Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

A Glance at the Peruvians

In order to understand the nature of this enterprise projected by Pizarro—to grasp its magnitude, and fully comprehend its perils, we should pause a while—before proceeding with him into the unknown country, and inform ourselves as to its resources. How did it differ from any other portion of South America, and why was this territory better worth invading than any other?

In the first place, it was unique in its geographical situation, physical conditions, and natural resources. It seemed as though nature had outdone herself in creating the stupendous Andes, with peaks rising more than twenty thousand feet into the clouds, and stored with an inexhaustible supply of precious metals. A continuous mountain chain, or cordillera, ran almost parallel with the trend of the coast, between which and this "backbone of the continent" exists every variety of table-land, or elevated plain, fertile valley, gloomy gorge, ravine, and arid desert country.

The ancient empire of the Incas, which Pizarro had so audaciously invaded, was comprehended within the present limits of Peru, and overlapped its northern boundaries. It extended from two or three degrees north of the equator to thirty-seven or thirty-eight south of it, and from the Pacific on the west to the headwaters of the Amazon on the east. Perhaps we might better say that its boundaries, except on the Pacific, were indeterminate, since no obstacle of a physical nature seemed sufficient to deter the warlike Incas in their territorial conquests.

In the second place, this wonderful region, with every variety of climate from torrid to frigid, was occupied by an equally wonderful people, who, during the lapse of centuries had developed a civilization, state or condition of refinement, unequalled by that of any other aboriginal nation on the American continent. The Aztecs of Mexico in some respects surpassed these "Incas" of Peru—or, rather, they adopted and adapted the civilization of former peoples, as the Toltecs, and the Mayas of Yucatan, with their hieroglyphics and unsurpassed architecture—but they were not, upon the whole, so advanced.

But for their thought-carrying "picture-writings" and their astronomical system (both, probably, inherited from the Toltecs), the Aztecs might be classed second to the Incas in civilization. The truth is, that each nation had advanced along special lines, the one excelling the other in some things; but in general culture the Peruvians probably surpassed the Mexicans. Each nation had developed in absolute ignorance of the other, separated as were these two peoples by Central America and the isthmian region; but if they had been conjoined, they might have risen to a plane hardly inferior to that occupied by some of the Old-World monarchies.

Had there been any sort of communication between the two during the years in which the conquest of Mexico and the West Indies was being achieved, the fate of Peru might have been different from what it was as history informs us. Not a hint, however, reached the Peruvians of what was going on outside their mountainous domain, save that vague rumor now and then disturbed them with the tidings of strangers in armor and with wonderful weapons, landing on the isthmus and flitting along their coast.

Within their limitations the Peruvians had evolved a most admirable system of government—more admirable, in fact, than that which the Spaniards imposed in its place. They had made great advances in agriculture, for not only had they cultivated the fertile valleys and plains, but they had terraced the sides of hills and mountains, and vivified the waste and desert places by conducting to them the waters of springs and mountain streams through aqueducts, some of which were hundreds of miles in length. They were also, strange to say, the only aborigines of America who were found in possession of domestic animals utilized as beasts of burden; for, as we know, there were no horses or cattle native to this country within the historic period. The nearest approach to them were the llamas, or "American camels," which, however, the Peruvians valued more for their fleece than as means of transport. Then there were the alpacas and vicunas, which existed in a wild state in the mountains and snowy regions, and were only gathered together at stated intervals by great hunts, in which fifty or sixty thousand men took part.

But the llamas were domesticated, and from their fleece, and that of the alpacas and vicunas, were woven cloths of finest texture, which were dyed in beautiful and permanent colors.

The status of a people is generally judged by their architecture, and herein the Peruvians did not fall short of the standard; for, while the dwellings of the masses were humble huts of clay or straw, perhaps, those of the Inca and the nobles were massively constructed of stone. The country contained numerous temples and palaces which, though but a single story in height, were built of immense blocks of granite fitted together so nicely that the lines of junction could hardly be perceived. These vast masses of stone were sometimes quarried many leagues distant from the places in which the buildings were erected, and, working without the assistance of machinery—so far as known—the wonder is how the ancient Peruvians removed and placed them in position.

The same wonder assails us when we contemplate the remains of their magnificent roads, with which the country was crossed. One of these is said to have been two thousand miles in length, and not only traversed vast stretches of valley and plain, but was carried over mountains and across ravines and gorges. The cities of Quito and Cuzco were thus united by a road three hundred leagues in length, twenty-five paces in breadth, enclosed within parapets, and watered at intervals by clear, running streams as well as shaded by odoriferous trees. It was composed of great blocks of freestone, accurately fitted together, and as smooth as glass on their upper surfaces.

When deep ravines were encountered they were filled with masonry, and streams that ran through gorges were crossed by means of hammock or suspension bridges, made of osiers woven into ropes and cables. Such bridges as these are in use to-day, and afford the only means of crossing those wild mountain streams, which flow at abysmal depths between almost perpendicular walls of rock.

Along the great stone highways, at intervals corresponding to a day's journey, comfortable stone houses were erected, supplied with every necessity for the traveller, and, being intended mainly for the army, containing not only provisions, such as maize and coca, but articles of clothing, arms, and martial equipments. And all these great works were performed by a people wholly unacquainted with the use of iron, whose tools were merely of stone, or of copper hardened by an admixture of tin. Gold and silver they had in abundance, but they did not make use of either as money—only for the purpose of ornamentation. The palaces of the Inca, and the temples, though severely massive as to their exteriors, without windows, arches, or columns, glittered inside with gold, and sometimes were ablaze with gems.

The ruler and his nobles ate with their fingers (which, as the old saying runs, were "made before forks"), but they were served from massive gold and silver plate; while the imagination of their artisans ran riot in producing unique forms of ewers, vases, bracelets, anklets, finger and ear rings, and other articles of personal adornment. Allusion has already been made to their skill in making artificial flowers of gold and silver, which exactly imitated the originals. They were also proficient in casting golden statues, some of them life-size, and in sculpture. In the mechanical arts, where patience and close attention were required, they greatly excelled; but their system of numeration was imperfect, and in astronomical lore they were deficient, though they possessed a rude calendar, spacing the year into twelve lunar months, and made solar observations with some degree of accuracy.

They possessed no written records, no picture-writings or hieroglyphic chronicles; but their place was supplied in a measure by the quipu, a contrivance "consisting of a main cord, from which hung at certain distances smaller cords of different colors, each having a special meaning, as silver, gold, corn, soldiers, etc. Single, double, and triple knots were tied in the smaller cords, representing definite numbers." This quipu, or cord, was "chiefly used for arithmetical purposes, and to register important facts or events"; but it served only to keep in mind the ideas with which each color or knot was associated. It thus assisted the memory of the chroniclers, who preserved the annals of the country by oral tradition, passed from one generation to another.

Was it not natural that, dwelling beneath or near the equator, the Peruvians should particularly honor the sun-god? They not only worshipped the sun, but they claimed that their first great ruler and his successors descended from that luminary. Myth and fable enshroud their origin, but their earliest tradition relates to this celestial origin, when the son and daughter of the orb of day, in the persons of Manco Capac and Mama Oello Huaco, came to earth, and founded the city of Cuzco. Thus Cuzco became their capital, and here was erected the glorious "Temple of the Sun," known also as the "Place of Gold," because of a great golden effigy of the sun, consisting of a central face of burnished gold with numerous blazing rays radiating to roof and walls and floor of the temple. It was of solid gold, but was also studded with gems, forming a beautiful and brilliant apparition of the deity from whom the Incas had descended.

Temple of the Sun


Boasting this celestial origin, the Inca Capac  (great or powerful lord) considered himself vastly superior to the common herd, and by his subjects was so regarded. He was their ruler, their master, in every sense, holding in his hands their lives, and literally their fortunes. In course of time the Inca became surrounded by a vast number of nobles, who could trace their origin to the original Capac through an innumerable company of concubines; but he was always supreme. Even the nobles could not approach the celestial presence, save with bowed and uncovered head, and bearing burdens on their shoulders, in token of submission and inferior station.

Being the high-priest of the people, as well as their monarch, all the temples and palaces were his, and these were numerous throughout all the land. They were, as already indicated, adorned with golden statues, cornices, and every variety of ornament, hung with gold-fringed tapestries, and furnished with gem-studded plate of gold. While the Inca usually held aloof from the commonalty, he sometimes showed himself to his abject subjects, on which occasions they were dazzled by the display he made of gold and jewels.

The common people were not permitted to accumulate any sort of wealth whatever, all the gems and precious metals being reserved for the Inca. Even the lands they so assiduously cultivated were held by them only on sufferance, and while the laws of the country compelled every man and woman to marry at a certain age and set up a household by themselves, they owned neither home nor soil. Their lives were devoted to labor, but they accumulated nothing, though at the same time no person was permitted to want for the necessaries of life. The agriculturists tilled the soil, first for the Inca, then for the sun, finally for themselves, and the proceeds were apportioned accordingly. Likewise the artisans—the weavers of wool, the dyers, the gold and silver smiths, the potters, miners, masons—all worked for the enrichment of the state, which was, in effect, the Inca.

The laws were few in number, but strictly enforced, and death was the penalty for theft, murder, blasphemy, arson, adultery, and rebellion. Human life lost its sacred character in a land ruled by a despot, who could slay at will and without question. But, while the Peruvians were scarcely more than mere human machines, made orderly and industrious by compulsion, they were carefully nurtured by the state, which made their welfare continually the object of its solicitude. The products of their lands and looms were carefully collected and stored in government warehouses, whence such as were needed were redistributed, the surplus being left for future demands. Thus it was that when the Spaniards reached Peru and penetrated the interior, they found vast supplies of grain, clothing, etc., accumulated by the provident and far-seeing government, under direction of the Inca and his nobles.

In one sense, the life led by the Peruvians was ideal, inasmuch as the people were removed from want, shielded in youth, and sheltered in old age; but it was not a life calculated to encourage ambition or personal effort, so that, while they had reached a certain stage of culture, there they remained fixed, like a vessel becalmed in a stagnant sea.

The common people, who composed the bulk of Peru's teeming population, did not need to think, for their thinking was done for them by the state. Yet the Inca and his nobles, who represented the brain and mind of this vast body politic, were not peculiarly fitted for directing the energies of the people. The mechanism had been formed for them centuries before, and they merely kept it in motion. When, as happened after the Spanish invasion, the hand and head that guided the machinery were removed, the whole system fell into confusion. The people were paralyzed by the capture of their Inca, for that was a mischance they had not contemplated, and before they had recovered, and ranged themselves under new leaders, the Spaniards had secured a hold which could not be shaken off. Thus the Peruvians defeated themselves, more surely than they were defeated by the Spaniards. Or, rather, they were crushed by their own system of government, which, when once its foundations were undermined, fell with a crash, involving both the nobility and the commonalty in universal ruin.

One of the most energetic of the Incas flourished towards the end of the fifteenth century. His name was Yupanqui, and he extended the territory of Peru from near the present borders of Chili to the southern boundary of Ecuador. He was assisted by his son, Huayna Capac, who, at the death of his father, which occurred in the last decade of that century which witnessed the discovery of America by Columbus, carried his conquests far beyond Quito. This city was the most important of the many conquests made by the Peruvians, and rivaled in its attractions Cuzco, the capital, with which the conqueror connected it by one of those wonderful roads, already mentioned.

After a long and successful reign, during which he extended to the utmost the limits of his kingdom, and perfected many of the great works commenced by former rulers, Huayna Capac died, and his embalmed body was borne to Cuzco, where it was deposited in the Temple of the Sun. In that magnificent pantheon, where the darkness was dispelled by the refulgent rays of the great, golden sun, typical of their celestial ancestry, all the Incas who had ever reigned were ranged against the walls. Their desiccated bodies were clothed in royal robes, and seated in chairs of gold, with bowed heads and hands crossed on their breasts. Some of them had sat there for centuries, except that on the occasion of certain religious festivals they were brought out into the light of day and entertained at ghastly banquets.

The body of Huayna Capac was taken to Cuzco, but his heart was retained in Quito, which in his latter years was his favorite place of residence. There had lived, also, his favorite wife, daughter of the last king of Quito, whom he had conquered and dethroned. By her he had a son, whom he named Atahuallpa, a word derived, it is said, from Atahua, valor, and allpa, meaning sweet. He loved Atahuallpa, who went with him on his campaigns, and was bright, fearless, and handsome. His mother had been a princess of Quito, and when on his death-bed, the Inca thought to make reparation for depriving her father of his throne, by making her son ruler over the northern portion of the kingdom.

But he had another son, who alone was the rightful heir to the crown, and whose mother was not only the Inca's wife, but his sister! This was in accordance with the immutable law of the Incas, repulsive as it may seem; and, though Huayna Capac had a multitude of lesser wives in his harem, the number of whose children was legion, he had but one legal wife, his sister, and left but one lawful heir to the throne at his death. This was Huascar Inca, then residing in Cuzco, and about thirty years old.

In the eyes of the law, then, Atahuallpa was illegitimate; but to him, at his father's death, was left the kingdom of Quito, while to Huascar remained the greater portion of the empire. Still, it was then a divided empire, and though for a few years the brothers continued in amicable relations, after a while Atahuallpa, the younger, became aggressive and invaded the dominions of Huascar. The latter marched against him with an army; but the younger and more warlike Atahuallpa had won the hearts of his veterans, and the elder was defeated. The battle was fought at Tumebamba, one of Huascar's cities, the inhabitants of which were all put to the sword by the revengeful Atahuallpa. Driven back towards Cuzco, Huascar rallied his troops for the defence of their sacred capital, and another and more terrible battle took place, in which he was utterly defeated and taken prisoner.