Peru was governed according to the principles of Communism. A portion of land was set apart for the Sun – the national deity – and its revenues were expended in the support of temples and a priesthood. A second portion belonged to the Inca – the child and representative of the Sun. The remainder was divided annually among the people. All shared equally. When a young man married he received a fixed addition; when children were born to him further increase was granted. He might not sell his land or purchase that of his neighbour; he could not improve his condition and become rich. But neither could he suffer from want; for the Government provided for his support if he could not provide for it himself, and poverty was unknown. It was equally impossible to be idle, for the Government enforced the exercise of industrious habits.
Agriculture was the national employment. To illustrate its dignity, the Inca was wont on great public occasions to put his own divine hand to the plough and reveal himself to his people in the act of turning over the fruitful sod. The Peruvians were acquainted with the virtues of the guano, which was piled in mountains upon the islands lying along their coasts, and were careful to protect by stern laws the sea-fowl to which they were indebted for the precious deposit. Between the sea and the mountains there stretched a level expanse on which rain never fell. This otherwise profitless region was nourished into high fertility by an elaborate system of irrigation. On the mountains the solid rock was hewn into terraces and covered with soil laboriously carried up from below. In the valleys flourished the tropical banana and cassava tree. On the lower ranges of the mountains grew the maize. At a greater height appeared the American aloe, the tobacco plant, and the coca, the favourite narcotic of the Indian. Yet further up the mountain-side Europeans first saw the potato, then largely cultivated in Peru, and destined at a later time to attain vast social and even political significance in the Old World.
The public works of Peru furnish striking evidence of the industry of the people and the enlightened views of their rulers. Two great roads traversed the country from north to south. One of these, whose length is estimated at fifteen hundred miles, ascended the mountains and passed along the plateau, at a height occasionally of twelve thousand feet; the other ran parallel in the plain which was bordered by the sea. The construction of the upper road was necessarily a work of prodigious difficulty. Vast ravines had to be filled with solid masonry; lofty masses of rock had to be pierced by galleries or surmounted by a long succession of steps; bridges formed of osiers twisted into huge cables had to be hung across rivers. The roadway was formed of massive paving-stones and of concrete; and although no wheeled vehicle or beast of burden other than the llama passed over it, the Spaniards remarked with grateful surprise on its perfect smoothness.
The Peruvians had gained no inconsiderable skill in textile manufacture. Cotton grew abundantly on the sultry plains. Large supplies of wool of extreme fineness were obtained from the Peruvian sheep. Two varieties of these – the llama and the alpaca – were domesticated and carefully watched over by Government officers. Two other varieties roamed wild upon the mountains. But once in the year a great hunt was organized under royal authority; the wanderers were caught and shorn; and the wool thus obtained was carried to the royal store-house. Thence it was given out to the people, to be woven into garments for themselves and for the Inca. The beauty of the fabrics which were produced awakened the admiration of the Spaniards, as greatly superior to the finest products of European looms.
The sons of the great nobles were instructed in the simple learning of the country, in seminaries erected for that purpose; beyond the narrow circle of the aristocracy education did not pass. Some of these youths were to be priests, and they were taught the complicated ritual of the national religion. Some would have to do with the administration of public affairs, and these were required to acquaint themselves with the laws. Many would become subordinate officers of Government, having charge of revenues; recording births and deaths – for the registration system of the Peruvians was painstaking and accurate; taking account of the stores received and given out at the royal magazines. These were instructed in the Peruvian method of keeping records – by means of knots tied upon a collection of threads of different colours. The education of the nobles did not extend further, for little more was known; and as the Peruvian intellect was devoid of energy and the power to originate, the boundaries of knowledge were not extending. The masses of the people lived in contented ignorance; pleased with the Government which directed all their actions and supplied all their wants; enjoying a fulness of comfort such as has seldom been enjoyed by any population; without ambition, without progress, but also without repining; wholly satisfied with the position in which they were born and in which they lived; experiencing no rise and no fall from one generation to another.
Such were the people upon whom there now fell, with awful suddenness, the blight of Spanish conquest. Their numbers cannot be told with any approach to accuracy, for the estimates left by the conquerors are widely diverse. The population of the city of Mexico is set down by some writers at sixty thousand; by others, with equal opportunity for observation, at six hundred thousand; and a divergence equally baffling attends most of the statements which have been supplied to us. There is, however, abundant evidence that the Southern Continent was the home of a very numerous population. The means of subsistence were easily obtained; in Peru marriage was compulsory; the duration of life and the increase of population were not restrained, as in Northern America, by severity of climate and the toil necessarily undergone in the effort to procure food. Cortes, on his way to Mexico, came to a valley where for a distance of twelve miles there was a continuous line of houses. Everywhere near the coast the Spaniards found large villages, and often towns of considerable size. Peru was undoubtedly a populous State; and the great plateau over which Mexico ruled contained many tributary cities of importance. One Spanish writer estimates that forty million of Indians had perished within half a century after the conquest; – beyond doubt an extravagant estimate, but the use of such figures by an intelligent observer is in itself evidence that the continent was inhabited by a vast multitude of human beings.
The power of resistance of this great population was wholly insignificant. The men were not wanting in courage; the Peruvians, at least, were not without a rude military discipline: but they were inferior in physical strength to their assailants; they were without horses and without iron; their solitary hope lay in their overwhelming numbers. They were powerfully reinforced by the diseases which struck down the invaders; but their own poor efforts at defence, heroic and self-devoted as these were, sufficed to inflict only trivial injury upon their well-defended conquerors. A vast continent, with many millions of men ready to die in defence of their homes, fell before the assault of enemies who never at any point numbered over a few hundreds.
The invaders claimed the continent and all that it held as the property of the Spanish Sovereign, upon whom these great possessions had been liberally bestowed by the Pope. The grant of his Holiness conveyed not only the lands but also the infidels by whom they were inhabited; and the Spaniards assumed without hesitation that the Indians belonged to them, and were rightfully applicable to any of their purposes. Upon this doctrine their early relations with the natives were based. The demand for native labour was immediate and urgent. There was gold to be found in the rivers and mountains of the islands, and the natives were compelled to labour in mining – a description of work unknown to them before. There was no beast of burden on all the continent, excepting the llama, which the Peruvians had trained to carry a weight of about a hundred pounds; but the Spaniards had much transport work to do. When an army moved, its heavy stores had to be carried for great distances, and frequently by ways which a profuse tropical vegetation rendered almost impassable. Occasionally it happened that the materials for vessels were shaped out far from the waters on which they were to sail. Very often it pleased the lordly humour of the conquerors to be borne in litters on men’s shoulders when they travelled. The Indian became the beast of burden of the Spaniard. Every little army was accompanied by its complement of Indian bearers, governed by the lash held in brutal hands. When Cortes prepared at Tlascala the materials of the fleet with which he besieged Mexico – when Vasco Nu?ez prepared on the Atlantic the materials of ships which were to be launched on the Pacific, the deadly work of transport was performed by Indians. The native allies were compelled to rebuild the city of Mexico, carrying or dragging the stones and timber from a distance, suffering all the while the miseries of famine. Indians might often have been seen bearing on bleeding shoulders the litter of a Spaniard – some ruffian, it might well happen, fresh from the jails of Castile.
The Indians – especially those of the islands, feeble in constitution and unaccustomed to labour – perished in multitudes under these toils. The transport of Vasco Nu?ez’s ships across the isthmus cost five hundred Indian lives. Food became scarce, and the wretched slaves who worked in the mines of Hispaniola were insufficiently fed. The waste of life among the miners was enormous. All around the great mines unburied bodies polluted the air. Many sought refuge in suicide from lives of intolerable misery. Mothers destroyed their children to save them from the suffering which they themselves endured.
Nor was it only excessive labour which wasted the native population. The slightest outrage by Indians was avenged by indiscriminate massacre. Constant expeditions went out from Spanish settlements to plunder little Indian towns. When resistance was offered, the inhabitants were slaughtered. If the people gave up their gold and their slender store of provisions, many of them were subjected to torture in order to compel further disclosures. Vasco Nu?ez, who was deemed a humane man, wrote that on one expedition he had hanged thirty chiefs, and would hang as many as he could seize: the Spaniards, he argued, being so few, they had no other means of securing their own safety. Columbus himself, conscious that the gold he had been able to send fell short of the expectation entertained in Spain, remitted to the King five hundred Indians, whom he directed to be sold as slaves and their price devoted to the cost of his majesty’s wars. Yet further: there came in the train of the conquerors the scourge of small-pox, which swept down the desponding and enfeebled natives in multitudes whose number it is impossible to estimate. The number of Indian orphans furnished terrible evidence of the rigour of the Spaniards. “They are numerous,” writes one merciful Spaniard, “as the stars of heaven and the sands of the sea.” And yet the conquerors often slew children and parents together.
It was on the islanders that these appalling calamities first fell. They fell with a crushing power which speedily amounted to extermination. When Columbus first looked upon the luxuriant beauty of Hispaniola, and received the hospitality of its gentle and docile people, that ill-fated island contained a population of at least a million. Fifteen years later the number had fallen to sixty thousand. The inhabitants of other islands were kidnapped and carried to Hispaniola, to take up the labours of her unhappy people, and to perish as they had done. In thirty years more there were only two hundred Indians left on this island. It fared no better with many of the others. At a later period, when most of these possessions fell into the hands of the English, no trace of the original population was left. On the mainland, too, enormous waste of life occurred. No estimate lower than ten million has ever been offered of the destruction of natives by the Spanish conquest, and this number is probably far within the appalling truth. Human history, dishonoured as it has ever been by the record of blood causelessly and wantonly shed, has no page so dreadful as this.
But although there prevailed among the conquerors a terrible unanimity in this barbarous treatment of the natives, there were some who stood forward with noble courage and persistency in defence of the perishing races. 1502 A.D. Most prominent among these was Bartholomew de Las Casas, a young priest, who came to the island of Hispaniola ten years after Columbus had landed there. He was a man of eager, fervid nature, but wise and good – self-sacrificing, eloquent, bold to attack the evils which surrounded him, nobly tenacious in his life-long efforts to protect the helpless nations whom his countrymen were destroying. He came to Hispaniola at a time when the island was being rapidly depopulated, and he witnessed the methods by which this result was accomplished. 1511 A.D. Some years later he was sent for to assist in the pacification of Cuba. In the discharge of this task he travelled much in the island, baptizing the children. One morning he and his escort of a hundred men halted for breakfast in the dry bed of a stream. The men sharpened their swords upon stones which abounded there suitable for that purpose. A crowd of harmless natives had come out from a neighbouring town to gaze upon the horses and arms of the strangers. Suddenly a soldier, influenced, as it was believed, by the devil, drew his sword and cut down one of the Indians. In an instant the diabolic suggestion communicated itself to the whole force, and a hundred newly-sharpened swords were hewing at the half-naked savages. Before Las Casas could stay this mad slaughter the ground was cumbered with heaps of dead bodies. The good priest knew the full horrors of Spanish conquest.
When the work of pacification in Cuba was supposed to be complete, Las Casas received from the Governor certain lands, with a suitable allotment of Indians. He owns that at that time he did not greatly concern himself about the spiritual condition of his slaves, but sought, as others did, to make profit by their labour. It was his duty, however, occasionally to say mass and to preach. 1514 A.D. Once, while preparing his discourse, he came upon certain passages in the book of Ecclesiasticus in which the claims of the poor are spoken of, and the guilt of the man who wrongs the helpless. Years before, he had heard similar views enforced by a Dominican monk, whose words rose up in his memory now. He stood, self-convicted, a defrauder of the poor. He yielded a prompt obedience to the new convictions which possessed him, and gave up his slaves; he laboured to persuade his countrymen that they endangered their souls by holding Indians in slavery. His remonstrances availed nothing, and he resolved to carry the wrongs of the Indians to Spain and lay them before the King. 1515 A.D. Ferdinand – old and feeble, and now within a few weeks of the grave – heard him with deep attention as he told how the Indians were perishing in multitudes, without the faith and without the sacraments; how the country was being ruined; how the revenue was being diminished. The King would have tried to redress these vast wrongs, and fixed a time when he would listen to a fuller statement; but he died before a second interview could be held.
The wise Cardinal Ximenes, who became Regent of the kingdom at Ferdinand’s death, entered warmly into the views of Las Casas. He asserted that the Indians were free, and he framed regulations which were intended to secure their freedom and provide for their instruction in the faith. He chose three Jeronymite fathers to administer these regulations; for the best friends of the Indians were to be found among the monks and clergy. He sent out Las Casas with large authority, and named him “Protector of the Indians.” 1516 A.D. But in a few months the Cardinal lay upon his death-bed, and when Las Casas returned to complain of obstructions which he encountered, this powerful friend of the Indians was almost unable to listen to the tale of their wrongs. The young King Charles assumed the reins of government, and became absorbed in large, incessant, desolating European wars. The home interests of the Empire were urgent; the colonies were remote; the settlers were powerful and obstinate in maintaining their right to deal according to their own pleasure with the Indians. For another twenty-five years the evils of the American colonies lay unremedied; the cruelty under which the natives were destroyed suffered no effective restraint.
The ruin which fell on the native population of the New World was at no time promoted by the rulers of Spain; it was the spontaneous result of the unhappy circumstances which the conquest produced. In early life Columbus had been familiarized with the African slave-trade; and he carried with him to the world which he discovered the conviction that not only the lands he found, but all the heathens who inhabited them, became the absolute property of the Spanish Sovereigns. 1495 A.D. He had not been long in Hispaniola till he imposed upon all Indians over fourteen years of age a tribute in gold or in cotton. But it was found impossible to collect this tribute; and Columbus, desisting from the attempt to levy taxes upon his subjects, ordained that, instead, they should render personal service on the fields and in the mines of the Spaniards. 1496 A.D. Columbus had authority from his Government to reward his followers with grants of lands, but he had yet no authority to include in his gift those who dwelt upon the lands. But of what avail was it to give land if no labour could be obtained? Columbus, on his own responsibility, made to his followers such grants of Indians as he deemed reasonable. He intended that these grants should be only temporary, till the condition of the country should be more settled; but the time never came when those who received consented to relinquish them.
A few years later, when the Indians had gained some experience of the ways of the Spaniards, they began to shun the presence of their new masters. They shunned them, wrote Las Casas, “as naturally as the bird shuns the hawk.” It was reported by the Governor, Ovando, that this policy interfered with the spread of the faith as well as with the prosperity of the settlements. 1503 A.D. He received from the Spanish Monarchs authority to compel the Indians to work for such wages as he chose to appoint, and also to attend mass and receive instruction. The liberty of the Indians was asserted; but in presence of the conditions under which they were now to live, liberty was impossible. Ovando lost no time in acting on his instructions. He distributed large numbers of Indians, with no other obligation imposed upon those who received them than that the savages should be taught the holy Catholic faith.
Nov. 1504 A.D. Next year the good Queen Isabella died. She had loved the Indians, and her influence sufficed to restrain the evils which were ready to burst upon them. Her death greatly emboldened the colonists in their oppressive treatment of their unhappy servants. The search for gold had become eminently successful, and there arose a vehement demand for labourers. King Ferdinand was a reasonably humane man, but the welfare of his Indian subjects did not specially concern him. There were many men who had done him service which called for acknowledgment. The King had little money to spare, but a grant of Indians was an acceptable reward. That was the coin in which the claims of expectants were now satisfied. The King soothed his conscience by declaring that such grants were not permanent, but might be revoked at his pleasure. Meantime the population of the islands wasted with terrible rapidity.
In course of time the colonists desired that their rights should be placed upon a more stable footing, and they sent messengers to the King to request that their Indians should be given to them in perpetuity, or at least for two or three generations. 1512 A.D. Their prayer was not granted; but the King summoned a Junta, and the Indians became, for the first time, the subjects of formal legislation. The legality of the system under which they were forced to labour was now clearly established. In other respects the laws were intended, for the most part, to ameliorate the condition of the labourers. But it was only at a few points the new regulations could be enforced. By most of the colonists they were disregarded.