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The Last Days of the Incas
"With vivid and energetic prose, Emmy Award–winner and author MacQuarrie… re-creates the 16th-century struggle for what would become modern-day Peru… MacQuarrie, who writes with just the right amount of drama… is to be commended for giving a balanced account of those events. This long and stylish book doesn’t end with the final 1572 collapse of the Incas. Fast-forwarding to the 20th century, MacQuarrie tells the surprisingly fascinating story of scholars’ evolving interpretations of Inca remains. In 1911, a young Yale professor of Latin American history named Hiram Bingham identified Machu Picchu as the nerve center of the empire. Few questioned Bingham’s theory until after his death in 1956; in the 1960s Gene Savoy discovered the real Inca center of civilization, Vilcabamba. Although MacQuarrie dedicates just a few chapters to modern research, the archaeologists who made the key discoveries emerge as well-developed characters, and the tale of digging up the empire is as riveting as the more familiar history of Spanish conquest."
—Publisher’s Weekly, STARRED Review
In 1911, explorer (and future U.S. senator) Hiram Bingham astounded the world by discovering the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu, located high up in the cloud forest of Peru. At the time, Bingham was convinced that he’d stumbled upon Vilcabamba, the Incas’ lost and legendary guerrilla capital, where the last remaining Incan emperors had fought against Francisco Pizarro and his invading Spanish conquistadors. Historians hailed Bingham’s triumph; Bingham himself wrote popular books touting his feat. But Hiram Bingham had gotten it completely and utterly wrong. The Incas’ rebel capital of Vilcabamba still lay undiscovered, hidden in thick jungle.
How Machu Picchu and the Incas’ fabled guerrilla capital of Vilcabamba were found are only two mesmerizing stories in Kim MacQuarrie’s masterful THE LAST DAYS OF THE INCAS (Simon & Schuster; $30.00; May 29, 2007), the definitive account of one of history’s most fascinating collisions between native civilizations and marauding Spanish invaders. MacQuarrie, a four-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and the author of three previous books about Peru, tells the tale of Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire and the Incas’ bloody rebellion against him with an immediacy sparked by intense personal experience. He became particularly intrigued with Inca legends while living for a year with a recently contacted tribe on the western edge of the Amazon Basin, only one hundred miles away from Machu Picchu. Drawing on Spanish and native narratives, as well as more recent accounts, MacQuarrie makes clear at the outset of THE LAST DAYS OF THE INCAS that an epic tale is about to unfold:
"Nearly five hundred years ago, roughly one hundred and sixty-eight Spaniards and a handful of their African and Indian slaves arrived in what is now Peru," MacQuarrie writes. "They soon collided with an Inca empire ten million strong, smashing into it like a giant meteor and leaving remnants of that collision scattered all over the continent."
That empire stretched over 2,500 miles – a thrilling potential conquest for Francisco Pizarro, the ambitious 54-year-old Spanish mercenary whose last chance to gain a prestigious title and wealth lay in vanquishing some native realm on behalf of his king and country. The recent success of Hernando Cortés in crushing the Aztecs of Mexico was his inspiration and model. Granted the exclusive right to explore and conquer Peru by the Spanish monarchs, Pizarro launched himself and his small party of cavalry and foot soldiers into the wilds of the Peruvian Andes in 1532. The Spaniards soon encountered the Inca Emperor Atahualpa with some 50,000 warriors. Atahualpa, however, was puzzled by their advance.
"Who were these people?" MacQuarrie writes that Atahualpa wondered. "Why would they dare intrude into an empire where his armies could crush them if he so much as raised his little finger? As Atahualpa listened to the latest report about the bold yet foolish invaders, intermixed with the much more interesting news arriving each day from the south, he lifted up the gilded skull of Atoq, the Fox, took a long cool drink from its rim of gold and bone, then turned his attention to the more pressing matters at hand."
In the end, Atahualpa was astounded by the Spaniards’ horses and intrigued by their shiny armor; he ultimately decided to seize the invaders’ horses (for breeding purposes) and weapons and to make eunuchs of the Spanish leaders, reducing them to mere guards in his harem.
Atahualpa seriously miscalculated, however, the Spaniards’ power; the 1,000-pound horses, steel armor, and gunpowder allowed the Spaniards to capture Atahualpa in a surprise attack, even though they were heavily outnumbered. Although the Inca emperor temporarily ransomed his life by providing a roomful of gold and silver, Pizarro killed him anyway, soon installing Atahualpa’s younger brother, Manco, on the Inca throne as a puppet king. Pizarro now controlled the largest Native American empire ever to exist in the New World. He had finally fulfilled a life-long dream.
Fabulously rich, the invading conquistadors soon became arrogant, constantly demanding that the conquered Incas give them ever increasing amounts of gold. The final straw occurred when one of Francisco Pizarro’s brothers demanded that the puppet emperor Manco give up his beautiful queen. The Emperor refused, escaped to the hills, and soon returned with an army of two hundred thousand warriors, completely surrounding the Spaniards in the Incas’ capital of Cuzco. His goal was to wipe out every last Spaniard in Peru.
Thus began a fierce and bloody Inca guerrilla war, one that took the Spaniards completely by surprise and caused them to launch a desperate counterinsurgency war of their own. In the midst of it, the Incas abandoned their capital of Cuzco and created a new one, located far down the eastern side of the Andes in an area surrounded by thick and impenetrable jungle. They called it Vilcabamba. From their hidden capital the Incas continued their guerrilla war, where they were taught by renegade Spaniards how to ride Spanish horses and use Spanish guns, and fought on for nearly the next forty years. Finally, however, the Spaniards invaded Vilcabamba and sacked it; they then began a desperate search for the last Inca emperor. Carrying torches at night through the jungle, they eventually captured the Inca emperor and his queen. She was pregnant, they learned, and the emperor had refused to leave her. Back in Cuzco, the Spaniards executed the emperor in a public spectacle so emotional that even the Spaniards’ wives couldn’t help but weep. Thus ended the Inca Empire–empire that had existed for a mere ninety years.
For the next three centuries, the story of Manco Inca’s rebellion and the location of the Incas’ final capital gradually transformed itself from history into legend. Few of the Spanish invaders, after all, were literate and even fewer left records. The Incas, meanwhile, had no form of writing. Instead, they relied upon quipus (long strings of tied and colored knots) to serve as memory prompts. "The Spanish and native records have thus left us with only a distorted patchwork of what really happened," MacQuarrie explains. "Like quantum physics, we can thus only approximate what happened in the past."
Thanks to his exhaustive research and narrative gifts, however, MacQuarrie’s account of the fall of the Inca Empire is a mesmerizing one. His account of the modern search for Vilcabamba, and of Hiram Bingham’s accidental discovery of Machu Picchu while searching for it, is just as dramatic. For more than forty years, Bingham insisted that he had found the Incas’ lost rebel capital. Because of his fame, the archaeological world at first agreed with him.
Yet MacQuarrie explains how eventually a colorful and maverick American explorer, Gene Savoy, became suspicious of Bingham’s claims and soon began a quest to locate it. Savoy did, in 1964, and his discovery was subsequently confirmed by the work of an American architect and explorer, Vincent Lee. Their discoveries, as described by MacQuarrie, helped to finally untangle the intertwined mysteries of Machu Picchu and of Vilcabamba, the Incas’ guerrilla capital.
THE LAST DAYS OF THE INCAS is the only book to recreate the colorful characters, the drama, and the historical significance of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in a powerful, storytelling style that will entertain readers interested in one of the greatest epic stories to ever occur in the New World. Each year more than a million tourists visit Peru, and more than half of those visit Machu Picchu. They will find no finer history of the Spanish Conquest, of the Incas’ heroic rebellion, and of the discovery of Vilcabamba and Machu Picchu than this one.
"…The author, who lived in Peru for five years, chronicles the adventures of Hiram Bingham, who, in 1911, discovered Machu Picchu and believed it was the Inca capital… [and] the adventures of other conquistadors and puppet kings, the rebellion of 1535, and…military attempts to conquer the Indians…. The result is a first rate…work of ambitious scope that will most likely stand as the definitive account of these people."
"In this thrillingly informative work, MacQuarrie relates how, with the help of metal weapons, artillery, disease, and horses ("the mobile tanks of the conquest"), the Spanish subdued a native populace despite being outnumbered nearly 10,000 to 1. In addition to writing rousing and clear-eyed battle accounts and describing the Incas’ early form of guerrilla warfare, MacQuarrie also manages to spin the oft-told story of the discovery of Machu Picchu into narrative gold."
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