An Incredible Richness

Altar in the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima, Peru

It was not until I visited Peru five years ago that I realized that the Inca were not the only game in town. In fact, I found the old Catholic churches with their ornate ornamentation was equally interesting. After all, the Inca had no written language and left no books until the Spanish taught them how to write. And yet the Catholic church in Peru was incredibly powerful. A visit to the great old churches of Lima led me to think that the Church in Peru was the recipient of as much gold and silver as the King of Spain.

In the south of Peru was San Luis Potosí, where there was an entire mountain of silver called to this day the Cerro Rico, the “Rich Hill.” The silver was sent to Lima, from where it was transshipped to Panama, where the conquistadores marched it across the isthmus to Colón, where it was loaded onto Spanish treasure ships and sent to Spain.

Altar at Lima’s Cathedral

Of course, much of these Peruvian riches never made it to Spain, thanks to the ravages of pirates and storms at sea. Whatever was given to the church, however, went into the churches of Lima and the rest of the Hispano-America. I cannot count the number of times I would walk into a church and be struck by all the gold used in the altars and in gilding the statues and frames of the paintings on display. Look, for instance, at the picture below of the Company of Jesus Church in Quito, Ecuador:

PICQuitoCompanyOfJesus

The Main Altar of the Company of Jesus (Jesuit) Church in Quito, Ecuador

It was nice to see the Inca ruins, but the remnants of a once-triumphal Catholicism were far more impressive. Granted that the Inca were perhaps the world’s greatest stonemasons, but the Spanish civilization is far richer.

Handsome Devil

Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541), One of the Cruelest of Cortés’s Lieutenants

Even his enemies were impressed with him. The Indians of New Spain (Mexico and Guatemala) called him, in Nahuatl, “Toniatuh,” meaning “sun.” In Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler’s scholarly study, The Ancient Maya: Sixth Edition describes the depredations wrought by this cruelest of conquistadores:

[Fray Bartolomé] Las Casas goes on to itemize the atrocities committed by Alvarado during the conquest of what became known as Guatemala. There is no reason to reject Las Casas’s account, for Alvarado’s own letters, which provide the best history of the conquest of Guatemala, allude to the terror tactics he employed against the defenseless populace.

About his campaign in the Valley of Quetzaltenango, Alvarado writes:

We commenced to crush them and scattered them in all directions and followed them in pursuit for two leagues and a half until all of them were routed and nobody was left in front of us. Later we returned against them, and our friends [the Mexican allies] and the infantry made the greatest destruction in the world at a river. We surrounded a bare mountain where they had taken refuge, and pursued them to the top, and took all that had gone up there. That day we killed and imprisoned many people, many of whom were captains and chiefs and people of importance.

One of the victims was Tecun Uman, a K’iche commander, now considered a hero to the Maya people, and after whom a city bordering Mexico has been named.

Monument to Tecun Uman, One of Alvarado’s Victims

There was no way the Maya could withstand the force of firearms, horses (which the Maya had never before encountered), and the ruthless military intelligence of Pedro de Alvarado.

Below is a mask of Alvarado used in Highland Maya processions and ceremonies in Guatemala to commemorate the losses sustained by the Maya:

Guatemalan Dance Mask of Pedro de Alvarado Used in Maya Ceremonies

 

An Unnecessary Holiday

It Was Leif Eriksson Who Discovered America

It Was Leif Eriksson Who Discovered America

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue …

Okay, I’m willing to grant him that. He didn’t “discover” America, though. The original discoverers walked across what is now the Bering Strait (or sailed in from various Pacific islands) and scattered through North and South America thousands of years ago. If you’re looking for a European discoverer, your man is the Icelander Leif Eriksson, aided and abetted by information from one Bjarni Herjulfsson. He started a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.

The Viking settlers did not stick around. They faced constant warfare with the Skraelings (i.e. aborigines) and gave it up as a lost cause. But they left behind an archeological record and wrote the experience up in the Vinland Saga, which you can read for yourself. Penguin Books has a good edition, which includes several related sagas bound in the same volume.

In the meantime, we are stuck with this holiday in October commemorating an Italian explorer who is reviled by generations of the people he called Indians. If you want to see what they really thought, read Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire. The Spanish and Portuguese colonial experiences left behind some very pretty churches and millions of tormented Indian slaves, if they were so unlucky as to survive.

Columbus himself was not himself an arrant villain, but he made it possible for real arrant villains like Pedro de Alvarado and Nuño de Guzman to control the lives of thousands of innocents. Okay, so maybe they had human sacrifice—but nowhere on the scale of death practiced by the Iberian newcomers.