The Spanish colonial empire: a history of Peru
It’s the 16th century and the world’s largest power is Spain. With its impressive colonial empire, Habsburg Spain is right in the middle of its most glorious era, remembered since as ‘The Golden Age’ of Spain (1516-1700). This was a time when the Spanish colonial empire, one of the first global empires of the modern age, spanned on five continents and lasted for over five centuries, since the discovery of the Americans in 1492 until the last Spanish colony claimed its independence, in the 1970s.
The empire’s most important administrative unit was the viceroyalty of Peru, spanning all across South America, from Panama in the North to the most southern tip of the continent, from Peru in the west to La Plata in the east, with the exception of today\s Brazil, Guyana and Venezuela. It was a vast territory, with many riches but also with numerous administrative challenges.
The Spanish started the conquest of South America in the first decades of the 16th century. The first (failed) attempt at exploration and conquest dates from 1525 when, after occupying the Panama isthmus, the conquistadors received information of a large state somewhere in the South, rich in precious metals.
The two men who will succeed in conquering almost an entire continent were Diego Almagro and Francisco Pizarro.
Pizarro travelled south of Panama in 1527 and observed how rich in precious metals this region was. He then travelled back to Spain to obtain from the King an official license to conquer and claim the territory. The expedition started in 1532 with very few men. However, the Spanish took advantage of the civil war fought at the time in the Inca Empire, which was torn between Atahualpa and Huascar, the two brothers that claimed the throne. As such, the much frailer Inca state was easier to destroy. The Spanish intervened in the fight between the two brothers and, after Huascar’s death (at the hand of his brother), they kidnapped and executed Atahualpa. After that, in 1533, the Spaniards conquered the empire’s capital city, Cuzco, and the city of Lima, a year later.
Pizarro, known today as the conqueror of the Inca Empire, was seconded by a man named Diego Almagro and his brothers. As expected, due to the great temptations of Incan territory, a rivalry soon appeared between Pizarro and Almagro. Thus, a new civil war begins, this time between the conquistadors, fought between 1537 and 1538, a war which ends with Almagro’s death. After his execution, Pizarro entrusted a man named Petro de Valdivia with the special mission on conquering the southern territories, yet unclaimed by the Spanish. This new expedition began in 1540. Surprisingly, Valdivia and his men managed to survive a trip across the Atacama Desert, an adventure considered extremely dangerous even today, in the modern world. Valdivia travelled to the Chilean territories of today and laid the foundation for a new city:Santiago.
In 1541 the civil war breaks out again, between Pizarro and Almagro’s old followers, led by one his brothers. ‘El Mozo’ Almagro kills Pizarro, but ends up being killed himself by an official sent by the Spanish King Charles I.
The fights between the conquistadors ended with the King’s intervention, but the war against the Inca Empire continued until 1572, when the last member of the Inca dynasty, Tupac Amaru, was killed.
In order to administrate its vast new territories and control the local population, the Spanish came up with a system named la encomienda. The royal bureaucrats would grant the conquistadors certain territories;the person receiving these territories from the king, named encomendero, was supposed to guarantee the safety and wellbeing of the Indians (encomendados) living on his territories;he was also supposed to supervise the christening missions. For the protection received, the Indians would pay some sort of tribute, under the form of products, labour or even money.
However, the system turned into forced labour, thus maintaining the older Inca system, in which the population’s tribute to the Emperor was paid in labour. So, the encomenderos chased away the Indians from their fertile lands and made them work on poorer lands that could barely ensure their survival.
In order to keep the system working and the population under control, the Spanish colonists collaborated with the local elite, known as caciques or curacas. These were the people who collected the tribute from the Indians and passed it along to the encomenderos.
This form of tax paid in labour – known as mita – was borrowed from the pre-Columbian tradition and used by the Spanish to capitalise their new resources:the Indians were thus forced to work for a certain period of time (6 months in agriculture, 10 months in mining) for the colonists and would receive some money (not a lot though) for their work.
The territories given to the conquistadors quickly became their hereditary properties, to the dissatisfaction of the Crown that tried to prevent a new strong feudal class appearing in the colonies and usurping its own authority. The king also took measures to stop the exploitation of the Indians through forced labour. A law in 1536 tried to limit the conquistadors’ rights by stating that the territories would be ceded only for two generations (the conquistador and his first heir), after which the territories would return to the Crown. Later, in 1542, a legislation known as the Leyes Nuevas attempted to improve the encomienda system through a more efficient planning of the christening missions and a better protection of the Indian population.
However, these laws were never instated because of a colonists’ revolt against the Crown. A new civil war started, this time between the colonists (led by Gonzalo Pizarro) and the Emperor’s soldiers. The viceroy ends up being executed by the colonists and Pizarro is proclaimed ruler instead, and he will rule over Peru until 1548, until the Crown manages to eliminate him. Due to the strong revolt and the conquistadors’ firm stand against the former laws, King Charles I ended up reinstating the hereditary character of the territories given to local colonists.
After the mid-16th century, the viceroyalty's administration will not change much. Only after the War of Succession and the Bourbon dynasty’s reign over Spain, the central government in Madrid will try to implement new reforms. However, toward the end of the 18th century, the entire empire is swept by several uprisings, until Peru finally claims its independence in 1824 (recognised by Spain in only 1879).