One month ago I announced the commencement of my reading of William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru, to be attended, it was hoped, with the just fruits my labors, in the form of dinner at a local Mexican food restaurant or a weekend getaway at a river resort. The drawing has not yet taken place, but I have at any rate completed the book.
All told, it was five hundred pages in small print, fairly bristling with footnotes. Fortunately the allotment of raffle tickets respects hours of reading rather than page count. Much to my discredit, it's been a long time since I've read such a large, dense book, I, who once spent a week of Christmas vacation tearing through Gibbon!
I have several times mentioned my longstanding interest in the Spanish exploration and conquest of the New World. In the past my acquaintance has been mainly with the exploits of Cortés in Mexico, the fullest and most enjoyable account of which is Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico. (I have the two volumes in a Modern Library edition.) The conquest of Peru presents a very different picture. Cortés, it is true, was little better than a freebooter, waging a war of avarice and rapine against an empire that had done the Spanish crown no harm, but it's hard to think of a crueler nation with more iniquitous social institutions than that of the Aztecs. We needn't admire Cortés the man to appreciate his skill as a commander, and, while we may regret the extinction of the civilization from a romantic point of view, it's hard to mourn the end of its bloody subjugations and diabolical sacrifices.
It's the clash of civilizations that draws me to these histories, the seeming anachronism of Spanish caballeros encountering a scene out of Herodotus, the virgin beauty and splendor of the American empires crumbling before the Spanish crown. The book opens with a comprehensive description of Peruvian civilization: its system of roads and hanging bridges, its tiered crops rising on one mountain from the tropics to temperate climes, and, of course, its cyclopean architecture.
But the most renowned of the Peruvian temples, the pride of the capital, and the wonder of the empire, was at Cuzco, where, under the munificence of successive sovereigns, it had become so enriched, that it received the name of Coricancha, or "the Place of Gold." It consisted of a principal building and several chapels and inferior edifices, covering a large extent of ground in the heart of the city, and completely encompassed by a wall, which, with the edifices, was all constructed of stone. [...]
The interior of the temple was the most worthy of admiration. It was literally a mine of gold. On the western wall was emblazoned a representation of the deity, consisting of a human countenance, looking forth from amidst innumerable rays of light, which emanated from it in every direction, in the same manner as the sun is often personified with us. The figure was engraved on a massive plate of gold of enormous dimensions, thickly powdered with emeralds and precious stones. It was so situated in front of the great eastern portal, that the rays of the morning sun fell directly upon it at its rising, lighting up the whole apartment with an effulgence that seemed more than natural, and which was reflected back from the golden ornaments with which the walls and ceiling were everywhere in crusted. Gold, in the figurative language of the people was "the tears wept by the sun," and every part of the interior of the temple glowed with burnished plates and studs of the precious metal. [...]
Adjoining the principal structure were several chapels of smaller dimensions. One of them was consecrated to the Moon, the deity held next in reverence, as the mother of the Incas. Her effigy was delineated in the same manner as that of the Sun, on a vast plate that nearly covered one side of the apartment. But this plate, as well as all the decorations of the building, was of silver, as suited to the pale, silvery light of the beautiful planet. There were three other chapels, one of which was dedicated to the host of Stars, who formed the bright court of the Sister of the Sun; another was consecrated to his dread ministers of vengeance, the Thunder and the Lightning; and a third, to the Rainbow, whose many-colored arch spanned the walls of the edifice with hues almost as radiant as its own.As for the narrative, I most enjoyed the slow progress of Pizarro from the mangrove swamps and deserts of the coast, through the icy pinnacles of the Andes, and into the sheltered green vales of the thither slopes.
The descent of the sierra, though the Andes are less precipitous on their eastern side than towards the west, was attended with difficulties almost equal to those of the upward march; and the Spaniards felt no little satisfaction, when, on the seventh day, they arrived in view of the valley of Caxamalca, which, enamelled with all the beauties of cultivation, lay unrolled like a rich and variegated carpet of verdure, in strong contrast with the dark forms of the Andes, that rose up everywhere around it. The valley is of an oval shape, extending about five leagues in length by three in breadth. It was inhabited by a population of a superior character to any which the Spaniards had met on the other side of the mountains, as was argued by the superior style of their attire, and the greater cleanliness and comfort visible both in their persons and dwellings. As far as the eye could reach, the level tract exhibited the show of a diligent and thrifty husbandry. A broad river rolled through the meadows, supplying facilities for copious irrigation by means of the usual canals and subterraneous aqueducts. The land, intersected by verdant hedge- rows, was checkered with patches of various cultivation; for the soil was rich, and the climate, if less stimulating than that of the sultry regions of the coast, was more favorable to the hardy products of the temperate latitudes. Below the adventurers, with its white houses glittering in the sun, lay the little city of Caxamalca, like a sparkling gem on the dark skirts of the sierra. At the distance of about a league farther, across the valley, might be seen columns of vapor rising up towards the heavens, indicating the place of the famous hot baths, much frequented by the Peruvian princes. And here, too, was a spectacle less grateful to the eyes of the Spaniards; for along the slope of the hills a white cloud of pavilions was seen covering the ground, as thick as snow-flakes, for the space, apparently, of several miles.
At length, Pizarro, unable, in the hurry of the moment, to adjust the fastenings of his cuirass, threw it away, and, enveloping one arm in his cloak, with the other seized his sword, and sprang to his brother's assistance. It was too late; for Alcantara was already staggering under the loss of blood, and soon fell to the ground. Pizarro threw himself on his invaders, like a lion roused in his lair, and dealt his blows with as much rapidity and force, as if age had no power to stiffen his limbs. "What ho!" he cried, "traitors! have you come to kill me in my own house?" The conspirators drew back for a moment, as two of their body fell under Pizarro's sword; but they quickly rallied, and, from their superior numbers, fought at great advantage by relieving one another in the assault. Still the passage was narrow, and the struggle lasted for some minutes, till both of Pizarro's pages were stretched by his side, when Rada, impatient of the delay, called out, "Why are we so long about it? Down with the tyrant!" and taking one of his companions, Narvaez, in his arms, he thrust him against the marquess. Pizarro, instantly grappling with his opponent, ran him through with his sword. But at that moment he received a wound in the throat, and reeling, he sank on the floor, while the swords of Rada and several of the conspirators were plunged into his body. "Jesu!" exclaimed the dying man, and, tracing a cross with his finger on the bloody floor, he bent down his head to kiss it, when a stroke, more friendly than the rest, put an end to his existence.
At length the way-worn company came on a broad expanse of water formed by the Napo, one of the great tributaries of the Amazon, and which, though only a third or fourth rate river in America, would pass for one of the first magnitude in the Old World. The sight gladdened their hearts, as, by winding along its banks, they hoped to find a safer and more practicable route. After traversing its borders for a considerable distance, closely beset with thickets which it taxed their strength to the utmost to overcome, Gonzalo and his party came within hearing of a rushing noise that sounded like subterranean thunder. The river, lashed into fury, tumbled along over rapids with frightful velocity, and conducted them to the brink of a magnificent cataract, which, to their wondering fancies, rushed down in one vast volume of foam to the depth of twelve hundred feet! The appalling sounds which they had heard for the distance of six leagues were rendered yet more oppressive to the spirits by the gloomy stillness of the surrounding forests. The rude warriors were filled with sentiments of awe. Not a bark dimpled the waters. No living thing was to be seen but the wild tenants of the wilderness, the unwieldy boa, and the loathsome alligator basking on the borders of the stream. The trees towering in wide-spread magnificence towards the heavens, the river rolling on in its rocky bed as it had rolled for ages, the solitude and silence of the scene, broken only by the hoarse fall of waters, or the faint rustling of the woods,—all seemed to spread out around them in the same wild and primitive state as when they came from the hands of the Creator.It was an ill-fated expedition, stricken by starvation and betrayal. Down in the jungle, almost overcome with sickness and fatigue, the men constructed a crude boat from felled timber, with nails made from the shoes of devoured horses, and the cavaliers' rain-rotted clothes to stop the holes. This was sent ahead to the populous village which, the natives assured them, was just downstream. The scouts, upon reaching the Amazon and finding no village in evidence, decided to explore the river down to the Atlantic and win the glory of its navigation rather than labor back upstream, and so abandoned their comrades to their fate. After months of waiting, Gonzalo marched the rest of the way to the confluence, discovered what had happened from a starving maroon, and, undaunted, led the survivors back to Quito, two and a half years after setting out. He went on to make himself tyrant of Peru before the inevitable turn of events saw him beheaded as a traitor to the crown.
And that's the second thing subsequent to Francisco's death that stands out to me: the deposing of Gonzalo at the hands of a humble ecclesiastic, Pedro de la Gasca, sent by Charles the Fifth to sort out the mess into which Peru had fallen.
Pizarro could not discern, that under this modest exterior lay a moral power, stronger than his own steel-clad battalions, which, operating silently on public opinion,—the more sure than it was silent,— was even now undermining his strength, like a subterraneous channel eating away the foundations of some stately edifice, that stands secure in its pride of place!Without any ostentation or display of force, this unassuming, politic little man conquered the conquerors, and saw Pizarro beheaded and his ferocious octogenarian lieutenant, Francisco de Carvajal (the "Demon of the Andes"), drawn and quartered on the same day without having had to strike a single blow. He returned to Castile after setting the empire in order, and died a bishop many years later. Though the death of Francisco Pizarro seems the most logical place to end the history, Prescott seemingly has a rhetorical or artistic purpose in closing with Gasca.
After the dark and turbulent spirits with which we have been hitherto occupied, it is refreshing to dwell on a character like that of Gasca. In the long procession which has passed in review before us, we have seen only the mail-clad cavalier, brandishing his bloody lance, and mounted on his war-horse, riding over the helpless natives, or battling with his own friends and brothers; fierce, arrogant, and cruel, urged on by the lust of gold, or the scarce more honorable love of a bastard glory. Mingled with these qualities, indeed, we have seen sparkles of the chivalrous and romantic temper which belongs to the heroic age of Spain. But, with some honorable exceptions, it was the scum of her chivalry that resorted to Peru, and took service under the banner of the Pizarros. At the close of this long array of iron warriors, we behold the poor and humble missionary coming into the land on an errand of mercy, and everywhere proclaiming the glad tidings of peace.Take-aways? It makes you queasy, the extent to which men will debase themselves for material gain. Latter-day preachers will tell you that the besetting sin of our age is materialism, by which they mean avarice, but to my mind our chief vice is sloth, acedia. But the Spaniards, now – they knew avarice. What's strange about it is the facility with which these freebooters mixed their bloody pursuits with religion. Prescott several times refers to the Crusades, but the Crusades, whatever course they may ultimately have taken, were to a great extent a matter of defense. The Turks besieged Vienna as late as the seventeenth century – think of that! But the American conquests – what mundane purpose did they serve, other than to fill the coffer? You can say, well, the Conquistadors' "religion" was just a matter of convenience, a pretext for doing what they wanted to do. Perhaps in some cases that's true. But that's too easy an out in general. No, you just have to accept that these men thought of themselves as righteous, as devout, even, while committing the cruelest atrocities. Such a chimera is man!
Still, the trouble with condemning the vices of historical figures is that you might very well be condemning their virtues. Each era has its own excesses and enormities and blind spots, our own no less than others. Prescott recognizes this, and I found Peru much less opinionated than Mexico, especially on the score of religion. Or perhaps I'm just less touchy now. At any rate, they're both excellent histories. We've made great advances in historical research in the last century and a half, but books like them just aren't written anymore.
As usual, I will conclude by saying that I want to get down to see the sites sometime. My father spent the better part of a year in Ecuador and Peru on state business when I was in college. He was stationed near the headwaters of the Amazon, in an environment similar to that encountered by Gonzalo Pizarro's expedition, I suppose. While there he sent me a fine watercolor bought from a street vendor. It depicts a mountain village with a church and natives in traditional garb, and hangs at a prominent place in my bedroom. I'm sitting here looking at it now, hoping that a trip to South America is in the cards for my future.