Jonathan Yardley

The execution of the Inca Emperor Atahualpa
The execution of the Inca Emperor Atahualpa (Engraving By A.b. Greene (1891) / Library Of Congress)
By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 24, 2007


By Kim MacQuarrie

Simon and Schuster. 522 pp. $30

The Spanish conquest of South and Central America during the 16th century is an almost unmatchable story of human courage and cruelty, resourcefulness and duplicity, profit and exploitation. It has been celebrated and deplored in histories, novels and poems, and to this day -- five centuries later -- it remains a subject of endless debate. Like the American Civil War, it has the power to provoke passionate emotions long after the deaths of those who fought in it.

The most famous campaign in the conquest is Hernando Cortés's invasion and subjugation of Mexico in 1519-21. It was carried out by a force of a few hundred men, who by dint of superior arms and armor managed to overcome the seemingly invulnerable Aztec Empire. This astonishing and supremely bloody accomplishment is the subject of one of the early classics of American literature, William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), a monumental three-volume epic that treats Cortés and Montezuma, the emperor whom he overthrew, as heroic, larger-than-life figures.

Four years later Prescott published his History of the Conquest of Peru, a somewhat shorter (two volumes) and less successful study of Francisco Pizarro's eradication of the Inca Empire of western South America, a campaign that began in the early 1530s and continued for another three decades, well past Pizarro's assassination in 1541. Whatever its shortcomings, Prescott's remained the dominant history (in English, that is) for more than a century, until the publication of the magisterial The Conquest of the Incas by the British scholar John Hemming (1970, revised 1993). This is likely to remain the definitive account for many years to come, but The Last Days of the Incas, by filmmaker and writer Kim MacQuarrie, is a welcome addition to the literature. Lively and dramatic, it should appeal to a popular readership, but there is no evidence that -- apart from a certain amount of forgivable invention -- MacQuarrie has sacrificed historical accuracy in order to hype the story.

Pizarro was in his early 50s when he landed in the place Spaniards knew as "Viru" or "Biru," after a fabulously wealthy tribe they believed lived there; "eventually, the name of this tribe would be transmogrified and would come to refer to . . . Peru -- home to the largest native empire the New World would ever know." Pizarro was a seasoned explorer, but also the son of a respected soldier and a "common maid" who was "stigmatized by the fact that his father had never married his mother." He "had received little if any schooling and thus remained illiterate for his entire life," but he was smart, ambitious, and he "instinctively understood both power and politics." He was the oldest of five brothers who came to Latin America -- the others were Hernando, Juan, Francisco Martín and Gonzalo -- and his family's stamp on Peru remains almost as visible now as it was five centuries ago.

This is because the Spanish conquest of Peru, like that of Mexico and all the other places Spain invaded during this time of its greatest strength, involved the subjugation of native peoples and the ascendancy of the Spanish. The shape of Peru today was determined by what Pizarro and his henchmen did, and thus their legacy can only be regarded as exceedingly dubious. On the one hand they brought Western inventions, institutions and religion to a part of the world that seemed (though it certainly wasn't) backward and underdeveloped, and a case can be made that in the long run this was to Latin America's benefit. On the other hand the conquistadors slaughtered innocent citizens and poorly armed soldiers in numbers too vast to count; pillaged the treasures of the Inca Empire, murdered its leaders and destroyed many of its monuments; established a system of autocratic Spanish political, cultural and economic control that still retains its grip, maintaining most indigenous inhabitants as second-class citizens at best.

MacQuarrie writes from a vantage point from which these deleterious aspects of the conquest can be seen more clearly. As he says, Prescott's "tale of Pizarro and a handful of Spanish heroes defying the odds against hordes of barbaric native savages not coincidentally mirrored the ideas and conceits of the Victorian Age and of American Manifest Destiny. No doubt this volume also reflects the prevailing attitudes of our time." Among those attitudes are not merely a deeper sympathy for the indigenes of Latin America but also greater respect for the accomplishments of the Incas and for the intelligence of their leaders.

A problem for anyone writing about the conquest of Peru is that documentation is limited and frequently unreliable. As MacQuarrie says, many of the accounts of the conflict were written years after the fact by people who either were not there or whose memories had become suspect. One of these was Garcilaso de la Vega, whose famous two-part Royal Commentaries of the Incas (1609) describes the conquest from the Incan point of view but at times seems closer to fiction than fact. Occasionally, MacQuarrie falls back on his own imagination -- "Hernando Pizarro, his horse snorting, presumably looked down his lines, then directly at Orgóñez across the plain from him. Not taking his eyes from him, he then raised his sword on high, held it aloft for a moment, then quickly brought it down" -- but though there's quite a lot of this, it adds color to the tale without undermining its essential credibility. Chalk it up to something like poetic license and leave it at that.

The basic elements of the story are not in dispute. After establishing a beachhead on the Peruvian coast, Francisco Pizarro struck out for the center of the Inca Empire with a force -- a force!-- of 167 conquistadors, to do battle against "an Inca army of perhaps eighty thousand warriors." Amazingly, not merely did Pizarro meet the enemy, he destroyed it. First he captured Atahualpa, the venerated Inca emperor, then he marched on Cuzco, the Inca capital, "the royal hub of the empire, a city that was purposely meant to display the ostentation of state power," and captured it. He held onto Atahualpa as hostage but finally executed him -- a decision he seems to have ever thereafter regretted -- when some of his subordinates persuaded themselves, without foundation, that the emperor had somehow ordered an attack on the Spanish.

The execution of Atahualpa, by all the evidence a good man who was, in the eyes of his people, "the equivalent of the king, the pope, and Jesus Christ all rolled into one," established the pattern that the Spanish subsequently followed. No Inca emperor was safe, nor was anyone in his family or retinue. Gonzalo Pizarro seized the beloved wife of Atahualpa's successor, Manco Inca, and took her for his own. Eventually Manco himself was murdered by Spaniards, and Tupac Amaru -- the last of the emperors -- was captured and executed. Though some in the Spanish community pleaded with the Pizarros and with the royal family in Spain for better treatment of the natives, the slaughter continued unabated. Whether it was genocide as the term is now understood is open to debate, but "the marauding Spaniards made no distinction between men, women, and children" as the people of Peru were systematically slaughtered.

The Incas did not go down without a fight. In the spring of 1536, Manco Inca organized "a force of between 100,000 and 200,000 warriors -- a stupendous feat of logistical organization" -- and almost certainly would have vanquished the invaders had he not been at an insuperable technological advantage. The Spanish had at their disposal all the equipment and tactics of 16th-century European warfare, chief among them horses -- "animals that could carry a fully armored Spaniard and still outrun the fastest native" -- "steel helmets, armor, and chain mail," and "they could communicate much more efficiently through writing, thus being able to send and receive complex information between their often divided forces." The Incas' weapons by contrast "were designed for hand-to-hand combat with other similarly armed foot soldiers and consisted of an assortment of clubs" as well as the occasional bow and arrow. In time the Incas developed strategies for neutralizing horses and Spanish weaponry, but these came too late; whenever armed Spaniards on horseback waded into crowds of Inca soldiers, the results were foreordained and ghastly.

The Spanish secured their hold on Peru after the execution of Tupac Amaru, in great measure because of the smart, stern regime of Francisco de Toledo, who later became viceroy. It is no small irony that the first indigenous Peruvian to hold the country's presidency -- Alejandro Toledo -- bears the same surname as the man who insured its subordination to Spanish leadership for more than four centuries. Elected in 2001, the later Toledo held office for five years and, in spite of numerous missteps, some of them spectacular, may have helped steer his country along the first steps away from oligarchy and toward genuine self-government. But make no mistake about it: The stamp of the conquistadors is everywhere evident in Peru, and the country still wrestles with their ambiguous legacy. ·

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