2.

LOOT, LABOUR AND LAND

Since the discovery of America, the greater part of Europe

has been much improved. England, Holland, France, and

Germany; even Sweden, Denmark, and Russia have all

advanced . . . both in agriculture and in manufactures.

—Adam Smith, 17761

The Indians . . . seem to have been placed by Providence amidst the riches of the New World to enjoy them for a season, and then surrender them.

—Alexis de Tocqueville, 18352

The genius of American democracy comes not from any special virtue of the American people but from the unprecedented opportunities of this continent and from a peculiar and unrepeatable combination of historical circumstances.—Daniel Boorstin, 19533

IN THE 1830S THE YOUNG FRENCHMAN Alexis de Tocqueville, making his way around the fledgling United States by horse and steamboat, briefly discussed the mystery of prehistoric American buildings with Sam Houston, who had lived among the Cherokees and later became famous as the president of Texas.4 At that time the ancient towns and earthen pyramids found along the Mississippi and elsewhere were a mystery, but Tocqueville (ever the futurist) took them as evidence of America’s potential, rather than its past. “The whole continent,” he mused prophetically, “seemed prepared to be the abode of a great nation, yet unborn.”5

The New World had indeed been ripe for takeover by the Old, if not quite in the way Tocqueville imagined. Besides the land itself, the modern American empire would get most of its makings from two ancient American empires further south—albeit by way of Europe. Ever since the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru had fallen to Spain in the sixteenth century, their treasures had been transforming the world.

The Aztecs and Incas have become marginal figures in our winners’ history, exotic bit-players in the pageant of Europe’s rise. Their only well-known role—as victims on a world stage stalked by the conquistadors—was indeed brief, a dozen years’ tragedy from contact to collapse. But their legacy (and that of their forerunners) has been vast and enduring. In life the ancient American civilizations were unknown to the outside world. In death they became the key drivers behind the population boom of the last five centuries, the slave trade and, perhaps most surprisingly, the Industrial Revolution—a connection first noted by Karl Marx.6 With the conquests of Mexico and Peru began the accumulation of loot, labour and land that would build the Columbian Age, at first in Europe and then in North America.

In the year 1500, there were some 400 million humans on Earth, of whom a fifth, or maybe a fourth—80 to 100 million—were living in the Americas. About half these Americans were subjects of the Aztec and Inca empires, each of which ruled 20 million people, more or less. (All such figures are merely informed guesswork; what matters here is their relative weight.7) Today, about one in twenty people is a citizen of the United States. In 1500 one in twenty was either an Aztec or an Inca subject. Taken together, the Mexican and Peruvian empires held one-tenth of humankind.

But that was at their height. They have since been sidelined by history—and for the same reason that they fell so swiftly. Within decades of first contact with Europeans, the populations of Mexico and Peru collapsed by more than 90 percent, abruptly reducing their presence in the world to less than one-hundredth of the human race. The demographer George Lovell has called this decline “the greatest destruction of lives in history.”8

The Spaniards were doubtless efficient killers in those days, but no human agency of the time could have slaughtered anything like so many and so fast. It was the work of fate or, as the Europeans saw it, the will of God. For several thousand years, fate had been stacking biological weapons against America: smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, yellow fever, cholera, malaria and more—all unknown in the Western Hemisphere before 1492. Unlike Africa, whose tropical diseases kept whites at bay for centuries, America lacked mass killers of her own.

If we picture the 5 or 6 million years since humans and other apes parted company as a single day, we have achieved civilization in the last minute and a half. And industrial civilization—which is not much older than the United States itself—arose only in the last five seconds.9

By civilization, I mean the settled way of life that slowly took hold after the discovery of agriculture transformed the food supply, a chain of events called the Neolithic or Farming Revolution.10 The Farming Revolution began around ten thousand years ago, and the earliest societies complex enough to be called civilizations appeared about five thousand years ago—in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Peru.11

For the industrial stage, we have only one primary example: northern Europe and its offshoots. But for all the previous stages—from hunting and gathering to plant breeding and animal husbandry, and on from there to the growth of cities, states and empires—we have two independent examples, two cultural laboratories coincidentally running similar experiments on opposite sides of the Atlantic.12

By about fifteen thousand years ago, many big animals across Eurasia were sliding toward extinction, mainly because of human hunting pressure. Around the same time, or before, hunters made their way from Asia to the Americas—either across a Bering land bridge or down the coasts, or both.13 Whatever the exact route and date of their arrival, these first people were also the first apes of any kind to set foot in the Western Hemisphere (though monkeys already lived there). This absence of near kin made the Americas exceptionally welcoming: the game had no fear of murderous bipeds, and there were few local diseases that might leap from prey to man.14

The incomers fanned out, eating their way through most of the big game from the Arctic to the Amazon. Like modern humans, ancient ones could be reckless overconsumers. The first Americans then faced the same problem as their cousins left behind in the Old World; they had to find new ways to make a living. And they came up with similar solutions: plant gathering became gardening; gardening became farming. Animals were tamed: llamas, alpacas, dogs, guinea pigs, ducks, turkeys. But the ancestral hunters had left the American faunal cupboard rather bare, having killed all the mammoths and horses in the hemisphere and all camels north of Panama; deer proved untameable (as elsewhere), and so did the lone survivor of the bison family, who was too wild and wily to become a cow.15

Luckily, the New World was exceptionally rich in obliging plants: foods, pharmaceuticals, fibres and rubber. Like the first true cities in the Old World, the first in the Americas grew with the invention of irrigation, and at about the same time. In Peruvian desert valleys beside rich Pacific fishing grounds, archaeologists have recently found towns with large temple platforms and stone houses dating from five thousand years ago—a time when the only comparable buildings on Earth were in Mesopotamia.16

Within another thousand years, agrarian civilization had got under way throughout the Andean region (or Greater Peru) and Mesoamerica (or Greater Mexico). In the process a number of efficient food staples were developed—maize, the potato, the sweet potato, manioc, beans and squash. Most of these crops were more productive than those of the Old World, making up for the dearth of animals.17

From this agrarian footing, the full edifice of civilization arose in the Americas: towns, roads, governments, priesthoods, armies, art and architecture, books and archives. The New World’s path was enough like the Old World’s that, by 1519, when Hernán Cortés first saw the capital of Aztec Mexico, the Spaniard could describe the alien city—the end result of fifteen thousand years of independent growth—by comparing it to European ones. It had forty “towers” (steep pyramid-temples), the tallest “higher than that of the cathedral of Seville”;18 the central square was so great that within it “a town of some five hundred inhabitants could easily be built”; the commercial plaza was so extensive that even those Spaniards who had been to Constantinople “had never seen a market so well laid out, so large, so orderly, and so full of people.”19

On the eve of its destruction, Aztec Mexico City had some quarter million inhabitants—about the same as contemporary Constantinople, or London, Paris and Seville combined. Then (as now) it was the biggest city in the Americas and among the top half dozen in the world.

Like the modern Americans, the Aztecs and Incas were late-comers to fortune in their day, merely the most recent empire builders in a long succession reaching back thousands of years.20 Mesoamerica (a name for both Mexico and the adjoining Maya region of Central America) and Greater Peru (the Andean region of South America from Colombia to Chile) had been the two heartlands of American civilization from the very beginning. They had much in common but were also quite distinct culturally, economically and politically. Mesoamerica was the more teeming, mercantile and urban world—a welter of competing city-states. With its jungles, mountains and flood-plains jumbled together, the land itself seemed to stimulate diversity, warfare, trade and edgy brilliance. From time to time, one city would rise above the others, much like Florence or Venice in medieval Italy.

When the Spaniards arrived, by far the most powerful Mesoamerican state was Mexico, also a general name for the Aztec capital, a twin city built on largely manmade islands in a great mountain lake surrounded by volcanoes.21 Mexico’s core alliance comprised several neighbouring cities, though the hard power lay with Tenochtitlan, whose main square and street grid survive as downtown Mexico City. Tenochtitlan did not try to integrate its domains; it simply extorted wealth from vassals, both by outright levies and through the high-handed trading of merchant-princes backed by the Aztec war machine. The great city also meddled in the affairs of tributaries, toppling rulers and installing puppets. Ritualized militarism held the system together, expressed, as in Rome and so many other places, by grand displays of mass slaughter—in this case the sacrifice of war captives at the top of stepped pyramids two hundred feet high.22 Such political and commercial practices were normal in Mesoamerica; the Aztecs were hated by rivals not for what they did but for doing it best. As Inga Clendinnen has written, “Tenochtitlan was a beautiful parasite, feeding on the lives and labour of other peoples and casting its shadow over all their arrangements.”23

Around the world, in both ancient and modern times, there have been two main kinds of imperial system: tribute (or hegemonic) empires, in which client states are dominated but not integrated by an overlord, and centralized (or territorial) empires, which aim to incorporate their subjects into a greater whole, with a single economy, government, official language and religion.24

Tribute empires are protection rackets: exploitive, unstable, usually short-lived. So long as wealth and loyalty flow upward, client states are left to run their home affairs, which means squeezing their own people to pay the overlord. Subject peoples receive no benefits beyond survival and are kept in line by fear of a military harrying or a palace coup if the flow of tribute falters. Like a top dog, a hegemon is only as good as his last fight. Centralized empires, on the other hand, see themselves as civilizing and benevolent, extending public works, education and citizenship to what Rudyard Kipling called “lesser breeds without the law.”25

Some empires have combined elements of both kinds or evolved from one into the other. Rome and Britain began as tribute gatherers but later became centralized. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union behaved as tribute empires beyond their heartlands, manipulating quasi-independent states in Europe, Latin America and the rest of the Third World (a matter I shall return to in Chapters 7 and 8 when discussing American power today).

If the Aztec Empire was a textbook case of a tribute system, things were very different in the Inca Empire, which called itself Tawantinsuyu, the “United Four Quarters,” and had its capital at Cusco in the highlands of southern Peru.26 The Incas were great organizers and builders, the Romans of the New World. They had spread their rule up and down the Andean backbone of South America and from the desert Pacific coast to the Amazon jungle, controlling all of what are now Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia plus half of Chile and parts of Argentina.27 This is a hard and sprawling land: three thousand miles long, hundreds of miles wide, with treeless steppes more than twelve thousand feet high and snow-capped ranges nearly twice that height, broken by passes through icefields. To support human life in any abundance and security, the Andean region demanded massive public works: irrigation on the coast, terracing in the mountains, raised fields and drainage canals in the jungles and good roads to bind all together and distribute food. In a land where one in three harvests was likely to be lost in any zone, the incentives for spreading risk by central management were high.28

Although many of the ethnic groups who had been conquered or persuaded to join the Inca realm were not fully absorbed by the 1520s, the United Four Quarters was well on its way to becoming an integrated territorial empire like Han China or Augustan Rome, with imperial administrative hubs linked by well-built roads and bridges.29 There was no cult of militarism or mass human sacrifice; Inca warfare was certainly ruthless, but it was politics by other means, not an end in itself. Andean political prestige depended on a ruler’s ability to impose order, redistribute wealth, and control a network of reciprocal exchanges. These were not equal exchanges—the rulers lived more grandly than their subjects—but there was no slavery, hunger or grinding poverty.30 “In each head province,” wrote the Spanish soldier and chronicler Cieza de León, “there were great numbers of warehouses full of supplies and provisions . . . and if there was no war all these supplies were distributed among the poor and widows, the very old, the lame [and] the blind and the sick.”31 In Mexico, by contrast, one of the familiar features noted by Cortés was that “the poor begged from the rich in city streets . . . just as they did in Spain.”32 And just as they do now in the wealthiest nations of all time.

There is no need to retell here the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519-21, but I do want to underline one important fact that is too often overlooked. Despite the technology gap between Mexico and Europe, and the large Spanish army assembled at Mexico City by Hernán Cortés—1,200 Europeans and thousands of local allies—the Aztecs won. On a rainy summer night in 1520, remembered by the Spaniards as the Night of Sorrow, Mexican forces killed at least two-thirds of the Europeans and a similar number of their native allies.33 It was an utter rout.

That should have been the end of the invasion for many years—years during which Mexico could have readied its defences. The Europeans’ technological and psychological advantages were a one-shot weapon, now spent; subsequent attempts at colonization would have been more gradual, more difficult and ultimately reversible, more like the British career in India.34 But just then, “when the Christians were exhausted from war,” a Spaniard wrote, “God saw fit to send the Indians smallpox.”35

Smallpox (eradicated in 1978) was probably the deadliest mass killer to afflict humanity. Europeans had known it for centuries; they often caught it in childhood and, if they lived, held both acquired and some genetic immunity. But the plague that hit Mexico in the fall of 1520 was the first outbreak ever on the American mainland—a true “virgin soil” pandemic—and its virulence was catastrophic. In a matter of weeks, it killed the Aztec ruler and at least half the population, utterly transforming the balance of power.36 In the chaotic aftermath, Cortés was able to resupply, return, rebuild his alliance with Tenochtitlan’s foes and besiege the stricken city, which still took nearly three months to fall. Even that was far from the end for the luckless Mexicans: wave after wave of pestilence scythed through their population for decades, reducing them to less than a tenth of their original strength.37

The main credit for establishing beyond doubt that the New World’s true conquerors were microbes must go to the American bio-historian Alfred Crosby. “Had there been no epidemic,” he wrote in 1972, “Cortés might have ended his life spread-eagled beneath the obsidian blade of [an Aztec] priest.”38 The truth is that the Spaniards did not succeed in conquering any major state on the American mainland until after a smallpox plague had struck. When they tried, they lost. Cortés’s Night of Sorrow was not unique: in 1517 and 1518, first Francisco Hernández and then Juan de Grijalva were defeated by Maya on the Yucatán and Gulf coasts; in 1521 a Floridian arrow put an end to Juan Ponce de León’s quest for the Fountain of Youth; and around 1524 Alejo García’s attack on the southeastern flank of the Inca Empire from Paraguay ended with its leader’s death. “The miraculous triumphs” of the Spanish conquistadors, Crosby underlines, “were in large part the triumphs of the virus of smallpox.”39

The same virgin-soil outbreak that gave victory to Cortés then ran ahead of the Spaniards for several years: a pan-American wildfire, burning north beyond the Aztec Empire, south through the Maya city-states to the Spanish base at Panama, and deep into South America. This first pandemic may have ranged from the Great Lakes to the pampas—the full gamut of advanced societies in the New World—before running out of tinder.40

Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro and other would-be conquistadors in Panama had begun a long search for a golden kingdom to the south, rumours of which had been tantalizing them for years.41 Rumour gained substance on an exploratory voyage in 1526. Reaching the equator off what is now Ecuador, one of Pizarro’s ships met an Inca ship heading north. The Spaniards at first mistook the native craft for a rival caravel, noting it had “masts and yards of very fine wood, and cotton sails in the same shape and manner as on our own ships.”42 The strange vessel was a balsa, a great raft similar to the famous Kon-Tiki, reconstructed from old drawings by Thor Heyerdahl in the 1940s, but much bigger and more sophisticated. On board were twenty seamen and thirty tons of freight for export, including worked gold, pottery and fine clothing. For about a thousand years, Peruvians had been sailing the Pacific Ocean, not only along the coast but as far west as the Galápagos—a feat comparable to reaching the Canaries and Azores from Europe.43

Guided by men he seized from the Peruvian ship, Pizarro scouted the coast, going ashore and meeting Inca officials at Tumbes and other seaports. The Spaniards found a thriving empire, apparently still under the firm yet benign hand of the Inca Huayna Capac, said to have been a great beer drinker and “much beloved by all his subjects.”44 Smallpox had not yet struck.45 Pizarro passed himself off as a friendly envoy from a distant lord, then sailed back to Panama and on to Spain for royal backing and reinforcements.

When he returned to Peru with a bigger force four years later, everything had changed, as perhaps Pizarro knew.46 Smallpox had burst upon the Incas in 1527-28; the port of Tumbes had become an eerie ruin. The plague had killed Huayna Capac, his chosen heir, at least half the Inca court and general population as well as government and military personnel throughout the empire.47 An ensuing power vacuum had led to wars of secession and succession. High up, along the spine of the Andes, minor sons of the dead Inca (in this sense, the word means “emperor”) were waging a bitter civil war. The white intruders were largely ignored, left to do as they liked in the lowlands for a year and a half; they even began building a Spanish town.48

Wittingly or not, Francisco Pizarro had avoided fighting a native American kingdom in its prime. Smallpox had set up the conditions that would make his conquest possible. His cousin Pedro later wrote: “Had Huayna Capac been alive when we Spaniards invaded this land, it would have been impossible for us to win . . . not even if more than a thousand Spaniards had come at once.”49 As in Mexico, the great plagues struck for decades, until Peru had lost at least 93 percent of its people. 50

In November 1532, at some hot springs outside a highland city called Cajamarca, the winner among Huayna Capac’s sons—a man in his early thirties named Atahuallpa—received a visit from Pizarro’s lieutenant, Hernando de Soto (who would die beside the Mississippi ten years later). Despite being preoccupied with his dynastic war, Atahuallpa had already sent spies to investigate the Spaniards at their camp on the coast.51 They had reported that the intruders were barbarians and thieves, disorderly in their ways and so lazy that they rode on “big llamas.” “With this, Atahuallpa was reassured,” wrote Pedro Pizarro, “and he took [us] for nothing.”52

In a display characteristic of each culture, Soto reared his horse so that its breath stirred the crimson fringe of vicuña wool across the Inca’s brow. Atahuallpa, who had never seen a horse or a Spaniard before, sat perfectly still; it was said that he executed any of his men who flinched. Certainly, he later admitted that he’d planned to kill most of the Spaniards, make the rest into household eunuchs, and breed the horses.53 Inca officials had kept a tally of the outlanders’ crimes: theft, torture, murder, rape and more. The spies had correctly informed Atahuallpa that the barbarians were few, not quite two hundred men, with about a third on horse. The Peruvians had examined the intruders’ swords and may even have seen gunfire, but they had not watched the Spaniards in battle. 54 Fasting, nursing a war wound and arrogant from recent victories, the young Inca seriously underestimated the Europeans.

According to a memoir written by Atahuallpa’s nephew, insults were exchanged at the first meeting.55 The Inca then told the Spaniards to go into the city and wait in the open public halls surrounding the plaza. They were left there until late the following afternoon, taunted by passersby: “We thought our lives were finished,” one of Pizarro’s men wrote home.56 At last the Inca entered the square, borne on a golden throne and accompanied by thousands of retainers who had not bothered to bring weapons “because they thought so little of the Spaniards.”57 Unaware that he was deep inside a trap of his own making, Atahuallpa confronted the foreigners with their crimes. When a Spanish priest handed him a Bible, he haughtily cast it down.58

The rest of the story takes its well-known shape. Mounted Spaniards charged from the tall doorways of the halls and slaughtered the unarmed Peruvians. “We killed eight thousand men in about two and a half hours,” one boasted.59 Atahuallpa was pulled from his palanquin and thrown in chains.

The crestfallen Inca soon took better measure of his captors. “Do you eat gold?” he asked sarcastically, and the strangers answered yes, they did.60 (In Mexico, Cortés had said much the same, telling Moctezuma that Spaniards suffered from “a disease of the heart for which gold is the only cure.”61) So Atahuallpa offered to call off his armies and pay a king’s ransom for his life: a room full of gold and two of silver. For six months, llama trains brought tons of gold stripped from all the great buildings of Peru: architectural bands from walls and rooftops; thrones, altars, statues, urns, dishes.62 The ransom bought Atahuallpa time, but time was not on his side. Spanish reinforcements came from Panama, doubling his captors’ strength.63 Pizarro forced the Peruvian goldsmiths to melt their own work into bullion, then killed Atahuallpa anyway. 64

So, how much did the Spaniards really get, and what was it worth at the time? The haul from Cajamarca, as declared to the Spanish king, was 13,420 pounds of 22.5 carat gold—nearly 7 tons—and about 13 tons of silver. Later that year Pizarro stripped 3 more tons of gold (and many more of silver) from Cusco, the Inca capital. 65 It is fair to assume that further “saint-seducing gold” escaped the eye of the royal taxman, who, as usual, was sent along with the invasion. The Inca’s subjects also defied their ruler, burying items they deemed too precious or too holy to be lost, though hoards were later uncovered by Inquisitional techniques. In safe round figures, as officially declared, Pizarro and his men seized 10 tons of gold from the two cities. It sounds like a lot. Yet at today’s bullion price, it would fetch only $300 million—small change in a world of a thousand billionaires. Bill Gates alone is worth more than $50 billion.66

That said, current gold prices tell us very little—because the world economy and money supply have exploded since the 1530s. Indeed, the buying power of gold and silver dropped through the centuries mainly because of the New World treasure, as the political economist Adam Smith explained in his 1776 Wealth of Nations.67 Since Smith’s day the picture has changed again: industrial mining has vastly increased the bullion stock, but the really big money has only a ghost’s life nowadays, in electronic files.

William Prescott, the great historian of the Spanish conquests, said that few European monarchs of that day possessed anything like such a sum. He reckoned that Atahuallpa’s gold would have been worth more than £5 million sterling, or US$22 million, when he was writing in the 1840s.68At that time, the Bank of England’s gold reserves were about £8 million.69 In 1867 the United States bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. Clearly, Pizarro’s band of thugs seized a treasure of national proportions, equivalent to many billions, perhaps trillions, today.

Like a gravitational mass warping space and time, the great pile of heavy metal distorted everything around it. As soon as each conqueror got his share, hyperinflation broke out in Peru: horses fetched astronomical sums, and their hooves were shod in silver.70 Peru became a goldrush land, the Eldorado of all time.71

Years later, dictating his will on his deathbed, the last of Pizarro’s men unburdened his conscience to King Philip:

His Catholic Majesty must know that we found these countries in such a condition that there were no thieves, no vicious men, no idlers. . . . We have transformed these natives, who had so much wisdom. . . . There was then no evil thing, but today there is no good.72

Some modern writers have seen Peru’s tragedy as a Manichaean fight between individualism and community, wealth and commonwealth. For the left, the United Four Quarters was a “socialist” empire, overthrown by robber barons. For the right, it was a grim, totalitarian state. Both views are naïve anachronisms, examples of posterity’s “enormous condescension” to the past.73 The real link between ancient Peru and modern capitalism is more substantial than any political or moral point.

Karl Marx may not be America’s favourite philosopher, and his utopian project, like that of the Incas, lies in ruins, yet he remains one of the best economic historians and analysts. In 1847 he drew a direct link between the Industrial Revolution and Atahuallpa’s gold: “An indispensable condition for the establishment of manufacturing industry,” Marx wrote, “was the accumulation of capital facilitated by the discovery of America and the importation of its precious metals.”74

Ever since money began, gold and silver had been in tight supply in pre-Columbian Europe.75 Precious metals tended to migrate toward the Orient in exchange for silk, spices and ceramics. Like the trade imbalance between today’s America and China, the Silk Road was a one-way street; the Chinese wanted nothing from the west but cash. This had been going on since Roman times. Toward the end of the first century A.D., Pliny the Younger estimated that half of Rome’s bullion was flowing to Asia. At about that time, the empire began debasing its coinage, and the “silver” denarius slowly became worthless.

Medieval kings were also notorious debtors and debasers. The only way Edward I of England could escape bankruptcy was by expelling his Jewish creditors. And in 1516—just before the big payoff from America—Ferdinand of Spain, another ejector of Jews and the founder of the Inquisition, left barely enough in his treasury to cover his own funeral.76 Today, after five centuries of European triumph, it is easy to forget just how marginal Europe was until she stumbled on the New World jackpot. For all the dash and brilliance of the Italian Renaissance, it was China that had the world’s greatest economy and most advanced technology.77

In 1534 a Seville official wrote deliriously to King Charles: “The quantity of gold that arrives every day from the Indies, and especially from Peru, is quite incredible. . . . This city will become the richest in the world.”78 A few conquistadors invested wisely and settled down, but most wasted their treasure and died young. The important thing is that the gold went into circulation. Like Pizarro himself, Europe leapt from poverty to wealth and power almost overnight.

Consider how things might have gone if the Americas had been uncivilized or uninhabited when the Europeans turned up half-dead from months at sea. There would have been no towns, roads and bridges, no stores of food and clothing, and no labour pool—let alone cities of gold to repay investors promptly and recruit new men. One of the first things the Spaniards did in Mexico and Peru was interrogate native officials, miners and smiths. If the hemisphere had been a wilderness, there would have been no local knowledge of where gold and silver might be found.

Despite the pandemics, enough subjects of America’s pre-Columbian empires survived to make wealth for their new masters. Most colonial mines were expansions of ancient ones, and the miners were raised from existing tribute and taxation networks. In Mexico, the Aztec tribute books were minutely studied by the Spanish viceroys.79 In Peru, the work tax, the mit’a, was perverted into forced labour with none of the food, clothing or other benefits of the Inca system. As the shafts wormed ever deeper into the Andes, the work became harder and deadlier. Often the journey to the mines was a one-way trip. In 1586 an eyewitness wrote that of the healthy Indians who went underground each Monday, “half may emerge crippled on Saturday.”80 During the three centuries of Spanish rule, more than a million Quechua and Aymara lives may have been devoured by the great “mountain of silver” at Potosí and its even more evil twin, the mercury mine at Huancavelica.81 “Oh, Peru!” wrote García Lorca, “Land of metal and of melancholy!”

By the late 1570s, Potosí’s production had soared to more than 3 million pesos—equivalent to Atahuallpa’s treasure every year.82 By the mid-eighteenth century, 500 tons of silver and 25 tons of gold were crossing the Atlantic annually. Adam Smith reckoned this influx to be worth “about six millions sterling,” adding that American mines were by far the most productive in the world.83 More recent studies have borne him out: for two and a half centuries, Spain’s American empire mined more than four-fifths of the world’s silver and nearly three-quarters of its gold. 84

Just as work overtakes the time allowed for it, so political ambitions consume the funds at hand. We might think that Spain would have become the wealthiest country on Earth. But the Emperor Charles and his heir, Philip II, spent their fortune trying to conquer everyone in sight: the French, the Turks, the Portuguese, the English, various Italian city-states and not least the Netherlanders, many of whom were rebelling and sliding into Protestant heresy. 85 Spain’s dream was nothing less than to carry out God’s work by crushing infidels and bringing Christian civilization to the world. The mood of the day—its “full-spectrum dominance”—was summed up by a Spanish friar: “Potosí lives in order to . . . humble the Moor, make Flanders tremble and terrify England.”86

After taking over the New World’s kingdoms and crossing the Pacific, Spain at last reached a point where west met east. The Spaniards had only limited influence on the real Asia, however, giving an idea of how Europe’s impact on the Americas might have looked had there been no demographic collapse. The Far East was part of the Old World; its people did not conveniently sicken and die on contact. Spain had to content herself with making the Philippines the western border of her empire—as her successor there, the United States, would do three centuries later.87

For all its corruption, chaos and sclerosis, the Spanish Empire still holds the record as the longest-lived world superpower to date—exactly three hundred years from the conquest of Mexico to Mexican independence. But its military ambitions beggared it.88 By the mid-seventeenth century, Spain had lost most of her money, her European possessions and her prestige. As William Prescott dourly observed after reckoning the worth of Atahuallpa’s gold: “The wealth thus suddenly acquired, by diverting [the Spaniards] from . . . more permanent sources of national prosperity, has in the end glided from their grasp, and left them among the poorest of the nations of Christendom.”89

Spain’s loss was others’ gain. The wealth went north, becoming venture capital for weaponry, shipbuilding, supplies—all the manufacturing and innovative foment that thrives on a diet of warfare. Foundries and ironworks that began by making guns would soon go on to produce mine pumps, mills and machines. As I have written elsewhere, “In a way Mao Zedong didn’t intend . . . power would indeed grow from the barrel of a gun: from the cannon’s ‘reeking tube’ descends the cylinder of the steam and petrol engines.”90 The Industrial Revolution was young when Adam Smith was writing his Wealth of Nations in the 1770s, but his nose for following money had sniffed out the new home of Atahuallpa’s gold—Britain, already well on its way to becoming the workshop of the world.91 By 1775, James Watt was building the first efficient steam engines, at the engineering works of Matthew Boulton, “a man of energy and capital.”92

In the end Peru’s metal would again become a metaphor: bricks glistering in bank vaults, of no more practical use than the bands of gold on Cusco’s walls. As the dragon remarks to Grendel in John Gardner’s retelling of the Beowulf tale: “My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.”93

The Industrial Revolution was not, of course, made by money alone. It also required technical and scientific knowledge—and it is this aspect that has always been emphasized in the west’s admiring account of its own leap forward. But science alone won’t make a revolution either. Without both needs and means, inventions fall on stony ground. The many ingenious devices of Classical times, the Renaissance and China all failed to realize their potential. Something was lacking in the mix.

Besides an innovative spirit, heavy industry needed four key ingredients for success: capital to fund it; efficient farming to feed it; labour to work it; and growing demand to sustain it. As both Adam Smith and Karl Marx understood, the first of these ingredients came from the New World. But what about the other three? Manufacturing requires a large workforce released from the need to grow food. For this to happen, the people who do grow food must be able to raise a dependable surplus year after year. These conditions are common nowadays—half the world lives in cities and towns—but they were rare before modern times.

For two thousand years, China suffered serious famine in at least one province nearly every year. 94 The same was true of most ancient civilizations: they could barely feed themselves. In fat times there would indeed be a surplus, and it was then that great military campaigns and building projects were undertaken. But the palmy days seldom lasted; either good harvests were soon followed by bad ones or, as the early demographer Thomas Malthus observed, the people outgrew the food. Either way, farmers lived on the edge of hunger. Towns were tiny by present-day standards. Of every ten people alive, eight or nine worked the land.95 The only big labour surpluses were seasonal: a few months between sowing, reaping and ploughing. Seasonal workers can do great things—they built the pyramids of Egypt and the cathedrals of Europe—but they won’t run a railroad.

For industrialization to take off, a difficult horse-and-cart trick must be performed: a food surplus and a labour surplus must be raised at the same time. And both have to be sustained until technological feedback can occur—until industry can make enough farming machines to free yet more hands from the land.96 And the world’s first Industrial Revolution had to take root and grow by chance—because nobody foresaw where it might lead.

It is hardly surprising that no civilization, no matter how technically ingenious, had managed to pull off this trick before. So, what was different about Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? The traditional answer is that Europe was blessed by genius.97 But the revolution of coal, iron and steam was not launched by scientists; it was made by shrewd investors and grimy practical men—fitters, mechanics, ironworkers—men such as Thomas Newcomen with his condensing steam engine, James Watt with his improved design, Richard Arkwright with his spinning mills and Isambard Brunel with his bridges, railways and steamships.98

We come to the second ingredient: food. Gold is valuable only because people think it is. Its worth is a form of magic, not utility, as Atahuallpa sardonically implied when he asked the Spaniards if they ate it. Perhaps he knew that America’s greatest treasure—in the long run—would be her crops.99 It’s hard to imagine Italians without tomatoes, Asians without chiles, the Belgians without chocolate, Christmas with no turkeys and Hawaii with no pineapples. But for demographic impact, the really significant introductions were the boring, starchy staples: the “miracle crops” of maize, potato, sweet potato and manioc (or cassava).100 The last two are tropical, the potato temperate, and maize, in its many varieties, can be either.

One may well ask why the arrival of these crops made any difference beyond wider choice. Wouldn’t a field given over to maize instead of wheat simply swap one food for another? But it wasn’t a zero-sum game. Maize and potatoes give twice the food value of wheat; manioc yields more in volume than any other tropical plant.101 Also, the new crops seldom competed with the old ones. Maize would thrive on land too dry for rice and too wet for wheat. Manioc, potatoes and sweet potatoes were easy to grow, needing little work and tolerating a wide range of soils. Marginal and exhausted land could be brought into production with these crops—as with peanuts and beans, which fix nitrogen in the soil.102 The American root crops were also good keepers, taken on board by sea captains and spread promiscuously around the world. One particular virtue of the potato was its hardiness in wartime. It was one thing to torch an enemy stand of wheat; quite another to uproot a muddy field of tubers.

European and Asian governments promoted the American foods, especially during famines. In the last days of France’s ancien régime, potatoes were dished up at Versailles, and Marie-Antoinette wore potato flowers on her breast.103 Sir Walter Raleigh first brought the plant to Ireland in the 1580s, and the Irish had become “mighty lovers of potatoes” by 1700.104 Ireland’s landlords were delighted to find that a peasant family could live on an acre or two of tubers, freeing the rest of their estates for cash crops. The new food was wholesome: in the ninety years from 1754 to 1845, the Irish population grew from 3 million to 10. Then came the potato blight, when many who had “lived by the potato died by the potato,” and many more fled to the New World. (The disaster was no fault of the Peruvian plant but of the way it had been misused.105)

In the Middle East, Africa and Asia, maize caught on with astonishing speed. By 1574, large stands of it were growing in Mesopotamia, the very birthplace of wheat and barley. From there it spread into southeastern Europe, Egypt and India. At about the same time, maize reached Asia direct from the Americas, probably on Spanish galleons plying between Acapulco and Manila.106

The depopulation of the New World has ended in the overpopulation of the whole. While human numbers in the Americas went into a dive after 1492, those in Europe, Africa and Asia began to soar on the back of the Americas’ vegetal wealth.107 Within four centuries of Columbus and Cortés, humanity had quadrupled—to 1.6 billion by 1900. We have since quadrupled again.108

The later phase of this boom can be attributed to better sanitation, public health and farming, as the industrialization of land and town took hold. But those improvements had scarcely begun before Victorian times. It was not until 1854 that John Snow famously stopped a cholera outbreak by taking the handle off the Broad Street pump in Soho.109 London and Paris were so unhealthy that their populations would not have grown at all without a constant flood of migrants from the land. There can be little doubt that the human boom is a direct consequence of the worldwide adoption of American crops: the third ingredient for the Industrial Revolution—labour—flowed from the second.

As the productive new plants took root on Britain’s farms, fewer workers were needed. Under the old manorial system, the country squire had been the head of a community, with almost as many obligations as privileges. Now he became a businessman, a champion of heartless efficiency. “When farmers become gentlemen,” William Cobbett wrote acidly, “their labourers become slaves.110 The poor protested that the landlords “keep us here like potatoes in a pit, and only take us out for use when they can no longer do without us.”111 This treatment, plus the land enclosures and the Highland clearances—the privatization of public farmland from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries—drove the peasantry to the towns. Some found work in mills and factories; others went on to North America and Australia.

By 1830, technological feedback also began to kick in as threshing machines and other equipment put ever more farmhands out of work. For those left on the land, the machinery itself became the enemy. The Times reported the following year: “At Norwich, fifty-five prisoners convicted of machine-breaking and rioting . . . at Petworth, twenty-six for machine-breaking and rioting; at Gloucester, upwards of thirty.” Luddites were hanged.

The trick was done. Northern Europe had a steady surplus of people and of food. The industrialists had all the workers they could want, at bargain wages. Meanwhile, another source of labour had been proliferating in the tropics. Like Europeans and Asians, Africans multiplied dramatically on American crops. Africa had not been rich in home-grown staples. Maize and manioc caught on so quickly that they were soon believed to be native plants.

White seafarers did not introduce the new staples to Africa for philanthropic reasons; rather, they sowed them along the coast as fodder for human cargoes. Slaver captains were already familiar with these foods, having at first taken slaves the other way. Even Columbus himself had dabbled in the trade—shipping American Indians across the Atlantic—only to find it unprofitable because his merchandise died from Old World disease just as readily in Europe as in America.

Africa had been a source of slaves for both Arabs and Europeans since ancient times, though never on the scale that began after the sixteenth century. With the growth in population, the continent suddenly had surplus people, whom local rulers did not shrink from using as foreign exchange, sold across the water for guns, metal and luxury goods.

In most of Mexico and Peru, enough local people survived to work the Spanish mines and haciendas. But the Caribbean islands were almost utterly depopulated within twenty years of 1492, and much the same happened along the mainland coasts. Even before Columbus, the Spaniards and Portuguese had been seizing West Coast Africans to work sugar plantations on Madeira, the Canaries and the Azores. So Spain and Portugal repeated in the Americas what they had done in those Atlantic islands, but on a far greater scale, filling the sultry parts of the Caribbean and Brazil with sugar cane and Africans to work it.

In the seventeenth century, the British, French and Dutch took up the slave economy, adding two American products—tobacco and cotton—to the sugar, molasses and rum of the West Indies. The three solaces of the British sailor were said to be “rum, baccy and bum.” Bum was nothing new, but rum and tobacco were the first exportable wealth produced in the New World by imported slaves. So began the modern trade in agricultural commodities. By 1840 world sugar shipments exceeded 1 million tons a year.112 Most of this supply went to European and North American cities, providing cheap, high-energy food and drink for factory workers.113

In short, Europeans took Africans to America to replace dead Americans and made them grow food, clothing and luxuries for Europeans and the world market.114 The economic engine of loot, labour and land had built up steam.

Until the turn of the nineteenth century, the demand—the fourth and last requirement for industrialization to sustain itself—lay mainly in Europe. But as the Old World’s extra people spilled across the Atlantic, the ultimate bonanza opened up: the idea and possibility of a second Europe building itself on the vastness of the New World’s widowed land. There, on a seemingly inexhaustible frontier westering (by Tocqueville’s reckoning) at seventeen miles per year, a vision of endless prosperity was bequeathed down the centuries to white settlers by Atahuallpa’s gold.115

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