There is a quote I think of often these days. It’s simple, but to me it speaks volumes, and it goes like this: “We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.”
Who said this? Francisco Pizarro did. He wrote it in a letter to King Charles V shortly before he decimated the Incan Empire, simultaneously attempting to destroy any evidence of its existence in his wake. What was he talking about? Cuzco, the imperial capital of the Incans, and the pure marvel that a population had somehow managed to create. By today’s standards even I am stunned at what such a society was able to accomplish, and so I can only imagine what Pizarro was thinking as he looked down on Cuzco from the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, I think I have a pretty good guess. Without flinching, I believe he thought to himself: “I want this to be mine.”
For a Conquistador that was promised governance by Spanish royalty for any land he took over, I’m sure the deal seemed pretty fruitful. I bet a few other factors widened his pupils; such as the fact the empire had a well-functioning infrastructure, was rich with precious metals, and was inhabited by people who recognized (and feared) the power their modern weaponry held. The latter was what brought Atahualpa, the Incan emperor, to voluntarily meet with Pizarro in hopes of discussing a peaceful resolution towards the accusation of being an enemy to the Catholic Church and Spanish Crown. Of course, this was nothing more than a conniving plan to isolate Atahualpa who, having never seen a book before, threw the Bible aside when presented with the option of converting to Catholicism. This was the only impetus the Spanish needed to attack, thus unleashing a rain of cannon and gunfire on the unarmed natives that had accompanied their leader. The result? 2,000 massacred Incans, a captured emperor, and only 5 Spanish deaths.
Afterward, the general gist goes as you would expect; Pizarro’s men pillaged their gold and silver, raped their women, mercilessly killed those who didn’t convert to their way of thinking, and demolished communities in order to rebuild them as “Spanish” (the one they missed, as you may know, being the famous Machu Picchu). As I alluded to earlier, these Conquistadors literally wanted nothing more than to erase anything Incan from the history books.
All of this from the man who said: “We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.”
It is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain. Those are the key observations of Pizarro that keep reverberating in my head. On a factual level these words have meaning because it’s true, the Incan empire was so beautiful and they did complete astonishing works of engineering, but on a personal level it’s because I have trouble coming to terms with someone who carried out brutal atrocities when he was fully aware of the majesty that was laid out in front of him. Acting primarily out of greed, he ordered the complete destruction of one the most impressive cultures history has ever seen.
As I work and live in the Sacred Valley, a region which is a stone’s throw away from Cuzco and was the main agricultural stronghold of the area, I am constantly surrounded by this history. Ruins – which include anything from watchtowers, to terraces, to houses – are scattered across the landscape in such abundance that many a passerby don’t even bother to look. Yet there they stand, not only as a stark reminder of what once was, but as an indication of resistance from a civilization who ensured the Spanish couldn’t finish what they set out to do.
I find that to be one of the fascinating aspects of where I am currently living, that I am constantly surrounded by both the magnifcicent creations of human ingenuity and the beastly demonstration of unyielding coercion. It always amazes me how the beauty and ugliness in the history of this place perpetually co-exists in a bizarre harmony, and that you can see it plainly in front of you in a simple task like walking to the market in the morning. Never before have I lived in a place as unique as this, and I’d be lucky as hell if I ever get to again.