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Conquistadors and colonialism

On a recent trip to Peru I made a visit to Casa Aliaga, a colonial mansion first built when Pizarro handed out goodies to his soldiers. One of them, Jerónimo de Aliaga y Ramirez, built a grand house and seventeen generations of his family have been living there since 1535.


Horses are more useful when conquering a country.

Sean Sheehan


Some parts of the house are open to the public and visitors can gaze at family paintings, 17th-century blue azulejo tiles, old wooden furniture and the like.

The house, apart from its history as a relic of colonialism, is not very interesting and if you were feeling unkind something along the same lines could be said about the city of Lima as a tourist destination. What is essential to Lima’s enthralment, though, is found in its food scene and a visit to La Gloria  provided an unexpected link with Casa Aliaga. La Gloria, which has a lovely bar and serves superb meals in its art-filled restaurant, is owned and run by someone who also has a direct line of descent from the Spanish who colonised Peru.

For me this was fascinating, more real than the fading artefacts in Casa Aliaga, and in conversation he expressed curiosity about how such a small number of soldiers were able to exert hegemony over the expanding Inca empire that stretched over 2,500 miles long  and had its own formidable armed forces. The Inca were not idyllic pacifists and yet they were decisively conquered by a numerically tiny group of invaders.

An archaeological team rebuilding the past at Machu Picchu.

Standard explanations refer to horses (not llamas and alpacas), weaponry (swords) and disease (mainly smallpox which the Inca had not been exposed to before and to which they quickly succumbed), plus the fact that the Inca rulers were themselves divided and this was exploited by the Spanish.

Julian Jaynes in his strange history, “The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind, posits the Inca as in possession of only a “proto-subjectivity” and thus mentally unable to cope with the invaders:

Rough, milk- skinned men with hair drooling from their chins instead of from their scalps so that their heads looked upside down, clothed in metal, with avertive eyes, riding strange llama like creatures with silver hoofs…. Not subjectively conscious, unable to deceive or to narratize out the deception of others, the Inca and his lords were captured like helpless automatons. [The Spanish]  stripped the gold sheathing from the holy city, melted down its golden images… murdered its living god and his princes, raped its unprotesting women, and, narratizing their Spanish futures, sailed away with the yellow metal into the subjective conscious value system from which they had come.

The walled complex of Sacsayhuaman could not hold back the conquistadors.

At one level, this is a preposterous and possibly racist rationale of brute conquest but it does provoke questions. How did the British, vastly outnumbered by Indians, achieve something equivalent to the conquistadors? Why some societies are more fragile than others when presented with radical change – compare the USSR with China – and why hasn’t Casa Aliaga been nationalized and turned into a museum about colonialism?

(Photos by Sean Sheehan)

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