Conquering the Americas

A consideration of the 16th century conquests of Mexico and Peru
To understand why Peru was a longer conquest for the Spanish than the Mexican campaign we need to examine a variety of factors that conspired to shape the destiny of each. This article considers the importance of two factors - the nature of the conquered states and the influence of mythos on their conquest - and briefly debates the influence of three more obvious factors.
Whereas the Empire of the Incas in Peru was a ‘true state” with complex government and social system (Roberts, 469), the Meso-American lands of Mexico, were a sprawl of city-states in a somewhat degenerative, and permanent, state of war with each other (Coe, 71). By the time the Spanish reached Mexico, Mayan civilisation was in decline and through a variety of causes, not least a fragile political culture and precarious access to resources, had reached its apogee and was now in eclipse (Roberts, 467). The Aztec Empire may have achieved hegemony greater than any before seen in Mexico (Roberts, 468), yet because of its dependency on human sacrifice to maintain the order of the empire and cosmos (Smart, 182), rather than affirm their domains, the Aztec way of war helped their demise. War was waged to secure tribute for their altars thus, in the Aztec mind, it made no sense to completely destroy an enemy. This left the Aztec surrounded by bitter enemies who could still fight and whose hatred of their overlords in the capitol Tenochtitlan blinded them to the greater threat posed to them by the Spanish (Townsend, 39). In complete contrast, though Peru was a “vast and ethnically heterogeneous country” (Bernand, 23), the Incas ruled it with great political skill and diplomacy, developing a bureaucracy that was both energetic and brutally efficient (Fuentes, 121). In contrast to the harsh and “pessimistic” (Roberts, 469) religion of the Aztec, the People of the Sun bestowed a more harmonious religion on their subjects, one that acknowledged the binary cosmic balances of Sun/Moon-male/female and the veneration of ancestors (Smart, 178-9). While the Inca were every bit as oppressive as the rulers of Mexico, and child sacrifice was a feature of their rituals (Bernand, 34), their aim was the integration of other peoples, not their destruction, ultimately striving for the “subordination of the individual to the collective” (Roberts, 469). This stronger foundation made Peru less susceptible to conquest and, but for the distraction of civil war, unlikely victims of the Conquistadors. 

The pessimistic mythos of the Aztec contributed greatly to the success of Cortes. While some scholars believe that many parts of the “Return of Quetzalcoatl” mythology were created by Aztecafter the conquest to try and come to terms with their doom, there is no doubt that many auspicious portents converged in Cortes to give him a powerful psychological lever on the Aztec, particularly King Motecuhzoma (Townsend, 18-20). Accounts (admittedly from European pens) tell us that terrible omens, comets and strange lights, troubled the king from 1519 on. Members of the royal family had dreadful visions of “ men clothed in black stone riding hornless deer” putting the city to flame (Burland, 112). When reports of “mountains floating on the sea” hosting mysterious beings “white of skin, with long beards and hair” came to the superstitious king he was gripped by “fear and dread” (Ruiz, 38). Coinciding with these portents were important cosmological and historical concurrences. The conquerors came from the east, the direction of authority in Meso-American culture, and arrived in the Aztec year 1 Reed, a date associated with deified king Quetzalcoatl’s departure from Mexico and prophetic return to claim his throne (Townsend, 18-20). Able to capitalise on Aztec mythos through the guidance of his astute native lover Princess Malinalli, Cortes exploited Motecuhzoma’s readiness to believe that a powerful god from the past was about to challenge the reigning power (Burland, 110-120), as one more tactic in his battle plan. Similar heralds came to the attention of Inca priests and rulers. Whether it was Sapa Inca Huayna Capac’s prophesy of bearded messengers of the gods come to destroy their civilisation (Fuentes, 119-20), the ambiguous prophesies of his ancestors, or just the self-serving augurs of the priesthood, that piqued their superstition (Hyams, 117-19), these portents were not given anything like the credulity the Aztec attached to such things. It would appear that the Inca, with their vast lines of communication, were well aware of the coming of the Spanish through refugees from the Caribbean and Balboa’s arrival off their coast. If they feared them, it was as mortal, if strange, enemies and not supernatural beings (Hyams, 117). Where Cortes was aided by Aztec obsession with the otherworldly, Pizarro had only the advantages of Inca civil war and the ravages of European smallpox (Hemming, 28).

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The individual geographies of Peru and Mexico help explain the relative difficulties of both conquests. Cortes ascent of the “terrible rocky slopes of the Mexican highlands” (Orlandi, 33) was a great feat, but it was terrain familiar to the Castillian majority in Cortes’ company (Roberts, 619). While Peru had a sophisticated road and path system the conquistadors could exploit, there were still great problems of altitude and obstacle in the Andes (Hemming, 105-6) where Pizarro and his successors faced rocky barriers and “fissure-like abysses” (Hyams, 193). While the central plateau of Mexico and the more accessible regions of Peru were conquered quickly, the ability of the Inca to resist from hidden fortresses such as Machu Picchu in the shadows of Huayna Picchu and Espiritu Pampa in the Amazonian headwaters (Bernand, 119), are testament to Peru’s geographical extremities.

Chronicler and conquistador Bernal Diaz rightly acknowledges the contributions made by shipwrecked priest Jeronimo de Aguillar and Indian princess Malinalli to the conquest of Mexico. “Blessed with a useful and faithful interpreter” in Aguillar (Diaz, 66) and with the multilingual “Dona Marina” providing a wider grasp of the Aztec language Nahuatl (Burland, 114), Cortes was able to form alliances with subject tribes, interrogate and gather detailed intelligence and be forewarned of Aztec plots and guiles. That this was decisive in his conquest is in no doubt, but that it gave him an edge over conquerors of Peru is doubtful. In their exploratory sailings off the coast of Peru, Pizarro’s pilot Ruiz was quick to capture locals to be taught Spanish (Hemming, 25). These native interpreters gave Pizarro understanding of some of the many languages of the Inca and much valuable information about the great empire ahead (Hyams, 17).
The Spanish advantage of superior weaponry must, finally, be examined. Both Inca and Aztec weaponry was crude, a case of “the Stone Age succumbing to European technology” (Childs, 38). While the Aztec were equipped with clubs, slings, darts and crude spears and their armies unpracticed in the close formation drills of the European legions (Townsend, 89), Cortes had 508 experienced soldiers, 100 sailors, 16 horses, cannon, flint-locks and Spanish steel (Orlandi, 22). The progress of the conquest was by no means a fore-gone conclusion, but the superior weapons and European approach to war was an important, even decisive factor (Childs, 38). With only 168 men (Childs, 38), weakened by adversity, disease and internal strife and up against Inca troops “disciplined...ready to attack” (Hyams, 126-7), Pizarro’s force was not in an advantageous position. Though the Inca were initially in awe of the Spanish horses, they learned to bring them down with the effective use of slingshot and bolas, providing a strong resistance to the conquerors (Hemming, 42-3, 192-3, 195). If not for the division of the Inca armies by civil war, it is debatable as to whether the Spanish, no matter how well armed, could have conquered a united Inca army on their home ground. That they did at all is a feat of military brilliance rarely matched.
In conclusion we can see that while, on the surface, the conquests of Mexico and Peru seem similar – small bands of military adventurers, in unknown terrain, against huge and sophisticated civilisations – in truth their conquerors faced very different opponents and challenges. Mexico was subdued so rapidly because it was a bitterly divided land, ruled by a fatalistic and self-indulgent state. Peru was subdued because, consumed by civil war and disease, a mighty empire ignored a clever and ruthless interloper until it was much too late.
Bernand, Carmen. The Incas. People of the Sun. Harry N. Abrams Inc: New York 1994.
Burland, Cottie and Werner Forman. Feathered Serpent and Smoking Mirror. Gods and Fate in Ancient Mexico. Orbis Publishing: London, 1975.
Childs, John. The Military Revolution 1, in The Oxford History of Modern War, Charles Townshend (ed), Oxford UP: Oxford, 2000.
Coe, Michael D. Breaking the Maya Code. Penguin Books: London, 1992.
Diaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. Tr. J. M. Cohen. Penguin Books: London, 1963.
Fuentes, Carlos. The Buried MirrorReflections on Spain and the New World. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 1992.
Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Incas. Macmillan: London, 1970.
Hyams, Edward and George Ordish. The Last of the Incas. Longmans: London, 1963.
Orlandi, Enzo. (ed.). The Life and Times of Cortes. Paul Hamlyn: London, 1969.
Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World. (Third Edition) Penguin Books: London 1995.
Ruiz, Ramon Eduardo. Triumphs and Tragedy. A History of the Mexican People. W. W. Norton: New York, 1992.
Smart, Ninian. The World’s Religions. Cambridge UP: Cambridge, 1989.
Townsend, Richard F. The Aztecs. Thames And Hudson: London, 1992.

Ustratos focus on the economic and geo-strategic analysis, security problems of the nations, economic development, the history of the world, the geopolitical conflicts and strategic issues in Europe, America, Asia, Africa, and their strategic problems. Tags:geopolitical, strategies, economies, war, military, armed, economic development, international relations, history, geography, environment, , NGO, alliances, European Union, flags, USA, United State of America