For years, I had what Anne Fadiman calls an Odd Shelf of books about Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Finally, though, I thought: what do I like about these books? Essentially, I like reading about terrible hardship and the looneys who choose to undergo it. Perhaps books about exploration in other parts of the world would interest me! So I read some Peter Hopkirk, and some Peter Fleming, both about recent exploration in Tibet and China and Mongolia and India, and adored it. And I read David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, about recent exploration in the Amazon, and loved that, too. So when I had Kim MacQuarrie’s book The Last Days of the Incas recommended to me, I thought, perfect.
This book is mostly about long-ago exploration, in the 16th century. It’s about hardships, all right, but it’s much more about the hardships of ten million Incas than about the looney Spaniards who came to conquer them. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro, a few hundred Spanish conquistadors (not professional soldiers but mercenaries of every trade looking to make a fortune in the New World) and their horses came to the kingdom of the Incas, in the area now known as Peru. They hoped to make a conquest as spectacular as that of Cortez in Mexico, who had brought down the Aztecs only a few years before. And despite the huge expanse of land, the rugged terrain, the enormous and well-organized population, and the Spaniards’ own mistakes and infighting, they did it.
MacQuarrie traces the ways in which this conquest was possible. The Incas themselves had only been in control of their empire for a matter of ninety years, and were still organizing and settling their kingdom. Smallpox had come down from Mexico, through Central America, and had badly weakened the Incas before the Spaniards ever set foot in South America: the emperor himself, Huayna Capac, died of it, setting off a civil war between his sons. The clash between European steel weapons and armor and native copper- or bronze-tipped clubs or arrows and cotton padding never goes well for the indigenous population. And perhaps most fatal of all, Manco Inca, nearly the last emperor of the Incas, was only seventeen years old, and was betrayed by youth and inexperience into trusting the Spaniards, not once, but twice.
All of this is a pretty old story to anyone who has studied European history. It was the same for the Aztecs, and the same, much later, for India and Africa and Australia. The most interesting parts of this book, to me, were the sketches of personalities — Pizarro, for instance, with his lower-class background, who liked to play boules and pelota with ordinary sailors, but who was cheap and never paid what he lost. I also was very engaged by the portrait MacQuarrie made of Inca society. According to him, it was a sort of feudal socialism, where the elite took a tribute of labor from the lower classes, and in return redistributed the goods the lower classes produced through their labor. If MacQuarrie can be believed, under the Incas, no one, ten million strong and in a country 2500 miles long, lacked for food or shelter. Impressive, and something that rapidly changed under the more-demanding Spanish rule.
I had a few nits to pick with this book. To give proper credit first, though, MacQuarrie is very careful to point out where his sources are incomplete or biased. Almost all sources are, of course, Spanish, since theirs was the written language, and even within that set of sources, they’re not necessarily reliable: individual letter-writers were trying to impress the King and might have downplayed help from native allies or even from their fellow conquistadors. While MacQuarrie doesn’t tease all this out, he does at least acknowledge it.
What I objected to was the sheer amount of imagination he put into the work. It seemed that MacQuarrie’s favorite phrase was “no doubt.” No doubt Pizarro was nervous. No doubt the two men embraced before they parted ways. No doubt Hernando had heard the story of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. No doubt the Spaniards suffered from the heat. And even when he wasn’t free from doubt, he was painting vivid scenes that may or may not have had anything to do with reality:
The gaunt, thirty-five-year-old American explorer, Hiram Bingham, clambered up the steep slope of the cloud forest, on the eastern flank of the Andes, then paused beside his peasant guide before taking off his wide-brimmed fedora and wiping the sweat from his brow. Carrasco, the Peruvian army sergeant, soon climbed up the trail behind them, sweating in his dark, brass-buttoned uniform and hat, then leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees in order to catch his breath.
Unless MacQuarrie was there at the discovery of Machu Picchu, I’m thinking he just doesn’t know all these details. And while I enjoy a good novel as well as anyone else, I like my history to be history.
Finally — and this is just a personal quirk — I liked the short part at the end about recent exploration of the area better than almost any of the rest. The rediscovery of sites like Machu Picchu and the long-lost city of Vilcabamba was extremely exciting, as almost all modern exploration is, and done (as I love to see it done) by totally crazy people. I would like to read more about this some day.
On the whole, I can definitely recommend this book. It’s written by a journalist with a real feel for his subject, it’s engaging, it’s a fast read, and it’s wonderfully evocative. If it’s a trifle purple in spots and perhaps a little repetitious, well, those are minor flaws in what really was an enjoyable book.