A Conversation with the Author Kim MacQuarrie
Q: Many people know that Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire, but how is it that 168 Spaniards conquered an empire of ten million—the most powerful native empire in the New World?
KM: Despite their small numbers, Pizarro and his men had a lot of things going for them. Pizarro knew that Hernando Cortés had just conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico a dozen years earlier. By contrast, the Inca emperor Atahualpa did not know this; in fact, the Inca emperor probably knew nothing of the rest of the world beyond South America. The Spaniards had 1,000 pound horses—the mobile "tanks" of the conquest. The Incas had mild mannered llamas and alpacas, which they couldn’t ride. The Spaniards had steel weapons and armor. The Incas had weapons of copper, bronze and stone and had cotton padding for armor. The Spaniards had gunpowder, which they used in a kind of musket and they had canons. The Incas knew nothing about gunpowder. And the Spaniards just happened to arrive in the aftermath of a brutal Inca civil war. So the Inca Empire had been vastly weakened through civil war and disease.
Q: What were the Spanish Conquistadors in Peru like? What kind of men were they?
KM: They were men mostly in their twenties and represented most of the professions in Spain. They were not professional soldiers but were cobblers, tailors, sailors, notaries, blacksmiths, etc. Pizarro and two other partners had formed a corporation, the Corporation of the Levant, which was dedicated to plunder. If you were young and adventurous and had a sword and armor, then you signed up. The conquistadors did not draw salaries. They volunteered. The agreement they had with Pizarro and his partners was that if they conquered anything, then they would share in the spoils according to whether they had fought on horse or on foot, basically. They were shareholders in a corporation dedicated to plunder.
Q: Were they looking for gold or for something else?
KM: Funnily enough, when you boil the motivations of the Spanish conquistadors down, they were really not looking for gold so much as they were looking for an Indian empire. An empire sophisticated enough to have a peasantry that tilled the soil and which the Indian rulers taxed. The Spaniards knew that if they could remove the Indian elite, then they could take the elites’ place at the top of the social pyramid. The Spaniards weren’t necessarily looking for wealth such as gold, rather they were looking to rule an empire because that meant they would’t have to work again.
Q: In the conflict, Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa, who had just defeated his brother in the civil war. What kind of men were Pizarro and Atahualpa? Were they similar or different?
KM: Atahualpa was part of the crème de la crème of Inca royalty—he had royal blood on both his mother’s and his father’s side. His father had been emperor, until he died from European-introduced smallpox. Atahualpa was born high in the Andes in the Inca capital of Cuzco. He was used to being carried around in litters, was about 30 years old, was very intelligent, and was very interested in military matters. Pizarro, by contrast, was 54 years old and was from the bottom of Spain’s social classes; his mother was a maid. He was from a tiny rural town in southwestern Spain, in the impoverished state of Extremadura. Pizarro was also both illegitimate and illiterate. When he captured Atahualpa and pulled Atahualpa from his litter, he was literally pulling the uppermost elite of the Incas’ social pyramid from his throne. Which Pizarro then clambered up and where he remained—at the apex of the Inca state.
Q: Is it true that a number of the Spaniards really grew fond of Atahualpa—including Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer who later explored Florida and parts of the southern U.S.?
KM: Yes, De Soto was about 35 years old at the time, was handsome, a great horse rider and Indian fighter, and was very dashing. He became good friends with Atahualpa. He respected Atahualpa. According to Spanish reports, he was quite upset when Atahualpa was executed. Most people don’t know that Hernando de Soto, who eventually discovered the Mississippi River, was with Pizarro during the entire conquest of Peru.
Q: The Spaniards nevertheless killed Atahualpa and put his young 16-year-old brother on the Inca throne, making him into a sort of puppet king. Why did the Spaniards bother doing that—why didn’t Pizarro just begin to rule the empire himself?
KM: Because the Incas considered their rulers to be gods. They obeyed Inca authority. Pizarro didn’t speak Quechua, the Incas’ language. And Pizarro had killed Atahualpa because he’d heard that Atahualpa was raising an army to free himself with. But suddenly he was faced with a beheaded Inca Empire. Pizarro didn’t know anything about how the empire worked, how it was run. It was actually very complex. Pizarro was illiterate, but politically he was very astute. He thus realized that it would be easier to control an Inca emperor through an Inca surrogate than to try and rule it as a sort of king himself. Alexander the Great did the same thing in Persia and in the Middle East two thousand years earlier.
Q: Three years later, when he was nineteen, Atahualpa’s younger brother, Manco Inca, rose up and began a giant Inca rebellion. How did that happen?
KM: A lot of things contributed to the rebellion, but the greed of the Spaniards was foremost. By this time, more Spaniards had arrived in Peru. The newcomers hadn’t shared in the treasure Atahualpa had raised for his ransom. Basically they pestered the young Inca emperor for more gold. They abused the Incas’ women. And finally, one of Pizarro’s brothers, 22-year-old Gonzalo, stole Manco Inca’s wife, Cura Occlo, the Inca queen. That was the proverbial last straw. Manco escaped to the mountains, raised an army of 200,000 Inca warriors, then returned and surrounded the Spaniards in Cuzco, determined to exterminate every last one of them, including the Pizarro brothers.
Q: The Incas launch this major rebellion across the Andes. 190 Spaniards are trapped in Cuzco, which the Incas then set on fire. Francisco Pizarro is in Lima at the time, a new city he had founded down on the coast, and he started to send reinforcements to try and save his brothers and the rest of the Spaniards in Cuzco, the Inca capital. But Pizarro made a pretty big mistake—what happened?
KM: Pizarro and the rest of the Spaniards in Peru were pretty arrogant by this time. They’d already conquered the empire. They’d ruled it for three years. They were fabulously rich—many of them were the equivalent of multi-millionaires from all of the plunder they had seized. Militarily, they’d defeated the Incas every time they’d had a battle with them, because of the advantage of having horses plus steel swords and armor. But Manco Inca had a very crafty general, a kind of Inca Rommel, who figured out how to defeat the Spaniards. He waited until Pizarro’s reinforcements were in a deep canyon, and then rolled huge boulders down on them, crushing them, using the topography of the Andes to his advantage. Pizarro kept sending relief forces to the Cuzco and the Inca general, who was named Quizo, kept destroying them—completely wiping them out. By the time Pizarro found out, he had only a hundred men left to protect the city. And now a huge Inca army, led by the victorious General Quizo, was marching down from the Andes to destroy the Spanish city.
Q: But then Manco Inca made a big mistake. What was that?
KM: Well, Manco was still carrying out his campaign against the Spaniards, who were surrounded in Cuzco. He’d been receiving constant reports about the constant victories of his general Quizo. By now, Quizo had wiped out four or five different Spanish relief columns, and had sent some of their severed heads to the emperor. But Quizo had done all of this in the Andes, using the topography of the mountains to his advantage. The Incas had still never figured out how to defeat mounted Spaniards on flat terrain. Manco Inca now made a very bad decision: he ordered his general to attack Lima, which was a coastal city lying on flatlands, right along the ocean. As soon as General Quizo descended from the Andes and marched across the flatlands and attacked, the Spaniards on horseback suddenly gained the advantage again. It was a fierce battle, but the Spaniards turned the tide and killed the Inca general. It was the turning point in the Inca rebellion. Manco’s finest general was now dead.
Q: Manco, after losing his favorite general, abandons his siege of Cuzco and eventually founds a new capital, not in the Andes, but in the Amazon jungle. Why did he do that?
KM: Because he learned that more Spanish troops had arrived from the south and from the sea. He was 20 years old by now and he saw the writing on the wall. Manco took a large retinue of people, gave a final and very dramatic speech to his top commanders, took the Punchao, or golden image of the sun, and headed down the eastern side of the Andes into the Amazon. There he founded a new capital, Vilcabamba, and made it a rebel redoubt. Manco and his descendants then fought the Spaniards for basically the next 37 years.
Q: Forty years after Francisco Pizarro lands in Peru and captures the Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, the Spaniards finally defeat the vastly reduced yet free guerrilla state of Vilcabamba. How did the final collapse of the Inca Empire happen?
KM: After nearly forty years of Inca insurgency and Spanish counterinsurgency—during which the Spaniards were almost wiped out—the "conquered" Inca Empire during the years after the conquest was as deadly for the Spaniards as it presently is for U.S. troops in Falluja—the Spanish government in Peru got tired of having this lawless pocket of resistance. They decided to wipe it out. The Governor got together a large force of Spanish adventurers and land owners, put a bounty on the final Inca Emperor’s head, and they set off down the eastern side of the Andes again. They sacked the Incas’ Amazonian capital, and then a sort of special forces team of Spaniards set off after the Inca emperor, who was fleeing with his pregnant wife. Because she was pregnant, she slowed down their escape. Eventually, the Spaniards came upon the final emperor and his queen huddled around a fire in the middle of the Amazon jungle. They captured them, took them back to Cuzco, gave the emperor a "monkey trial," and beheaded him. That was the end of the Inca Empire. The year was 1572.
Q: More than 300 years pass, and the legend of the Incas’ rebel capital now lingers only in old history books and musty Spanish chronicles. And then, in 1911, a 35-year-old professor of Latin American history from Yale suddenly stumbles upon Machu Picchu. Who was the professor and how did he come across Machu Picchu?
KM: The professor’s name was Hiram Bingham, Hiram Bingham III, actually; he was born in Hawaii, and had taken leave from Yale to go look for the lost rebel capital of Manco Inca, Vilcabamba. Bingham was a son of missionaries but was married to an heir of the Tiffany fortune and lived in New Haven. He longed to make a name for himself or, as he called it, "to strive for magnificence." He was hoping to find a lost city and make a name for himself. He did just that—but instead of Vilcabamba he found Machu Picchu.
Q: But Bingham announced that he had discovered Vilcabamba, that this unknown citadel in the Peruvian cloud forest— now visited by nearly a million tourists each year. He basically announced to the world that Machu Picchu—a name given by locals to one of the two peaks the ruins were located next to—was Manco’s rebel capital, the same city from which the Incas launched their guerrilla war. Was that not true?
KM: No, Bingham got it totally wrong. You see, he was under a lot of pressure. National Geographic had sponsored his second trip there (this was the first of National Geographic’s sponsored expeditions—they’ve had more than 8,000 since). Bingham goes down there, discovers these fabulous, previously unknown ruins, and he’s under pressure to explain them, to tell their story. He looked in the Spanish chronicles, found no references to Machu Picchu, and decided that this must be Vilcabamba, Manco’s final capital. But it wasn’t. He made a big error.
Q: Then what happened—how did the truth finally emerge?
KM: Bingham went on to become a U.S. Governor and Senator, partly based upon the fame of discovering the lost rebel capital of the Incas. And then, more than forty years after his discovery, Bingham died, still insisting that Machu Picchu was Vilcabamba. During his lifetime, because of his fame and status, no one dared to quibble with him. Once he was dead, however, all bets were off. And other explorers started to compare the 16th century descriptions of Vilcabamba with the ruins of Machu Picchu—and they said the two didn’t fit. That Machu Picchu couldn’t possibly be Manco’s rebel capital.
Q: Then another American explorer, Gene Savoy, discovered finally in 1964 the real Vilcabamba. Who was Savoy—and what led him to find the real rebel capital?
KM: Savoy was a real character. He was in his early 30s at the time, looked a lot like a young Errol Flynn—swept back brown hair, a full mustache, tall, well built. He’d gone down to Peru to become an explorer—kind of like Bingham did fifty years earlier. And he was convinced that Bingham had gotten it wrong—that the real Vilcabamba must be further down in the jungle. And he was right. He hacked away in the jungle and came up with an entire city, lost for nearly four hundred years in the jungle.
Q: Then if Machu Picchu was not Manco Inca’s rebel capital of Vilcabamba—what was it?
KM: Well, scholars now believe that Machu Picchu was actually a sort of Inca "Camp David," a summer resort of an Inca ruler named Pachacuti. It was Pachacuti who is said to have begun the empire through his conquests. His name means "earth shaker." He had Machu Picchu built to commemorate some of his conquests in the region. It was a private resort, in fact—the Inca emperors were almost the only elites to own their own private lands—and Machu Picchu was Pachacuti’s private resort—a royal palace if you will.
Q: Can you talk about the ongoing controversy now between Peru and Yale over the artifacts that Bingham took from Machu Picchu?
KM: Yes, in fact Peru may go ahead and sue Yale University over it. You see, Bingham made three trips to Machu Picchu, the last two sponsored by the National Geographic Society. He excavated there and filled up numerous wooden crates with Inca skeletons he uncovered, burial implements, etc. More than 5000 artifacts, which he exported from Peru, and which are now in Yale’s Peabody Museum in Connecticut.
Q: Did Bingham legally export the artifacts?
KM: He did, but there was a stipulation in his contract with the Peruvian government that the government could ask for the return of the artifacts whenever they wanted, which they did 1927.
Q: So why have they not been returned?
KM: The reasons have changed over the years, but things have started to get pretty heated. Yale toured the artifacts across the United States in a big traveling exhibit about Machu Picchu. Millions of people visited and Yale made millions of dollars. In 2011, the 100th anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu will occur. And Peru wants Bingham’s artifacts back in Peru before then. So the whole thing may soon erupt in an international lawsuit. Both sides are getting more and more dug in.
Q: Are there more lost Inca cities to be found in Peru?
KM: There are, they keep finding them. There’s an American explorer named Gary Ziegler who discovered an unknown Inca site in 1999 called Cota Coca. And another pretty large group of Inca ruins was also discovered in 1999 called Qorihuayrachina. There are still Inca roads that lead off into the Amazon and nobody knows where. But as the American explorer Gene Savoy used to say "Ask the locals and follow the roads—because the roads all lead somewhere."
Q: Is there a timeline for The Last Days of The Incas?
KM: Yes, To see an extensive Time Line: Click Here
©2007-2012 Kim MacQuarrie