The Last Days of the Incas

The Last Days of the Incas
Kim MacQuarrie
Simon and Schuster, 2007
544 pp.

Today the U.S. military can destroy – almost effortlessly – any other organized armed forces on earth. American weapons are a generation ahead of those of its allies, let alone the Third World nations which are today’s targets of attack, invasion, and occupation. But winning guerrilla wars is proving to be far more difficult for Washington. Not because the U.S. military loses any particular combat action, but because the overall political situation becomes insoluble and untenable.

The sight of American soldiers and Marines easily wrecking Iraqi armored divisions brings to mind Western powers conquering ancient empires and primitive tribes. Modern technology and military organization time and again overcame raw numbers and suicidal bravery.

Kim MacQuarrie, an award-winning TV producer, has written a wonderful history of the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire with his The Last Days of the Incas. One can draw parallels to today, but that’s not the reason to read this book. It is informative and entertaining, particularly nice for someone primarily interested in modern history but who desires a taste of the Old World.

The Incas were an empire – no fantasies about liberal democracy there. But they were not as ostentatiously blood-stained as the Mayans and Aztecs. Indeed, in these cases subject peoples were glad to join the foreign usurpers to oust their oppressors. Politics joined with military superiority to give the Spaniards victory.

The New World gold and silver rush was triggered by Hernan Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec empire, which began in 1519. His victory opened up one of the few opportunities for a low-born adventurer in monarchical Spain to advance.

Poor and of illegitimate birth, 24-year-old Francisco Pizarro sailed to the West Indies in 1502. He fought local natives and became a significant landowner in Panama. Still, he wasn’t satisfied. Explains MacQuarrie: “What good was owning a tiny island and living off a mere 150 natives when another Spaniard, Hernan Cortes, from the same region of Extremadura in Spain, had just conquered an entire empire at the age of thirty-four?”

Although us modern folk find it hard to identify with the perceived right of conquest, a century ago European countries were still forcibly “acquiring” other peoples for colonies. Even today war is routinely justified as a moral means of reengineering other societies – though for their benefit, of course, to bring subject societies the better things of life.

So Pizarro followed the custom of the time and founded the Company of the Levant, dedicated to conquest. The goal was, first, to collect booty (how the Spaniards loved acquiring gold and silver, in order to live in luxury) and, second, to collect territory (how the Spaniards loved becoming estate holders, in order to enjoy a life of leisure). Such an enterprise remains a powerful testament to man’s depravity and greed: create a business of killing, raping, and plundering. And do it all in the name of God and King!

Pizarro’s first voyage ended in failure. He was persistent, however, and on his second voyage he made contact with the Incan Empire. Then he set off to Spain to win a royal license to conquer the territory now known as Peru and more. This would allow him to become royal governor as well as principal landowner.

In the meantime the Incan Emperor Huayna Capac died from smallpox – brought by the Europeans. Disease killed widely in Europe, of course, but the survivors developed immunities lacking in indigenous peoples. Disease was probably even more effective than military arms in weakening native societies. With Capac’s death came civil war between his sons, further undermining the Empire.

Pizarro began his conquest in 1531. It is quite a tale, and MacQuarrie tells it with verve. Although there is little in his book to paint the Incas in a positive light, there is much to damn the Spaniards. Their greed for precious metals was insatiable. Treacherous themselves, they suspected their captives of perfidy. They eventually executed Incan Emperor Atahualpa, whom they had captured and forced to serve them, on the false charge of fomenting a revolt.

Could there be greater chutzpah than this? The Spaniards kidnapped the emperor, imprisoned him for months, demanded that he order the delivery of ever larger shipments of gold and silver, and lied about their plans to depart and release him. Then, when they suspected him of trying to free himself, they were offended. MacQuarrie writes of Pizarro’s response to the perceived threat:

“Pizarro immediately ordered that a permanent guard be mounted around the city and then went to confront Atahualpa with the incriminating information. ‘What kind of treason is this that you have prepared for me?’ Pizarro angrily demanded. ‘After having treated you … like a brother, and having trusted in your words?'”

Imprisoning someone is treating him like a brother, while seeking to escape captivity is treason. Such was the Spanish worldview. Atahualpa’s captors chose garrot over fire after he claimed to convert to Christianity.

The murder was a moral atrocity, of course, but also a practical blunder. Without the captive emperor, the Spaniards were no longer able to rule through him. But that turned out to be a small matter after they conquered his empire. The Spanish quickly captured the Incan capital of Cuzco, installed one of Atahualpa’s sons as emperor, founded new settlements, and engaged in the fine art of plunder on a massive scale.

Here, again, depravity and greed got the best (or worst) of the Spaniards. They could have most anything or anyone that they wanted, but that didn’t satisfy them. One of the Spanish leaders demanded the emperor’s beautiful wife for himself. Emperor Manco Inca finally rebelled and almost prevailed – but through desperate heroism and technological superiority the Spaniards again emerged victorious.

Then the Spanish engaged in their own quasi-civil war, as execution, imprisonment, and assassination play out both in the new colonies and in Spain. Francisco Pizarro was murdered in 1541 by a follower of Diego de Almagro, who had been executed by Pizarro’s brother Hernando, who in turn was imprisoned in Spain.

The Incas fought on, but the Spanish were able to rely upon native support and finally ended all resistance in 1572. They destroyed the Incan capital of Vilcabamba and executed the last emperor, Tupac Amaru. MacQuarrie covers these stories and more in vivid detail.

He ends with the tale of the modern discovery of Incan ruins, including Machu Picchu, and the scholarly battle over which remnant was which ancient city. These fights are less bloody, but no less vicious, than were the ancient wars.

The Last Days of the Incas is a great read about fascinating human events. But it is more. The book features the timeless pageant of human action. Ambition, greed, and lust motivate men to undertake amazing, and amazingly evil, actions. Success and failure march side-by-side, shaping today’s world. If there is one enduring lesson, it is hubris. Yet mankind never seems to learn. So we repeat history. As we are doing today. And, sadly, as we will do again tomorrow.