It is rare to find one people placidly submitting to the will of another. Rarer still, is to meet with a people who gleefully welcome their conquerors, embrace their culture, way-of-life, and worldview. Yet, it is all too common to discover that those conquerors believe, or want to believe, that they have been welcomed with open arms. How many times in the course of history has one nation justified its aggression by claiming that it has brought civilization to another? How many more times have the victors transformed themselves into saviors ... In their own minds? Call it what you will: the White Man's Burden, the mission to the heathen, the saving of souls -- such ideas have been repeated endlessly down through the centuries. In the Sixteenth Century, the Spanish found virtue in their brutal conquest of the Inca by discovering that they had brought that people the benefits of the true religion, and had brought to an end the barbarous practices that had oppressed and contaminated the Inca soul. In the rarified circles of court and Church, Spaniards debated the merits of el Indio, magnanimously classed him above the African, and patted himself on the back for having brought the light of Christianity into another dark corner of the New World. No doubt many Spaniards believed that their success in crushing the Inca Empire was indeed God's Will, and something for which every Indian, in his heart, was grateful. Yet did it not occur to these proud lords of the Earth that, behind the complacent smiles, the downcast glances, and the pious expressions of Christianity, the Inca wore on his very soul the emblems of defiance, of perseverance, and of true belief ... In himself and his people?
Certainly there was another reality that lay beneath the veneer of Inca submission. In the Sixteenth century, the Inca People had witnessed the unimaginable. They had seen their entire world turned upside down, their most cherished traditions banned and cast aside, their leaders persecuted as heretics or devils while their rights as a people were simply taken away by an alien race that must itself had seemed like a race of devils. Central to Spain's belief that its destruction of Inca Civilization had been a just cause was the assumption that the Inca was inherently inferior to himself. Even Bartolome de Las Casas, the Sixteenth Century's most ardent defender of the rights of the Indian, held that different peoples were at different stages of development.
According to Las Casas,
Progress from the first savage state common to all nations to a higher stage was made through the agency of great teachers who emerged within a group, or came from other lands, and taught men the utility of living in houses, social intercourse, the utility of law and government, and other civilized ways.
Though he strongly protested against Spain's treatment of the Incas, such ideas could be seen to endorse the Spanish "accomplishment." It all depended on how one viewed the Inca. At what stage was he in the evolution of humankind? That the Inca were highly advanced was evident even to the first poorly educated conquistadores. Tightly organized, rigidly hierarchical, and bound together by an elaborate code of customs and laws, the Inca had built up a mighty empire that stretched for thousands of miles down the Pacific Coast of South America. Inca feats of engineering were astounding. They had terraced the forbidding mountainsides to make them suitable for agriculture, and had built roads, bridges and fortresses from huge, perfectly-fitted blocks of stone. And then of course, there was the gold. The Inca ruler, Atahualpa, was ransomed for what was calculated in the Twentieth Century to be six million dollars worth of the precious metal.
Clearly, this was no race of savages patiently waiting to be civilized. From the first, the Inca government attempted rationally to understand the newcomers. Using their own considerable knowledge and beliefs, they made every attempt to understand the Spaniards in terms of Inca society and religion. As tales of Spanish might filtered inland to the two brothers, at that time battling each other for the Inca throne, there was
... much speculation about the nature of these bearded men who lived in "a house in the sea" and rode strange new creatures, horses. Some wondered if they might be something supernatural and the fulfillment of prophecies in the Incan religion. Messages were exchanged between the Spaniards and the warring factions of Incas, both the Indians and the Europeans [emphasis added] trying to feel their way through an uncertain situation.
The Spanish did not have a monopoly on critical thinking, or on religious belief. The Inca struggled to understand the strange new force that had appeared in their land.
The fact that the Indians at first tried to fit the Spaniards into their world is clearly illustrated by the way in which Atahualpa and Huascar, and all the different factions of the empire, from oppressed peoples to rival claimants to power, attempted to use the Spanish to their advantage.
The people who, at a later time, would be described as ignorant savages, were making every attempt to play their own version of realpolotik, making use of all the resources at their disposal, and of the new "opportunities" that had suddenly, and almost magically made themselves available. After the conquest -- that is the initial overthrow of the Inca State -- had been completed the Spanish attempted to use certain of the institutions that had been created by the Inca themselves as a means of controlling their own subject peoples. Very common in Inca times, had been the transferal of members of one Indian nation to a territory far away from their native lands. Yet the Spanish attempt to use this institution -- the mitmaq or mitimaes in Latinized form -- backfired:
In the 1570s ... [the Spanish authorities] resettled both temporary absentees and permanent mitmaq into repartimientos, or administrative units, near their current residences, not their home communities. Indians in these sectors and their descendants were labeled "mitmaq" or "mitimaes" .... Establishing these temporary mitmaq far from their home was a strong and immediate impetus for illegal Indian migration; in addition, the practice created subgroups within the reducciones which were alienated from their important kin-based networks. The permanent mitmaq settlers and their descendants were also isolated from local ayllus.
The ayllu, roughly a clan grouping, had been one of the building blocks of Inca society. By tampering with such basics of Indian culture, the Spanish drove the native peoples to resist in any way they could. And where direct resistance, in terms of armed conflict, was impossible, the Indians demonstrated their loyalty to their own traditions by fleeing these "alien" settlements. One might look upon this disaster of Spanish policy as being akin to the King of Spain's attempt, in his Northern European possessions, to force Protestants to accept the Catholic Faith. To so grossly interfere with local beliefs is to ask people to do what is virtually impossible. Protestantism was at least related to Roman Catholicism, and sprang from the same tradition, but the Spanish were, in effect, creating multiple classes of "stateless" Indians. Unlike the way the mitmaq worked under the Inca -- as a homogenizing and stabilizing force -- under the Spanish it achieved only greater division and enmity.
Perhaps the greatest testament of all to Inca fidelity to their traditional ways can be seen in the Inca Revivalist movement of the Eighteenth Century. Though the Inca Empire as a state and method of social organization had been more than two centuries in its grave, the lure of the real traditions of the Inca people was strong enough to empower the great Indian rebellion that was led by Tupac Amaru. During the critical years of 1780 to 1783, Tupac Amaru, and those who adopted his ideas nearly succeeded in completely toppling the entire edifice of Spanish Colonialism.
Though the rebellion was followed by severe repression, and the Spanish attempted to drive the wedge between Indian and Spaniard even deeper, the ideas of the Inca Revival transformed Indian/Spanish relations, and became thoroughly embedded in the cultural, social, and political consciousness of Peru. Even after independence from Spain in the Nineteenth Century, Peruvian politicians could still appeal to the Inca Mystique. Politicians worked hard at ... Incorporating the Incas into their discourse in the early republic .... [The Conservative party] presented the Incas as a precedent to their "Cuzco First" authoritarian regime. In contrast, liberals could have cast the Incas as historical proof of Indians' ability to transform -- with the guidance of the state -- into productive citizens .... "Cuzco gentlemen" passionately discussed the Incas .... only a few don't have a little Indian blood in their veins .... [maintaining] for the old Peruvian dynasty an affectionate and vivid memory as if only two or three generations had passed since the Conquest."