Did the Columbian Exchange” Defeat the Incas or Was Francisco Pizarro Just Lucky?
My view is that both notions are correct. In November of 1532, Francisco Pizarro’s little cadre of 165 men captured Atahualpa, the Sapa Inca, despite his Inca army of tens of thousands of seasoned warriors – a sensational accomplishment. In time, Pizarro’s daring ruse at Cajamarca would change the power structure of Europe, thanks to the rivers of gold and silver that subsequently flowed from the vast Inca Empire to Castile and Emperor Charles V.
Prior to the death of the Sapa Inca, Huayna Capac, around 1525, the estimated population of Andean Peru was between four million and 14 million people. If one includes all of the territory in the Inca Empire at its zenith under Huayna Capac, there may have been upwards of 30 million souls living in what was arguably the most advanced, holistically structured civilization in the Americas. The Incas had a highly structured government and religious belief system, which vested nearly absolute power in the Sapa Inca. So, how could so few Castilians (augmented months later) topple the Inca Empire?
First, of course, there were the “imported” diseases – for which the natives of the Americas had no natural immunities. They had lived in complete isolation for at least 10,000 years. When Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492, and when he later returned with domestic European animals, especially pigs, horses, sheep, black rats and cattle, the conquistadores were unwittingly introducing viruses they were largely immune to – viruses that would all but decimate the native populations.
This is but one element of the complex anthropological term, “The Columbian Exchange,” coined by A. W. Crosby, Jr., in his seminal 1972 book of the same name. Crosby detailed how the arrival of the Castilians in the New World brought new plants, animals, some foods and – most significantly – alien pathogens that had enormous environmental and health impact on the Amerindians in the New World.
Conversely, New World items such as tobacco, the potato, and quinoa were transported to Europe. Crosby also originally hypothesized that venereal syphilis broke out with a vengeance in Spain in 1493, coincidentally just after the return voyage of Columbus. This appeared to be the other side of the “Exchange”, a new pathogen bestowed upon the Old World by the New. Crosby and other scholars have since abandoned this theory. I will not dwell on this contentious element of “The Columbian Exchange,” although it is arguably the most well-known myth associated with the term.
The component of “the Columbian Exchange” that undeniably changed the demography of the New World was the arrival of Old World diseases – small pox, typhus, measles, and a strain of influenza – with devastating results. Crosby wrote, “The fatal diseases of the Old World killed more effectively in the New, and the comparatively benign diseases of the Old World turned killer in the New.”
Between 1520 and 1610, there were as many as 17 epidemics in Peru, which were probably triggered by the first pandemic in 1519 in New Spain (Mexico), Central America and in Santo Domingo. This pandemic was probably small pox. It could have been measles, chicken pox or typhus as well, since the Spanish term viruelas described any diseases that resulted in “pimpled, pustulated appearance.”
We know from historical accounts of Cortes’ conquest of Aztec Tenochtitlan that hundreds of Aztecs were felled by a new disease that contributed to the Aztec defeat. We also know from Gonzalo de Oviedo y Valdes that countless hundreds of thousands died from small pox in the Panama Isthmus by 1530, before Pizarro landed in Peru for his third and successful voyage in 1532. The spread of the epidemic further South, perhaps caused by trading expeditions by the Central Americans, had already reached the Inca lands by 1532, because significant mortality among the Incas had occurred before and during the Inca civil war. We know that these unknown diseases killed members of the Inca power structure, including the Sapa Inca, Huayna Capac.
For the Incas, the pox, in particular, triggered a holocaust for which the Inca priests (shamans to some) had no explanation or cure. Not only was the death rate terrifying because it was unexplained, but also because it also shook confidence in the Inca’s power as his people’s interlocutor with their primary deity, Inti. The terror was amplified by the fact that the invading Castilians under Pizarro were not dying, which fed the supposition of some Incas that these “strange, bearded men’’ were the returning Incas of legend. The Old World maladies ravaged people of all ages in the New World, especially children under five. In the course of seven major epidemics in the Inca Empire between 1524 and 1558, the scourge almost wiped out an entire generation.
Scholars such as C. T. Smith, Henry F. Dobyns, John H. Rowe, N. Wachtal, and N. D. Cook have done meticulous research over the years, trying to estimate the Inca population of Peru prior to the arrival of Pizarro and his little band. A point of serious frustration in these exercises is that no one has been able to decipher the meaning of the quipu cords which were used by the Inca government for decades before the Conquest to take regularly scheduled census counts of the Empire’s population. Having no solid reference points to start with, these scholars have had to use highly inaccurate, early headcounts of the population in the conquerors’ encomiendas or repartimientos, compare them to the first modestly accurate census data taken by Pedro de la Gasca in 1549 (and the more statistically accurate census taken under Viceroy Toledo on 1570), and apply various statistical models to determine an estimate of the Andean Peru population of 1520.
N. D. Cook has postulated that population to range from 4 to 14 million souls, excluding the montana and the edges of the Amazon Basin, which may have held another 478,000 people. He estimated the pre-Conquest Peruvian population to be 9 million people. He further calculated the Andean Peruvian native population by 1582 to be a mere 1 million, with a total collapse of Inca population along the Pacific Coast, and a majority of the survivors in the highlands. Why the difference? Disease would strike hardest where the population was densest – on the Pacific Coast.
Although epidemic diseases were the primary reason for the population collapse of the Incas from 1520 to 1580, there were several other contributing factors: combat fatalities in the Inca civil wars and Incas in combat with the Castilians; the resultant oversupply of women; the very high mortality rates of children under 5 years of age; and the undernourishment of the Incas when the Inca government system rapidly deteriorated, affecting food supplies. While the worst effects of the epidemics were not felt until after Francisco Pizarro and his brothers were all eliminated from the land of the Incas in 1544, the early disease fatalities enabled Pizarro and his partner, Diego de Almalgro, to exploit the Incas’ psychological vulnerabilities and cause them to doubt their invincibility. Far more than the effects of “The Black Legend” ascribed to the Castilians by Fray Bartolome de las Casas, the invisible pathogens of the Old World decimated the Incas.
Luck played a major role for the Castilians, too. Upon Huayna Capac’s death, a brutal civil war for succession broke out between two of his many sons. Atahualpa was based in Quito, and his half brother, Huascar, had a power center to the south, in Cusco. Thousands of Incas were killed in the ensuing hostilities, and the subjugated “allied” nations stopped providing mita services to the Empire, greatly hampering food production. Pizarro exploited this situation brilliantly. But that is another story!
The Castilians also had better weapons, armament, and battle tactics, crucial advantages that cannot be ascribed to the inventiveness of Pizarro and his cadre, who simply acquired them. The Castilians’ horses were another stroke of pure luck: they were creatures unknown to the Incas. These steeds – and the newly introduced Castilian attack dogs – initially terrified them. The presence of these animals caused the Incas to scatter on contact in the first year of battle, despite the Inca’s vastly superior numbers.
Thirdly, Atahualpa had outrageous hubris. Having defeated Huascar, he enjoyed unchallenged authority, but was slow to act. He had long known of “the strange, bearded men” (since Pizarro’s first voyage to explore the Pacific Coast in 1523), and had also tracked Pizarro’s progress in 1532 to Cajamarca. He could have easily wiped out the Castilian invaders as they moved inland. But his ego dictated that he should capture them and their horses alive, as trophies of war to be put on display. Pizarro could not possibly have known that fact. Indeed, until Atahualpa’s capture at Cajamarca, the Castilians were on constant, physically draining alert, anticipating an overwhelming attack.
Also not to be discounted: Francisco Pizarro’s desperate plan to lure Atahualpa into the very close quarters of the Inca temple area of Cajamarca on a ruse of dining with the Sapa Inca actually worked! The Incas could have easily surrounded the temple and overwhelmed the Castilans, with Atahualpa observing from afar. It was pure luck that he entered the structure, where Pizarro had the advantage of close quarters. The combination of a horse-mounted Castilian charge of Atahualpa’s raised litter and the terror ignited by a few shots of the Castilian arquebuses allowed Pizarro’s men to pull Atahualpa off his litter and bundle him off to a safe spot, while thousands of panicked Incas perished in a frenzy of slaughter.
The Castilians’ luck also held after the capture. The thousands upon thousands of veteran Inca warriors camped outside Cajamarca did not counterattack to free their leader. Why not? Because Atahualpa was a bit too clever for his own good. As luck would have it for Pizarro, the Sapa Inca calculated that he could trust Pizarro to release him if he gave them what he correctly calculated was most valuable to them: gold and silver. These things he had in abundance, and they held no economic value to him or to his people. So, the Sapa Inca delivered – and the wily Pizarro did not.
It’s often said that people make their own luck. In a sense, Francisco Pizarro did just that by virtue of courage and a driving ambition to succeed. These attributes would have been inadequate but for the attributes of the Incas and something they couldn’t prepare for: the onslaught of Old World diseases that almost destroyed the new one.
(Primary sources for the disease issues: Demographic Collapse – Indian Peru, 1520 to 1620, by Noble David Cook; 1981, Cambridge University Press; The Columbian Exchange – Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, by Alfred W. Crosby Jr., 2003, Praeger Publishers – an imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group; Epidemics and History – Disease, Power and Imperialism, by Sheldon Watts, 1999, Yale University Press.)
The great saga of the Conquest is contained in Volume Two of God, Glory and Gold: Journey to the Conquest of the Incas- The Quest, by this author.