It happened today - August 29, 2015

Death of AtahuallpaOn August 29, 1533, Francisco Pizarro strangled Atahuallpa, the last real Inca Emperor. And that’s the good news. The alternative was to be burned alive if he didn’t pretend to convert to Christianity in return for a relatively merciful execution.

It’s hard to defend either Pizarro’s habitual conduct or Spanish imperialism in general. And certainly Pizarro’s behaviour in this matter was belligerent and treacherous to an appalling degree, though European diseases inflicted more harm on the Inca people than human malice ever could. On the other hand it’s pretty hard to speak well of the Inca, warlike and arrogant people who considered their emperor at least a demigod and practiced large-scale human sacrifice, though at least they didn’t also practice cannibalism as the Aztec did. (By the way, Wikipedia says with typical modern multicultural delicacy that “The Incan people thought it was an honor to die as an offering.” Yeah. I bet. Especially the ones doing the killing. I still imagine it was hard to find volunteers.)

However one may settle the question of which empire was more disagreeable, the really striking thing about the fate of Atahuallpa is just how one-sided the encounter between them was. There may have been more Inca than Spaniards, around 12 million versus just under 10 million. But they were never about to cross the ocean and invade Spain. Instead, Pizarro led a laughable 180 men against tens of thousands of Inca soldiers and crushed them. Using European technology including writing, and European military organization, he overwhelmed Inca armies and stormed their capital, executed the emperor and installed his half-brother as a puppet. There was never the slightest chance of the Inca strangling a King of Spain even though their record of conquest does not suggest any greater scruples about such an action.

It will not do to point to greater European perfidy or militarism, or for that matter boldness, to explain the overwhelming, shocking imbalance of power between its civilization and that of any other part of the world by 1500, to the point that a tiny band of scruffy adventurers could overthrow a mighty empire despite insufficient resources and planning that wasn’t even done on the back of an envelope because they didn’t have any.

We sometimes take such things for granted because we know they happened. But step back for a moment and ponder the sheer implausibility of it and you find yourself facing a great mystery.

So again I urge people to consult Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel to get some sense of how the entire period since the end of the last glaciation and the emergence of agriculture, the unequal distribution of arable land and domesticable plants and animals, created this otherwise baffling military, technological, organizational and demographic imbalance, with all its vast and often horrendous consequences including the sordid end of the last independent Inca emperor.