Barbarians at the Gate
April 13, 2013 § 8 Comments
“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.
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.