Keith Hunt - What Is America #2   Restitution of All Things
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What Is America? #2

The Ancient Americans - Two Empires Fall




Since the discovery of America, the greater part of Europe has
been much improved. England, Holland, France, and Germany; even
Sweden, Denmark, and Russia have all advanced ... both in
agriculture and in manufactures. - Adam Smith, 1776

The Indians ... seem to have been placed by Providence amidst the
riches of the New World to enjoy them for a season, and then
surrender them. - Alexis de Toequeville, 1835

The genius of American democracy comes not from any special
virtue of the American people but from the unprecedented
opportunities of this continent and from a peculiar and
unrepeatable combination of historical circumstances. - Daniel
Boorstin, 19533

IN THE 1830s THE YOUNG FRENCHMAN Alexis de Tocqueville, making
his way around the fledgling United States by horse and
steamboat, briefly discussed the mystery of prehistoric American
buildings with Sam Houston, who had lived among the Cherokees and
later became famous as the president of Texas. At that time the
ancient towns and earthen pyramids found along the Mississippi
and elsewhere were a mystery, but Tocqueville (ever the futurist)
took them as evidence of America's potential, rather than its
past. "The whole continent," he mused prophetically, "seemed
prepared to be the abode of a great nation, yet unborn."

The New World had indeed been ripe for takeover by the Old, if
not quite in the way Tocqueville imagined. Besides the land
itself, the modern American empire would get most of its makings
from two ancient American empires further south albeit by way of
Europe. Ever since the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru had
fallen to Spain in the sixteenth century, their treasures had
been transforming the world.

The Aztecs and Incas have become marginal figures in our winners'
history, exotic bit-players in the pageant of Europe's rise.
Their only well-known role - as victims on a world stage
stalked by the conquistadors - was indeed brief, a dozen years
tragedy from contact to collapse. But their legacy (and that of
their forerunners) has been vast and enduring. In life the
ancient American civilizations were unknown to the outside world.
In death they became the key drivers behind the population boom
of the last five centuries, the slave trade and, perhaps most
surprisingly, the Industrial Revolution - a connection first
noted by Karl Marx. With the conquests of Mexico and Peru began
the accumulation of loot, labour and land that would build the
Columbian Age, at first in Europe and then in North America.

In the year 1500, there were some 400 million humans on Earth, of
whom a fifth, or maybe a fourth - 80 to 100 millionwere living in
the Americas. About half these Americans were subjects of the
Aztec and Inca empires, each of which ruled 20 million people,
more or less. (All such figures are merely informed guesswork;
what matters here is their relative weight.) Today, about one in
twenty people is a citizen of the United States. In 1500 one in
twenty was either an Aztec or an Inca subject. Taken together,
the Mexican and Peruvian empires held one-tenth of humankind.
But that was at their height. They have since been sidelined by
history - and for the same reason that they fell so swiftly.

Within decades of first contact with Europeans, the populations
of Mexico and Peru collapsed by more than 90 percent, abruptly
reducing their presence in the world to less than one-hundredth
of the human race. The demographer George Lovell has called this
decline "the greatest destruction of lives in history."

The Spaniards were doubtless efficient killers in those days, but
no human agency of the time could have slaughtered anything like
so many and so fast. It was the work of fate or, as The Europeans
saw it, the will of God. For several thousand years, fate had
been stacking biological weapons against - America: smallpox,
measles, influenza, bubonic plague, yellow fever, cholera,
malaria and more - all unknown in the Western Hemisphere before
1492. Unlike Africa, whose tropical diseases kept whites at bay
for centuries, America lacked mass killers of her own....

By about fifteen thousand years ago, many big animals across
Eurasia were sliding toward extinction, mainly because of human
hunting pressure. Around the same time, or before, hunters made
their way from Asia to the Americas - either across a Bering land
bridge or down the coasts, or both. Whatever the exact route and
date of their arrival, these first people were also the first of
any kind to set foot in the Western Hemisphere (though monkeys
already lived there). This absence of near kin made the Americas
exceptionally welcoming: the game had no fear of murderous
bipeds, and there were few local diseases that might leap from
prey to man.
The incomers fanned out, eating their way through most of the big
game from the Arctic to the Amazon. Like modern humans, ancient
ones could be reckless overconsumers. The first Americans then
faced the same problem as their cousins left behind in the Old
World; they had to find new ways to make a living. And they came
up with similar solutions: plant gathering became gardening;
gardening became farming. Animals were tamed: llamas, alpacas,
dogs, guinea pigs, ducks, turkeys. But the ancestral hunters had
left the American faunal cupboard rather bare, having killed all
the mammoths and horses in the hemisphere and all camels north of
Panama; deer proved untameable (as elsewhere), and so did the
lone survivor of the bison family, who was too wild and wily to
become a cow.
Luckily, the New World was exceptionally rich in obliging plants:
foods, pharmaceuticals, fibres and rubber. Like the first true
cities in the Old World, the first in the Americas grew with the
invention of irrigation, and at about the same time. In Peruvian
desert valleys beside rich Pacific fishing grounds,
archaeologists have recently found towns with large temple
platforms and stone houses dating from five thousand years ago -
a time when the only comparable buildings on Earth were in

Within another thousand years, agrarian civilization had got
under way throughout the Andean region (or Greater Peru) and
Mesoamerica (or Greater Mexico). In the process a number of
efficient food staples were developed - maize, the potato, the
sweet potato, manioc, beans and squash. Most of these crops were
more productive than those of the Old World, making up for the
dearth of animals.

From this agrarian footing, the full edifice of civilization
arose in the Americas: towns, roads, governments, priesthoods,
armies, art and architecture, books and archives. The New World's
path was enough like the Old World's that, by 1519, when Hernan
Cortes first saw the capital of Aztec Mexico, the Spaniard could
describe the alien city--the end result of fifteen thousand years
of independent growth - by comparing it to European ones. It had
forty "towers" (steep pyramid-temples), the tallest "higher than
that of the cathedral of Seville"; The central square was so
great that within it "a town of some five hundred inhabitants
could easily be built"; the commercial plaza was so extensive
that even those Spaniards who had been to Constantinople "had
never seen a market so well laid out, so large, so orderly, and
so full of people."

On the eve of its destruction, Aztec Mexico City had some quarter
million inhabitants - about the same as contemporary
Constantinople, or London, Paris and Seville combined. Then
(as now) it was the biggest city in the Americas and among the
top half dozen in the world.

Like the modern Americans, the Aztecs and Incas were latecomers
to fortune in their day, merely the most recent empire builders
in a long succession reaching back thousands of years.
Mesoamerica (a name for both Mexico and the adjoining Maya region
of Central America) and Greater Peru (the Andean region of South
America from Colombia to Chile) had been the two heartlands of
American civilization from the very beginning. They had much in
common but were also quite distinct culturally, economically and
politically. Mesoamerica was the more teeming, mercantile and
urban world - a welter of competing city-states. With its
jungles, mountains and floodplains jumbled together, the land
itself seemed to stimulate diversity, warfare, trade and edgy
brilliance. From time to time, one city would rise above the
others, much like Florence or Venice in medieval Italy.

When the Spaniards arrived, by far the most powerful Mesoamerican
state was Mexico, also a general name for the Aztec capital, a
twin city built on largely manmade islands in a great mountain
lake surrounded by volcanoes. Mexico's core alliance comprised
several neighbouring cities, though the hard power lay with
Tenochtitlan, whose main square and street grid survive as
downtown Mexico City. Tenochtitlan did not try to integrate its
domains; it simply extorted wealth from vassals, both by outright
levies and through the high-handed trading of merchant-princes
backed by the Aztec war machine. The great city also meddled in
the affairs of tributaries, toppling rulers and installing
puppets. Ritualized militarism held the system together,
expressed, as in Rome and so many other places, by grand displays
of mass slaughter - in this case the sacrifice of war captives at
the top of stepped pyramids two hundred feet high. Such political
and commercial practices were normal in Mesoamerica; the Aztecs
were hated by rivals not for what they did but for doing it best.
As Inga Clendinnen has written, "Tenochtitlan was a beautiful
parasite, feeding on the lives and labour of other peoples and
casting its shadow over all their arrangements."

Around the world, in both ancient and modern times, there have
been two main kinds of imperial system: tribute (or hegemonic)
empires, in which client states are dominated but not integrated
by an overlord, and centralized (or territorial) empires, which
aim to incorporate their subjects into a greater whole, with a
single economy, government, official language and religion.
Tribute empires are protection rackets: exploitive, unstable,
usually short-lived. So long as wealth and loyalty flow upward,
client states are left to run their home affairs, which means
squeezing their own people to pay the overlord. Subject peoples
receive no benefits beyond survival and are kept in line by fear
of a military harrying or a palace coup if the flow of tribute
falters. Like a top dog, a hegemon is only as good as his last
fight. Centralized empires, on the other hand, see themselves as
civilizing and benevolent, extending public works, education and
citizenship to what Rudyard Kipling called "lesser breeds without
the law."

Some empires have combined elements of both kinds or evolved from
one into the other. Rome and Britain began as tribute gatherers
but later became centralized. During the Cold War, both the
United States and the Soviet Union behaved as tribute empires
beyond their heartlands, manipulating quasiindependent states in
Europe, Latin America and the rest of the Third World (a matter I
shall return to in Chapters 7 and 8 when discussing American
power today).


If the Aztec Empire was a textbook case of a tribute system,
things were very different in the Inca Empire, which called
itself Tawantinsuyu, the "United Four Quarters," and had its
capital at Cusco in the highlands of southern Peru. The Incas
were great organizers and builders, the Romans of the New World.
They had spread their rule up and down the Andean backbone of
South America and from the desert Pacific coast to the Amazon
jungle, controlling all of what are now Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia
plus half of Chile and parts of Argentina. This is a hard and
sprawling land: three thousand miles long, hundreds of miles
wide, with treeless steppes more than twelve thousand feet high
and snow-capped ranges nearly twice that height, broken by passes
through icefields. To support human life in any abundance and
security, the Andean region demanded massive public works:
irrigation on the coast, terracing in the mountains, raised
fields and drainage canals in the jungles and good roads to bind
all together and distribute food. In a land where one in three
harvests was likely to be lost in any zone, the incentives for
spreading risk by central management were high.

Although many of the ethnic groups who had been conquered or
persuaded to join the Inca realm were not fully absorbed by the
1520s, the United Four Quarters was well on its way to becoming
an integrated territorial empire like Han China or Augustan Rome,
with imperial administrative hubs linked by well-built roads and
bridges. There was no cult of militarism or mass human sacrifice;
Inca warfare was certainly ruthless, but it was politics by other
means, not an end in itself. Andean political prestige depended
on a ruler's ability to impose order, redistribute wealth, and
control a network of reciprocal exchanges. These were not equal
exchanges - the rulers lived more grandly than their subjects -
but there was no slavery, hunger or grinding poverty. "In each
head province," wrote the Spanish soldier and chronicler Cieza de
Leon, "there were great numbers of warehouses full of supplies
and provisions ... and if there was no war all these supplies
were distributed among the poor and widows, the very old, the
lame [and] the blind and the sick." In Mexico, by contrast, one
of the familiar features noted by Cortes was that "the poor
begged from the rich in city streets ... just as they did in
Spain." And just as they do now in the wealthiest nations of all


There is no need to retell here the Spanish conquest of Mexico in
1519-21, but I do want to underline one important fact that is
too often overlooked. Despite the technology gap between Mexico
and Europe, and the large Spanish army assembled at Mexico City
by Hernan Cortes--1,200 Europeans and thousands of local allies -
the Aztecs WON! On a rainy summer night in 1520, remembered by
the Spaniards as the Night of Sorrow, Mexican forces killed at
least two-thirds of the Europeans and a similar number of their
native allies. It was an utter rout.

That should have been the end of the invasion for many years -
years during which Mexico could have readied its defences. The
Europeans' technological and psychological advantages were a
one-shot weapon, now spent; subsequent attempts at colonization
would have been more gradual, more difficult and ultimately
reversible, more like the British career in India. But just then,
"when the Christians were exhausted from war," a Spaniard wrote,
"God saw fit to send the Indians smallpox."

Smallpox (eradicated in 1978) was probably the deadliest mass
killer to afflict humanity. Europeans had known it for centuries;
they often caught it in childhood and, if they lived, held both
acquired and some genetic immunity. But the plague that hit
Mexico in the fall of 1520 was the first outbreak ever on the
American mainland - a true "virgin soil" pandemic - and its
virulence was catastrophic. In a matter of weeks, it killed the
Aztec ruler and at least half the population, utterly
transforming the balance of power. In the chaotic aftermath,
Cortes was able to resupply, return, rebuild his alliance with
Tenochtitlan's foes and besiege the stricken city, which still
took nearly three months to fall. Even that was far from the end
for the luckless Mexicans: wave after wave of pestilence scythed
through their population for decades, reducing them to less than
a tenth of their original strength.

The main credit for establishing beyond doubt that the New
World's true conquerors were microbes must go to the American
bio-historian Alfred Crosby. "Had there been no epidemic," he
wrote in 1972, "Cortes might have ended his life spread-eagled
beneath the obsidian blade of [an Aztec] priest." The truth is
that the Spaniards did not succeed in conquering any major state
on the American mainland until after a smallpox plague had
struck. When they tried, they lost. Cortes's "Night of Sorrow"
was not unique: in 1517 and 1518, first Francisco Hernandez and
then Juan de Grijalva were defeated by Maya on the Yucatan and
Gulf coasts; in 1521 a Floridian arrow put an end to Juan Ponce
de Leon's quest for the Fountain of Youth; and around 1524 Alejo
Garcia's attack on the southeastern flank of the Inca Empire from
Paraguay ended with its leader's death. "The miraculous triumphs"
of the Spanish conquistadors, Crosby underlines, "were in large
part the triumphs of the virus of smallpox."

The same virgin-soil outbreak that gave victory to Cortes then
ran ahead of the Spaniards for several years: a pan-American
wildfire, burning north beyond the Aztec Empire, south through
the Maya city-states to the Spanish base at Panama, and deep into
South America. This first pandemic may have ranged from the Great
Lakes to the pampas - the full gamut of advanced societies in the
New World - before running out of tinder.

Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro and other would-be conquistadors in
Panama had begun a long search for a golden kingdom to the south,
rumours of which had been tantalizing them for years. Rumour
gained substance on an exploratory voyage in 1526. Reaching the
equator off what is now Ecuador, one of Pizarro's ships met an
Inca ship heading north. The Spaniards at first mistook the
native craft for a rival caravel, noting it had "masts and yards
of very fine wood, and cotton sails in the same shape and manner
as on our own ships." The strange vessel was a balsa, a great
raft similar to the famous Kon-Tiki, reconstructed from old
drawings by Thor Heyerdahl in the 1940s, but much bigger and more
sophisticated. On board were twenty seamen and thirty tons of
freight for export, including worked gold, pottery and fine
clothing. For about a thousand years, Peruvians had been sailing
the Pacific Ocean, not only along the coast but as far west as
the Galapagos - a feat comparable to reaching the Canaries and
Azores from Europe.

Guided by men he seized from the Peruvian ship, Pizarro scouted
the coast, going ashore and meeting Inca officials at Tumbes and
other seaports. The Spaniards found a thriving empire, apparently
still under the firm yet benign hand of the Inca Huayna Capac,
said to have been a great beer drinker and "much beloved by all
his subjects." Smallpox had not yet struck. Pizarro passed
himself off as a friendly envoy from a distant lord, then sailed
back to Panama and on to Spain for royal backing and rein-
When he returned to Peru with a bigger force four years later,
everything had changed, as perhaps Pizarro knew. Smallpox had
burst upon the Incas in 1527-28; the port of Tumbes had become an
eerie ruin. The plague had killed Huayna Capac, his chosen heir,
at least half the Inca court and general population as well as
government and military personnel throughout the empire. An
ensuing power vacuum had led to wars of secession and succession.
High up, along the spine of the Andes, minor sons of the dead
Inca (in this sense, the word means "emperor") were waging a
bitter civil war. The white intruders were largely ignored, left
to do as they liked in the lowlands for a year and a half; they
even began building a Spanish town.

Wittingly or not, Francisco Pizarro had avoided fighting a native
American kingdom in its prime. Smallpox had set up the conditions
that would make his conquest possible. His cousin Pedro later
wrote: "Had Huayna Capac been alive when we Spaniards invaded
this land, it would have been impossible for us to win ... not
even if more than a thousand Spaniards had come at once." As in
Mexico, the great plagues struck for decades, until Peru had lost
at least 93 percent of its people.

In November 1532, at some hot springs outside a highland city
called Cajamarca, the winner among Huayna Capac's sons a man in
his early thirties named Atahuallpa - received a visit from
Pizarro's lieutenant, Hernando de Soto (who would die beside the
Mississippi ten years later). Despite being preoccupied with his
dynastic war, Atahuallpa had already sent spies to investigate
the Spaniards at their camp on the coasts. They had reported that
the intruders were barbarians and thieves, disorderly in their
ways and so lazy that they rode on "big llamas." "With this,
Atahuallpa was reassured," wrote Pedro Pizarro, and he took [us]
for nothing."
In a display characteristic of each culture, Soto reared his
horse so that its breath stirred the crimson fringe of vicuna
wool across the Inca's brow. Atahuallpa, who had never seen a
horse or a Spaniard before, sat perfectly still; it was said that
he executed any of his men who flinched. Certainly, he later
admitted that he'd planned to kill most of the Spaniards, make
the rest into household eunuchs, and breed the horses. Inca
officials had kept a tally of the outlanders' crimes: theft,
torture, murder, rape and more. The spies had correctly informed
Atahuallpa that the barbarians were few, not quite two hundred
men, with about a third on horse. The Peruvians had examined the
intruders' swords and may even have seen gunfire, but they had
not watched the Spaniards in battle. Fasting, nursing a war wound
and arrogant from recent victories, the young Inca seriously
underestimated the Europeans.

According to a memoir written by Atahuallpa's nephew, insults
were exchanged at the first meeting. The Inca then told the
Spaniards to go into the city and wait in the open public halls
surrounding the plaza. They were left there until late the
following afternoon, taunted by passersby: "We thought our lives
were finished," one of Pizarro's men wrote home. At last the
Inca entered the square, borne on a golden throne and accompanied
by thousands of retainers who had not bothered to bring weapons
"because they thought so little of the Spaniards" Unaware that
he was deep inside a trap of his own making, Atahuallpa
confronted the foreigners with their crimes. When a Spanish
priest handed him a Bible, he haughtily cast it down.
The rest of the story takes its well-known shape. Mounted
Spaniards charged from the tall doorways of the halls and
slaughtered the unarmed Peruvians. "We killed eight thousand men
in about two and a half hours," one boasted. Atahuallpa was
pulled from his palanquin and thrown in chains.
The crestfallen Inca soon took better measure of his captors. "Do
you eat gold?" he asked sarcastically, and the strangers answered
yes, they did." (In Mexico, Cortes had said much the same,
telling Moctezuma that Spaniards suffered from "a disease of the
heart for which gold is the only cure." So Atahuallpa offered
to call off his armies and pay a king's ransom for his life: a
room full of gold and two of silver. For six months, llama trains
brought tons of gold stripped from all the great buildings of
Peru: architectural bands from walls and rooftops; thrones,
altars, statues, urns, dishes. The ransom bought Atahuallpa time,
but time was not on his side. Spanish reinforcements came from
Panama, doubling his captors' strength. Pizarro forced the
Peruvian goldsmiths to melt their own work into bullion, then
killed Atahuallpa anyway.

So, how much did the Spaniards really get, and what was it worth
at the time? The haul from Cajamarca, as declared to the Spanish
king, was 13,420 pounds of 22.5 carat gold - nearly 7 tons - and
about 13 tons of silver. Later that year Pizarro stripped 3 more
tons of gold (and many more of silver) from Cusco, the Inca
capital. It is fair to assume that further "saintseducing gold"
escaped the eye of the royal taxman, who, as usual, was sent
along with the invasion. The Inca's subjects also defied their
ruler, burying items they deemed too precious or too holy to be
lost, though hoards were later uncovered by Inquisitional
techniques. In safe round figures, as officially declared,
Pizarro and his men seized 10 tons of gold from the two cities.
It sounds like a lot. Yet at today's bullion price, it would
fetch only $300 million - small change in a world of a thousand
billionaires. Bill Gates alone is worth more than $50 billion.
That said, current gold prices tell us very little - because the
world economy and money supply have exploded since the 1530s.
Indeed, the buying power of gold and silver dropped through the
centuries mainly because of the New World treasure, as the
political economist Adam Smith explained in his 1776 "Wealth of
Nations." Since Smith's day the picture has changed again:
industrial mining has vastly increased the bullion stock,
but the really big money has only a ghost's life nowadays, in
electronic files.

William Prescott, the great historian of the Spanish conquests,
said that few European monarchs of that day possessed anything
like such a sum. He reckoned that Atahuallpa's gold would have
been worth more than 5 million pound sterling, or US$22 million,
when he was writing in the 1840s. At that time, the Bank of
England's gold reserves were about 8 million pound. In 1867 the
United States bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.
Clearly, Pizarro's band of thugs seized a treasure of national
proportions, equivalent to many billions, perhaps trillions,

Like a gravitational mass warping space and time, the great pile
of heavy metal distorted everything around it. As soon as each
conqueror got his share, hyperinflation broke out in Peru: horses
fetched astronomical sums, and their hooves were shod in silver.
Peru became a goldrush land, the Eldorado of all time.
Years later, dictating his will on his deathbed, the last of
Pizarro's men unburdened his conscience to King Philip:

     His Catholic Majesty must know that we found these countries
     in such a condition that there were no thieves, no vicious
     men, no idlers ... We have transformed these natives, who
     had so much wisdom ... There was then no evil thing, but
     today there is no good.

Some modern writers have seen Peru's tragedy as a Manichaean
fight between individualism and community, wealth and
commonwealth. For the left, the United Four Quarters was a
"socialist" empire, overthrown by robber barons. For the right,
it was a grim, totalitarian state. Both views are naive
anachronisms, examples of posterity's "enormous condescension" to
the past. The real link between ancient Peru and modern
capitalism is more substantial than any political or moral point.
Karl Marx may not be America's favourite philosopher, and his
utopian project, like that of the Incas, lies in ruins, yet he
remains one of the best economic historians and analysts. In 1847
he drew a direct link between the Industrial Revolution and
Atahuallpa's gold: "An indispensable condition for the
establishment of manufacturing industry," Marx wrote, "was the
accumulation of capital facilitated by the discovery of America
and the importation of its precious metals."

Ever since money began, gold and silver had been in tight supply
in pre-Columbian Europe. Precious metals tended to migrate toward
the Orient in exchange for silk, spices and ceramics. Like the
trade imbalance between today's America and China, the Silk Road
was a one-way street; the Chinese wanted nothing from the west
but cash. This had been going on since Roman times. Toward the
end of the first century A.D., Pliny the Younger estimated that
half of Rome's bullion was flowing to Asia. At about that time,
the empire began debasing its coinage, and the "silver" denarius
slowly became worthless.

Medieval kings were also notorious debtors and debasers. The only
way Edward I of England could escape bankruptcy was by expelling
his Jewish creditors. And in 1516--just before the big payoff
from America - Ferdinand of Spain, another ejector of Jews and
the founder of the Inquisition, left barely enough in his
treasury to cover his own funeral. Today, after five
centuries of European triumph, it is easy to forget just how
marginal Europe was until she stumbled on the New World jackpot.

For all the dash and brilliance of the Italian Renaissance, it
was China that had the world's greatest economy and most advanced

In 1534 a Seville official wrote deliriously to King Charles:

     "The quantity of gold that arrives every day from the
     Indies, and especially from Peru, is quite incredible....
     This city will become the richest in the world."

A few conquistadors invested wisely and settled down, but most
wasted their treasure and died young. The important thing is that
the gold went into circulation. Like Pizarro himself, Europe
leapt from poverty to wealth and power almost overnight.

Consider how things might have gone if the Americas had been
uncivilized or uninhabited when the Europeans turned up half-dead
from months at sea. There would have been no towns, roads and
bridges, no stores of food and clothing, and no labour pool - let
alone cities of gold to repay investors promptly and recruit new
men. One of the first things the Spaniards did in Mexico and Peru
was interrogate native officials, miners and smiths. If the
hemisphere had been a wilderness, there would have been no local
knowledge of where gold and silver might be found.
Despite the pandemics, enough subjects of America's pre-Columbian
empires survived to make wealth for their new masters. Most
colonial mines were expansions of ancient ones, and the miners
were raised from existing tribute and taxation networks. In
Mexico, the Aztec tribute books were minutely studied by the
Spanish viceroys. In Peru, the work tax, the mit'a, was perverted
into forced labour with none of the food, clothing or other
benefits of the Inca system. As the shafts wormed ever deeper
into the Andes, the work became harder and deadlier. Often the
journey to the mines was a one-way trip. In 1586 an eyewitness
wrote that of the healthy Indians who went underground each
Monday, "half may emerge crippled on Saturday."

During the three centuries of Spanish rule, more than a million
Quechua and Aymara lives may have been devoured by the great
"mountain of silver" at Potosi and its even more evil twin, the
mercury mine at Huancavelica. "Oh, Peru!" wrote Garcia Lorca,
"Land of metal and of melancholy!"

By the late 1570s, Potosi's production had soared to more than 3
million pesos - equivalent to Atahuallpa's treasure every year.
By the mid-eighteenth century, 500 tons of silver and 25 tons of
gold were crossing the Atlantic annually. Adam Smith reckoned
this influx to be worth "about six millions sterling," adding
that American mines were by far the most productive in the world.
More recent studies have borne him out: for two and a half
centuries, Spain's American empire mined more than four-fifths of
the world's silver and nearly threequarters of its gold.

Just as work overtakes the time allowed for it, so political
ambitions consume the funds at hand. We might think that Spain
would have become the wealthiest country on Earth. But the
Emperor Charles and his heir, Philip II, spent their fortune
trying to conquer everyone in sight: the French, the Turks, the
Portuguese, the English, various Italian city-states and not
least the Netherlanders, many of whom were rebelling and sliding
into Protestant heresy. Spain's dream was nothing less than to
carry out God's work by crushing infidels and bringing
Christian civilization to the world. The mood of the day - its
"full-spectrum dominance" - was summed up by a Spanish friar:

"Potosi lives in order to ... humble the Moor, make Flanders
tremble and terrify England."

After taking over the New World's kingdoms and crossing the
Pacific, Spain at last reached a point where west met east. The
Spaniards had only limited influence on the real Asia, however,
giving an idea of how Europe's impact on the Americas might have
looked had there been no demographic collapse. The Far East was
part of the Old World; its people did not conveniently sicken and
die on contact. Spain had to content herself with making the
Philippines the western border of her empire - as her successor
there, the United States, would do three centuries later.

For all its corruption, chaos and sclerosis, the Spanish Empire
still holds the record as the longest-lived world superpower to
date - exactly three hundred years from the conquest of Mexico to
Mexican independence. But its military ambitions beggared it. By
the mid-seventeenth century; Spain had lost most of her money,
her European possessions and her prestige. As William Prescott
dourly observed after reckoning the worth of Atahuallpa's gold:

"The wealth thus suddenly acquired, by diverting [the Spaniards]
from ... more permanent sources of national prosperity, has in
the end glided from their grasp, and left them among the poorest
of the nations of Christendom." Spain's loss was others' gain.

The wealth went north, becoming venture capital for weaponry,
shipbuilding, supplies-all the manufacturing and innovative
foment that thrives on a diet of warfare. Foundries and ironworks
that began by making guns would soon go onto produce mine pumps,
mills and machines. As I have written elsewhere, "In a way Mao
Zedong didn't intend ... power would indeed grow from the barrel
of a gun: from the cannon's 'reeking tube' descends the cylinder
of the steam and petrol engines." 

The Industrial Revolution was young when Adam Smith was writing
his "Wealth of Nations" in the 1770s, but his nose for following
money had sniffed out the new home of Atahuallpa's gold -
Britain, already well on its way to becoming the workshop of the
world. By 1775, James Watt was building the first efficient steam
engines, at the engineering works of Matthew Boulton, "a man of
energy and capital."

In the end Peru's metal would again become a metaphor: bricks
glistering in bank vaults, of no more practical use than the
bands of gold on Cusco's walls. As the dragon remarks to Grendel
in John Gardner's retelling of the Beowulf tale: "My advice to
you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it." 

The Industrial Revolution was not, of course, made by money
alone. It also required technical and scientific knowledge - and
it is this aspect that has always been emphasized in the West's
admiring account of its own leap forward. But science alone won't
make a revolution either. Without both needs and means,
inventions fall on stony ground. The many ingenious devices of
Classical times, the Renaissance and China all failed to realize
their potential. Something was lacking in the mix.

Besides an innovative spirit, heavy industry needed four key
ingredients for success: capital to fund it; efficient farming to
feed it; labour to work it; and growing demand to sustain it. As
both Adam Smith and Karl Marx understood, the first of these
ingredients came from the New World. But what about the other
three? Manufacturing requires a large workforce released from the
need to grow food. For this to happen, the people who do grow
food must be able to raise a dependable surplus year after
year. These conditions are common nowadays - half the world lives
in cities and towns - but they were rare before modern times.

For two thousand years, China suffered serious famine in at least
one province nearly every year. The same was true of most ancient
civilizations: they could barely feed themselves. In fat times
there would indeed be a surplus, and it was then that great
military campaigns and building projects were undertaken. But the
palmy days seldom lasted; either good harvests were soon followed
by bad ones or, as the early demographer Thomas Malthus observed,
the people outgrew the food. Either way, farmers lived on the
edge of hunger. Towns were tiny by present-day standards. Of
every ten people alive, eight or nine worked the land. The only
big labour surpluses were seasonal: a few months between sowing,
reaping and ploughing. Seasonal workers can do great things -
they built the pyramids of Egypt and the cathedrals of Europe -
but they won't run a railroad.

For industrialization to take off, a difficult horse-and-cart
trick must be performed: a food surplus and a labour surplus must
be raised at the same time. And both have to be sustained until
technological feedback can occur - until industry can make enough
farming machines to free yet more hands from the land. And the
world's first Industrial Revolution had to take root and grow by
chance - because nobody foresaw where it might lead.

It is hardly surprising that no civilization, no matter how
technically ingenious, had managed to pull off this trick before.

So, what was different about Europe in the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries? The traditional answer is that
Europe was blessed by genius. But the revolution of coal, iron
and steam was not launched by scientists; it was made by shrewd
investors and grimy practical men - fitters, mechanics,
ironworkers - men such as Thomas Newcomen with his condensing
steam engine, James Watt with his improved design, Richard
Arkwright with his spinning mills and Isambard Brunel with his
bridges, railways and steamships.

We come to the second ingredient: food. Gold is valuable only
because people think it is. Its worth is a form of magic, not
utility, as Atahuallpa sardonically implied when he asked the
Spaniards if they ate it. Perhaps he knew that America's greatest
treasure - in the long run - would be her crops. It's hard to
imagine Italians without tomatoes, Asians without chiles, the
Belgians without chocolate, Christmas with no turkeys and Hawaii
with no pineapples. But for demographic impact, the really
significant introductions were the boring, starchy staples: the
"miracle crops" of maize, potato, sweet potato and manioc (or
The last two are tropical, the potato temperate, and maize, in
its many varieties, can be either.

One may well ask why the arrival of these crops made any
difference beyond wider choice. Wouldn't a field given over to
maize instead of wheat simply swap one food for another? But it
wasn't a zero-sum game. Maize and potatoes give twice the food
value of wheat; manioc yields more in volume than any other
tropical plant. Also, the new crops seldom competed with the
old ones. Maize would thrive on land too dry for rice and too wet
for wheat. Manioc, potatoes and sweet potatoes were easy to grow,
needing little work and tolerating a wide range of soils.
Marginal and exhausted land could be brought into production with
these crops - as with peanuts and beans, which fix nitrogen in
the soil. The American root crops were also good keepers, taken
on board by sea captains and spread promiscuously around the
world. One particular virtue of the potato was its hardiness in
wartime. It was one thing to torch an enemy stand of wheat; quite
another to uproot a muddy field of tubers.

European and Asian governments promoted the American foods,
especially during famines. In the last days of France's ancient
regime, potatoes were dished up at Versailles, and Marie
Antoinette wore potato flowers on her breast. Sir Walter Raleigh
first brought the plant to Ireland in the 1580s, and the Irish
had become "mighty lovers of potatoes" by 1700.
Ireland's landlords were delighted to find that a peasant family
could live on an acre or two of tubers, freeing the rest of their
estates for cash crops. The new food was wholesome: in the ninety
years from 1754 to 1845, the Irish population grew from 3 million
to 10. Then came the potato blight, when many who had "lived by
the potato died by the potato," and many more fled to the New
World. (The disaster was no fault of the Peruvian plant but of
the way it had been misused.

In the Middle East, Africa and Asia, maize caught on with
astonishing speed. By 1574, large stands of it were growing in
Mesopotamia, the very birthplace of wheat and barley. From
there it spread into southeastern Europe, Egypt and India. At
about the same time, maize reached Asia direct from the Americas,
probably on Spanish galleons plying between Acapulco and
The depopulation of the New World has ended in the overpopulation
of the whole. While human numbers in the Americas went into a
dive after 1492, those in Europe, Africa and Asia began to soar
on the back of the Americas' vegetal wealth.

Within four centuries of Columbus and Cortes, humanity had
quadrupled - to 1.6 billion by 1900. We have since quadrupled

The later phase of this boom can be attributed to better 
sanitation, public health and farming, as the industrialization
of land and town took hold. But those improvements had scarcely
begun before Victorian times. It was not until 1854 that John
Snow famously stopped a cholera outbreak by taking the handle off
the Broad Street pump in Soho. London and Paris were so
unhealthy that their populations would not have grown at all
without a constant flood of migrants from the land. There can be
little doubt that the human boom is a direct consequence of the
worldwide adoption of American crops: 

The third ingredient for the Industrial Revolution - labour -
flowed from the second.
As the productive new plants took root on Britain's farms, fewer
workers were needed. Under the old manorial system, the country
squire had been the head of a community, with almost as many
obligations as privileges. Now he became a businessman, a
champion of heartless efficiency. "When farmers become
gentlemen," William Cobbett wrote acidly, "their labourers become
slaves." The poor protested that the landlords "keep us here
like potatoes in a pit, and only rake us out for use when they
can no longer do without us." This treatment, plus the land
enclosures and the Highland clearances - the privatization of
public farmland from the sixteenth to the eighteenth
centuries - drove the peasantry to the towns. Some found work in
mills and factories; others went on to North America and

By 1830, technological feedback also began to kick in as
threshing machines and other equipment put ever more farmhands
out of work. For those left on the land, the machinery itself
became the enemy. The Times reported the following year: "At
Norwich, fifty-five prisoners convicted of machine-breaking and
rioting ... at Petworth, twenty-six for machine-breaking and
rioting; at Gloucester, upwards of thirty." Luddites were hanged.
The trick was done. Northern Europe had a steady surplus of
people and of food. The industrialists had all the workers they
could want, at bargain wages. Meanwhile, another source of labour
had been proliferating in the tropics. Like Europeans and Asians,
Africans multiplied dramatically on American crops. Africa had
not been rich in home-grown staples. Maize and manioc caught on
so quickly that they were soon believed to be native plants.

White seafarers did not introduce the new staples to Africa for
philanthropic reasons; rather, they sowed them along the coast as
fodder for human cargoes. Slaver captains were already familiar
with these foods, having at first taken slaves the other way.
Even Columbus himself had dabbled in the tradeshipping American
Indians across the Atlantic - only to find it unprofitable
because his merchandise died from Old World disease just as
readily in Europe as in America.

Africa had been a source of slaves for both Arabs and Europeans
since ancient times, though never on the scale that began after
the sixteenth century. With the growth in population, the
continent suddenly had surplus people, whom local rulers did not
shrink from using as foreign exchange, sold across the water for
guns, metal and luxury goods.

In most of Mexico and Peru, enough local people survived
to work the Spanish mines and haciendas. But the Caribbean
islands were almost utterly depopulated within twenty years of
1492, and much the same happened along the mainland coasts. Even
before Columbus, the Spaniards and Portuguese had been seizing
West Coast Africans to work sugar plantations on Madeira, the
Canaries and the Azores. So Spain and Portugal repeated in the
Americas what they had done in those Atlantic islands, but on a
far greater scale, filling the sultry parts of the Caribbean and
Brazil with sugar cane and Africans to work it.

In the seventeenth century, the British, French and Dutch took up
the slave economy, adding two American products tobacco and
cotton - to the sugar, molasses and rum of the West Indies. The
three solaces of the British sailor were said to be "rum, baccy
and bum." Bum was nothing new, but rum and tobacco were the first
exportable wealth produced in the New World by imported slaves.

So began the modern trade in agricultural commodities. By 1840
world sugar shipments exceeded 1 million tons a year. Most of
this supply went to European and North American cities, providing
cheap, high-energy food and drink for factory workers.

In short, Europeans took Africans to America to replace dead
Americans and made them grow food, clothing and luxuries for
Europeans and the world market. The economic engine of loot,
labour and land had built up steam.

Until the turn of the nineteenth century, the demand - the fourth
and last requirement for industrialization to sustain itself -
lay mainly in Europe. But as the Old World's extra people spilled
across the Atlantic, the ultimate bonanza opened up: the idea and
possibility of a second Europe building itself on the vastness
of the New World's widowed land. There, on a seemingly
inexhaustible frontier weltering (by Tocqueville's reckoning) at
seventeen miles per year, a vision of endless prosperity was
bequeathed down the centuries to white settlers by Atahuallpa's


Now that is a part of history not talked about too much in
history classes in North America. Two mighty empired had to be
defeated and de-populated, and it was the sicknesses of Europe
that won the battle for the people of Europe now wanting to move
West, to a land of milk and honey (and silver and gold, and then
coal and oil and natural gas).

With the bullet and even more the alcohol, the Indians of what is
now the USA were conquered and the rich farming and cattle
ranches opened up to the white settlers from Europe. And what is
America today was on its way.

A very good book "What Is America" by Ronald Wright. Yes well
worth the read.

Keith Hunt    

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