The “Encomienda” System

Queen Isabella of Spain indirectly laid the original foundations for the political administration of Peru in 1503 when she authorised the initiation of an “encomienda” system, which meant that successful Spanish conquerors could extract tribute for the Crown and personal service in return for converting the natives to Christianity. They were not, however, given title to the land itself.

As governor of Peru, Francisco Pizarro used the “encomienda” system to grant large groups of Indians to his favourite soldier-companions. In this way the basic colonial land-tenure structure was created in everything but name. “Personal service” rapidly came to mean subservient serfdom for the native population, many of whom were now expected to raise animals introduced from the Old World (cattle, hens, etc) on behalf of their new overlords. Many Inca cities were rebuilt as Spanish towns, although some, like Cuzco, retained native masonry for their foundations and even walls. Other Inca sites, like Huanuco Viejo, were abandoned in favour of cities in more hospitable lower altitudes. The Spanish were drawn to the coast for strategic as well as climatic reasons – above all to maintain constant oceanic links with the homeland via Panama.

The Foundation of Lima (1535) and Pizarro’s Death (1541)

The foundation of Lima on 16 January 1535 initiated a multi-layered process of satellite dependency, which continues even today. The fat of the land (originally mostly gold and other treasures) was sucked in from regions all over Peru, processed in Lima, and sent on from there to Spain. Lima survived on the backs of Peru’s municipal capitals which, in turn, extracted tribute from the scattered “encomenderos.” The “encomenderos” depended on local chieftains (“curacas”) to rake in service and goods from even the most remote villages and hamlets. At the lowest level there was little difference between Inca imperial exploitation and the economic network of Spanish colonialism. Where they really varied was that under the Incas the surplus produce circulated among the elite within the country, while the Spaniards sent much of it to a distant monarch on the other side of the world.

On 26 June 1541, Francisco Pizarro was assassinated by a disgruntled faction among the “conquistadores” who looked to Diego Almagro as their leader, and for the next seven years the nascent colonial society was rent by civil war. In response, the first viceroy – Blasco Nuñez de Vela – was sent from Spain in 1544. His task was to act as royal commissioner and to secure the colony’s loyalty to Spain; his fate was to be killed by Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of Francisco. But Royalist forces, now under Pedro de la Gasca, eventually prevailed – Gonzalo was captured and executed, and Crown control firmly established.

Internal Conflicts

Meanwhile Peruvian society was being transformed by the growth of new generations: Creoles (i.e. descendants of Spaniards born in Peru), and “mestizos“, of mixed Spanish and native blood, created a new class structure. In the coastal valleys where populations had been decimated by European diseases, slaves were imported from Africa. There were over 1500 black slaves in Lima alone by 1554. At the same time, as a result of the civil wars and periodic Indian revolts, over a third of the original conquerors had lost their lives by 1550. Nevertheless effective power remained in the hands of the independent “encomenderos.”

In an attempt to dilute the influence of the “encomienda” system, the Royalists divided the existing twenty or so municipalities into “corregimentos,” smaller units headed by a “corregidor” or royal administrator. They were given the power to control the activities of the “encomenderos” and exact tribute for the Crown – soon becoming the vital links in provincial government. The pattern of constant friction between “encomenderos” and “corregidores” was to continue for centuries, with only the priests to act as local mediators.

The Battle for the Souls

Despite the evangelistic zeal of the Spanish, religion changed little for the majority of the native population. Although Inca ceremonies, pilgrimages and public rituals were outlawed, their mystical and magical base endured. Each region quickly reverted to the pre-Inca cults deep-rooted in their culture and cosmology. Over the centuries the people learned to absorb symbolic elements of the Catholic faith into their beliefs and rituals – allowing them, once again, to worship relatively freely. Magic, herbalism and divination have continued strongly at the village level and have successfully pervaded modern Peruvian thought, language, and practice. (The Peruvian World Cup soccer squad in 1982 enlisted – in vain – the magical aid of a curandero.) At the elite level, the Spanish continued their fervent attempts to convert the entire population to their own ritualistic religion. They were, however, more successful with the rapidly growing “mestizo” population, who shared the same cultural aspirations.

In return for the salvation of their souls the native population were expected to surrender their bodies to the Spanish. Some forms of service (mita) were simply continuations of Inca tradition – from keeping the streets clean to working in textile mills. But the most feared was a new introduction, the mita de minas – forced work in the mines. With the discovery of the “mountain of silver” at Potosi (now Bolivia) in 1545, and of mercury deposits at Huancavelica in 1563, it reached new heights. Forced off their smallholdings, few Indians who left to work in the mines ever returned. Indeed the mercury mines at Huancavelica were so dangerous that the quality of their toxic ore could be measured by the number of weekly deaths. Those who were taken to Potosi had to be chained together to stop them from escaping: if they were injured, their bodies were cut from the shackles by sword to save precious time. Around three million Indians worked in Potosi and Huancavelica alone; some had to walk over 1000 km from Cuzco to Potosi for the privilege of working themselves to death.

The Appearance of a neo-Inca State

In 1569, Francisco Toledo arrived in Peru to become viceroy. His aim was to reform the colonial system so as to increase royal revenue while at the same time improving the lot of the native population. Before he could get on with that, however, he had to quash a rapidly developing threat to the colony – the appearance of a neo-Inca State. After an unsuccessful uprising in 1536, Manco Inca, Pizarro’s puppet emperor, had disappeared with a few thousand loyal subjects into the remote mountainous regions of Vilcabamba, northwest of Cuzco. With the full regalia of high priests, virgins of the sun, and the golden idol “punchau,” he maintained a rebel Inca State and built himself impressive new palaces and fortresses between Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa – well beyond the reach of colonial power. Although not a substantial threat to the colony, Manco’s forces repeatedly raided nearby settlements and robbed travellers on the roads between Cuzco and Lima.

Manco himself died at the hands of a Spanish outlaw, a guest at Vilcabamba who hoped to win himself a pardon from the Crown. But the neo-Inca State continued under the leadership of Manco’s son, Sairi Tupac, who assumed the imperial fringe at the age of ten. Tempted out of Vilcabamba in 1557, Sairi Tupac was offered a palace and a wealthy life in return for giving up his refuge and subversive aims. He died a young man, only three years after turning to Christianity and laying aside his father’s cause. Meanwhile Titu Cusi, one of Manco’s illegitimate sons, declared himself emperor and took control in Vilcabamba.

Eventually, Titu Cusi began to open his doors. First he allowed two Spanish friars to enter his camp, and then, in 1571, negotiations were opened for a return to Cuzco when an emissary arrived from Viceroy Toledo. The talks broke down before the year was out and Toledo decided to send an army into Vilcabamba to rout the Incas. They arrived to find that Titu Cusi was already dead and his brother, Tupac Amaru, was the new emperor. After fierce fighting and a near escape, Tupac Amaru was captured and brought to trial in Cuzco. Accused of plotting to overthrow the Spanish and of inciting his followers to raid towns, Tupac Amaru was beheaded as soon as possible – an act by Toledo that was disavowed by the Spanish Crown and which caused much distress in Peru.

Attempts to Improve Crown Control

Toledo’s next task was to firmly establish the viceregal position – something that outlasted him by some two centuries. He toured highland Peru seeking ways to improve Crown control, starting with an attempt to curb the excesses of the “encomenderos” and their tax-collecting “curacas” (hereditary native leaders) by implementing a programme of “reducciones” – the physical resettlement of Indians in new towns and villages. Hundreds of thousands of peasants, perhaps millions, were forced to move from remote hamlets into large conglomerations, or “reducciones” in convenient locations. Priests, or “corregidores,” were placed in charge of them, undercutting the power of the “encomenderos.” Toledo also established a new elected position – the local mayor (or “varayoc”) – in an attempt to displace the “curacas” (hereditary native leaders). The “varayoc,” however, was not necessarily a good colonial tool in that, even more than the “curacas;” his interests were rooted firmly in the “allyu” and in his own neighbours, rather than in the wealth of some distant kingdom.


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