Having just attended the excellent Peru exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, I was inspired to finally read this highly-recommended book detailing the Spanish conquest. If you've read the opening chapter of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, you already know the story: How on earth did an invading army of only 168 Spaniards defeat an army of 80,000 warriors who were defending on their home turf an empire of ten million people? The invaders had no knowledge of local geography or food supplies and no backup force. How did they do it?
Francisco Pizarro was a poor, rural Spaniard who arrived in the New World only a few years after Columbus’ initial landing, but by 1513 was together with Balboa at the first European sighting of the Pacific Ocean. After hearing of Cortez’ conquest of Mexico in the 1520’s, Pizarro teamed up with Diego de Amalgro to form a company intent on finding another empire. After one failed trip south, they made a more successful visit to the village of Tumbez, where they found natives who seemed to have access to lots of gold and silver trinkets – an incentive for the Spaniards to keep trying. Pizarro traded with these natives for two young boys, who he sent to Spain to learn Spanish and become interpreters for his next voyage.
The big expedition happened in 1531, with168 Spanish recruits (most of whom had never been soldiers before), 100 horses, and an assembly of others including African slaves, "merchants" (?), and women servants. Almagro stayed behind to raise more money and troops while Pizarro took the force into the heart of the Inca empire.
To make a long story short, Pizarro and his men overcame the odds through repeated use of trickery (to kidnap and kill the reigning emperor), and careful “divide-and-conquer” techniques (appointing a puppet emperor). But the Spaniards got carried away, and soon the “puppet”, Manco Inca, led a full-scale backlash that almost restored the Inca empire.
But the Inca suffered from two fatal errors in their counter-attacks: the first was, in their illiteracy, to miscalculate the importance of writing, thinking that captured, valuable documents would “send a message” if handed over, covered in blood, to besieged Spaniards, when in fact they carried valuable intelligence that saved the day. The second mistake was their habit, in battles, of sending the most important, most seasoned general to lead the charge, thinking that would be a symbol of bravery to the hesitant troops following him when in fact it merely demonstrated his irreplaceability when he inevitably was killed.
Reading this with modern eyes, I can’t help think how awful were these European invaders, who committed so many atrocities, against the natives and against themselves. Ultimately nearly all the key Spanish leaders were killed in various civil wars amongst themselves; Francisco Pizarro himself was assassinated by disillusioned supporters of his former business partner.
Still, the defending Incas were no saints either, themselves guilty of unspeakable cruelties against those who resisted their own conquests, just ninety years before the Europeans arrived. Ultimately, history proceeds in many, sometimes ugly directions and it’s pointless to guess what might have happened. But maybe there is a lesson in here about the value of bravery, of hutzpah, in the face of seemingly ridiculous odds and how that can make all the difference between being a conqueror and the conquered.