EUROPEANS’ DISCOVERY OF THE AZTEC EMPIRE

The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the Weast India [by] Prince Hernando Cortes.

London, Henry Bynneman, 1578.

£37,500

FIRST EDITION thus. 8vo. pp. (xii) 405 (iii). Roman letter, some Italic. Woodcut printer’s device on title page, woodcut ornamental initials throughout, occasional ornaments. Ownership inscriptions of ‘Will Sand’? and of the English Dominican ‘John Martin’ (1677-1761: Gillow IV, 491) to blank portion of title page; early purchase inscription and bibliographical note of ‘John Packenham’ to fly. C18? ink stamp of ‘Sir Thomas Gage, Bart. of Hengrave’ to verso of title page. Bookplates of ‘Boies Penrose’ and ‘Frank. S. Streeter’ to front pastedown and fly respectively. Inner margins of first gathering strengthened, oil stain along fore-edge throughout, intermittently affecting text, darker at end. A few printed marginalia a little shaved. Paper flaw to upper corner of one leaf, affecting one or two letters, small tear to blank portion of title page. Still a good copy in gilt calf, original spine, renovated c. 1700, all edges red.

Rare and important early history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, by Hernán Cortés’ private chaplain, and the first edition of Thomas Nicholls’ first English translation. Francisco López de Gómara (c. 1511-1566) never actually visited the New World, but through his close acquaintance with Cortés and leading conquistadors he had unparalleled access to first-hand testimony and documentary sources. His La conquista de Mexico, the second part of a more ambitious Historia general de las Indias, was first published in 1553. It was a popular work, translated into many languages, including an early rendering into Nahuatl, an indigenous language of the conquered Aztec Empire.

The present English edition, dedicated to Sir Francis Walsingham, was translated from the Italian version of Agostino de Cravaliz. Some contemporaries accused the work of inaccuracy, unjustifiable sanitisation and aggrandisation of Cortés’ role. It was perhaps for this reason that Prince Philip (later Philip II of Spain) quickly ordered all the copies of the work that could be found to be gathered in, and imposed a heavy fine on anyone who should reprint it. This proscription was rescinded in 1727 through the efforts of Don Andreas Gonzalez Martial, who included Gómara’s work in his collection of early historians of the New World. Although López de Gómara’s reliability may be called into question, his works nevertheless remain a valuable and oft-cited record of the conquista.

The account is focused on the personality of Hernán Cortés, leader of the Spanish expedition to Mexico. The reader is given a considerable amount of biographical information, doubtless coloured by the author’s friendship with the subject. In addition to a detailed and lively description of the voyage to the New World and the various campaigns against the Aztecs, culminating in the assertion of complete Spanish dominance over the former Aztec Empire, López de Gómara provides much additional anthropological and topographical information. The Aztec people and their mores were clearly a source of fascination to a contemporary European audience. The Emperor Montezuma, we are told, “went alwayes very net and fine in hys attire. He bathed him in his hotehouse foure times everye day. … He eate alwayes alone, but solemnelye and with great abundance.” The work concludes with a Nahuatl vocabulary (including the numbers, days of the week, and so forth) and some general information on Aztec social customs, religious practices and cosmographical theories.

The various ownership inscriptions include the great American collector Frank Streeter, and Boies Penrose (1860-1921), a lawyer and Republican Senator from Philadelphia. A noted bibliophile, Penrose was also a colourful public figure, famous for observing that “public office is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” The ink stamp of ‘Sir Thomas Gage, Bart. of Hengrave’ may not be securely identified: the name was a common one in the Gage family. One notable Sir Thomas Gage (1719-1787) was British Commander-in-Chief in the early days of the American War of Independence, but as second son he did not inherit the Baronetcy.

STC 16807; Alden 578/41; Church 123; JCB (3) II, 271; Sabin 27751; Streit II, 948.

L636

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