De Soto And The Golden Road


It was all over in 33 minutes; one of the most fateful half hours the world has ever known. Within the space of time it took for the Spanish bugles to blow and the falconets to explode, the shock of Spanish cavalry charging into the ranks of naked bodies and the slaughter of the bodyguard and the capture of the Inca tumbled an empire. The whole culture of Andean America, which had been thousands of years in the making, fell in the dust and gore in that plaza at Cajamarca. The Indians never fully recovered from the first shock.

Within days, discovering that his captors suffered less from religious zeal than from a malady lor which gold was the only remedy, and being a master of perfidy himself, Atahualpa offered to ransom himself with the gold and silver of the empire. He would, he said, standing on tiptoe, “give enough gold to fill this room twenty-two feet long and seventeen wide to the white line which is half way up the wall.” As lor silver, he said he would “fill the whole chamber with it twice over.” That room, the only melancholy remainder of the drama of the 33 minutes, still stands in Cajamarca. The ransom monies were beginning to pour in when Hernando de Soto was sent on his mission to Cuzco . . .

De Soto was carried through the city in a goldplated litter, followed by a curious throng of women and children. He saw the storehouses for wool and cotton, and others filled with arms and such other accoutrements of war as quilted cotton armor, sharpedged swords and star-shaped halberds, while still other rooms were filled with com and shellfish and seaweed; all of this was of tax tribute. He was careful to note—for he was primarily an officer making an estimate of the situation—the fact that out of the great square went “four roads which led to all parts of the empire.”

The people, so de Soto learned, had originated as wanderers and food-gatherers around Lake Tificaca. Eventually they migrated northward. Ry the year iooo, since “blood and cruelty is the foundation of all good things,” they had disposed of the original inhabitants of this valley and taken possession of the treeless plain about Cuxco. Yet as these people were exposed to dearth and hunger and seasonal droughts, they began to oppose the titanic foires of Nature and to alter them for their benefit. They became a disciplined people and a unified empire, expanding at the expense of their neighbors. Whom they could not absorb, they destroyed. About 1200 A.D., the chieftains of the Quechua-spcaking peoples announced their official descent from the Sun God. They called themselves “Incas,” and as such became hereditary rulers.

Under the aggressively active Inca policy of conquest and assimilation, the lnca realm expanded in all of the four directions. Roads were built and the chasqui system organized. A caste of record-keepers, trained so that they could read the story of the past, invented the quipu , a series of colored and knotted strings, by means of which records could be kept of grazing lands, gold mines, numbers of people and tribes, tributes and deposits.

Having grown great, the Incas had come to believe that it must have always been thus, and what did not conform to the established idea of the lnca past was eliminated from human memory and so well that the impression has been left that, before the lnca, there hovered only a void over the Andes.

Their history operated much like the continuously truthful newspaper in George Orwell’s 1984 ; all other “truths” were eliminated and only those official truths remained. Meanwhile those things that it was desired that the people recall were sung by professional “rememberers,” who on festive occasions sang the song of the lnca, the memory of events kept accurate by the use of the quipu .

The Incas ruled their people with an iron hand but a just one. Every detail of their life, from womb to tomb, was prescribed. The state was not for the people, nor was equality the ideal. It was rather a blending of tribal communism and theocracy, a perilously balanced fusion of two antagonistic systems.

The common people were manipulated like figures on a chessboard. They became part of the decimal system of classification with division all along the social line. An elaborate hierarchy of territorial officials was set up. Above all was the argus-eyed lnca who saw every facet of his empire, as watchful as “Hig Rrother.” For every 10,000 in population there were 1,331 ollicials. Everything was regulated in this welfare state. No one moved on the roads without permission; there was work-service for taxes; there were contributions to state and religion; and each man was automatically a member of an agrarian militia. If a section of the realm was underpopulated, a whole tribe was moved into it. Loyal subjects were settled in a newly conquered land, while the recently conquered tribes were moved out and transferred to a “safe” community where they could be absorbed. Under this policy, most of Andean America was conquered. From Chile to Colombia, a distance of 2,320 linear miles, the land was unified, the jungle was invaded, the desert-coast pervaded. No tribe, no force, could resist the pressure of this benevolent despotism.