Tech department head’s article carries warning to historians

Mar 16, 2012 | General News, Liberal Arts

All historians should be more careful about their work after reading the latest article written by Louisiana Tech professor of history Dr. Stephen Webre. “Family and Descendants of Bernal Díaz del Castillo: A Seventeenth-Century Episode with a Warning to All Historians,” appears in Spanish in the current issue of the journal “Anales,” published by the Guatemalan Academy of Geography and History. “It all started several years ago when I was sorting through old documents at the National Historical Archives in Madrid,” Webre, the chair of the history department, said. “I thought I found the will of Bernal Díaz del Castillo.” Bernal Díaz was a veteran of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century, who later settled in Guatemala.  Known as the “True History of the Conquest of New Spain” and first published in 1632, his thrilling first-hand account of his youthful adventures is now one of the most famous works in world literature. “Bernal’s last will and testament would be a major discovery for sure,” Dr. Webre said, “because no one yet has claimed to have seen such a thing.  I would be the first.” The document turned up as part of an application by a great-grandson of Bernal Díaz’s for a knighthood from the king of Spain. The problem was that the document was a forgery. According to Webre, it did not take long to prove that the supposed will was a fake, but that was not all.  There were other fabricated records in the file, plus the obviously perjured testimony of a large number of witnesses. “As historians we depend entirely upon the written record,” Webre said. “If it’s full of lies, how are we supposed to make reliable reconstructions of past events? “At first I thought it must be to cover up some scandal, and there is plenty of scandal in the account I pieced together.  Adultery, illegitimacy, betrayal, abandonment — it’s all there. In the end, the conclusion I came to was quite different.  It was merely a matter of Spanish scribes’ making up things to fill the gaps when they didn’t have the facts they needed.  After all, their job was to draft a successful application, not to make a reliable historical record.” Webre said the warning to all historians was to never forget that the individuals who wrote the documents historians rely so much upon did so for their own purposes. A graduate of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Webre received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history at Tulane University.  A specialist in Latin American history with an emphasis on Central America, Webre holds the W. Y. Thompson Endowed Professorship at Louisiana Tech, where he has taught since 1982. His publications include two books and numerous articles in scholarly journals.  Among other distinctions, Webre is a former president of the Louisiana Historical Association, a corresponding member of the Guatemalan Academy of Geography and History and a contributing editor of the Handbook of Latin American Studies, a serial publication of the Library of Congress.