Chapter 10

“The Fourth World”

Indigenous Societies in the Atlantic and the Americas

March 6: A young Montezuma celebrates
tlacaxipehualiztli, the spring fertility festival, and
witnesses the sacrifice of human captives—their hearts
ripped out, their bodies rolled down the high temple steps.

In 1493, when Columbus got back from his first voyage, no one—least of all the explorer himself—knew where he had been. In the received picture of the planet, the earth was an island, divided between three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. For most European scholars, it was hard to believe that what they called “a fourth part of the world” existed. (Some Native American peoples, by coincidence, called the earth they trod “the fourth world”—to distinguish it from the heavens, the waters, and the underground darkness.) Humanist geographers, who knew ancient writers’ speculations that an “antipodean” continent awaited discovery, groped toward the right conclusion about what Columbus had found. Others assumed—more consistently with the evidence—that he had simply stumbled on “another Canary Island”: another bit of an archipelago that Spanish conquistadores were already struggling to incorporate into the dominions of the crown of Castile. This was a pardonable error: Columbus’s newfound lands were on the latitude of the Canaries. Their inhabitants, by Columbus’s own account, were “like the Canary Islanders” in color and culture. Despite Columbus’s urgent search for valuable trade goods, the new lands seemed, even to the discoverer, more likely to be viable as sources of slaves and locations for sugar-planting—just as the Canaries had been.

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Guamán Poma’s early-seventeenth-century drawing of work on a rope bridge under the supervision of the Inca inspector of bridges, whose ear-spools denote his elite status.
F. Guamán Poma de Ayala, Nueva coró nica y buen gobierno (codex pé ruvien illustré) (Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie, 1936).

The conquest of the Canary Islands was a vital part of the context of Columbus. The archipelago was a laboratory for conquests in the Americas: an Atlantic frontier, inhabited by culturally baffling strangers, who seemed “savage” to European beholders; a new environment, uneasily adaptable to European ways of life; a land that could be planted with new crops, exploited with a new, plantation-style economy, settled with colonists, and wrenched into new, widening patterns of trade.

In the Canaries, the conquest of the Atlantic world was already under way when Columbus set sail. The core of the financial circle that paid for his first transatlantic voyage formed when a consortium of Sevillan bankers and royal treasury officials combined to meet the costs of conquering Grand Canary in 1478–83. Columbus’s point of departure was the westernmost port of the archipelago, San Sebastián de la Gomera, which became fully secure only when a Spanish army uprooted the last native resistance on that island in 1489. The Spaniards did not reckon the conquest of the most intractable islands as complete until 1496.

The natives—all of whom disappeared in the colonial era owing to conquest, enslavement, disease, and assimilation—were among the last descendants of the pre-Berber inhabitants of North Africa. For a sense of what they were like, the nearest surviving parallels are the Imraguen and Znaga—the poor, marginal fishing folk who cling to the coastal rim of the Sahara today, surviving only by occupying places no one else wants. Along with the advantages of isolation, the islanders enjoyed—before Europeans arrived—a mixed economy, based on pastoralism supplemented by farming cereals in small plots, from which they made gofio—slops of powdered, toasted grain mixed with milk or soup or water that are still eaten everywhere in the islands but appreciated, as far as I know, nowhere else. They made a virtue of isolation, abandoning navigation and barely communicating from island to island, even though some islands lie within sight of one another—rather like the ancient Tasmanians or Chatham Islanders or Easter Islanders, who imposed isolation on themselves. They forswore the technology that took them to their homes, as if they were consciously withdrawing from the world, like dropouts of a bygone era. Insulation from the rest of the world, however, has disadvantages. Contact with other cultures stimulates what we call development, whereas isolation leads to stagnation. The material culture of the Canarians was rudimentary. They lived in caves or crudely extemporized huts. They were armed, when they had to face European invaders, only with sticks and stones.

The ferocity and long-sustained success of their resistance gives the lie to the notion that superior European technology guaranteed rapid success against “primitives” and “savages.” Adventurous European individuals and ambitious European states launched expeditions at intervals from the 1330s. They depleted some islands by enslaving captives, but they could not establish any enduring presence until a systematic effort in the early fifteenth century, launched by adventurers from Normandy, secured control of the poorest and least-populated islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, and Hierro. The conquerors installed precarious but lasting colonies, which, after some hesitation and oscillation between the crowns of France, Portugal, and Aragon, ended owing allegiance to Castile.

After that, the conquest stalled again. The remaining islands repelled many expeditions from Portugal and Castile. In the mid–fifteenth century, the Peraza family—minor noblemen of Seville who had acquired the lordship of some islands, and claimed the right of conquest over the rest—gained a footing in Gomera, where they built a fort and exacted tribute from the natives, without introducing European colonists. Repeated rebellions culminated in 1488, when the natives put the incumbent lord, Hernán Peraza, to death, and the Spanish crown had to send an army to restore order. In revenge, the insurgents were executed or enslaved in droves, with dubious legality, as “rebels against their natural lord.” The Spaniards put a permanent garrison on the island. The treatment of the natives, meanwhile, touched tender consciences in Castile. The monarchs commissioned jurists and theologians to inquire into the case. The inquiry recommended the release of the slaves, and many of them eventually returned to the archipelago to help colonize other islands. Their native land, however, was now ripe for transformation. In the next decade, European investors turned it over to sugar production.

Ferdinand and Isabella, who were not yet committed to the exhausting effort of conquering Granada, thought intervention worthwhile because of Castile’s rivalry with Portugal, which made the Canaries seem important. Castilian interlopers in the African Atlantic had long attracted Portuguese complaints, but the war of 1474–79, in which Afonso V of Portugal challenged Ferdinand and Isabella for the Castilian throne, intensified Castilian activity. The monarchs were openhanded with licenses for voyages of piracy or carriage of contraband. Genoese merchant houses with branches in Seville and Cadiz and an eye on the potential sugar business were keen to invest in these enterprises. The main action of the war took place on land, in northern Castile, but a “small war” at sea in the latitude of the Canaries accompanied it. Castilian privateers broke into Portugal’s monopoly of trade and slaving on the Guinea coast. Portuguese attacks menaced Castilian outposts in the Canary Islands. The value of the unconquered islands of the archipelago—Grand Canary, Tenerife, and La Palma, which were the largest and most promising economically—became obvious. When Ferdinand and Isabella sent a force to resume the conquest in 1478, a Portuguese expedition in seven caravels was already on its way. The Castilian intervention was a preemptive strike.

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The Canary Islands.

Other, longer-maturing reasons also influenced the royal decision. First, the monarchs had other rivals than the Portuguese to keep in mind. The Perazas’ lordship had descended by marriage to Diego de Herrera, a minor nobleman of Seville, who fancied himself as a conquistador. His claim to have made vassals of nine native “kings” or chiefs of Tenerife and two on Grand Canary was, to say the least, exaggerated. He raided the islands in the hope of extracting tribute by terror, and attempted, in the manner of previous would-be conquistadores, to dominate them by erecting intimidating turrets. Such large, populous, and indomitable islands, however, would not succumb to the private enterprise of a provincial hidalgo. Effective conquest and systematic exploitation demanded concentrated resources and heavy investment. These were more readily available at the royal court.

Even had Herrera been able to complete the conquest, it would have been unwise for the monarchs to let him do so. He was not above intrigue with the Portuguese, and he was typical of the truculent paladins whose power in peripheral regions was an affront to the crown. Almost since the first conquerors seized power in the Canaries, lords and kings had been in dispute over the limits of royal authority in the islands. Profiting from a local rebellion against seigneurial authority in 1475–76—one of a series of such rebellions—Ferdinand and Isabella decided to enforce their suzerainty and, in particular, the most important element in it: the right to be the ultimate court of appeal throughout the colonies of the archipelago. In November 1476 they launched an inquiry into the legal basis of lordship in the Canaries. The results were enshrined in an agreement between seigneur and suzerain in October 1477: Herrera’s rights were unimpeachable, saving the superior lordship of the crown; but “for certain just and reasonable causes,” which were never specified, the right of conquest should revert to Ferdinand and Isabella.

Beyond the political reasons for intervening in the islands, there were economic motives. As always in the history of European meddling in the African Atlantic, gold was the spur. According to a privileged chronicler, King Ferdinand was interested in the Canaries because he wanted to open communications with “the mines of Ethiopia” 1—a general name, at the time, for Africa. The Portuguese denied him access to the new gold sources on the underside of the African bulge, where the trading post of São Jorge da Mina opened in 1482. Their refusal must have stimulated the search for alternative sources and helps explain the emphasis Columbus’s journals placed on the need for gold. Meanwhile, the growth of demand for sugar and dyes in Europe made the Canaries worth conquering for their own sake: dyes were among the natural products of the archipelago; sugar was the boom industry European colonists introduced.

The conquest was almost as hard under royal auspices as under those of Diego de Herrera. Native resistance was partly responsible. Finance and manpower proved elusive. One of Ferdinand’s and Isabella’s chroniclers could hardly bring himself to mention the campaigns in the Canaries without complaining about the expense. Gradually, although the monarchs’ aims in arrogating the right of conquest included the desire to exclude private power from the islands and keep it in the “public” domain, they had to allow what would now be called “public-private partnerships” to play a role. Formerly the monarchs had financed the war by selling indulgences—documents bishops issued to penitents remitting the penalties their sins incurred in this world. Ferdinand and Isabella claimed and exercised the right to sell these to pay for wars against non-Christian enemies. But as the war dragged on and revenues fell, they made would-be conquerors find their own funds. Increasingly, instead of wages, conquistadores received pledges of conquered land. Instead of reinvesting the crown’s share of booty in further campaigns, the monarchs granted away uncollected booty to conquerors who could raise finance elsewhere. By the end of the process, ad hoc companies financed the conquests of La Palma and Tenerife, with conquerors and their backers sharing the proceeds.

The islands—as a royal secretary remarked of Grand Canary—might have proved insuperable, but for internal divisions the Spaniards were able to exploit. For the first three years of the conquest of Grand Canary, the Castilians, undermanned and irregularly provisioned, contented themselves with making raids on native villages. Working for wages, and therefore with little incentive to acquire territory, the recruits from urban militia units did not touch the mountain fastnesses on which the Canarians used to fall back for defense. Rather, they concentrated on places in the low plains and hills, where food, not fighting, could be found—the plains where the natives grew their cereals, the hillsides up and down which they shunted their goats. It was a strategy of mere survival, not of victory. Between raids, the invaders remained in their stockade at Las Palmas, where inactivity bred insurrection.

The arrival of Pedro de Vera as military governor in 1480 inaugurated more purposeful strategies. He planned amphibious excursions to the otherwise barely accessible west coast. He erected a new stockade—a second front—in a strategic spot at Agaete in the northwest. His first major victory was the result of a miscalculation by the native leaders, who marched their forces to the plain of Tamaraseite near Las Palmas to offer conventional battle, with disastrous results. If the chronicler who described the battle can be believed, Pedro de Vera slew one of his principal opponents with his own hand, in what sounds suspiciously like a chivalric or Homeric encounter. Toward the end of 1480 or 1481, when the natives broke off the fighting in order to sow their crops, the truce was celebrated with a mass baptism, to which, presumably, many natives submitted cheerfully without necessarily understanding the significance of the sacrament.

Still, some natives clearly saw the ceremony as marking a new phase in their relations with the Spaniards. A group of chiefs or notables arrived at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella in May 1481. The monarchs contrived a timely display of Christian charity. They bestowed a letter of privilege on the visitors, declaring that they had taken the people of Grand Canary “beneath our protection and royal defense, like the Christians they are,” promising them freedom from enslavement and guaranteeing their right to move and trade among Castilian dominions on an equal footing with Castilian-born subjects. From that moment on, “loyalism” and adherence to Christianity increased among the natives.

In coming campaigns, Pedro de Vera was able to play off rival factions. In 1482, the capture and conversion of one of the most important chiefs, known to tradition as Tenesor Semidan but better identified by his baptismal name of Don Fernando Guanarteme, immeasurably strengthened de Vera’s hand, as Don Fernando was able to induce many of his compatriots to submit, especially around his power base in the north of the island.

Yet victory still proved elusive. Frustrated by the inaccessibility of the insurgents who held out in the central mountains, beyond perilous goat walks and precipitous defiles, Pedro de Vera turned to a policy of terror and scorched earth. Innocent natives burned to death in reprisal for the loss of Spanish soldiers. Spaniards seized supplies and livestock to deny them to the enemy. Gradually, coerced by these tactics or persuaded by Don Fernando, the natives surrendered. Some abandoned hope and ended their struggle in ritual suicide, flinging themselves from terrible heights.

A remnant continued resistance in justified confidence, for they could still win battles. In the winter of 1483, stalked in a remote ravine, they destroyed a corps of Basque freelances by their usual tactic: precipitating an avalanche to bury the enemy column. De Vera implicitly acknowledged that force could not prevail against them on their chosen terrain. He withdrew to Las Palmas and invited his adversaries to make honorable terms. While a few recalcitrants continued to roam the mountaintops, almost the entire island was at peace by the summer of 1483. La Palma, meanwhile, had an unconquerable reputation, despite the fact that mutually hostile groups of natives divided the island uneasily among themselves. The Spaniards usually called them “bands” and identified twelve of them. The varied topography of the island, sprinkled with microclimates, ensured that there were enough resources to go around, and plenty of terrain that was almost invulnerable to invaders. The natives, whatever their material differences, all practiced the same way of life, mixing goat herding with farming what the Spaniards identified as wheat to make gofio. Cairns marked their sacred places, where they left offerings of meat and gathered for athletic contests, especially wrestling in the formal, almost balletic style still popular in the Canary Islands. They disposed of the irremediably sick, or those moribund with age, by what we would now call assisted suicide, laying the victims on a goatskin to await death in a cave mouth, with a flask of milk alongside them, more for comfort than sustenance.

In 1402 the adventurers from Normandy tried to subdue the island and failed. Henry the Navigator launched repeated expeditions. All came to grief. In the mid–fifteenth century the Peraza family launched the most unremitting effort of all. The natives defeated their armies and killed Guillén Peraza, the young heir on whom were centered the family’s hopes for the next generation. The incident inspired a ballad, replete with chivalric imagery that masks the squalid reality of the Perazas’ wars:

Weep, ladies, weep, if God give you grace,

For Guillén Peraza, who left in that place

The flower, now withered, that bloomed in his face.

Guillén Peraza, child of chance,

Where is your shield and where is your lance?

All is destroyed by Fortune’s glance.2

La Palma remained intractable until a woman intervened. There are so many stories of women who are instrumental in conquests that it is tempting to see them all as examples of tradition distorting truth. But Francisca Gazmira’s role in the conquest of La Palma has left a trail in the archives as well as a trace in romance. In 1491, when Ferdinand and Isabella were laying siege to Granada, they received news of how the governor and clergy of Grand Canary had selected a pious native slave woman, who had been born in La Palma, to return to the island on an evangelizing mission “to talk to the leaders and chiefs of the communities of the said island, because they had sent a message to say that they wished to become Christians and entrust themselves to Your Highnesses’ lordship.” 3

That an episcopal license should have been conferred on a lay, native, female missionary suggests that Francisca had remarkable charismatic powers, which she seems to have put to good use among her people. She won plenty of her compatriots to the Spaniards’ side. She returned from the island with four or five chiefs, who were baptized and clothed in the cathedral of Grand Canary. “And after they became Christians,” the local authorities reported, “she returned them to the said island of La Palma so that they could arrange for the members of their communities to become Christians under Your Highnesses’ lordship.” 4 The governor ordered that no one should dare enslave any members of the affected communities, and the ecclesiastical authorities invoked a bull of Pope Eugenius IV, of 1434, to forbid enslavement of natives who wished to become Christians and who kept the terms of the peace treaties Francisca’s converts had made.

Francisca’s success created an opportunity for invaders to harness the help of native allies and at last exploit native divisions to their own advantage. A would-be conquistador was already struggling to get financial backing for a renewed assault on the island. Alonso de Lugo had the perfect profile for the job. He had the right experience. He had fought against the Moors before joining the conquest of Grand Canary, where he was instrumental in capturing Don Fernando Guanarteme. He had the right character: unremittingly ruthless, unrestrainedly ambitious, unhesitatingly reckless, indefeasibly tough. He was a calculating entrepreneur who undertook risks for money as well as glory. He had started the first productive sugar mill on Grand Canary and realized that even if slaving opportunities in La Palma were in decline, the climate and soil suited sugar and promised profit. But the Granada war was now at a critical phase. It was a bad time to raise money and men for more-distant adventures.

According to legend, Lugo was idling disconsolately in Seville Cathedral when he got the money for the conquest of La Palma: St. Peter himself appeared in the guise of a mysterious old man and thrust a bagful of doubloons into his grasp. The story represents a feeble attempt to sanctify a morally shabby conquest. Lugo’s real backers came from that same group of private financiers in Seville some of whom had already invested in Columbus’s enterprise.

Lugo’s small, scratch force arrived in the late summer of 1491 on the west coast of the island, to a welcome from the bands Francisca Gazmira had evangelized. If later traditions are reliable, Mayantigo, who was or aspired to be “chief of chiefs” of the island, led the collaborators. The terms of the treaty Lugo made with him suggest a more active alliance than formerly. There was to be “peace and union” between the parties. Mayantigo would acknowledge and obey the Castilian monarchs. He would continue to rule his own band, and would govern on the monarchs’ behalf. His people would enjoy all the rights and privileges of the Castilian subjects of the crown. Like so many later Spanish campaigns in the Americas, the war that followed was an internecine struggle, in which natives slaughtered each other, leaving the Spaniards as the beneficiaries of the conflict and the heirs of dead or displaced elites.

Reinforced by the Christian bands, Lugo marched clockwise around the coast, attacking communities who made no effort to unite in resistance. He defeated them piecemeal before withdrawing to winter quarters. The interior of the island was the scene of fiercer defense, for there volcanic activity and erosion have combined to create a vast natural fortress, La Caldera, a cauldronlike crater at the foot of two miles of precipitous, savagely forested slopes. A single people, under a fiercely independent leader whom tradition calls Tanausú, occupied it. Native allies had to carry Lugo on their shoulders to get him over the broken terrain. When the first attack was repulsed, he planned his next assault by an even more tortuous route—reputedly impossible and therefore unguarded. But Tanausú’s skill in skirmish and ambush seemed insuperable.

If our sole surviving source can be trusted, Tanausú might have resisted indefinitely had Lugo not tricked him into attending a sham parley at which the Spaniards overcame him and decimated his followers. The story goes that Lugo sent a native emissary, Juan de La Palma, to offer the same terms of submission that the Christian bands had accepted. Tanausú insisted that he would consider proposals only if Lugo’s forces withdrew from his lands. He would then take part in a parley on the frontier. Lugo complied, but his sincerity—if he had any—was riven with suspicion. Tanausú was late for the meeting; so Lugo regarded the agreement as null and void. He set out in arms. When the attackers and defenders met, Tanausú’s counselors advised against resumed negotiations, but the leader—in what looks like a literary commonplace rather than an account of real events—rejected their advice. Trusting in Lugo’s good faith, he headed into what he thought would be talks but turned out to be a battle. In custody, he could not commit suicide in the spectacular manner of earlier Canarian leaders in defeat. He starved himself to death.5

Here for once the chronicle tradition seems to depart from a heroic version of events. The surviving text dates from the last years of the sixteenth century, when boldly revisionist friars were rewriting the history of the conquest of the Canaries. They wanted to make it match the idealized image of New World peoples crafted in the work of the Dominican moralist Bartolomé de Las Casas. Until his death in 1567, this impassioned critic of empire bombarded the royal court with endless examples of the lobbyists’ art, praising the natural virtues of the natives and defending their rights. No doubt the received version of the death of Tanausú is as warped as that of the contemporary chronicles, which reflect a perception saturated in chivalric literature. But cruelty and ruthless daring are thoroughly characteristic of everything that is known for certain about Alonso de Lugo.

Partly, perhaps, because of his early reputation for rapacity, Lugo’s operations suffered from shortage of finance and from legal entanglements with his backers. In 1494, he narrowly escaped destruction during his attempted invasion of Tenerife after being lured into a trap near the mouth of the spectacular Orotava Valley. He returned with larger forces in 1495 and recruited to his side many natives who felt alienated by the arrogance of the leader of resistance, the chief of Taoro—Tenerife’s richest chieftaincy. A battle on a flat plain near La Laguna favored the Spaniards’ cavalry and crossbows, but even after his victory Lugo felt insecure and hunkered down in winter quarters. He sallied forth gingerly in the spring of 1496 to find that a mysterious disease had depleted and debilitated the natives. It was the first of a series of plagues that caused a demographic disaster, comparable, on the island’s smaller scale, with those that later devastated the New World. Lugo’s triumphal march through what was becoming a wasteland drove the chief of Taoro to ritual suicide in the manner now familiar to Spanish campaigners. Surprisingly, no chronicler recorded the event, but the spot where the chief met his end became a celebrated landmark and appeared over the next few years in many records of land grants. The communities that remained in arms submitted over the next few weeks, and by June 1496, Lugo was able to parade their leaders before the monarchs at court.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that but for the accidents that made the Canaries Castilian, the New World could not have become predominantly Spanish. The wind pattern of the ocean makes the archipelago the ideal staging post on the outward journey, almost directly in the path of the trade winds that carried imperialists on to America. Philip IV, early in the seventeenth century, called the islands “the most important possession I have” because of their strategic location, dominating the Atlantic winds.

The conquest of the Canaries was Spain’s education for empire. Here the crucial problems were anticipated: vast distances, unfamiliar environments, spectacularly broken terrain, intellectually and morally challenging cultures, hostile peoples whom the Spaniards had to divide to conquer. In the light of these similarities, the apparent contrast with the course of the conflicts that followed in the New World seems incomprehensible. The Canaries were small and sparsely populated with defenders whose war technology was rudimentary. Yet it took nearly a century to subdue the archipelago, and each island resisted successive expeditions with surprising tenacity and effectiveness. Yet the tally of American conquests accumulated with dizzying rapidity. In most of the Caribbean, wherever Spaniards wanted to seize islands, they did so with relative ease and speed, applying more or less directly the lessons of the Canaries. Columbus scythed through native opponents of Spanish colonization of Hispaniola in a few months of campaigning in 1496. Thereafter, resistance was confined to what were in effect guerrilla operations in the bush and the high mountains. The conquest of nearby islands—Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica—followed a similar pattern.

On the mainlands of the Americas, conquistadores faced some densely populated, dazzlingly rich societies, which could put scores of thousands of well-armed men into the field, in environments hostile to the Spaniards, who were far less favorably placed than their counterparts in the Canaries—much farther from home and from hope of reinforcement. Yet almost at a gulp, Spain seemed to gobble up the empires of the Aztecs and the Incas, both of whom looked, at first sight, like insuperable foes. The conventional explanations—that the Spaniards were inherently superior, that they were mistaken for gods and preceded by omens, that their technology was decisive, that disease undermined defense, and that their enemies were subverted by corroded morale—are all false. But a glance at the Aztec and Inca realms in about 1492 helps explain how so dramatic a debacle was possible.

They were part of a rich world that lay just beyond Columbus’s reach. The Caribbean is a hard sea to cross. On average, in the sixteenth century, it took Spanish convoys almost twice as long to get from Santo Domingo to Veracruz, on the coast of Mexico, as it did to cross the entire breadth of the Atlantic. For more than a generation after Columbus’s first crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, in 1502, Spanish pilots struggled to learn the pattern of the currents. In 1527, the navigators of the expedition of Pánfilo de Narvaez still had not done so: bound for Mexico from Cuba, they actually sailed backward—imperceptibly driven back, night after night, by the Gulf Stream. When they reached what they thought was their destination, they were on the west coast of Florida.

Nonetheless, Columbus did get an inkling of what was in store on the mainland. In 1502, vainly scouring the American isthmus for a way through to the Pacific, he caught a glimpse of a huge, laden trading canoe that proved the existence in the vicinity of societies wealthy enough to exchange their surpluses. It was a sign that the kind of rich, recognizably “civilized” peoples he had sought since his arrival in the New World really existed and lived not far off.

Indeed, great civilizations stretched, almost continuously, interrupted only by sea, across Eurasia, North Africa, and Mesoamerican and Andean America like a girdle around the world. But the girdle was still unbuckled. The Americas remained isolated. Because of the lay of the land and the drift of the currents, it was hard for the inhabitants to explore their own hemisphere and get to know each other’s civilizations. The Aztecs and Incas knew almost nothing of each other. Nowadays scholars deprecate comparisons between these two great hegemons, because their differences were more interesting and—to most people—more surprising than their similarities. But it is worth beginning with an appreciation of the similarities.

Both occupied high altitudes with corresponding advantages and disadvantages: the defensibility of mountain fastnesses, the moderation of high-altitude climates in tropical zones, the richness—which only precipitate mountains can confer—of many different ecosystems concentrated in a small space at different altitudes and on slopes and in valleys of contrasting relationships to sun and wind. In both regions, animal proteins were relatively scarce by Old World standards: there were no big quadrupeds; domesticable meat-producing species were few and small. Albeit for different reasons, both the Aztecs and the Incas relied heavily on maize and treated it as a sacred substance.

Similar paradoxes dappled the technologies of both peoples. Both built monumentally in stone without developing the arch. Both traded and traveled across vast distances without making use of the wheel. Both favored cityscapes apparently symbolic of cosmic order, rigidly geometric and symmetrical. Both worked only soft metals and despised iron. Both were upstart empires, erected with astonishing rapidity, from small regional states, in a few generations. Both encompassed astonishing environmental diversity—far exceeding anything Europeans could achieve, or even imagine—and both relied for their cohesion, and perhaps their survival, on their ability to shift products between eco-zones to meet local shortages, ensure a variety of supply, and cheat drought and famine. Both faced resentful and rebellious subject or victim populations. Both practiced religious rites that demanded human sacrifices, and therefore needed methods of war and government calculated to provide specimens. Both were committed to warfare of increasing range and therefore escalating costs, without knowing how to cope with the consequences. Both, in about 1492, were at or near their peak: their time of fastest expansion and greatest security.

“Aztecs” is a vague term for a group of communities who collaborated in dominating central Mexico. Scholars have never agreed on whom to include in it. The term rarely occurs in sources earlier than the eighteenth century, and it is doubtful whether anyone thought of himself as an Aztec before then: Aztecs called themselves “Mexica”—a plural noun in Nahuatl, the language they shared with many other peoples of central Mexico—or spoke of themselves as members of their own particular communities, the city-statelets that filled the densely crammed world of their high valley. The best perspective from which to see their world is that of an unmistakably Aztec place, which in today’s language we think of as the Aztec “capital”: the hegemonic city-state of Tenochtitlan, which stood on the present site of Mexico City, in the middle of what was then a huge lake.

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Detail of the tribute claimed by Tenochtitlan, showing deerskins and “smoking tubes,” dues from the implacably hostile mountain communities of Tlaxcala and Huexotzinco.
J. Cooper Clark, ed., Codex Mendoza, 3 vols. (London, 1938), iii. Original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Tenochtitlan was at the center of the complex web of tribute exchange that crisscrossed Mesoamerica, receiving food, textiles, luxury goods, and victims for human sacrifice from hundreds of other states, and garnering vastly more than it disbursed. It is hard to retrieve a sense of what the city was like, because the Spaniards who conquered it in the 1520s razed it and smothered it with a new city, adjusted to a European aesthetic. Today, even the lake has disappeared under the sprawl of Mexico’s capital. For Tenochtitlan, however, the lake determined the way of life. It provided security, but—in combination with the dizzying altitude, which froze many important crops—it made agriculture hard. In 1519, Spanish adventurers first saw Tenochtitlan’s marketplace, which they described with awestruck admiration. But almost all the fabulous array of goods on show had to come from elsewhere, paddled in canoes or borne on human porters’ backs—for no beasts of burden existed—across the causeways that linked the city to others on neighboring islands and on the lakeshore.

The huge population—now incalculable except by guesswork, but usually reckoned at between fifty and a hundred thousand people—made the Spaniards liken Tenochtitlan to Europe’s biggest cities: such a vast concentration of manpower could not be self-supporting; the Tenochca, the people of Tenochtitlan, were committed to war and commerce. Their success was measurable in the height and spread of the huge temples and palaces of stone that enclosed the central plazas. The temples, elevated on tall stepped pyramids, dominated the skyline. When the Spaniards first saw them from afar, they seemed fantastic and fearful, like the castle turrets of a fairy-tale ogre, at once gloomy and gaudy, daubed with images of monstrous gods and human sacrifices in which telluric reds and aquatic blues predominated. When the beholders got close up, the impression they got was even more perplexing: the cruelly steep temple steps were stained with the blood of human sacrifices.

The obliteration of the indigenous cities means that the impressions we have of them are not really our own: we see them through the frightened eyes of early observers. But many smaller-scale works of Aztec art survive, demonstrating sensibilities modern Westerners can understand sympathetically—even identify with. The contrast between Aztec and Inca art in this respect could hardly be greater. The world vision reflected in Inca art is painfully, uncompromisingly abstract. Weavers and goldsmiths splayed and straightened human and animal forms. Textiles and reliefs embody an unbending imagination, in which tense lines and sharp angles contain every image like the bars and walls of prisons. There is less naturalism in Inca art than in that of orthodox Islam, in which an abstract aesthetic traditionally prevails. The Incas recorded data and perhaps literature in knotted strings, which are probably as efficient a medium of symbolic notation as what we call writing—but it is a method that excludes pictures of the rich, vivid kind that flowed from Aztec minds onto the pages even of their most prosaic records.

The Aztecs’ most characteristic art—in which they excelled and introduced new refinements to Mesoamerican tradition—was sculpture in the round. The pieces most engaging to a modern eye are small-scale, wrought into lifelike shapes by a respect for nature, meticulously observed. A couple—human in some sense but simian featured—sit, each with an arm around the other, exchanging looks with tilted heads that suggest suddenly questioned affection. A serpent with yawning jaws and a malevolent eye stretches a long, forked tongue lazily over his own coils. A dancing monkey personifies the wind, with a belly distended by trapped flatulence and an erupting fart suggested by the way his tail is raised. A rabbit strains nervously to sniff food or danger, with a nose just raised or wrinkled to evoke a twitch.6

The imperial self-image of the Tenochca leaps fully armed from the vividly illustrated pages of documents from their archives, or from copies or abstracts made soon after the Spanish conquest. The most spectacular records are gathered in a book probably made in the early 1540s for a Spanish viceroy who wanted to report to Spain on the tribute levels, conquest rights, and structures of provincial government practiced by the Aztecs before the Spaniards arrived. The compilation never reached Spain. French pirates captured the ship in which it traveled. The French king’s official geographer snaffled it, then sold it in 1580 to an English intelligence gatherer, who hoped to glean from it something about the vulnerabilities of the Spanish monarchy. An English scholar of language first coveted and then appropriated it, in the hope of learning about the Aztecs’ writing system. The document, known as Codex Mendoza, ended up in the library of the University of Oxford, where the pictures that enliven it still gleam with the brash colors of native dyes.

The first illustrated page discloses one of the Tenochcas’ favorite myths of themselves. It depicts the foundation of Tenochtitlan, reputedly in the year 1324 or 1325, recalling the waterlogged site, strewn with aquatic plants, and the squat, flimsy, reed-thatched huts that preceded the vast temples, palaces, and plazas, all of stone, that glorified imperial Tenochtitlan. The legendary founder, Tenuch, whose name was as obviously derived from the city’s as that of Romulus was from Rome, appears with his face blackened by sacred dye, surrounded by his nine companions, each identified with a name glyph. Ozmitl, for instance, means “pierced foot” in the language of the Aztecs, and a foot with an arrow through the ankle appears on the document in explanation, with a tie line to Ozmitl’s portrait.

A rampant eagle dominates the scene. Though we can be sure, from external evidence, that a native painter created it, the way he drew the eagle, with wings outspread and claw extended, owes something to the conventions of European heraldry, as though the draftsman wanted to equate the power of his people’s ancestors with that of European hegemons, who also affected eagle symbols: the Romans, obviously, or the Habsburg dynasty, who at the time ruled so much of Europe, including Spain, and claimed overlordship over the rest. For the Tenochca, the eagle image recalled the story of how an eagle led Tenuch to her island aerie, where a prickly pear grew out of a rock as a sign from the gods that he should found his city there. In the image, the eagle perches on the name glyph for Tenochtitlan: a fruiting cactus (called nochtli in Nahuatl) and a stone (tetl in the same language). A skull rack, like those on which the Aztecs exhibited the rotting heads of the captives they sacrificed, stands by the eagle’s nest, just as the bloody bones of her own victims piled up around her home. The Tenochca saw themselves as eaglelike. They adorned their shields with clumps of eagle down and enriched their war gear with costly eagle feathers. Some of the elite wore eagle disguises for important rituals, including war, and they levied tribute in the form of live eagles from some of their subject peoples. Their city was their aerie, and they stained it with blood and adorned it with bones.

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Codex Mendoza’s depiction of the legendary culture hero, Tenuch, guided by an eagle to found Tenochtitlan in its defiantly mountainous lakebound island.
J. Cooper Clark, ed., Codex Mendoza, 3 vols. (London, 1938), iii. Original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

In North America, most native origin myths depict the people as having sprung from the land, with a right of occupancy that dates from the beginning of time. The Aztecs saw themselves differently. They were self-proclaimed migrants who came from elsewhere and whose rights were rights of conquest. They told two rival stories about their past. In one, they were Chichimeca, dog people, former nomads and savages who ascended to the valley of Mexico from the deserts to the north and who survived as victims of longer-established denizens, through sufferings that demanded vengeance. In the second version of the myth, they were descendants of former hegemons, the Toltecs, whose homeland lay to the south, where the ruins of their great city of Tula had lain abandoned for centuries. Strictly speaking, the two stories are mutually contradictory, but they convey a consistent message: of warlike provenance, lost birthright, and imperial destiny.

Tenochtitlan could not even have survived, let alone launched an empire, without an ideology of violence. Its site is over seven thousand feet above sea level, at an altitude where some of the key crops that nourished Mesoamerican ways of life will not grow. There is no cotton, of which, by the late fifteenth century, Tenochtitlan consumed hundreds of thousands of bales every year for everyday clothing and for the manufacture of the quilted cotton armor that trapped the enemy’s blades and arrowheads. Cacao, which Mesoamericans ground into the theobromine-rich infusion that intoxicated the elite at parties and in rituals, is a lowland crop that grows only in hot climates. The Tenochca speckled their lake with “floating gardens” laboriously dredged from the lake bed, for producing squashes, corn, and beans. But even these everyday staples were impossible to grow in sufficient amounts for the burgeoning lake-bound community. Only plunder on a grand scale could solve the logistical problems of keeping the city fed and clothed.

As the reach of Aztec hegemony lengthened, demand for exotic luxuries increased. Hundreds of thousands of bearers arrived laden with exotic tribute from the hot plains and forests, coasts, and distant highlands: quetzal feathers and jaguar pelts; rare conches from the gulf; jade and amber; rubber for the ball game that, like European jousting, was an essential aristocratic rite; copal for incense; gold and copper; cacao; deerskins; and what the Spaniards called “smoking-tubes with which the natives perfume their mouths.” Elite life, and the rituals on which the city depended to stay in favor with the gods, would have collapsed without regular renewals of these supplies. The flow of tribute was both the strength and the weakness of Tenochtitlan: strength, because it showed the vast reach of the city’s power; weakness, because if the tribute flow stopped, as it would do soon after the Spaniards arrived and helped rouse the subject peoples against the empire, the city would shrivel and starve.

In and around 1492, no such prospect loomed: it was probably unthinkable. Ahuitzotl became Aztec paramount in 1486. In 1487, at the dedication of a new temple in his courtly center at Tenochtitlan, the captives sacrificed were reliably estimated at more than twenty thousand. By the time of his death in 1502, tribute records credited him with the conquest of forty-five communities—two hundred thousand square kilometers. In the reign of his successor, Montezuma II, who was still ruling in Tenochtitlan when the conquistadores arrived, forty-four communities are listed, but the momentum never relaxed. Montezuma’s armies shuttled back and forth from the Pánuco River in the north, on the gulf coast, across the isthmus and as far south as Xonocozco, on what is now the frontier of Mexico and Guatemala. The Spaniards did not find a spent empire, or a state corroded by diffidence or undermined morale. On the contrary, it is hard to imagine a more dynamic, aggressive, or confident band of conquerors than the Aztecs.

For the Aztecs’ victims, the experience of conquest was probably more of a short, sharp shock than an enduring trauma. The fact that many communities appear repeatedly as conquests in the rolls the Aztecs preserved, as records of who owed them tribute, suggests that many so-called conquests were punitive raids on recalcitrant tributaries. The glyph for conquest is an image of a burning temple, suggesting that defeat was a source of disgrace for local gods. One of the astonishing features of Mesoamerican culture before the conquest is that people revered the same pantheon throughout and beyond the culture area the Aztecs dominated. So maybe the worship of common deities spread with war. But nothing else changed in the culture of the vanquished.

Typically, existing elites remained in power, if they paid tribute. Wherever records survive in the Aztec world, ruling dynasties at the time the Spaniards took over traced their genealogies back to their own heroes and divine founders, in unbroken sequences of many hundreds of years. It was rare for Tenochtitlan to intrude officials or install garrisons. In early colonial times the Spaniards, who were looking hard for indigenous precedents for their own style of government in an attempt to represent themselves as continuators, rather than destroyers, of indigenous tradition, could find only twenty-two cases of communities ruled directly from Tenochtitlan, and most of those were recent conquests or frontier garrison towns, suggesting that direct rule, where it occurred, was a transitional, temporary device.

So the hegemony of Tenochtitlan was not an empire in the modern sense of the word. For years, when I was teaching Mesoamerican history to undergraduates, I sought a neutral word to describe the space the Aztecs dominated. I felt immensely pleased with myself when I thought of calling it by the vague German term Grossraum, which literally means “big space.” But my pleasure fled when I realized, first, that the undergraduates could not understand what I meant and, second, that it was an absurd evasion to pluck a term from a culture that had nothing to do with the case. We may as well call it what it was: a tribute system of unparalleled complexity.

The complexity is obvious from the lists of goods that fill documents from the preconquest archives of the Tenochca state. For Tenochtitlan, no tributary was more important than the city’s nearest neighbor, Tlatelolco, which was on an adjoining island in a shared lake. Its strategic proximity was dangerous, and its loyalty was essential. Indeed, Tlatelolco was the only ally that never deserted Tenochtitlan but fought on, during the siege of 1521, until the end, while the Spaniards detached all the other formerly allied and subject communities, one by one, from Tenochtitlan’s side, by intimidation or negotiation. In keeping with the city’s supreme importance, Tlatelolco got special treatment from the illustrators of Codex Mendoza. Instead of using a simple name glyph to signify the city, they devoted much space to a lively depiction of the city’s famous twin towers—the double pyramid, reputedly the highest in the Aztec world, that adorned the central plaza. They also showed the conquered chief of Tlatelolco, whom the Tenochca called Miquihuixtl, hurling himself drunkenly down the temple steps in despair. More remarkable than the way they depicted the city is the tribute they listed—including large quantities of cotton and cacao, which could no more grow in Tlatelolco than they could elsewhere in the region. So Tlatelolco was evidently receiving tribute from farther afield and passing it on to Tenochtitlan.

Other cities privileged in the imperial pecking order levied and exchanged tribute in similar ways. Tenochtitlan topped the system, but it was not entirely exempt from the exchange. Annually, in mock battles, the city engaged in a ritualized exchange of warriors for sacrifice with Tlaxcala, a community on the far side of the mountain range to the southeast of Tenochtitlan. The terms of exchange favored the hegemonic city, and Tlaxcala was also listed as paying tribute in other forms, including deerskins, pipes for tobacco, and cane frames for loading goods on porters’ backs. But the system marked Tlaxcala out as special. When the Spaniards arrived, the Tlaxcalteca tested them, welcomed them, allied with them, used them against their own regional enemies, and supplied more men and material for the siege of Tenochtitlan than any other group.

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The fall (1473) to Tenochca conquerors of the neighboring city of Tlatelolco with the spectacular death of the defeated ruler, Moquihuixtl.
J. Cooper Clark, ed., Codex Mendoza, 3 vols. (London, 1938), iii. Original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Power in the Aztec world was many-centered, elusive, and exercised through intermediaries. Traditionally, historians represented the Inca hegemony as a complete contrast: highly centralized, systematic, and uniform. Inca imperialism was indeed different from that of the Aztecs, but not in the ways commonly supposed. Peter Shaffer’s play of 1964, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the best-ever dramatization of the conquest of Peru, captures received wisdom in a brilliant passage of dialogue. Under the supreme Inca’s all-seeing gaze, symbolizing the reach of his intelligence service, the Spaniards interrogate natives about the nature of the empire and hear that its organization is comprehensive, inflexible, and irresistible. The population is divided not among disparate natural communities but into bureaucratically contrived units of a hundred thousand families. The state controls all food and clothing. Every month, the people unite in the apportioned tasks of the season: plowing, sewing, roof mending. Obligations to the state dominate every phase of life. The ruler interrupts the dialogue to explain: “Nine to twelve years, protect harvests. Twelve to eighteen, care for herds. Eighteen to twenty-five, warriors for me—Atahuallpa Inca!”

The image is appealing, but misleading. The Inca system was not centralized. It did not resemble the “state socialism” that Shaffer’s Cold War–era play portrays. On the contrary, the empire had distinctive relationships, crafted to meet each individual case, with almost every one of its subject communities.

The vision of Inca power crushing diversity out of the empire was a construction of early colonial historians. Some of them were clerics or conquistadores. They exaggerated Inca power to flatter the Spaniards who overthrew it and the saints who supposedly helped. Other makers of the myth were the descendants of the Inca themselves, who aggrandized their ancestors by making them seem equal or superior to European empire builders. Garcilaso de la Vega, for example, the most accomplished writer on the subject in the sixteenth century, whose book on his ancestors appeared eighty years after the Spaniards arrived in Peru, was the son of an Inca princess. He lived as what Spaniards called a señorito, embodying gentlemanly affectations, in the Andalusian town of Montilla, which was small enough and remote enough for him to be the most important local personage. His status is measurable in his scores of godchildren. For him the Incas were the Romans of America, whose perfectly articulated empire exhibited all the qualities of order, organization, military prowess, and engineering genius his European contemporaries admired in their own accounts of ancient Rome.

Roman models, however, are almost useless for understanding what the Incas were like. The best route is via the ruins of the states and civilizations that occupied the Andes before them. From the seventh century to the tenth, the metropolis of Huari, nine thousand feet up in the Ayacucho Valley, preceded and in some ways prefigured the Inca empire. The town had barracks, dormitories, and communal kitchens at its center for a warrior elite, while a working population of some twenty thousand gathered around it. Satellite towns around the valley imitated it, probably because they were colonies or subject communities. To judge from similar evidence farther afield, the influence or power of Huari reached hundreds of miles over mountains and deserts to Nazca. The Huari zone overlapped with the Incas’ home valley of Cuzco, and the memory of their achievements remained potent.

Deeper inland, higher into the mountains, in an area that became a target for Inca imperialism, lay the ruins of the city of Tiahuanaco, near Lake Titicaca, with an impressive array of raised temples, sunken courtyards, triumphal gateways, fearsome reliefs, crushing monoliths, and daunting fortifications. Spread over forty acres at an altitude higher than that of Lhasa in Tibet, it was a real-life Cloud Cuckoo Land, twelve thousand feet above sea level. Potatoes fed it. No other staple would grow so close to the snow line. To cultivate the tubers, the people built platforms of cobbles, bedding the potatoes into topsoil of clay and silt. To supply irrigation, and for protection from violent changes of temperature, they dug surrounding channels from Lake Titicaca. The potato fields stretched nine miles from the lakeside and could yield thirty thousand tons a year. The state warehoused huge amounts and converted crops into chuñu, a gastronomically unappealing but vital substance made by freeze-drying potatoes in the conducive climate of the high Andes. Tiahuanaco was obviously an imperial enterprise. To supplement potatoes, and to ensure against blight, the inhabitants had to conquer fields at lower altitudes, where they could grow quinoa and what modern Americans call corn—that is, maize.

The Incas did much the same as their predecessors in Huari and Tiahuanaco, only on a vastly larger scale, all over the culture area they called Tawantinsuyú, “land of four quarters,” which comprised the Andes and the mountains’ flanks as far as the coasts and the forests. They practiced ecological imperialism, switching products between climates and sometimes shifting whole communities hundreds of miles in order to adjust the supply of labor to the needs of empire.

Much of the Inca world was settled at altitudes too high for maize, but the Incas’ partiality for the crop was close to an obsession. They systematically shifted populations toward valleys suitable for growing maize. They stockpiled it in warehouses higher than its zone of cultivation, where it could feed armies, pilgrims, and royal progresses while supplying maize beer for ritual purposes. They engaged in what we now think of as state-sponsored science, developing new strains, adapted for high yields.7 Maize was not necessarily the best crop, from either an environmental or a nutritional point of view. The Incas favored it for more than utilitarian reasons: it was sacred to them, rather as the wheat of the Eucharist is sacred to Christians, perhaps in a way that the routine staples of the Andes, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, could not attain, because they were too familiar.

The Incas also needed lowland products. Coca sustained a life of a higher order than corn. For the elites for whom it was reserved, it unlocked realms of imagination and stimulated ritual. Whereas maize beer, the commoners’ tipple, could intoxicate, coca could inspire. The Urubamba Valley specialized in producing it, in an arc along the rivers Torontoy, Yanatil, and Paucartambo,8 where the Incas imported labor from the lowlands on either side of the mountains to supply the manpower. Even more than coca, cotton and chilies were vital: the one for clothing, the other to flavor food and animate life. Chilies grew well alongside the Vilcanota River north of Cuzco and were among the products for which the Supreme Inca, Huayna Capac, located his estate at Yucay in the early sixteenth century. Honey, and exotic feathers for elite costumes, were among the products the forests produced. Though the Incas always disparaged the forest as a wild and fretful place, they adapted to it. Indeed, when the Spaniards drove the Inca rulers from the highlands, they took refuge in the forest and sustained a luxurious life in a new, lavish capital at Vilcabamba until the Spaniards descended and burned it, extinguishing the last independent Inca state, in 1572.

The meaning of the Inca name is in some ways easier to grasp than that of the Aztecs. It was, at least, a name they used of themselves. It denoted at first—perhaps until the mid–fifteenth century—a member of a group defined by kinship in the Cuzco Valley. But it came to apply to selected members of a widespread elite, scattered, by the end of the century, along and around the Andes from northern Ecuador to central Chile. In part—and here a parallel with the Romans is inescapable—the extension of the name’s embrace was a strategy of the state, rather like the progressive broadening of the label “Roman citizen.” Inca rulers conferred the status of Inca on subjects of the imperial heartland, sent them into remote provinces, and admitted some collaborative elites in conquered territories to Inca ranks.

In some ways, the Incas did make stunningly despotic interventions in the lives of the peoples of the empire, chiefly in the form of massacres and mass deportations. Terror was an organ of government. When, at an uncertain date, the Incas conquered the rival kingdom of Chimú, they razed the principal city of Chanchan almost to the ground and carried off the entire population. A few years before the coming of the Spaniards, Inca Huayna Capac drowned—it was said—twenty thousand Cañari warriors in Lake Yahuar Cocha. The same ruler levied one hundred thousand workers—if colonial-period estimates can be believed—to build his summer palace, and relocated fourteen thousand in the Cochabamba Valley, from as far away as Chile, to provide labor for new agricultural enterprises. When the Spaniards captured Atahuallpa, the supreme Inca they ransomed and put to death, he had fifteen thousand people in his camp, whom he had forced from their homes in northern Ecuador and was transferring to new settlements. A census the Spaniards called for in 1571 showed that the population of Cuzco included the children and grandchildren of at least fifteen ethnic groups whom the Incas shipped in to supervise newly established economic activities, especially the manufacture of textiles that were formerly regional specialties. At least forty groups featured among workers in Yucay, where Huayna Capac had an estate.9 Colonial historians thought that the Incas routinely selected six or seven thousand families for resettlement every time they added a new place to their empire. In Moho, when the Spaniards announced the fall of the Inca empire, the entire population rose and left, returning to the homes from which the Incas had uprooted them. The resettlement policies the Incas enforced had nothing to do with homogenizing culture; on the contrary, migrants were required to preserve their own languages and customs and forbidden to mix with neighboring communities.

Power over the environment matched this power over human lives. The Incas maintained a road network over 30,000 kilometers—getting on for 18,000 miles—long, with teams of runners capable, on favored routes, of covering 240 kilometers (or 150 miles) a day. Between Huarochirí and Jauja they climbed passes 16,700 feet high. Way stations studded the system at altitudes of up to 13,000 feet. Here workers were rewarded with feasts and pain-numbing doses of maize beer. Armies found refreshment. Prodigious bridges linked the roads. The famous Huaca-cacha (“Holy Bridge”) stretched 250 feet on cables thick as a man’s body, high above the gorge of the Apurimac River at Curahasi. The roads streaked the empire with a uniform look that impressed Spanish travelers of the early colonial era and helped to create the impression that the Incas were homogenizers and centralizers whose roads were like grapples, holding the empire in a single grip. And the Incas did have what one might call a signature style—a kind of architecture that shaped the way stations, warehouses, barracks, and shrines that they built along the roads and at the edges of their empire: the habit of stamping the land with buildings that proclaimed their presence or passing was a tradition they learned from Huari and Tiahuanaco. Similarly, they helped spread the use of their language, Quechua, from its heartlands in the northern and central Andes—though it was probably already a lingua franca of trade.

The roads were there not only to speed Inca commands and to carry Inca armies. They also linked sacred sites. The management of the sacred landscape of the Andes—the maintenance of shrines, the promotion of pilgrimages—was all part of the value the empire added to lives lived in its shadow. Rituals encoded political relationships in ways hard for modern Westerners to understand—scores of different ways, each appropriate to the traditions of the peoples involved. The Incas kept the images of local and regional deities from around the empire hostage in Cuzco, and literally scourged them when the guardian peoples of their shrine defaulted on payments of tribute or obligations of service. Lines, onto which roads were often mapped, radiated like sun rays from Cuzco, linking mountaintop shrines and pilgrimage places. A thousand scribes in Cuzco knotted memorials of sacred places, their calendars, and their rites into the woven braids that the Incas used to record data.

One of the most startling pieces of evidence was recorded among the Checas, a people of the Huarochirí Valley, between Cuzco and the coast. As they recalled their history, late in the sixteenth century, a supreme Inca, beset by enemies, had once, in a mythic past, called upon the guardians of shrines all over the Inca world to march to his aid. The manuscript represents the negotiations as dialogues between gods, who traveled to conferences on litters. Perhaps this is really how diplomacy unfolded. The Incas regularly assembled their mummified former rulers, who shared a meal together—the viands consumed by attendants—and conversed through professional shamans. The presence of divine images at parleys hallowed the events; and the convention that the words spoken proceeded from the minds of gods, rather than from their human spokesmen, would add diplomatic distance to the exchanges and freedom to the debate. But in this case none of the provincial gods would support the Incas, except Paria Caca, the eponymous lord of the mountain where the Checas went to worship, who offered to turn stones into warriors—for that was the image the Incas regularly used to evoke successful recruitment. All the god demanded in return was that the Incas offer sacrifice at his shrine by dancing there annually.

What did the Checas get by imposing this ritual on their ally? At one level, the dance was symbolic, showing that the god of the Checas could command the Incas and that the Checas’ relationship to the dynasts of Cuzco was not one of simple submission. At another level, it was a matter of some practical utility. It ensured that the supreme Inca was available for regular consultations and that the obligations of hospitality were indefinitely renewed. The arrangement mattered deeply to the Checas. That was why they remembered it and wrote it down. Their reason for siding with the Spaniards in the war to overthrow the Incas was that the rulers in Cuzco dishonored the sacred promise to perform the annual dance.

Marriages also helped the empire cohere. Inca monarchs took brides from all over Tawantinsuyú, to attract the services of their kin—a practice the Spaniards would imitate to advantage—and to be hostages for their communities’ good behavior. Huayna Capac had six thousand wives to help ensure the loyalties of subject communities. His mother had originally come to the Inca court from a frontier region in what is now Ecuador. When nobles who were her kin threatened to leave Huayna Capac’s service, he brought out her mummified carcass or, perhaps, a statue, and bade her dissuade them by speaking to them—which she did through the medium of a native shaman.10 More evidence comes from the Huayllacan people who lived in towns near Cuzco. They recalled a time when one of their princesses married a supreme Inca. But they forfeited Inca friendship by allowing her and her son to be taken hostage by neighboring enemies, with whom the Incas then established a new marriage-based alliance. When the Huayllacans tried to retrieve the situation by a successful conspiracy to kill the offspring, the Incas took revenge, crushing them in battle, killing and banishing their leaders, and seizing much of their land.11

The results of the marriage habit were equivocal. Supreme Incas begat huge broods of emulous sons who soaked up expenditure, conspired for power, and usually ended up being slaughtered when one of them succeeded in the contest for the throne. Seraglio politics disfigured court life, where pillow talk was often of politics. As in the Ottoman Empire on the other side of the world in the same period, favored concubines used their privileged access to the supreme ruler to manipulate patronage and even to interfere with the succession. Partly to arrest this form of corruption, late in the fifteenth century supreme Incas took to marrying their full sisters and limiting the right of succession to the offspring of these impeccably royal unions.

Tribute was the cement of empire. At the installation of a new supreme Inca, hundreds of children from all the subject communities were strangled in sacrifice and buried, together with great numbers of other offerings from the provinces: llamas, rare shells from the coast, artworks in gold and silver, and rich apparel, including cloaks made from bats’ skins in Puerto Viejo and Tumbes. Parties of sacrificers set out from Cuzco, with children in their train, to repeat the offerings at important shrines around the empire, at distances of up to about 1,250 miles from Cuzco.12 Pots, woven goods, footwear, slaves, and coca arrived, as well as foodstuffs, people, and objects for sacrifice. From Huancayo in the Chillún Valley, the Incas levied a proportion of everything produced locally: coca, chilies, mate for making tea, dried birds, fruit, and crayfish. Fabulous amounts of gold served to “plant” the Incas’ gardens with corncobs of gold and to plate the temples of Cuzco with gold and silver. In the garden of the Temple of the Sun at Cuzco, according to a wide-eyed Spanish report, “the earth was lumps of gold and it was cunningly planted with stalks of corn that were of gold.” No wonder the Incas were unsurprised when the Spanish conquistadores demanded a roomful of gold as Atahuallpa’s ransom.

Rather as the Aztec hegemony relied on continual expansion to feed the growth of Tenochtitlan and the demands of its high-roller elite, so Cuzco, with its huge and growing establishment, needed the momentum of conquest to continue indefinitely. “Most of the inhabitants,” according to Pedro Pizarro, “served the dead.” 13 The dead, it was said, “ate from the best lands.” Expansion was necessary to provide domains for each successive supreme Inca’s mummy. The system created potentially fatal instability at the heart of the empire: huge rival constituencies at court controlled their own resources and could back rival candidates for power. The results included instability at the core and friction on the frontiers. The rate of expansion had slowed by the time the Spaniards arrived, and the violence and trauma of succession conflicts jarred and weakened the state.

Nothing in pre-Hispanic Andean chronology is certain. The Jesuit missionary Bernabé Cobo, who struggled to understand Peru’s past in the early seventeenth century, thought it was because the Incas were indifferent to chronology. He complained of how, if you asked natives for dates, they would speak vaguely of “a long time ago.” But the Incas did have a sense of chronology, which they expressed in ways unintelligible to Europeans, associating events together, counting generations, and reckoning in eras of unequal lengths, identified by the names of real or legendary rulers. No records are reliable enough, therefore, to justify the assigning of events to particular years, but the Inca realm was expanding fast in the generation or two preceding the arrival of the Spaniards. Inca conquests of that period brought most sedentary peoples of the Andes into a single system, reaching nearly to the river Bío-bío in the south. According to the traditional chronology, Inca Tupac Yupanqui was on the throne in 1492. According to memories Spanish and native chroniclers recorded in the early colonial era, he was the widest-ranging of Inca conquerors. His father, Pachacuti, had launched the empire-building project, taking the Inca state from a regional power in the valley of Cuzco and its environs into what are now Ecuador, Bolivia, and coastal Peru. Tupac Yupanqui extended the conquests to comprise almost all the sedentary peoples of the Andean culture era and, it was said, scoured the sea for “isles of gold” to add to the empire.

Meanwhile, the world Columbus sought—which, as he said, “Alexander labored to conquer”—eluded him. But another world awaited, of wealth more easily exploited than that of Asia and the Indian Ocean, on the far side of the Atlantic and the Caribbean, just beyond his reach. As it turned out, the densely populated zone that stretched from East Asia across Europe and North Africa did not stop at the ocean’s edge. There were uncontacted outposts of intense settlement and city life in Mesoamerica and the Andean region, in and around the lands of the peoples we know as the Aztecs and Incas. The route Columbus reported led Europe toward them and their gold and silver and millions of productive people. Beyond them, and in the Caribbean islands along the route, was a vast, underexploited terrain that could be adapted for ranchland and farmland and for a potential plantation economy that would enrich the West.

The incorporation of the Americas—the resources, the opportunities—would turn Europe from a poor and marginal region into a nursery of potential global hegemonies. It might not have happened that way. If Chinese conquerors had bothered with the Americas, we would now think of those areas as part of “the East,” and the international dateline would probably sever the Atlantic.

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