supporters, counterbalances the individual view of Cortés himself in his letters to Charles V. Bernal Díaz's memoirs were subsequently printed and published in 1632 as the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España ['True History of the Conquest of New Spain']. An edition published in Mexico in 1904-1905, based on a manuscript with Díaz's own corrections, may more faithfully reflect his intentions.

The Enlightenment and after

At the start of the nineteenth century Count Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was, after Napoleon, the most famous man in Europe, on account of his wide-ranging scientific studies and exploration in Latin America. He pioneered a scientific approach to the study of Central and South America in contrast to the existing view, which placed Europe at the centre of civilization. Humboldt's travels opened up Latin America to a stream of scientific explorers and traveller-artists in the wake of the European Enlightenment, which had inspired an interest in scientific enquiry and primitive and non-European cultures. Humboldt was a German natural historian, geographer and cosmologist, who in 1799 was granted an extensive licence by the Spanish King, Carlos IV, to travel freely in Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. He arrived in Acapulco, Mexico, in March 1803 and travelled around the country for nearly a year, exploring distinctive features such as volcanoes and mines. In addition to mapping, measuring and sketching, he collected numerous botanical specimens. Together with the French botanist, Aimé Bonpland, he published the thirty volumes of the Voyage de Humboldt et de Bonplan, covering physical geography, astronomy, politics, and natural history. The volumes were generously illustrated with nearly 1500 plates, many in colour.

Humboldt's essential Romanticism is manifest in his desire to escape the mundane European present and to travel to exotic places. Man's harmony with nature was paramount and for this reason the rural landscape was idealized and primitive man, considered to be free from the corruption of society, was revered.


Hispanic Section
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7569
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7784