The Conquest of the Incas

Christopher Heaney is the author of Cradle of Gold (Palgrave Macmillan 2010), a Doctoral Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, and a co-founder of Backlist.

On November 16, 1532, Francisco Pizarro and about 160 conquistadors captured an Inca lord named Atahualpa, killed over 2,000 Indian warriors, and conquered an empire that sprawled across the Andes Mountains of South America. The Spanish called that empire Peru. In the decades following, its silver transformed Spain from a crusader kingdom with pretensions of re-taking Jerusalem into history’s first global empire—all because of Pizarro’s sword, his harquebusiers, and a mystery illness that had laid Atahualpa’s father low. As you may have read: Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Or not. Historians bristle at such an easy version of the events that placed Peru under Spanish rule. The following eight books tell a different story, at once more exciting and more tragic. Their most important lesson is this: although European weapons and disease helped, that advantage diminished extraordinarily when ranked against the Inca empire’s size and logistical superiority. To explain how the Spanish dominated the Incas, historians instead credit the many Indian groups discontented with Inca rule, as well as alliances made with Incas themselves—including Atahualpa. Unlike Mexico, whose Aztecs were quickly conquered, Peru’s Incas were incorporated into the reformed kingdom only after decades of conflict and negotiation. Their incorporation then became the foundation of a surprising colonial society—unexpectedly just, immensely lucrative, suddenly violent—that lasted for nearly three hundred years, almost twice as long as England’s colonies in North America.

What emerges is a conquest that took forty years, not one; that killed almost all of Spain’s supposed victors long before it was over; that left the Inca royal family and their sacred cult of imperial dead intact longer than nearly any other New World polity; and that allowed Peru’s people to continue to hope for what Europeans—and their historians—long thought unthinkable: the return of the kingdom to its now-Christian indigenous lords.

The following books aren’t just about the defeat of the Incas. They are about the creation and survival of Peru.

Places to Start

For nearly fifty years, this has been one of the best narrative histories ever written, full stop. Richly synthesized, it begins with Cajamarca and goes into wonderful detail on the forty-year resistance led by Atahualpa’s younger brother Manco and his sons, who tried to stay politically and religiously independent of Spanish rule.

Never mind the jargon. This is an absolutely fascinating book on how Andean expectations shaped the conquest. It pulls apart the conquistadors’ contradictory accounts to show why military supremacy did not translate into cultural domination; why Incas ruled in Cusco for a quarter-century after 1532; and how Spaniards struggled to understand why war could only be waged on full moons.

Digging In

The Incas were conquerors too. How did they compare to the Spaniards, from the perspective of Indians who weren’t rich and powerful? The modern social history of the Andes began here, as Spalding plumbed Peruvian archives to show how Spanish rule constricted the wealth, health, and land of smaller groups already living on the edge.

Until Hemming, Prescott’s rollicking account of the conquest reigned. It has its problems. Whereas Jared Diamond gives too much credit to ‘guns, germs, and steel’ as an explanation, Prescott leans on ‘God, gold, and glory.’ Nearly-innocent Incas are rapidly and tragically outclassed by Spanish villains, and little notice is given to non-Inca Indians. But its use of original sources was innovative for its time, and Prescott’s writing is justly famed.

New Moves

Not every Inca or Indian could be a covert rebel, secretly worshipping the sun and old religious icons. In looking at why Indians after the conquest buried themselves in churches and wrote wills in Spanish, Ramos explains how they navigated a new political landscape. This is the story of how Peru’s Indians came to believe themselves more Christian than the Spanish.

The dividing line between the Peru of the Incas and the Peru of the Spanish lies not in 1532 but 1569, when the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo arrived, executed the last independent Inca, and resettled over a million Indians to maximize the colony’s silver production. But this revisionist history argues that Toledo’s reforms preserved as much as they dismantled. Many indigenous communities who still exist today date their legal foundation to this moment.

Voices and Lives

It was Titu Cusi’s younger brother Tupac Amaru that Toledo executed when he arrived. A few years before, while ruling their jungle kingdom east of Cusco, Titu Cusi dictated a message that he hoped would stir the conscience of the Spanish king. It arrived too late to make a difference, but this fiery letter from one emperor to another—thick with sad detail—still cuts to the bone.

The Incas never left. In the early seventeenth century, the son of an Inca princess and a conquistador published this history of his mother’s people, of the greatness that he believed the Spanish had misunderstood. Some of Garcilaso’s memories are a little too golden, but their beauty helped Europe understand what had been lost. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Garcilaso inspired Indians and Spaniards alike to take up arms again in the name of an Inca kingdom, or republic, reborn.

One Inca so inspired was José Gabriel Condorcanqui. In 1780, José Gabriel styled himself Tupac Amaru II and launched a rebellion that swept across southern Peru. Walker’s history brings his struggle to life, and breathes deep sadness into the horrific execution of José Gabriel and his wife and co-plotter Micaela Bastidas, after which the resistance staggered along for another two increasingly violent years. In 1821, South American patriots would declare Peru’s independence, but the contract of justice—however limited—created after the Spanish conquest died here.