South America: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Inca Empire

The origin of the South American Indians has been the subject of learned discussions and heated disputes for many a long year. The most common theory is that they are of Mongolian descent.

Coming to actual facts, when the white man discovered South America he found the country peopled by a copper-coloured race consisting of two surprisingly different elements—on the one hand, numerous and scattered tribes of savages; on the other, the highly civilized empires of the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in and around Peru.

During our voyage up the West Coast from Valparaiso to Antofagasta, we get an almost continuous view of sandy shores backed by barren mountains. The landscape is all the more impressive because, as we have already had some close views of the Cordillera of the Andes, we have come into touch with the defiant character of country such as we are now skirting. Yet it was in yonder forbidding country that the Indians established a widespread, powerful, and progressive empire.

Tradition says that some race in an advanced stage of civilization lived in this country long before the date to which the Incas trace back their origin; and this idea is supported by remains of wonderful buildings on the shores of Lake Titicaca, but nobody knows who this race were or whence they came.

Among the many legends cherished by the Peruvian Indians, one tells these people that they are descendants of the Sun, who sent two of his children, Manco Capac and Mama Oello Huaco "to gather the natives into communities and teach them the arts of civilized life."

The date of the fairy-tale history of the Peruvian Indians is supposed to be somewhere about four hundred years before the Spanish conquest, or early in the twelfth century. But authentic history of the Inca empire only goes back to about a hundred years before its downfall.

The Incas carried water to the coast region by means of canals and aqueducts, thereby transforming a desert into a fertile land. They terraced the steep slopes of the Andes, thus rendering the mountains capable of cultivation, and as varying heights have similar effects to differences of latitude, the industrious population were able to grow all kinds of crops. The snow-mantled highlands were utilized for vast herds of the hardy Peruvian sheep, or "llamas." Cuzco was the Holy City and the capital of the Empire; here were situated a magnificent royal residence, numerous fine houses belonging to the nobility, and the now world-famous Temple of the Sun, where pilgrims from all parts of the Empire met to celebrate religious festivals. The capital was defended by a remarkably strong fortress, built of enormous blocks of stone, and there were numerous fortifications of a similar kind throughout the Empire. Good roads, following the mountain passes, provided easy means of communication between the capital and the farthest boundaries of Inca territory. An Inca sovereign held the position of a despot; the emperors, however, did not make a tyrannical use of their power, but, on the contrary, devoted themselves to the welfare of the nation and took a fatherly interest in their poorer subjects. The Empire teemed with wealth. The Peruvian mountains were treasure-houses of gold and silver, and the Indians were very skilled both in mining these precious metals and using them for decorative purposes; so abundant were the supplies that not only personal and household ornaments, but kitchen utensils, even, were made of gold and silver. Peruvian wool was another important factor in the riches and splendour of the Empire; with it the working-class Indians manufactured fine and gorgeously coloured materials for the adornment of princes and palaces, and with it, too, they made serviceable cloths of equally beautiful colours for their own use. The one blot on Inca civilization was an indulgence in human sacrifices.

The Inca empire was overthrown by Pizarro in 1532. The Spanish conquest of Peru stands out as one of the boldest enterprises in history. A mere handful of white men made their way across the mighty natural barriers of the Andes and penetrated into the heart of a strange country to pursue the adventure of pitting themselves against a nation with hundreds of thousands of subjects, with well-trained armies, a wonderful system of fortifications, and such prowess and widespread experience in fighting that the Empire's boundaries had continuously been extended by the subjugation of neighbouring tribes. The success of the Spaniards was due partly to the fact that they arrived in Peru when, for the first time in Inca history, the nation was divided against itself—two claimants, Atahualpa and Huasca, the two sons of the recently dead Emperor, were engaged in a fierce struggle for the throne. But, alas! treachery was the trump-card in the Spanish conquest. The Spaniards marched into Peru at a time when Huasca was being worsted. Atahualpa sent ambassadors to Pizarro asking for help to enable him to follow up his advantage and gain a decisive victory over his rival; in response he was invited to the Spanish camp, where he was dragged from his golden litter and made a prisoner by Pizarro, whilst the Spanish troops massacred his attendant nobles and soldiers.

Peru became the headquarters of Spanish government in South America. Lima was made the capital and seat of government, and the Viceroy there took rank as the highest official in the Spanish colonies of the New World.

The liberating forces at work in the New World eventually made a successful attack on the royalist stronghold. On July 26, 1821, the Viceroy, realizing that he could no longer hold Lima against the army that was advancing from the south, left the capital, and the patriot forces entered the city to proclaim the independence of Peru.