Jun 06

SANS History/Travel Talk

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Following a visit to South America last year, I became very interested in the Incan Empire and its spectacular rise and fall.   In fact, the whole history of the previous Andean civilizations is absolutely fascinating, with amazing cultures flourishing, and then declining, in the two thousand years prior to the Incas.   All these developments took place without any contact whatsoever with the rest of the world, and many inventions which had been present in Europe and Asia for millennia did not exist. The Peruvians did not have the wheel or pulleys, iron or steel, any written language or numbers, and only primitive weapons, with rudimentary protective armour. From the agricultural aspect, they had no cattle or horses, and had only the llama as a beast of burden, which was not strong enough to pull a plough. Despite this, they grew crops on steep hillsides, on skillfully engineered earthquake- proof terraces, and became superlative stonemasons. The stage was therefore set for a disastrous clash of contrasting civilizations, when colonists from Europe, with superior technology, arrived at the beginning of the sixteenth century, driven by two powerful motives, greed for gold, and arrogant religious fervour.   With his superior weapons, and the help of local tribes, Hernan Cortez subjugated the Aztecs of Central America in 1519, and as the Pacific Ocean had been discovered a few years earlier, the Spaniards were then lured down the west coast by tales of a fabulous land of gold to the south, the Empire of the Incas.   This had modest beginnings with a small tribe in the central Andes, led by the legendary Manco Capac who took over and settled his followers in the fertile Cuzco valley, early in the 13th century. Over the next 200 years they gradually began to acquire more territory by conquering the surrounding tribes, and continually building their strength, both militarily, and economically. The turning point came when the Incas were attacked by the Chancas in 1438, and their brilliant leader at that time, Pachacuti, scored a great victory. He rapidly went on to expand his kingdom by first subduing all the smaller tribes in the north, and then turned south to conquer, and assimilate the 400 year old Aymara Empire around Lake Titicaca. The Aymarans had already established an advanced and flourishing culture, as well as the idea of economical and political unity, which Pachacuti embraced and improved upon.   Further expansion of the Incan Empire was then achieved by battles where unavoidable, but more often by bloodless diplomacy and negotiation, when ambassadors pointed out the advantages of becoming part of the Empire compared with the consequences of resistance. If they still refused to surrender, the local leaders and their families were slaughtered, but, if they co-operated, they were allowed to stay in power, their own customs and religions were respected, and allowed to be kept intact. A major unifying device was the teaching of the local Cuzco language, Quechua, to the chiefs and young people throughout the conquered areas, and so it became the “ lingua franca” of the whole Inca Empire, as was Latin in the Roman Empire. Offspring of the local rulers were also brought back to Cuzco itself for education and indoctrination.   The quality of life, and the nutritional well-being of the subjugated peoples were greatly enhanced by the introduction of new agricultural technology, such as the terracing of steep hillsides, and extensive irrigation systems. These enabled a wide variety of crops to be grown, which were specifically bred for all the different altitudes, temperatures, and environments to achieve maximum yields. Food storage facilities were also built throughout the Empire, to ensure against poor harvests and crop failure.   Again, like the Romans, a magnificent road system was engineered, to link the cities and towns, and thus provide communication and transport of goods over thousands of kilometres of often very difficult terrain. The network allowed the movement of soldiers in response to any potential rebellions, and also the distribution of food from well-stocked to impoverished areas. In the absence of wheeled traffic, goods were all carried on foot or on llamas, by swaying rope suspension bridges over rivers and ravines, viaducts over swamps, and up steep mountain slopes by zig-zags or stairways. Communication was achieved by relay runners, or chasquis, who memorized verbal messages, but also carried more complicated records by means of knotted strings of different colours and permutations called Quipus, which took the place of writing and numbers. By changing messengers who waited at way stations every 2 to 3 Km., information could travel over 200 Km. in as little as 24 hours.   At last, when Pachacuti became tired of campaigning, and decided to develop Cuzco into a magnificent city, his brilliant son Topa Inca took over the expansion of the Empire with enthusiasm. He subjugated the 1000 Km. long coastal Chimu Empire to the west, which  had three centuries previously conquered the Moshica people in the north, and the Nazcas in the south. He then swept virtually unopposed through the desert areas to the River Maule in present day Chile, a colossal  2700 Km. from Cuzco. Still not content, he explored eastwards down the Madre de Dios, a tributary of the Amazon, and is even reputed to have sailed in balsa wood rafts to the Galapagos Islands, 1000 Km. from the coast of  present day Ecuador   When Topa Inca eventually died in 1493, his son Huayna Capac inherited a vast area of the western coast and hinterland of South America, measuring some 6000 Km. in length. During his reign, the exalted position of Supreme Inca reached its peak of magnificence, and he spent his time being carried around his enormous dominions, worshipped as a descendant of the Sun God, and surrounded by a large retinue of nobles and priests, which comprised the mobile government, under his supreme control.     The Empire at that time was virtually a welfare state, with no slavery, which looked after even the poorer members of society. There was no coinage, and gold was considered as a commodity, to be crafted into everyday objects, ornaments, and religious symbols. Although silver, copper, and bronze were used, curiously, iron and steel technology was unknown. Hence, soldiers had no swords or daggers, and hand to hand fighting was done with wooden clubs, tipped with stone or bronze axeheads. Although bows and arrows were used, the sling and stoneshot was a surprisingly accurate and deadly weapon. Thick quilted cotton garments gave a measure of protection, augmented with hard wood or metal body plates, wooden shields, and helmets made of wood, copper, or bronze.   The defence of the cities was mainly based on enormous fortifications and ramparts, which despite the absence of wheels for transporting, and pulleys for lifting, the Incas built with huge blocks of stone, some weighing in excess of 100 tons. These were cut and worked with other stones, or bronze implements, and ground and polished until they all fitted together exactly, without mortar. Virtually impregnable walls and buildings were thus created, which were even able to survive earthquakes. Unfortunately for the Incas, they were insufficient to provide an effective defence against a new, completely alien foe.   In 1525, Huayna Capac was residing in his northern province of Quito, when he heard the disturbing news that white sailed ships had been sighted exploring the coast further north. He was not to know that the ships were carrying a dangerous cargo of avaricious Europeans, led by a soldier of fortune called Francisco Pizarro.   Pizarro was born in Spain in 1471, an illegitimate son, reputably of a nobleman, and who was abandoned as a baby, being left at the door of a church. Apparently, he managed to survive by being suckled by an obliging sow, as no human wet nurse was available. It is interesting to speculate whether the course of history might have been very different,  had he died in infancy. He never learnt to read or write, appropriately worked as a swineherd for a while, and then became a soldier of fortune. Obviously deciding his prospects would be better in the New World, he managed to somehow obtain a passage to the West Indies, and then got to the mainland. In 1513, he joined Bilbao’s historic expedition across the Isthmus of Panama, and was with him when he first discovered the Pacific Ocean. Pizarro subsequently became a very successful businessman in Panama, and, through his contacts, began to hear stories of a legendary empire in the south, where gold was enormously abundant. In 1524, he got together a small expedition, and sailed down the west coast to the San Juan River some 500 Km. south, but only encountered jungle, and returned empty handed. A second voyage 2 years later was much more successful, and literally struck gold a lot further south at the city of Tumbez, where, surprisingly, they were welcomed by the local people. They were shown more gold than they had ever dreamt existed, but Pizarro craftily commanded his soldiers to act unconcerned, as he had wisely decided that the time for plunder was not yet at hand, and returned to Panama.   Shortly after this, in 1527, Huayna Capac was afflicted by some viral disease, which could have been measles or small pox, almost certainly indirectly transmitted from the invaders in the north. Having no immunity, his death was swift and completely unexpected, without sufficient time for him to indicate his chosen successor. Huascar, as the son of the Inca’s chief wife, claimed the throne, but Atahualpa, son of another wife, contested this, and thus began a vicious and destructive civil war which tore the Empire apart. Atahualpa’s seasoned troops captured his half brother, massacred his supporters, sacked Cuzco, and proclaimed himself the supreme Inca.   Pizarro returned to Spain in 1528, and obtained an audience with King Charles V, which demonstrated his now exalted status. He showed him, among other things, solid gold drinking vessels, a live llama, and two Peruvians. The King was obviously impressed, and the former swineherd was given a Royal Charter to conquer the land of gold, with the title of Governor, and Captain General of the territory he had yet to acquire. Two years later he returned to Panama with a small ill-equipped expedition, which eventually set sail from the west coast in January 1531 with 3 ships, 180 men, and 27 horses, surely the smallest invasion fleet in history. The Spaniards began by plundering coastal towns north of Tumbez, and as the Empire had now abandoned its frontiers due to the civil war, met little resistance. When they reached and entered Tumbez itself, they were astounded to find the once opulent city almost deserted and largely destroyed.   Pizarro was then reinforced by another 130 men from Panama, and, leaving a garrison at the coast, he marched inland, following a well paved road with no sign of opposition. He was met in the mountains by an Inca noble, who conveyed that Atahualpa wanted to be friends, and would be waiting for the Spaniards at the hot springs just outside Cajamarca, a city some 1000km north of Cusco. When Pizarro arrived at Cajamarca several weeks later, he found the city empty and silent and suspected a trap. He quickly fortified the large triangular plaza in the centre of the city, and posted guards in the surrounding buildings. Atahualpa was ensconced with his concubines and retinue a few miles from the city, and when Pizarro presented himself, giving a demonstration of his armour, weapons and horses, the Inca did not appear to be impressed. The wily Spaniard then invited Atahualpa to visit him at his quarters in the city, an invitation the emperor accepted.   On returning to his troops, he convinced his officers that their only hope of survival was to capture the Inca within sight of his large powerful army. The final plans were made at dawn next day. The priest who accompanied the expedition said solemn mass and asked the help of God for these soldiers of the Cross, who would soon be fighting to extend the blessings of Christianity. One can only assume that this was the normal requirement, to justify a proposed massacre of innocent people.       Pizarro prepared for the Inca’s visit by concealing his soldiers in the empty public buildings around the central plaza. Shortly after midday, a magnificent procession moved slowly down the avenue from the Incas headquarters at the hot springs to the city plaza. Atahualpa was being carried in a golden litter, and received a message from Pizarro inviting him to supper. He replied that he accepted the invitation and would leave most of his warriors behind, and those that entered the city would be unarmed. Pizarro could hardly believe his ears, and took this as a sign that heaven was on his side.   It is possible that, being used to total power, and believing that the aliens were friendly, it had not even occurred to Atahualpa that the Spaniards might attack him. Surrounded by thousands of glittering retainers the Inca finally entered the great plaza. Father Vicente de Valverde, the chaplain came forward to explain, through an interpreter that the Spaniards had come to bring Christianity to Peru, but that Atahualpa must now change his religion and become a vassal of Charles V of Spain. Not unexpectedly, the Inca refused, and when handed a breviary, dropped it, never having seen a book before. The priest was angered at what he thought was sacrilege, ran to Pizarro and told him to ‘set on this arrogant dog. I absolve you’. Pizarro waved a white scarf and the massacre began. The soldiers rushed out of hiding and fell on the unarmed Indians with their swords, while the cavalry charged through the densely packed throng. Atahualpa’s retainers tried to form a human barrier around his litter but they were rapidly slaughtered, and the Inca was only saved by Pizarro himself, who caught him when the litter toppled sideways. He was dragged to safety into a nearby building, and with the Emperor out of sight, all resistance rapidly ceased.   A few survivors managed to escape from the Plaza, and the many soldiers surroundings the city fled in terror. The obscene slaughter had lasted little more that half an hour, but probably several thousand Peruvians were killed including the nobles and administrative core of the empire.   Incredibly, as if nothing had happened, Pizarro then proposed that Atahualpa and he should have supper, and the banquet was held in one of the buildings facing the plaza, which was still carpeted with the multitude of dead bodies. The Inca showed remarkable composure considering the events he had just witnessed, and remarked with dignity ‘It is the way of war, to conquer or be conquered’.   Atahualpa was then incarcerated for the next 9 months, but was allowed to live in luxury with his normal retinue. During this time he observed the extraordinary effect which gold had on the Spaniards. One day he offered to fill a room some 7m by 5m with solid gold objects as high as he could reach, if Pizarro would set him free, Again, Pizarro could hardly credit what he heard and readily agreed to this. Gold began to arrive from all over the Empire, but, as the room slowly filled, the Spaniards heard that Huascar (the Inca’s half-brother) had been murdered on Atahualpa’s orders, which made Pizarro fear an uprising if the Emperor were to be freed.     At last the ransom was declared paid, and Pizarro ordered all the superbly crafted objects to be melted down into ingots except for a few special items. He thus perpetrated an appalling act of barbarism, with the irreplaceable loss to the world of thousands of magnificent examples of Incan art and culture.   The Inca then demanded his liberty, and a minority of the Spaniards declared it was a matter of honour to free the prisoner. Unfortunately for Atahualpa, Pizarro, although he had given his word, was not an honourable man, and delayed making a decision.   To add to Atahualpa’s problems, negotiations between the two men took place through Felipillo, an Indian interpreter, who had previously been caught making advances to one of the Inca’s concubines. He realized that he would face the death penalty if the Emperor was released, and therefore willfully misinterpreted everything that Atahualpa said, as well as falsely telling Pizarro that large numbers of Indian troops were gathering in the south, despite Atahualpa’s protestations to the contrary.   Eventually Pizarro, with his soldiers fearing for their lives and close to mutiny, yielded to their demands and declared that the Inca must die.  After the mockery of a token trial, Atahualpa was sentenced to be burned alive that same night. He was tied to a stake, which was set up in the square, and the faggots were piled around him. The indefatigable Father Valverde approached the doomed Emperor with a last attempt at conversion. He told him that if he agreed to become a Christian, he would be given the quicker and softer option of being strangled. The Inca accepted this generous offer. He was baptized on the spot, and then garroted with a cord.   So died the last of the ruling Incas, and the empire died with him, shattered into helpless fragments, most of which passively accepted Spanish dominance. There was no popular will to resist the invaders, except near Cusco, where some stubborn opposition eventually developed and laid siege to the City for a while, but this was far too late. It would seem to be the only time in history when a band of some 200 soldiers, commanded by a determined, avaricious, illiterate, but able commander overthrew a mighty empire of several million, plundered its’ riches and destroyed its’ magnificent cities. The only Incan city to survive destruction was  Machu Picchu, never found by the Spaniards, lost for centuries, and discovered in 1911 by the American explorer Hyram Bingham. He also managed to find a significant number of surviving artifacts and art treasures which he sent back to his home country.   The rest of the Empire’s people gradually accepted Christianity, recognizing that the new God was a more powerful one than theirs. Some of the early artists, however, exercised their Peruvian interpretation when depicting holy events. They often gave a local twist to their religious paintings, such as putting roast guinea-pig on a platter at the Last Supper, and Judas Iscariot being given the face of their arch enemy, Pizarro, who, ironically, was murdered by his own men in 1541.

1 comment

  1. ~Ed

    Thanks so much for this John, I look forward to publishing many more talks of this calibre!
    We can add the pictures later.

    Kind regards to you and Margaret.

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