Misunderstood: The Mantra of the Incas

When coming upon the unfamiliar, sometimes a person’s first instincts are to distinguish themselves from them.

Them.

In particular, the “them” are the native Incan Empire and other “Indians” and “Andeans” that the Spanish of the 15th century came upon when invading colonizing the western parts of South America.

From what my professor has informed us on, the Spanish and the Incas have vastly contrasted ways of telling their sides of the story.

The Spanish for the most part glorify their success and view the Incas as barbaric, naïve, lost souls who deserved to learn the ways and light of Catholicism. Because the Spanish were so unlike the natives (being fully clothed, speaking Latin/Spanish, and riding horses), the Spanish felt that they were looking at a whole race of people significantly behind them in technology, language, and culture. Thus the Spanish felt it was their duty to help these poor creatures while expanding their own empire at the same time. Christopher Columbus noted while colonizing the Inca that he thought he should take a couple of the natives to Spain to “educate them in real language” (103).

It was as if nothing that the Incan empire accomplished or had before the Spanish got to them was of value or importance simply because the Spanish did not understand how their world worked. The language they had spoken couldn’t be real because the Spanish didn’t understand it.

Italian cartographer Amerigo Vespucci wrote in his journal during his time in the Incan Empire that he observed that “natives have no property; instead all things are held in community […]” (104). These thoughts were the prominent reason the Spanish believed they had “god-like” control over the natives. With Vespucci’s idea that the natives owned nothing, the Spanish could take from them as freely as they pleased.

america
Van der Straet, Jan. Discovery of America1587-89, pen and ink, The Met, New York.

Though the natives may not have approved of this, the Spanish felt justified in their actions. This is evident in this painting by Jan Van der Straet titled “Discovery of America.” In the painting, a native, naked woman looks at a newly come Spanish explorer. She appears awestruck at the fully clothed man before her and daintily reaches her hand out to him. The explorer stares back at her with an invasive look and a tall stance. The natives are depicted as innocent, barbarous, and curious as some Spanish thought of the Incans at the time. The Spanish are depicted as strong, smart, and as saviors as the man in the painting has his ship waiting behind him ready to enlighten the barbarians on the ways of “proper life.”

But why does this matter? Why is it so important that the Spanish portrayed the Incas as something they were not?

The entire history of the Incan empire is based on speculation and primary accounts that were written hundreds of years after the Inca had been alive. We will never know the exact truth to any statements given by the Spanish or the Inca that are known today. And when history is open to speculation, it can be morally damaging to the misunderstood party.

If no one had questioned the Spanish’s views about the native Andeans, everyone would believe that the Incas really were “blank slates” and “disciples” that the gods (the Spanish) led to safety by conquering (104). It makes you wonder about other events in history. Could what we know about our world be a fabricated perspective leaving the event simply misunderstood? If there’s one thing HumCore has taught me, it’s to question everything.

Works Cited

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford University Press, Inc., 2003.

Van der Straet, Jan. Discovery of America1587-89, pen and ink, The Met, New York.

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