History of the Conquest of Peru (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Peru's rich culture has long fascinated scholars, with stories of ancient civilizations and great conquerors. History of the Conquest of Peru details Pizarro's ferocious seizure of the Incas as it explores the "most brilliant passages of Spanish adventure in the New World." Published to critical praise in 1847, this book remains the starting point for all historians -- professional and amateur alike.

About the Author:

William H. Prescott's ...

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Overview

Peru's rich culture has long fascinated scholars, with stories of ancient civilizations and great conquerors. History of the Conquest of Peru details Pizarro's ferocious seizure of the Incas as it explores the "most brilliant passages of Spanish adventure in the New World." Published to critical praise in 1847, this book remains the starting point for all historians -- professional and amateur alike.

About the Author:

William H. Prescott's family enjoyed distinction long before his histories made the name Prescott known worldwide. His paternal grandfather, Colonel William Prescott, had fought at Bunker Hill. His father was a lawyer of note, a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1820, and later a judge. His mother was the daughter of Thomas Hickling, a merchant by trade, who for many years was the American consul in the Azores. Prescott most likely was influenced to study Spanish history by his friendships with fellow Harvard graduates Alexander Everett, who was then U.S. Minister to the Court of Spain, and George Ticknor - a lapsed lawyer, like Prescott - who was the first professor of modern languages at Harvard College, author of the masterly three volume History of Spanish Literature (1849), and the first biographer of his old friend William Prescott.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

William H. Prescott's family enjoyed distinction long before his histories made the name Prescott known worldwide. His paternal grandfather, Colonel William Prescott, had fought at Bunker Hill. His father was a lawyer of note, a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1820, and later a judge. His mother was the daughter of Thomas Hickling, a merchant by trade, who for many years was the American consul in the Azores. Prescott most likely was influenced to study Spanish history by his friendships with fellow Harvard graduates Alexander Everett, who was then U.S. Minister to the Court of Spain, and George Ticknor - a lapsed lawyer, like Prescott - who was the first professor of modern languages at Harvard College, author of the masterly three volume History of Spanish Literature (1849), and the first biographer of his old friend William Prescott.

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Read an Excerpt

Even before his History of the Conquest of Mexico was published in December of 1843, William Hickling Prescott had begun to plot the research and writing of History of the Conquest of Peru, which was destined to join its companion volume as a classic in American literature and history. Berating himself repeatedly in his private journal for being lazy and too easily distracted by good company, Prescott often chafed at the slowness of his progress. Finally he sent the manuscript to its English and American publishers in the spring of 1847. That done, he worried about its fate: the work had been written in such haste that its style and historical accuracy had been sacrificed. However, to his relief, the "good natured public received the work as kindly as either of its predecessors;" moreover, the critics demonstrated "friendly character." The author, just celebrating his fifty-first year, already a member of the French Institute, the Royal Academy of Berlin and the Spanish Academy of History, could relax and pride himself on his recent election to membership in the American Antiquarian Society and the Royal Society of Literature in London, the last an honor bestowed "on no other Yankee."

Both the public and the critics were justified. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru deserved its kind reception in 1847 as it does our attention and admiration today. Whatever our opinions about the rightness or evil of conquest, or the character of the invading Spaniards, we suffer with Francisco Pizarro and his followers as they wait, forlorn and famished, for reinforcements during their ill-fated first and second expeditions in the 1520s which failed to discoverthe fabled land of the Inca. We marvel, too, and feel their fear, as they first set eyes on the encampment of the emperor Atahuallpa outside the city of Cajamarca in November of 1532. What chance of success had this small band against the Inca's army numbering in the tens of thousands? How had they let themselves be lured by dreams of great wealth and glory into such a dangerous situation?

The power of Prescott's descriptive talent is impressive, even more so considering his physical limitations. As a young man, studying at Harvard, he suffered an injury to his left eye as the result of a food fight. From that time on, he would be subject to repeated infections, often of both eyes, and spend weeks at a time in a darkened room. Self-effacing as was proper of any Bostonian of his day, Prescott in his preface to the History of the Conquest of Peru seeks to dispel the idea that he was completely without sight. He wanted no false credit of "having surmounted the obstacles which lie in the path of the blind man." Nevertheless, we need not be so modest in our appreciation of his work and what he overcame to complete it.

True, Prescott enjoyed certain advantages in life. He came from a distinguished family. His grandfather, William Prescott, earned a place in history for his heroism at Bunker Hill. His father, a respected lawyer and judge, was a success financially as well. His mother's father after establishing himself as a merchant served for many years as American consul in the Azores. Young William lived comfortably. Once he had centered on a career as an historian, family funds indulged his desire to amass a grand collection of original manuscripts and engravings from European and South American archives and personal collections. They provided, too, the wherewithal to hire translators and transcribers in England and Spain and secretaries and readers in the United States. All the same, it remains remarkable that a man who often had to "work chiefly with the ear, a snail-like process" left us such a rich literary legacy.

Even under the best of circumstances, working with early Spanish sources is not easy. Sixteenth-century Spaniards were by no means uniform in their writing or their spelling. While Prescott's friends and acquaintances searched out the materials he required, the more difficult task often was finding someone who could render the document into intelligible Spanish. Once that happened, he then had to find someone who could read to him in a foreign language. Indeed, difficulties meeting that need almost caused him to abandon his proposed histories of the conquests of Mexico and Peru in favor of an historical overview of English literature.

How fortunate for us that he continued to explore the "most brilliant passages of Spanish adventure in the New World." But how did this New Englander, come to be acknowledged worldwide as one of the foremost authorities on Spanish history, especially the Spanish conquests in America? Prescott's own passage from fledgling lawyer to leading historian boasts some of the characteristics of adventure. When he embarked on his career, the field of Spanish history was largely uncharted. No historian since, even if disagreeing with Prescott's conclusions, has failed to follow in his wake.

The young Prescott did not leap suddenly into this new field. Nor was he trained formally in its pursuit. Before penning the first word of his first book, The Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, which appeared in 1837, he spent almost a decade reading and studying history, rhetoric, English, French, Italian, and Spanish language and literature.

Spain was just then re-emerging into the consciousness of the English-speaking world as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and the Independence struggles in the Americas. The long-standing animosity engendered by Spain's failed invasion of England in 1688 had faded. England had found common cause with Spain. British soldiers fought successfully to oust Bonaparte from the Iberian Peninsula. Her merchants crossed the Atlantic to explore opportunities in the newly independent countries of South America. Many veterans of the Peninsula wars had proceeded them, fighting to bring about that independence. One of those, William Miller, proved indispensable to Prescott.

In order to accomplish his goals William Prescott, by necessity, had to depend on others. His family and secretaries often read to him; the latter also had the charge of transcribing his notes whether dictated or written in the near dark on his noctograph, a curious writing instrument created to aid those with failing sight, consisting of a tablet laced with wires which kept an ivory stylus between the lines. Beyond this immediate circle stood a wide group of friends who encouraged Prescott in his labors. There were those of his Boston boyhood such as George Ticknor who began the Modern Languages program at Harvard and Arthur Middleton, who in the 1840s was United States Minister to Spain. There were those who first approached Prescott to laud his work but stayed in his life as firm friends such as Pascual de Gayangos, an expert on Arabic Spanish history, and don Angel Calderón de la Barca who served briefly as Spanish consul in Boston. All became engaged in aiding him in his research. It was don Angel's wife, the Scottish born Frances Inglis, who supplied her Boston-bound friend with much of the colorful detail of the Mexican countryside. It was William Miller who did the same for Peru.

Miller fought with both José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, the great liberators of Spanish South America. Honored in Peru as Gran Mariscal in 1834, the one-time hero of Ayacucho later fell victim to changing political fortunes. Exiled in 1839, he traveled to Hawaii and Mexico. By the summer of 1840 he was in Boston, where he encountered Prescott, who found him a godsend and "a very gallant & intelligent Englishman." Miller provided the author with the intimate knowledge of Peru's terrain and peoples that he lacked. Their friendship — or, we might say collaboration — continued through letters as Miller went on to become her Majesty's Commission and Consul General in the Pacific, based in Honolulu. It appears that he faithfully continued to honor Prescott's plea "to think of other people's hobbies" when he had the leisure, offering suggestions and praise as the Peruvian manuscript took form.

The work moved swiftly in comparison to his earlier books. The secondary reading had been done during the writing of Mexico; the outline was much the same. Yet, the author found his new theme less sympathetic. A lover of the ancient epics and romantic tales, Prescott in his preface to the History of the Conquest of Mexico, confessed that the story of Hernán Cortés' triumph over the Aztec emperor Moctezuma had more the "air of romance than sober history." In Cortés, Prescott discovered a hero. The siege and fall of the ancient Mexican capital of Tenochitlán provided a dramatic conclusion to the tale of conquest. All happened within a few years: Spurred on by earlier expeditions, Cortés landed at Veracruz in 1519; he and his men triumphed over Tenochitlán in 1521. While Prescott found much to admire about the Aztecs and was not blind to the faults of the Spaniards, the bloody religious rites of the former excused many of the excesses of the latter. The story of the Spanish conquest of Peru did not lend itself so easily to that stirring narrative which is one of Prescott's greatest talents.

Working long before the professional disciplines of anthropology and archeology added so much to our knowledge of the ancient peoples of the Andean region, Prescott struggled as he had with the Aztecs to understand and explain the rise of their empire in the new world. Whatever errors — born of ignorance and lack of information — he committed to the printed page, he continues to receive credit as the first historian to attempt a comparison between the two. While judging the Aztecs far more accomplished in the arts and sciences, Prescott found more to admire about the Incas. Their religious rituals depended far less on human sacrifice and cannibalism, their political organization was superior, their control of conquered territories more complete. Subject peoples lived under the royal scepter, not as in the Aztec case, under the yoke. Thus at the outset, Prescott appears less comfortable with the triumph of the Spanish in Peru as he was with their success in Mexico. Too much a product of protestant New England, too securely rooted in the intellectual inheritance of the Enlightenment which saw natural laws governing the conduct of man, he never completely abandons his conviction that Christianity must triumph over paganism if mankind is to progress. Nevertheless we hear his regret that the development of the Incan civilization was not allowed to progress further on its own. Coupled with a greater measure of admiration for the vanquished, is a larger measure of disapproval, if not disdain, for the victors than evidenced in the History of the Conquest of Mexico. Although Francisco Pizarro stands alone in the minds of most as the conqueror of Peru, his position during his own life was never so firmly established. He fails to achieve the status of hero. Granted, he was the one who captured the Incan emperor at Cajamarca in 1532. Clearly, here he emulated the actions of Cortés, whom he had met in Spain. He, alas, was also the one who alone had the blame for executing the hapless Atahuallpa rather than honoring his pledge to release him once a ransom was paid. Cajamarca, however, was but one city on the northern frontier of the Incan empire. The real seat of power lay to the south in the capital city of Cuzco. Taking that city proved relatively easy. Holding onto it was another matter. Eventually the indigenous peoples rallied around a new Inca, Manco Capac, and fought furiously to oust the invaders. Spaniards would retake the city, but opposition to Pizarro came not only from the Peruvians.

Spanish unity quickly dissolved into factions. The task of conquest incomplete, Pizarro and his one-time partner Diego Almagro became locked into a conflict of their own. As the Spanish conquerors spread out from Cuzco — Benalcazar northward to Ecuador, Valdivia south to Chile — the political squabbles deteriorated into Civil War. In 1538, Pizarro's brother, Hernando, defeated Almagro at Cuzco. The hero of many battles would meet death alone, strangled in his prison cell. Three years later followers of Almagro's son, another Diego, broke into the aging Pizarro's home, swords drawn, and took their revenge. Whatever his successes on the battlefield, whatever his talent for seizing the advantage of the moment, it seems as if Prescott was correct. "The power of Pizarro was not seated in the hearts of his people." As the assassins made their way through the streets, their purpose clear, no one rallied to the defense of the hero of Cajamarca. This stands in stark contrast to the hundreds of unharmed followers of Atahuallpa who gave their own lives willingly in their vain effort to protect their ruler from capture.

Rivalry amongst the Spaniards left their would-be historian with what he referred to as an embarrassment of riches of historical materials. As they fought physically against each other, the combatants and their followers engaged in a war of words seeking to justify their actions and win approval from the distant monarch, Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Sorting through these often-contradictory materials was no mean feat. Prescott wisely suffered "the scaffolding to remain after the building has been completed." Thus we are allowed to either concur or disagree with his own conclusions as he reviews for us what he sometimes despairingly referred to as the "motley story" of the History of the Conquest of Peru.

In telling the story of Mexico, Prescott chose to end the Conquest with the fall of the Aztec capital. That he truncated the tale for the sake of drama is one of the more persuasive criticisms of that book. The political consolidation of that conquest was less dramatic and far less heroic as royal authority in the person of a viceroy took hold and Spanish adventurers, removed from political power, pushed the limits of that authority to the old boundaries of Aztec rule and beyond. Faced with the slow pace of Spanish success in Peru and the rapid disintegration of the Spanish unity, Prescott had no alternative but to seek a less bold, if still "brilliant," conclusion worthy of the historian. Thus he ends his tale with the arrival of Viceroy Gasca - "a fine theme - the triumph of moral power over the physical."

While modern writers try to avoid such judgments, considering morality as being the concern of the philosopher rather than the historian, nineteenth-century practitioners of the craft, assumed a responsibility to seek out the moral of the tale. Prescott's moralizing and his anti-catholic bias, more pronounced in the Peruvian volumes than those devoted to Mexico, are sure to strike some of today's readers as heavy handed and "unscientific." However, rather than dismissing the rest of his scholarship as outdated and unsound, we do well to remember his own approach to the History of the Conquest of Mexico: ". . .while on the one hand, I have not hesitated to expose in their strongest colors the excesses of the Conquerors; on the other, I have given them the benefit of such mitigating reflections as might be suggested by the circumstances and the period in which they lived." Prescott lived in nineteenth-century New England. He took for granted much of what today is held in dispute. Not an overly religious man nor a historian who plied his pen aggressively in defense of American nationalism, he was, nevertheless, comfortable with who he was and might well have believed as it has been humorously said of the Unitarians in the "Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man and the Neighborhood of Boston." While he labored hard to sort out the "truth" of the tale, reading and ruminating over as many contradictory accounts of the conquest as he could amass, and adhered faithfully to the rigorous standards of scholarship of his day, his historical impartiality did not mean that he had to be without opinion as to the relative goodness or evil of an event or a person.

Whatever the flaws of the History of the Conquest of Peru, it remains the classic account and a good read. Prescott introduces us to the realm of the Inca and those who would destroy it. He engages our emotions as well as our attention and whets our appetite to learn more. His book remains the starting point for all historians — professional and amateur alike — of the period. As literature, it will not disappoint. This new edition doubtless will prove an exciting companion for many as they struggle to get through long winter evenings or pass lazy summer days at the beach.

Mary Powlesland Commager returned to her native Massachusetts in 1976 after crisscrossing the country studying and teaching Latin American history. Now retired, she divides her time between Amherst, Massachusetts, and Cancun, Mexico, where she is working on a popular history of the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Introduction

Even before his History of the Conquest of Mexico was published in December of 1843, William Hickling Prescott had begun to plot the research and writing of History of the Conquest of Peru, which was destined to join its companion volume as a classic in American literature and history. Berating himself repeatedly in his private journal for being lazy and too easily distracted by good company, Prescott often chafed at the slowness of his progress. Finally he sent the manuscript to its English and American publishers in the spring of 1847. That done, he worried about its fate: the work had been written in such haste that its style and historical accuracy had been sacrificed. However, to his relief, the "good natured public received the work as kindly as either of its predecessors;" moreover, the critics demonstrated "friendly character." The author, just celebrating his fifty-first year, already a member of the French Institute, the Royal Academy of Berlin and the Spanish Academy of History, could relax and pride himself on his recent election to membership in the American Antiquarian Society and the Royal Society of Literature in London, the last an honor bestowed "on no other Yankee."

Both the public and the critics were justified. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru deserved its kind reception in 1847 as it does our attention and admiration today. Whatever our opinions about the rightness or evil of conquest, or the character of the invading Spaniards, we suffer with Francisco Pizarro and his followers as they wait, forlorn and famished, for reinforcements during their ill-fated first and second expeditions in the 1520s which failed to discoverthe fabled land of the Inca. We marvel, too, and feel their fear, as they first set eyes on the encampment of the emperor Atahuallpa outside the city of Cajamarca in November of 1532. What chance of success had this small band against the Inca's army numbering in the tens of thousands? How had they let themselves be lured by dreams of great wealth and glory into such a dangerous situation?

The power of Prescott's descriptive talent is impressive, even more so considering his physical limitations. As a young man, studying at Harvard, he suffered an injury to his left eye as the result of a food fight. From that time on, he would be subject to repeated infections, often of both eyes, and spend weeks at a time in a darkened room. Self-effacing as was proper of any Bostonian of his day, Prescott in his preface to the History of the Conquest of Peru seeks to dispel the idea that he was completely without sight. He wanted no false credit of "having surmounted the obstacles which lie in the path of the blind man." Nevertheless, we need not be so modest in our appreciation of his work and what he overcame to complete it.

True, Prescott enjoyed certain advantages in life. He came from a distinguished family. His grandfather, William Prescott, earned a place in history for his heroism at Bunker Hill. His father, a respected lawyer and judge, was a success financially as well. His mother's father after establishing himself as a merchant served for many years as American consul in the Azores. Young William lived comfortably. Once he had centered on a career as an historian, family funds indulged his desire to amass a grand collection of original manuscripts and engravings from European and South American archives and personal collections. They provided, too, the wherewithal to hire translators and transcribers in England and Spain and secretaries and readers in the United States. All the same, it remains remarkable that a man who often had to "work chiefly with the ear, a snail-like process" left us such a rich literary legacy.

Even under the best of circumstances, working with early Spanish sources is not easy. Sixteenth-century Spaniards were by no means uniform in their writing or their spelling. While Prescott's friends and acquaintances searched out the materials he required, the more difficult task often was finding someone who could render the document into intelligible Spanish. Once that happened, he then had to find someone who could read to him in a foreign language. Indeed, difficulties meeting that need almost caused him to abandon his proposed histories of the conquests of Mexico and Peru in favor of an historical overview of English literature.

How fortunate for us that he continued to explore the "most brilliant passages of Spanish adventure in the New World." But how did this New Englander, come to be acknowledged worldwide as one of the foremost authorities on Spanish history, especially the Spanish conquests in America? Prescott's own passage from fledgling lawyer to leading historian boasts some of the characteristics of adventure. When he embarked on his career, the field of Spanish history was largely uncharted. No historian since, even if disagreeing with Prescott's conclusions, has failed to follow in his wake.

The young Prescott did not leap suddenly into this new field. Nor was he trained formally in its pursuit. Before penning the first word of his first book, The Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, which appeared in 1837, he spent almost a decade reading and studying history, rhetoric, English, French, Italian, and Spanish language and literature.

Spain was just then re-emerging into the consciousness of the English-speaking world as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and the Independence struggles in the Americas. The long-standing animosity engendered by Spain's failed invasion of England in 1688 had faded. England had found common cause with Spain. British soldiers fought successfully to oust Bonaparte from the Iberian Peninsula. Her merchants crossed the Atlantic to explore opportunities in the newly independent countries of South America. Many veterans of the Peninsula wars had proceeded them, fighting to bring about that independence. One of those, William Miller, proved indispensable to Prescott.

In order to accomplish his goals William Prescott, by necessity, had to depend on others. His family and secretaries often read to him; the latter also had the charge of transcribing his notes whether dictated or written in the near dark on his noctograph, a curious writing instrument created to aid those with failing sight, consisting of a tablet laced with wires which kept an ivory stylus between the lines. Beyond this immediate circle stood a wide group of friends who encouraged Prescott in his labors. There were those of his Boston boyhood such as George Ticknor who began the Modern Languages program at Harvard and Arthur Middleton, who in the 1840s was United States Minister to Spain. There were those who first approached Prescott to laud his work but stayed in his life as firm friends such as Pascual de Gayangos, an expert on Arabic Spanish history, and don Angel Calderón de la Barca who served briefly as Spanish consul in Boston. All became engaged in aiding him in his research. It was don Angel's wife, the Scottish born Frances Inglis, who supplied her Boston-bound friend with much of the colorful detail of the Mexican countryside. It was William Miller who did the same for Peru.

Miller fought with both José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, the great liberators of Spanish South America. Honored in Peru as Gran Mariscal in 1834, the one-time hero of Ayacucho later fell victim to changing political fortunes. Exiled in 1839, he traveled to Hawaii and Mexico. By the summer of 1840 he was in Boston, where he encountered Prescott, who found him a godsend and "a very gallant & intelligent Englishman." Miller provided the author with the intimate knowledge of Peru's terrain and peoples that he lacked. Their friendship -- or, we might say collaboration -- continued through letters as Miller went on to become her Majesty's Commission and Consul General in the Pacific, based in Honolulu. It appears that he faithfully continued to honor Prescott's plea "to think of other people's hobbies" when he had the leisure, offering suggestions and praise as the Peruvian manuscript took form.

The work moved swiftly in comparison to his earlier books. The secondary reading had been done during the writing of Mexico; the outline was much the same. Yet, the author found his new theme less sympathetic. A lover of the ancient epics and romantic tales, Prescott in his preface to the History of the Conquest of Mexico, confessed that the story of Hernán Cortés' triumph over the Aztec emperor Moctezuma had more the "air of romance than sober history." In Cortés, Prescott discovered a hero. The siege and fall of the ancient Mexican capital of Tenochitlán provided a dramatic conclusion to the tale of conquest. All happened within a few years: Spurred on by earlier expeditions, Cortés landed at Veracruz in 1519; he and his men triumphed over Tenochitlán in 1521. While Prescott found much to admire about the Aztecs and was not blind to the faults of the Spaniards, the bloody religious rites of the former excused many of the excesses of the latter. The story of the Spanish conquest of Peru did not lend itself so easily to that stirring narrative which is one of Prescott's greatest talents.

Working long before the professional disciplines of anthropology and archeology added so much to our knowledge of the ancient peoples of the Andean region, Prescott struggled as he had with the Aztecs to understand and explain the rise of their empire in the new world. Whatever errors -- born of ignorance and lack of information -- he committed to the printed page, he continues to receive credit as the first historian to attempt a comparison between the two. While judging the Aztecs far more accomplished in the arts and sciences, Prescott found more to admire about the Incas. Their religious rituals depended far less on human sacrifice and cannibalism, their political organization was superior, their control of conquered territories more complete. Subject peoples lived under the royal scepter, not as in the Aztec case, under the yoke. Thus at the outset, Prescott appears less comfortable with the triumph of the Spanish in Peru as he was with their success in Mexico. Too much a product of protestant New England, too securely rooted in the intellectual inheritance of the Enlightenment which saw natural laws governing the conduct of man, he never completely abandons his conviction that Christianity must triumph over paganism if mankind is to progress. Nevertheless we hear his regret that the development of the Incan civilization was not allowed to progress further on its own. Coupled with a greater measure of admiration for the vanquished, is a larger measure of disapproval, if not disdain, for the victors than evidenced in the History of the Conquest of Mexico. Although Francisco Pizarro stands alone in the minds of most as the conqueror of Peru, his position during his own life was never so firmly established. He fails to achieve the status of hero. Granted, he was the one who captured the Incan emperor at Cajamarca in 1532. Clearly, here he emulated the actions of Cortés, whom he had met in Spain. He, alas, was also the one who alone had the blame for executing the hapless Atahuallpa rather than honoring his pledge to release him once a ransom was paid. Cajamarca, however, was but one city on the northern frontier of the Incan empire. The real seat of power lay to the south in the capital city of Cuzco. Taking that city proved relatively easy. Holding onto it was another matter. Eventually the indigenous peoples rallied around a new Inca, Manco Capac, and fought furiously to oust the invaders. Spaniards would retake the city, but opposition to Pizarro came not only from the Peruvians.

Spanish unity quickly dissolved into factions. The task of conquest incomplete, Pizarro and his one-time partner Diego Almagro became locked into a conflict of their own. As the Spanish conquerors spread out from Cuzco -- Benalcazar northward to Ecuador, Valdivia south to Chile -- the political squabbles deteriorated into Civil War. In 1538, Pizarro's brother, Hernando, defeated Almagro at Cuzco. The hero of many battles would meet death alone, strangled in his prison cell. Three years later followers of Almagro's son, another Diego, broke into the aging Pizarro's home, swords drawn, and took their revenge. Whatever his successes on the battlefield, whatever his talent for seizing the advantage of the moment, it seems as if Prescott was correct. "The power of Pizarro was not seated in the hearts of his people." As the assassins made their way through the streets, their purpose clear, no one rallied to the defense of the hero of Cajamarca. This stands in stark contrast to the hundreds of unharmed followers of Atahuallpa who gave their own lives willingly in their vain effort to protect their ruler from capture.

Rivalry amongst the Spaniards left their would-be historian with what he referred to as an embarrassment of riches of historical materials. As they fought physically against each other, the combatants and their followers engaged in a war of words seeking to justify their actions and win approval from the distant monarch, Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Sorting through these often-contradictory materials was no mean feat. Prescott wisely suffered "the scaffolding to remain after the building has been completed." Thus we are allowed to either concur or disagree with his own conclusions as he reviews for us what he sometimes despairingly referred to as the "motley story" of the History of the Conquest of Peru.

In telling the story of Mexico, Prescott chose to end the Conquest with the fall of the Aztec capital. That he truncated the tale for the sake of drama is one of the more persuasive criticisms of that book. The political consolidation of that conquest was less dramatic and far less heroic as royal authority in the person of a viceroy took hold and Spanish adventurers, removed from political power, pushed the limits of that authority to the old boundaries of Aztec rule and beyond. Faced with the slow pace of Spanish success in Peru and the rapid disintegration of the Spanish unity, Prescott had no alternative but to seek a less bold, if still "brilliant," conclusion worthy of the historian. Thus he ends his tale with the arrival of Viceroy Gasca - "a fine theme - the triumph of moral power over the physical."

While modern writers try to avoid such judgments, considering morality as being the concern of the philosopher rather than the historian, nineteenth-century practitioners of the craft, assumed a responsibility to seek out the moral of the tale. Prescott's moralizing and his anti-catholic bias, more pronounced in the Peruvian volumes than those devoted to Mexico, are sure to strike some of today's readers as heavy handed and "unscientific." However, rather than dismissing the rest of his scholarship as outdated and unsound, we do well to remember his own approach to the History of the Conquest of Mexico: ". . .while on the one hand, I have not hesitated to expose in their strongest colors the excesses of the Conquerors; on the other, I have given them the benefit of such mitigating reflections as might be suggested by the circumstances and the period in which they lived." Prescott lived in nineteenth-century New England. He took for granted much of what today is held in dispute. Not an overly religious man nor a historian who plied his pen aggressively in defense of American nationalism, he was, nevertheless, comfortable with who he was and might well have believed as it has been humorously said of the Unitarians in the "Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man and the Neighborhood of Boston." While he labored hard to sort out the "truth" of the tale, reading and ruminating over as many contradictory accounts of the conquest as he could amass, and adhered faithfully to the rigorous standards of scholarship of his day, his historical impartiality did not mean that he had to be without opinion as to the relative goodness or evil of an event or a person.

Whatever the flaws of the History of the Conquest of Peru, it remains the classic account and a good read. Prescott introduces us to the realm of the Inca and those who would destroy it. He engages our emotions as well as our attention and whets our appetite to learn more. His book remains the starting point for all historians -- professional and amateur alike -- of the period. As literature, it will not disappoint. This new edition doubtless will prove an exciting companion for many as they struggle to get through long winter evenings or pass lazy summer days at the beach.

Mary Powlesland Commager returned to her native Massachusetts in 1976 after crisscrossing the country studying and teaching Latin American history. Now retired, she divides her time between Amherst, Massachusetts, and Cancun, Mexico, where she is working on a popular history of the Yucatan Peninsula.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 11 of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 8, 2009

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    Fantastic Historical Piece

    This is a very well written piece on the Spanish conquest of Peru in the early 16th century. Prescott provides an in-depth account of the history of the Inca Empire and the unfortunate demise which abruptly ended one of the greatest cultures of the ancient world. Many parts read like a novel and the parts that don't (such as background history) are still very entertaining and interesting. Prescott touches on the cultural differences and describes the tension and consequences of these encounters.

    Even though this book flows and describes many of the events, a background on the subject matter is helpful. For me, all this included was a brief lecture in class and watching Guns, Germs & Steel. I would recommend this to readers who (like myself) want to become historians or study history in college. For the average reader, this book provides a wonderful account of the Inca and their encounters with the new world.

    I have yet to read Prescott's other book, History of the Conquest of Mexico, but I plan to within the next few months. These two books are essentials for anyone even remotely interested in history.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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