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Mike Brass. 1997 essay. The conquest of the Inca Empire

The Inca Empire was established in 1476 AD. By the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in 1532, the empire extended the length of the coast and controlled parts of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northwestern Argentinia and northern Chile. It was a highly centralised empire with the supreme political leader, the emperor, having divine status. The emperor was the unifying factor for the empire. On his death a struggle for succession usually ensued. This is precisely what happened on the death of the emperor Huayna Capac (1493-1525), when civil war erupted between Atahuallpa, Capac's illegitimate son, and Huascar, Capac's appointed heir, and tore the empire apart. Huascar was captured by Atahuallpa in 1533, but his armies continued to resist at Cuzco. The Spanish arived in the middle of the critical situation and exploited the state of anarchy by favouring Huascar's armies; one such action being the execution of Tomala, who was chief of the Puna and an ally of Atahuallpa.

Upon the arrival of Pizarro in 1532, Manco (who was Huascar's brother) allied himself with Pizarro. Huascar's army viewed Pizarro and his Spanish soldiers as allies, but this illusion was soon destroyed by the greed and brutality exhibited by the Spaniards. Atahuallpa never regarded the Spanish as being of divine origin, as descendants of the civilising god Viracocha (Watchel 1977: 23).

Serious questions have been asked why Atahuallpa permitted the Spanish to advance unresisted from the coast through the mountains to the emperor's seat at Cajamarca. However, Atahuallpa was responding in a way that was natural to a man whose views of his country and the world was shaped by the experience of the Andean highlands. Traditionally those who controlled the mountains also commanded the coastal regions, due to the mountain peole controlling the source of the rivers upon which the coastal peoples' lives depended. While the Spanish stayed near the coast, their small force was of no concern to the emperor because as soon as the Spanish began to move into the mountains they would be delivering themselves into his hands; this is a view also strengthened by the fact that in Inca circles power was derived from numbers. Combine these facts with the reality that Atahuallpa had not yet fortified his position as Inca leader and it can be seen why Pizarro was regarded as nothing more than a nuisance and why no attempt was made to attack him and his soldiers.

There was also a rumour going around Atahuallpa's camp that horses lost all their strength during nightime and that their guns could only fire two shots before being rendered useless. It was on these bases Atahuallpa laid a trap for the Spanish at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532. Ignoring a prior agreement to meet Pizarro at mid-day, Atahuallpa arrived at nightfall. However, this plan backfired. Positioning his men in the houses around the town square with himself in the centre, when the square was filled with the Incas Pizarro asked Atahuallpa to accept the sovereignty of the Spanish monarch and to be converted to Christianity. Atahuallpa cast the Bible aside, and the Spanish opened fire and their calvry charged. The Andeans were destroyed and Atahuallpa captured; he was later strangled even though massive sums of ransom were offered for his release. Without their leader, the Incas were hamstrung. The Spanish strategy of taking out the leader, upon whom the functioning of the empire depended, worked. Pizarro was able to take advantage of the situation provided to give his forces the distinct advantage required over the Andean counterparts.

Thus the ability of the Spanish to seize the slightest advantage played a big part in their ultimate victory. But surely there are other reasons?

What must be born in mind were the different, opposing world-views. The Andeans were hampered by their tendency to postpone all military activity on the nights of the full moon in favour of religious celebrations, something the Spanish were quick to seize on and exploit. On the other hand the Spanish did not suffer from such constraints. However, this is of limited importance due to the fact that full moons only occur once a month and this view does not do justice to the Inca fighting abilities.

More damage was done to the Andean population by the white man's diseases which began attacking the Inca's population numbers and weakening their fighting strength from the first moment of contact. This scenario had an earlier parallel in Mexico with Cortes and the Aztecs.

Religious and psychological reasons explaining the Inca defeat are not difficult to identify but are hard to analyse. Then there is the symbolic ritual of fighting employed by the Andean warriors. The aim of the Incas in warfare was not to kill their enemies but rather to capture as many of them alive as possible for ritualistic purposes. From their perspective, the battle methods of the Spaniards were disgraceful as well as unbelievable - the Spaniards fought to kill and destroy. Also, it must be remembered that Andean wars normally ended in treaties in which the defeated maintained their customs in return for tribute paid to the victor. They could not even have begun to imagine that the spanish would attempt to destroy their religion and customs.

The argument that Spanish victory was ultimately made possible by the political divisions existing within the empire rests on the support given by his allies to Pizarro; this included tribes such as the Canaris who were opposed to Inca rule. It was the Andeans who supplied Pizarro with the majority of his soldiers of conquest, which eventually equalled in number those of his opponents. However, the fighting capabilities of Pizarro's allies were less than the opposing Inca army and it was the Spanish who controlled the guns, horses and who supplied the logistics and leadership.

The most cogent argument is that the conquest of the Incas was made possible by the technical superiority of the European weaponry employed by the Spanish: "Metal against stone, steel swords against flint-tipped spears, metal armour against cotton-quilted tunics, arquebuses and cannons against bows and arrows and, above all, calavry against infantry." (Watchel 1977: 24) The Spanish advantage in technological terms was responsible for some of their stunning victories over their Andean foes. In this view, Pizarro realized their superiority was overwhelming and him and his men took measures to utilise this to a degree that has not been fully appreciated; the vulnerability of the Incas to the capture and execution of their emperor being a prime case in point. Thus the shock of military contact across such a vast technological and cultural gap proved to be so great that, before the Andeans could fully adjust, their ultimate sealed (Adorno & Andrien 1991: 50).

However, this is a view which has been challenged by scholars such as Watchel. They raise the objection that the Spanish technological superiority was possibily of limited importance and point out firearms were few in this part of the New World, and couple this with the fact that the weapons were slow both in action and in reloading. The major effect of the arms and horses was psychological. They served, at least in the beginning, to sow panic and discord in the Inca ranks. This phase though was over quickly and the Inca soldiers began to adapt their battle tactics in an effort to counter the Spanish weaponry. However, this argument falls short upon a close examination of the 1536-7 Andean revolt. During the long siege of the Spanish in Cuzco, the Indians showed that although they had learnt something of the methods employed by their adversaries, they had not absorbed the lessons adequately. The Indians still chose to launch their attacks by the full moon and they still underestimated the Spanish horses, arms and deviousness.

Thus, although later in the conquest they were able to increasingly turn to non-military means to secure and expand their social and political control, in the early stages of the conquest the Spanish did not enjoy that luxury - the Inca state had to be secured by force, by arms.

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