Historical Notes: Conquest of Peru was no religious crusade

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The Independent Culture
THE RECENT discovery at Cuzco, in Peru, of a number of royal Inca mummies, buried within the precincts of what had once been its great pre- Colombian stone fortress of Sacsahuaman, confirms the existence of its dual role as a temple shrine: something which reiterates the importance of modern archaeology in the understanding of history. The discovery not only proves the dominance of religion in Inca society, but, because of its location, highlights the evangelical and military conception of its Andean empire.

In like manner, the written archaeology of eye-witness accounts of the Conquest, discovered in recent years in archives in Peru and in Spain, many of them in the form of testimonials, are themselves of equal importance in portraying the psychology of its Spanish conquerors.

One such eye-witness account was dictated by the Conquistador Mansio Serra de Leguizamon, the last of the conquistadors to die in Peru, and who at the capture of Cuzco is recorded to have gambled and lost the gold Inca image of the sun from its temple of Coricancha. His testimonial of his service to the crown, addressed to King Philip II, has now been transcribed and forms the backcloth to a biography of his life and of the Conquest:

There are many who were never witnesses to our deeds, who are now our chroniclers, each recording his impressions, often in prejudice of the actions of those who had taken part in the Conquest . . . and when they are read by those of us who were the discovers and conquistadors of these realms, of whom they write, it is at times impossible to believe that they are the same accounts and of the same personages they portend to portray.

What his words reveal is that the Conquest of Peru was not one of a religious crusade, as is often depicted, but of explorers and would- be mercenaries.

Not once in the 154 folio pages of his testimony and of his witnesses is the religious purpose of Francisco Pizarro's expedition referred to. "In all, we were no more than one hundred and twenty ," the foot-soldier Bernabe Picon, one of his witnesses, recalled of the capture of Cuzco. An inveterate gambler and spendthrift, who on his marriage to the 16-year-old daughter of one of his fellow conquistadors, abandoned her for the gaming tables of Lima, he was to suffer both torture and imprisonment at the hands of Pizarro's brother Gonzalo during his rebellion against the crown, outliving all his comrades at arms.

As the preamble to his last will, which he also addressed to his testimonial, demonstrates, he took a prominent part as a horseman: leaving a haunting image of the destruction of a civilisation, and of a people to whom he was linked by his mestizo son, whose mother was an Inca princess.

The most revealing insight into his character is the restitution he would make to his tributary Indians of his encomienda lands in both his wills. Though a number of conquistadors were to leave similar bequests for their share of booty and treasure they had obtained at Cajamarca and at Cuzco, there is little evidence to deny their sincerity, even if such sentiments were influenced by their impending deaths and the advice of their confessors.

Many made no such gestures. Neither did any of the latter colonists, responsible for a far greater exploitation and ill-treatment of the Indians of their encomiendas that the by then elderly conquistadors, a number of whom, like the trumpeter Pedro de Alconchel, also a witness to his testimonial, were virtually penniless.

A century after his death his mansion at Cuzco would be transformed into a convent: the solitary reminder of his life, his words, dictated a year after the defeat of the Armada, lost and forgotten in the faded parchments of the archives of the monastery palace of the Escorial.

Stuart Stirling is the author of `The Last Conquistador: Mansion Serra de Leguizamon and the conquest of the Incas' (Sutton Publishing, pounds 20)