Barbarians at the Gate

April 13, 2013 § 8 Comments


peruprescottThe Conquest of Peru (Prescott, William H.)

“As for the Pope of whom you speak, he must be crazy to talk of giving away      countries which do not belong to him.”
– Inca ruler Atahuallpa to Fray Vicente de Valverde

The astonished natives made no attempt at resistance. But … they drew nearer the white men and inquired, why did they not stay at home and till their own lands, instead of roaming about to rob others who had never harmed them?

The story is old, and has lost its punch-line through frequent repetition. A group of illiterate, greedy, filthy, disease-ridden, common thieves from Spain show up at the doors of the Inca empire. In an outrageous act of treachery, they kidnap the Inca ruler when he graciously accepts their invitation to dine with them and arrives unarmed. They then slaughter over two thousand of his unarmed servants and nobles in a single evening. As a prisoner, the Inca ruler promises them ransom beyond the bounds of their imagination. Having agreed to these terms and taken his gold, they then try him on trumped-up charges, find him guilty without evidence, and kill him, while their priest waves his cross in the throes of religious ecstasy. They then proceed to butcher the local population, enslave the survivors, violate the women and rob the countryside on a scale unprecedented in the history of mankind.

The story is old. It doesn’t shock us any longer. When someone begins to narrate it, we recognize it from our schoolbooks, and we say, ah yes, we know all this – and we move on. Some of us will say, parroting views handed to us by others, “Surely we mustn’t judge the conquistadors by the enlightened morals of our modern age?” But their conduct would have been seen as deeply reprehensible then, as we find it today, in Ming China, Safavid Persia, Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey, Mamluk Egypt, the Mandinka empire of Mali, in every civilized country, in fact – possibly even among a majority of people in that part of Europe from whose gutters the conquistadors crawled out. A couple of generations later, the most famous Spanish knight of all time raged memorably against the dying of the age of chivalry. I’d like to believe that this death began when Francisco Pizarro and his band of savages violated laws of hospitality so ancient, universal and intrinsic to mankind that they were shared implicitly by people of all cultures from China to Peru. Don Quixote would have been shocked senseless by their behaviour. Jesus Christ, in whose name the rape of Peru was performed, would probably have been made physically sick by the sight of these barbaric acts, and he lived 1500 years before Pizarro, so do not tell me morality was different in the 16th century.

 “What have I done, or my children, that I should meet such a fate? And from your hands, too, you who have met with friendship and kindness from my people, with whom I have shared my treasures, who have received nothing but benefits from my hands!” Atahualpa to Pizarro, on hearing his death sentence (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“What have I done, or my children, that I should meet such a fate? And from your hands, too, you who have met with friendship and kindness from my people, with whom I have shared my treasures, who have received nothing but benefits from my hands!”
Atahualpa to Pizarro, on hearing his death sentence (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

It wasn’t that Pizarro’s men didn’t know what civilized behaviour was. It was that they didn’t believe it was necessary to extend such behaviour to people who weren’t European, white or Christian. This is precisely what makes me furious.

Some of us might say, “But the Peruvians were brutal, too, weren’t they? Human sacrifices and what not?” Except no, they weren’t. Apparently, the Incas did engage in warfare and conquered several tribes, but they took pains to assimilate them into the empire, and never treated the people they defeated as second-class citizens or less human than themselves.

But how do we know all this? How do we know that we aren’t being unfair to Pizarro and his merry men? That finally brings me to the book in question. The truth is: I only have William H. Prescott’s word for it. The Conquest of Peru was one of the first scholarly historical treatments of the event. Writing in Boston in the 1840s, Prescott consulted scores of original manuscripts and official documents in order to recreate the art, the architecture, the social institutions, the religion, science, and economy of 16th century Peru, and based his character sketches of the principal protagonists on numerous first person accounts. So well-researched is the book, so skilfully narrated, so balanced and factual yet emotionally evocative, that I find it hard not to believe Prescott’s version of what happened, hard not to see things exactly as he did. This, of course is hugely ironic, because Prescott himself was almost completely blind, had never set foot in Peru, and spoke neither Quechua nor Spanish. It is entirely to his credit that it is easy to forget this and to allow the story to take over.

Some evil may be banal at the time of perpetration, but the worst evil achieves banality over time. The story of the conquest of Peru is old; it is no more now than background noise. We know the facts, but do not recall them with the emotion that they deserve. The scar remains, the pain is forgotten. Perhaps it is part of the healing process; the great human brain automatically erasing the memory of a deeply traumatic event. But I think, as many Jews do after the Holocaust, that we should be forced to remember once in a while, to remind ourselves of the evil that men can do. And when we do read of these things, if we find that we are not angry and not shocked, or if we find ourselves making excuses for why it was understandable for it to have happened, then we should consult a therapist.

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§ 8 Responses to Barbarians at the Gate

  • yakalita says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I recently read and wrote up a short post on “The Last Days of the Incas” by Kim MacQuarrie and had a similar reaction to it. Fact is, the Spanish justified their behavior by reading a “Requeirmiento” to rulers of native tribes before they killed them, giving them the choice to convert to Christianity and accept the Spanish as the new leaders of the land. So your choices were twofold: brutal death or surrender/complete betrayal of your local religion and customs.

    • psriblog says:

      Thank you for visiting, and for your comment. Yes, Prescott describes how Atahualpa was going to be burnt alive, and the priest offered a more “humane” option (garrotting) if he would agree to convert to Christianity.

  • tskraghu says:

    Sick barbarians. The bloody country should hang its head in shame. Did they give out a national apology? Not that it matters. Only yesterday I read about the horrors Leopold inflicted on Congo. I’m glad we dont have any such ‘conquests’ to explain in our history.

    • psriblog says:

      Raghu, whether it is to do with the conquistadors in Mexico and Peru, Belgians in the Congo, the French in Algeria, or the British East India Company in India for that matter, there is strong data to suggest that the people in the home country were deeply shocked by the excesses committed by a small group of colonists. But did they do enough to prevent or rein in these excesses, when it was economically convenient for them to turn a blind eye? Sometimes there are shades of grey, especially as you go further from the scene of the actual crimes…

      Finally: I am not sure we don’t have such conquests to explain. There are hundreds of marginalized tribes and communities all over India, and for centuries, we never accepted them as equals and brothers. I need to explain this systematic discrimination to myself before I can call us holier than anyone else! Is communalism and casteism fundamentally different from racism and colonialism?

      What do you think?

      • tskraghu says:

        I agree with you, now that you bring up the question of our treatment of the tribes. I recall a friend of mine from Raipur was telling me how badly were the tribes and their women were exploited by government officials and others for years. He was sympathizing with the voilent resistance that one sees today. When I heard those horror stories I could not feel otherwise.

        But somehow these dont appear comparable. I am sure the horrors perpetrated on the tribals did not have official sanction the colonials seemd to have had.

      • psriblog says:

        Agree to disagree? I think it is a matter of degree at best, and not fundamentally different…but believable data is hard to come by.

  • Rick Searle says:

    I have been to Peru and the memory is still there, a kind of pain over what might have been, a belief that they were conquered by scoundrels,
    defeated by trickery.

  • […] Society and Politics in India by Susan Bayly,” I’d say, enthusiastically in the old days, or “The Conquest of Peru by William H Prescott”, or “a little novel by E Phillip Oppenheim”, or much worse, “the first volume of […]

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