Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thinking about the fall of the Incas and the rise of the Spanish in the Andes

I have been reading The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie and 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. Some time ago I read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.

I got to thinking about why the Inca empire fell to the Spanish.

The Incas were a tribe estimated at 100,000 members that had attained hegemony over the many tribes, speaking many languages, in an empire that extended over thousands of miles. The empire may have included as many as ten to twenty million people, most of whom lived in the Andes.

Apparently, the Incas had achieved this empire in large part by convincing the leaders of other tribes that their lives would be better within the empire than outside of it. The empire through a mastery of technology and its administrative system provided food security for all its inhabitants and produced a surplus of luxury goods. The Incas also sought to convince other tribes that they, the Incas, were the favorites of the sun and moon gods, and that those gods were the most powerful. When force was required, the Incas could mobilize huge numbers of citizen soldiers who often simply intimidated small tribes or won battles by overwhelming numerical superiority.

The Spanish could only send very small numbers of people to the Inca empire to accomplish the conquest. Those people had the advantages of canons and guns, of steal weapons and armor, and of armored horses. They had developed very effective tactics over centuries of war with the Islamic peoples in the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula. At least initially, the Incas had no effective tactics against the charge of heavy cavalry supported by canon, guns, and armored foot soldiers.

Diseases introduced to the western hemisphere from Eurasia had reached the Inca empire before the Spanish themselves arrived. Apparently a smallpox epidemic was decimating the empire when they arrived. In other epidemics that killed large portions of the populations, many social systems had failed. One wonders how the food production and distribution systems of the Inca empire survived the hard times. Perhaps not well!

Both the Inca (the head of the Inca tribe and empire, thought to be a son of the sun) had died of the disease, as had his designated heir. A devastating war of succession had followed. The victor was marching to Cuzco, the capitol, when he paused to meet with Pizarro and the first party of Spanish.

In the first meeting, held in a square enclosed with stone buildings, the Inca was accompanied by a relatively large number of officials but those officials were armed only with ceremonial weapons. The Spanish ambushed the larger number of Incas with their superior weapons and succeeded in capturing the Inca. The held him for ransom, finally killing him. They then joined with a member of the ruling Inca family, supporting him as he successfully competed with his relatives to take command of the empire.

During this time of continuing armed conflict, epidemic after epidemic decimated the peoples of the empire. It has been estimated that as many as half of the peoples of the empire had died before the conquest was completed.

I wonder whether the peoples of the empire were still convinced that the Inca hegemony would guarantee their more comfortable lives, or that the sun and moon gods of the Incas were both powerful and favored the Inca empire. Could 50,000 Incas have continued to rule an empire reduced to half its population but continuing to span thousands of miles of territory, even if the Spanish had not been there?

Certainly the Spanish enjoyed the support of many tribes and factions of the Inca tribe in their efforts at conquest. Would they have succeeded without that support? I doubt it. Would they have had that support had the Inca empire not been devastated by disease and war? I doubt it.

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