It happened today - March 12, 2016

March 12 marks the anniversary of the 1550 Battle of Penco. It’s not an especially significant battle on its own terms, just one incident in the Arauco War which I also hadn’t heard of. But it’s significant because it was so doubly one-sided.

In the first place, it featured tens of thousands on one side against 200 invaders on the other, with a few hundred local allies. In the second, the tiny side won.

The Arauco War was fought between colonial Spain and the and their various allies. It went on for decades and ended somewhat better than most such conflicts, with the Mapuche hanging on to some of their traditional territory into the 19th century (they are now evidently trying to regain some autonomy from Chile). But it underlines the extremely lopsided nature of the collision between Europe and the Americas in which European technology and cultural habits proved utterly lethal even when we’re talking Imperial Spain, which was bureaucratic, sclerotic and ineffective by European standards.

The indispensable book on the subject is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel which, despite the excruciating political correctness of its opening section, explains how accidents of geography, botany and animal husbandry generated an urban, open, inquisitive, dynamic and ultimately technologically progressive society around the Mediterranean and then in Western Europe that overwhelmed even the traditional societies of China and India, let alone the stone age peoples of Africa and the Americas.

It’s weird to see an unfair fight between tens of thousands on their home turf and a few hundred intruders, where the former cannot compete. When it happens, it cries out for explanation. And that explanation must be on a grand scale because the phenomenon is so extraordinary.

As for the Battle of Penco, well, it wasn’t that big a deal. Nor really was the Arauco War, unless you happened to live there. But the massive imbalance in capabilities between Spain and South America was of enormous importance.