Freedom is … a Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Person, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another … The great and chief end therefore, of Men’s uniting into Commonwealths … is the preservation of their Property.

John Locke

We are the vile offspring of the predatory Spaniards who came to America to bleed her white and to breed with their victims. Later the illegitimate offspring of these unions joined with the offspring of slaves transported from Africa. With such racial mixture and such a moral record, can we afford to place laws above leaders and principles above men?

Simón Bolívar


It was a new world. But it was to be the West’s world. It would be Europeans that reached out across the Atlantic Ocean to take possession of a vast landmass that, prior to Martin Waldseemüller’s Universalis cosmographia of 1507, simply did not appear on maps: America – named after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.* It was Europe’s monarchies – above all Spain and England – who, vying for souls, gold and land, were willing to cross oceans and conquer whole continents. To many historians, the discovery of the Americas (broadly defined to include the Caribbean) is theparamount reason for the ascendancy of the West. Without the New World, it has been asserted, ‘Western Europe would have remained a small, backward region of Eurasia, dependent on the East for transfusions of technology, transmissions of culture, and transfers of wealth.’1 Without American ‘ghost acres’ and the African slaves who worked them, there could have been no ‘European Miracle’, no Industrial Revolution.2 In view of the advances already achieved in Western Europe both economically and scientifically prior to large-scale development of the New World, these claims seem overblown. The real significance of the conquest and colonization of the Americas is that it was one of history’s biggest natural experiments: take two Western cultures, export them and impose them on a wide range of different peoples and lands – the British in the North, the Spanish and Portuguese in the South. Then see which does better.

It was no contest. Looking at the world today, four centuries on, no one could possibly doubt that the dominant force in Western civilization is the United States of America. Until very recently, Latin America has lagged far behind Anglo-America. How and why did that happen? You might think it was because the northern soil was more fertile or had more gold and oil beneath it, or because the weather was better, or because the rivers were more propitiously located – or just because Europe was geographically closer. But these were not the keys to North American success. Nor can it be claimed that the Spanish Empire – or the Portuguese – was afflicted with the defects of the great Oriental empires. Unlike the Chinese, the Spaniards were early participants in the global trade boom after 1500. Unlike the Ottomans, they were early participants in the Scientific Revolution.3Instead, it was an idea that made the crucial difference between British and Iberian America – an idea about the way people should govern themselves. Some people make the mistake of calling that idea ‘democracy’ and imagining that any country can adopt it merely by holding elections. In reality, democracy was the capstone of an edifice that had as its foundation the rule of law – to be precise, the sanctity of individual freedom and the security of private property rights, ensured by representative, constitutional government.

‘There are few words which are used more loosely than the word “Civilization”,’ declared the greatest of all Anglo-Americans, at a time when civilization as he understood it stood in mortal danger. ‘What does it mean?’ His answer is as perfect a definition of the political difference between the West and the Rest as has ever been formulated:

It means a society based upon the opinion of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the conditions of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained. That is Civilization – and in its soil grow continually freedom, comfort and culture. When Civilization reigns in any country, a wider and less harassed life is afforded to the masses of the people. The traditions of the past are cherished and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.

The central principle of Civilization is the subordination of the ruling class to the settled customs of the people and to their will as expressed in the Constitution …4

Thus Winston Churchill, son of an English aristocrat and an American heiress, in 1938. But where did that peculiarly Anglo-American definition of civilization – of freedom and peace based on the rule of law and constitutional government – spring from? And why did it fail to take root in America south of the Rio Grande?

Our story begins with two ships. On one, landing in northern Ecuador in 1532, were fewer than 200 Spaniards accompanying the man who already claimed the title ‘Governor of Peru’. Their ambition was to conquer the Inca Empire for the King of Spain and to secure a large share of its reputed wealth of precious metal for themselves. The other ship, the Carolina, reached the New World 138 years later, in 1670, at an island off the coast of what today is South Carolina. Among those on board were servants whose modest ambition was to find a better life than the grinding poverty they had left behind in England.

The two ships symbolized this tale of two Americas. On one, conquistadors; on the other indentured servants. One group dreamt of instant plunder – of mountains of Mayan gold, there for the taking. The others knew that they had years of toil ahead of them, but also that they would be rewarded with one of the world’s most attractive assets – prime North American land – plus a share in the process of law-making. Real estate plus representation: that was the North American dream.

Yet at the outset it was not the poor English migrants in the North but the conquistadors in the South who seemed better placed. The Spaniards, after all, had got there first. During the sixteenth century, the work of colonizing the Americas was left almost entirely to the people of the Iberian peninsula. While Englishmen still hankered after conquering Calais, mighty native American empires were being subjugated by Spanish adventurers. In Mexico the bloodthirsty Aztecs were laid low by Hernán Cortés between 1519 and 1521. And in Peru, just over a decade later, the lofty Andean empire of the Incas was laid low by Francisco Pizarro.

Pizarro had no illusions about the relationship between the risks and rewards of conquest. It took two expeditions in 1524 and 1526 even to locate the Inca Empire. In the course of the second, when some of his less tenacious brethren were faltering, Pizarro spelt out that relationship by drawing a line in the sand:

Comrades and friends, there lies the part that represents death, hardship, hunger, nakedness, rains and abandonment; this side represents comfort. Here you return to Panama to be poor; there you may go forward to Peru to be rich. Choose which best becomes you as good Spaniards.5

His third expedition, which set sail from Panama in 1530, consisted of 180 men, among them a core of brothers and intimates from his home town of Trujillo. By the time they reached the Peruvian Highlands, Pizarro had just sixty horsemen and ninety footsoldiers at his command. The audacity of what they did remains astonishing even after the passage of half a millennium. The population of the empire they intended to subjugate was somewhere between 5 and 10 million.

On the conquistadors’ side, however, was an invisible ally: the European diseases to which South Americans had no resistance – smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus. At the same time, the Spaniards’ horses, guns and crossbows were weapons far superior to anything in the Inca armoury; they gave the invaders a terrifying extra-terrestrial aspect. And the Incas themselves were divided. Since the death of the Inca Huayna Capac, his sons Atahualpa and Huascar had been battling for the succession, while subject tribes scented a chance to throw off the Inca yoke. The Battle of Cajamarca (14 November 1532) was thus scarcely a battle at all. As Pizarro’s brother Hernando described it, Atahualpa walked into a trap when he accepted the Spaniards’ invitation to dinner:

When Atahualpa had advanced to the centre of an open space, he stopped, and a Dominican friar, who was with the Governor [Pizarro], came forward to tell him, on the part of the Governor, that he waited for him in his lodging, and that he was sent to speak with him. The friar then told Atahualpa that he was a priest, and that he was sent there to teach the things of the faith if they should desire to be Christians. He showed Atahualpa a book which he carried in his hands [the Bible], and told him that that book contained the things of God. Atahualpa asked for the book, and threw it on the ground, saying: ‘I will not leave this place until you have restored all that you have taken in my land. I know well who you are and what you have come for.’ Then he rose up in his litter and addressed his men, and there were murmurs among them and calls to those who were armed. The friar went to the Governor and reported what was being done and that no time was to be lost. The Governor sent to me; and I had arranged with the captain of the artillery that, when a sign was given, he should discharge his pieces, and that, on hearing the reports, all the troops should come forth at once. This was done, and as the Indians were unarmed they were defeated without danger to any Christian.6

In the words of the sixteenth-century Andean chronicler Waman Poma, the Spaniards killed the panic-stricken Indians ‘like ants’.7

Peru was not conquered in a single battle. There were Inca revolts led by Manco Cápac in 1535 and again, on a much larger scale, between 1536 and 1539. Nor were the Indians slow to adopt European ways of warfare. They proved to be tenacious guerrilla fighters. At the same time, the Spaniards quarrelled enough among themselves to jeopardize their dominance – to the extent that fraternal strife claimed Pizarro’s own life in 1541. It was not until the execution of Túpac Amaru more than thirty years later, in September 1572, that Inca resistance was irreparably broken.

Among the Spaniards was a young captain from Segovia named Jerónimo de Aliaga. To de Aliaga, Peru was as weird as it was wonderful. He marvelled at the scale and sophistication of Inca architecture, not least the huge northern wall of the Sacsayhuamán fortress at their capital, Cuzco, with its perfectly interlocking 200-ton stones. Much of what the Spaniards later built at Cuzco they erected on top of Inca walls and foundations, recognizing their extraordinary, earthquake-resistant quality.8 Today we can get a better sense of the pre-Conquest grandeur of the Inca achievement at Machu Picchu – the legendary ‘lost city of the Incas’, which seems to float amid the clouds of the Andes, a city the Spaniards never found and so never despoiled and rebuilt. High above the Urubamba River, Machu Picchu was probably constructed in the mid-fifteenth century. Despite its seemingly impractical location, clinging to steep mountainsides more than 8,000 feet above sea-level, it was clearly a self-sufficient settlement, with running spring water and terraces for the cultivation of crops and the grazing of livestock. Wholly unknown to the Western world until 1911, when it was found by the American academic and explorer Hiram Bingham,9 it serves as a warning that no civilization, no matter how mighty it may appear to itself, is indestructible. We still do not know what purpose the city served. Nor do we know exactly when and why the Incas abandoned it. One strong possibility is that epidemic disease arrived there from Hispaniola (the island which is today divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti) ahead of the conquistadors, killing the population and leaving Machu Picchu a ghost town.

The pretext for the initial Spanish assault at Cajamarca was that the Incas refused to convert to Christianity. But it was not God but gold that really interested Pizarro. The captured Atahualpa’s vain attempt to secure his freedom by filling his cell once with gold and twice with silver merely aroused the conquistadors’ appetite for precious metal. The 13,420 pounds of 22-carat gold and 26,000 pounds of pure silver that were duly piled up made every man in the expedition rich at a stroke. But there was more – much more.10 The Spaniards had also found gold in Hispaniola and vast deposits of silver at Zacatecas in Central Mexico. Now they found the cerro rico (‘rich mountain’) at Potosí, a silver mine without equal in the world. Everywhere the Spaniards looked in Peru, it seemed, there was specie. As Pizarro’s chief accountant, Jerónimo de Aliaga was well placed to grasp the full extent of this newfound wealth. Prior to 1550, gold worth around 10 million pesos was taken from Peru, about half of it plundered, the rest mined.11 Over time, the output of the silver mines rose steadily, from around 50 tonnes a year in the early 1500s to over 900 tonnes by 1780.12 In all, between 1500 and 1800, precious metal worth roughly £109 billion at today’s prices was shipped from the New World to Europe or via the Pacific to Asia, a large part of it from the mines of Peru. Men like de Aliaga became very rich indeed. He was able to build himself a magnificent townhouse in the new Peruvian capital of Lima, with an inner courtyard that stands on the site of an Inca temple. The house has been occupied by his descendants ever since; the present occupant, Gonzalo de Aliaga, is unabashedly proud of his conquistador ancestor.

The Spaniards appeared to be laying the foundation for an entirely new and spectacular civilization, to be run from a few splendid cities by a tiny, wealthy Spanish-born elite. And those cities grew rapidly. Mexico City had 100,000 inhabitants in 1692, at a time when Boston had barely 6,000. Twenty-five Spanish American universities were founded, like the one at Santo Domingo, which predates Harvard by nearly a century.13 The sciences of cartography and metallurgy flourished.14 The Spaniards learned to enjoy at least some of the staples of Meso-American cuisine: chillies, peanuts, potatoes and turkeys (all later adopted by North Americans).15 Hundreds of lavishly adorned churches were built, and some of the most imposing cathedrals in the world, like the magnificent one at Cuzco designed by the architect Francisco Becerra and completed in 1669 by the Flemish Jesuit Juan Bautista Egidiano. Franciscans as well as Jesuits flocked to South America in their thousands to convert what remained of the indigenous population. But while the Church was influential, ultimate power resided with the Spanish Crown. And, crucially, the Crown owned all the land. The story of property-ownership in North America would be altogether different.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!