INCA EMPIRE (Western Colonialism)

The origins of the Inca civilization lie in the Cuzco region of modern-day Peru, though some archaeologists maintain that its beginnings are also to be found in the region previously dominated by the Huari and in Tiahuanaco. In any case, among the various groups who constituted small kingdoms in the region of Cuzco during the thirteenth century, only the Incas managed to establish cultural hegemony. The Incas gradually consolidated a kingdom thanks to the military conquest of neighboring populations and by around 1400 had created a state. The most powerful rival they had to overcome were the Chancas, who occupied the Pampas River valley and formed a powerful coalition with other groups in order to stop the Incas’ economic and military onslaught. After the victorious battle of 1440 against the Chancas, the Sapa Inca Pachacuti, considered by most historians to be a key figure in Inca expansionism, changed his name to Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, meaning ”reformer of the world” or ”savior of the Earth.”

By around 1450 the Inca army dominated the territory of the Colla people; following this, they reached Arequipa on the southern coast. In the north, they arrived at the city of Cajamarca, after which the Chimu capital was defeated and the march toward the north was completed with the conquest of Quito, which was annexed along with the lands of other tribes from present-day Ecuador. In 1471, after Inca troops had returned to Cuzco, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui was succeeded by his son, Tupac Yupanqui, who extended Inca conquests in the southern Andes into regions encompassing present-day Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. Tupac’s son, Huayna Capac, sent numerous expeditions to the north, to put an end to the uprisings of various tribes reluctant to accept Inca authority. Such revolts were nearly continuous and highlight the difficulty of controlling and administrating a far-flung empire made up of populations with so many different languages and ethnic origins.



Politically, the Inca Empire was a mixture of absolute monarchy, theocratic power, and agrarian collectivism, organized around a centralized bureaucratic state at the service of the ruling class. The Inca king (the Sapa Inca or ”Unique Inca”) was treated as a divine being whose authority was above any law. The Incas themselves called their empire Tahuantinsuyu or ”The four parts together.”

Each part of the Tahuantinsuyu was governed by an apo, a close relative of the Sapa Inca, who served as a viceroy, while also being a member of the council of state and an advisor on imperial affairs. The organization of the Inca Empire rested on certain key elements: a theocratic concept of power; the organization of tribute from subject peoples, taken in labor services; and the tripartite division of land into the lands of the Sapa Inca, the lands of the Sun (the priests’ lands), and the lands of subject peoples collectively called the ayllu.

The ayllu formed the base of Andean and Inca social organization. It was a clan based on ties of kinship, and a community bonded by shared landholding and religious beliefs, under leaders whose power varied with the size and number of ayllus under their authority. For the Incas, the ayllu was a vital building block of social organization, because it served as the entity that could satisfy the work tribute required by the Sapa Inca, which it delivered through the mita, or work draft.

Andean societies were territorially integrated units but often took the form of what have been called vertical archipelagos, a term referring to the practice of establishing settlements at high altitudes in the mountainous environment. These vertical archipelagos comprised the ayllus ancestral homeland—the core of tribal identity— and also served as outlying agrarian settlements where farmers specialized in raising various types of produce for distribution and exchange among the dispersed branches of the tribe. The Incas took their tribute from the lands of the ayllus, which they set aside for this purpose, and then ”gave back” to the community in return for the goods its labor produced on these lands. In this way, the Incas used a notion of redistribution common in the Andean world, where the organization of production and exchange was based on the cooperation of kinship groups. This enabled the Incas to represent their exploitation of others as simply an extension of the family obligations on which Andean peasant communities were built. The bulk of tribute goods collected from the peasants went toward provisioning the army, the bureaucracy, and other branches of the imperial state, but a portion was kept back in storehouses and released in times of famine.

The Incas were able to dominate their neighbors thanks to their organizing capabilities and their ability to assimilate different cultures. One example of this would be the integration of the curacas or tribal lords through the establishment of personal relationships with the Sapa Inca, symbolized in the exchange of presents. Many of the treaties that linked ethnic groups with the government in Cuzco were not the fruit of conquests but of offers of special prerogatives for joining the Empire, combined with the threat of force. Should any group refuse, they would be attacked by the Inca army. Hence, it is clear that the Inca Empire had a fragile equilibrium, constantly threatened by the possibility of a refusal that would require military intervention.

Atahualpa as the Prisoner of the Spaniards. Francisco Pizarro's forces captured the Inca leader Atahualpa in 1532 and held him for ransom. Although the Incas paid the ransom in gold and silver, Pizarro had Atahualpa executed.

Atahualpa as the Prisoner of the Spaniards. Francisco Pizarro’s forces captured the Inca leader Atahualpa in 1532 and held him for ransom. Although the Incas paid the ransom in gold and silver, Pizarro had Atahualpa executed.

One of the main strategies for maintaining the cohesion of such a vast territory was the imposition of a common language—Quechua, the language of the political and administrative elite—which subject populations were obliged to use alongside their own local languages. Another strategy was the mitmaq or forced migration, through which whole communities, sometimes numbering thousands of families, were sent to distant and already colonized regions so that they could be assimilated into the dominant culture and become less resistant to Inca power. The census of subject populations was another potent tool for controlling conquered peoples, as was the very efficient network of roadways used by the chasquis or imperial messengers to link all major urban centers and provinces. In the absence of the wheel, transportation depended on manpower, though Andean societies found in the llama, a cameloid, an animal well suited to carrying light cargoes, as well as supplying meat and wool. The Incas also sought to use religious practice as a force for binding the empire. The conquered populations were obliged to convert to the official cult, devoted to Inti, the Sun. But this could coexist with the continuation of cults based around local divinities. All conquered populations had to convert to the main religion of the empire, that is, the adoration of Inti. But this could coexist with preexisting cults based around local divinities. Similarly, the conquered populations had to learn and use the Inca language, Quechua, but they were also allowed to preserve their local dialects. The Incas thereby gained the conquered populations’ gratitude and attachment while ultimately controlling them. But the Incas insisted on veneration of the Sapa Inca, the highest religious and political authority.

The Inca nobles shared in the Sapa Inca’s power and in the legitimacy conferred by religion because their lineages were connected by blood ties to the royal dynasty. The business of government was turned into a dynastic monopoly based on privileged knowledge, as the absence of a system of writing restricted important information to a close oligarchy, who had access to the records kept on knotted cords or quipus. So long as the belief in the divine origin of the Inca dynasty and in its right to extensive privileges could be upheld, the edifice of the state would remain in place.


The arrival of the Spanish was preceded by the diffusion of smallpox, which had spread from areas of Spanish settlement in the Caribbean region and weakened the population, even killing the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac in 1525. His death, and that of his immediate heir, led to a political crisis within the empire, in the form of a fratricidal fight for succession between the two descendants of the deceased Inca: Huascar and Atahualpa. To strike a balance, Huascar was offered the throne in Cuzco and Atahualpa was offered Quito, the second city of the empire. But this division of power did not prevent conflict and a concomitant weakening of Inca power at a time when a new and unimagined threat had arrived from outside the empire.

In 1532 Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru with around 170 soldiers and sought to make contact with the Incas. To do so, he and his men headed toward the Inca town at Cajamarca where Atahualpa’s army was resting during their march southward to take control of Cuzco. Pizarro took advantage of Atahualpa’s misplaced confidence in Inca superiority to capture him, and then exploited divisions among the Incas and subject peoples to overthrow the Inca kingdom. The Spanish entered Cajamarca without resistance because they were small in number and were expected to pose no danger. Once there, they captured Atahualpa, after killing most of the population of the city, and accepted his offer of a fabulous treasure in exchange for his life. This did not prevent his assassination, however, and having executed Atahualpa, the Spaniards then turned to his relatives for allies, placing them on the Inca throne as puppet kings, while making alliances with ethnic leaders who saw Spanish rule as preferable to that of the Incas. The conquest of the Inca Empire was, therefore, a multilateral war, between and among the Incas, their subject populations, and the European invaders. The war effectively ended the Tahuantinsuyu, though for some years the Spaniards sought to maintain a facade of Inca leadership in order to strengthen their own authority.

Next post:

Previous post: