One of the realities that nullifies persistent interpretations of the European colonization of the Americas as a cataclysm of subjugation is the existence of state exploitation in the precontact New World. As I have recently shown, many common Indians lived in banal slavery to a political class—the same servitude that every “citizen” of a state lives under, compelled to labor for the benefit of others, albeit with its own unique packaging and set of justifications. What this means is that there were also many politicians in the precontact world, with the same base lust for power that drives so many contemporary rulers.
When the agents of European states dropped anchor off the American littoral and proceeded to survey the interior, many were welcomed by various political leaders. These politicians were not naïvely offering hospitality. Indeed, the lack of women and children on these expeditions was often a conspicuous red flag to tread lightly. Rather chiefs often had expansionist ambitions and knew that the strangers’ military support and trade goods could turn the local geopolitical tables in their favor.
So they strategically courted the newcomers, seeking alliances. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century accounts of expeditions are peppered with reports of Indian leaders trying to extract political commitments from the leaders of the missions or otherwise trying to draw them into their military network. Europeans were not unilaterally repelled, not even when their mission was outright conquest, as in the case of the aptly named Spanish conquistadors, who were to claim land in the name of the crown, get the inhabitants to submit to the distant ruler’s “protection,” and baptize them to convert them into Catholics, a condition of their vassalage. (Hernán Cortés and his men, for example, gained many native allies as they marched to the Aztec imperial capital of Tenochtitlán in 1519.)
The related facts of precontact Indian states and the many diplomatic reconfigurations that followed contact are important, because in some cases they can offer insight on how native lands came under foreign rule. The political infrastructure of states—the reins—can make it easier for whoever can kill the head of state (the horseman) to jump in the saddle and rule (drive) the subject population (the horse). States, of course, can also be riven by internal strife, which can both aid and hinder an outside conquest. At the same time, politicians’ thirst for geopolitical gains can drive them to forge alliances that place their people’s future in the balance. And the larger and more centralized a state is, the more consequential a victory over it can be.
The Inca Empire is an excellent example of a Leviathan that brought about its own demise. Constituted in the 1430s, the empire had been continually expanding through conquest when Francisco Pizarro and his men came on the scene in 1530. It was a centralized state that extracted tribute and submission through a network of local control. Pizarro also found it wracked by a civil war that had begun in the mid-1520s, precipitated by a succession crisis. Not surprisingly, many subjugated peoples had taken the schism as an opportunity to reassert their autonomy as well, and fighting was widespread.
As anthropologist Thomas C. Patterson explains, realizing what was going on, the agents of the Spanish crown “enmeshed themselves in the successional dispute, first supporting one faction and then another, and, more importantly, establishing close ties with powerful groups that were disenchanted with Inca rule.” Although the Spanish had come out on top by 1533, installing a puppet emperor, they were able to loot the locals only via the established Inca machinery of extortion. The fighting would continue into the 1570s, and only when it ceased were the Spaniards finally able to fully liquidate the structure of the Inca state and supplant it with their own.
Without a state apparatus binding together the fates of many of the people in the Andean region and creating conflicting interests that could be taken advantage of, the people might never have been conquered (again) or it would have at least been a much taller order. But as things stood, the pattern of the Inca Empire was to subjugate neighboring groups and use their increased resources to repeat the process.
The empire was divided into a number of corporate landholdings, panaqas and ayllus, whose members were related, internally ranked, and held joint use-rights to land, water, herds, labor, and other resources. The ruling class came from the panaqas, each of which was constituted by a founding patriarch and the property he had amassed to support his descendants (land and servants). Each Inca (emperor) had to found his own panaqa, and the sitting Inca’s panaqa was the top one, followed by his father’s, his grandfather’s, and proceeding in order of patrilineal proximity to the Inca. The people of the panaqas were considered Incas proper, and according to economist Louis Baudin, “most civil and military officials came from their ranks.” But each panaqa was connected to an ayllu in or near Cuzco, the imperial capital.
The people of the Cuzco ayllus were “Incas by privilege,” or commoner Incas. These people supported the ruling class, providing mercenary services, filling midlevel bureaucratic posts, and acting as “retainers, henchmen, and friends to the lords, captains and servitors of the Inca” in exchange, of course, for a share of the rewards of imperial expansion. Accordingly, the Cuzco ayllus were exempt from tribute, along with the rest of the Inca class, and were part of the elite.
Foreign ayllus, all beyond Cuzco, comprised the great subject class. These were the kinship-based landholdings of other indigenous peoples that had been absorbed by the empire. When the Incas conquered a nation, its traditional leaders—curacas—were left in place, becoming a part of the imperial apparatus. Curacas who did not cooperate with the state were replaced with puppet leaders. Here the Incas too were clever, plugging into the preexisting order and taking hold of whatever reins existed in these smaller polities to extend their power.
Curacas ruled alongside local officials sent from Cuzco, who ensured that the ayllu met its tribute obligations and that the curaca did not try to organize a rebellion. The curaca himself had no tribute obligations, was given an Inca wife, had to visit the capital every few years or live there part time, and had to send his sons to Cuzco, where they would be inculcated with the ways and language (Quechua) of the Incas—and eventually come to serve the central state as lesser officials. As a token of their absorption and subjection, the conquered peoples’ most sacred religious objects (wak’a) were seized, along with some priests to care for them, and taken to the capital. They were either enshrined in the Temple of the Sun (Coricancha) or in a temple established and maintained by the subject priests.
Agents of the Inca state would quickly descend on a newly conquered people. They herded scattered Indians into villages. The group’s lands and resources were surveyed and recorded, and with this information the emperor would decide what supplies to send out and what public works to undertake in the region. The Inca would also decide whether the frontier needed to be stabilized by settling loyal colonists there, by removing the whole local population inland or just “reactionary elements,” or totally dispersing it among more subdued groups (and thereby liquidating the nation). Part of the group’s lands and herds was nationalized to support the royal corporations, the state clergy, and the state more broadly. The people were forced to dig canals and build agricultural terraces, as well as a local temple to the sun god (Inti), the official deity, which had to be staffed by local aclla, prepubescent virgins who would spin, weave, prepare food, and brew chicha for the state. Each region also sent aclla to the capital annually, who would either be put in religious-state service there, sacrificed to the Sun, become wives of the Inca, or be given to other prominent men as wives.
Tribute in the Inca Empire was paid in labor. Like cattle, everyone was neatly taken “stock” of in a census and divided into units of multiples of ten. Using that data, intimidation, and military force, men from twenty-five to fifty were impressed into the army, public works crews (mining, quarrying, guarding state warehouses, constructing buildings, et cetera), and even personal service to members of the political elite for part of the year—this was the mit’a, which the Spanish colonizers would adopt. The other tax was laboring on the state’s stolen lands, growing potatoes, quinoa, and corn and caring for llama and alpaca herds. Each age group was assigned certain tasks. Curacas assigned state tasks and distributed the state-supplied raw materials needed to complete them, and there was rotation for the hardest work. People had to do the work of neighbors who could not complete it, whatever the reason. They also owed labor to their curacas. The rest of the time, commoners could finally work for their own subsistence on their household plot (tupu) within the ayllu, and people under twenty-five helped their parents.
There was little way to escape the part-time slavery of the Inca Empire. There was no free travel. Government thugs were posted at every town and at bridges to make sure people did not leave without permission. People were forced to wear the unique garb of their natal communities so that those who might be travelling illegally could be identified and checked. Both subject people and elites were also moved around like pieces on a chessboard. They were resettled in underpopulated or unproductive areas for “efficiency” and during the process of “pacification,” whether as colonists on the frontier (to stabilize the borderland and be teachers to the recalcitrant natives) or as untrustworthy rebels to the secure interior (to be watched over and remade as loyal subjects). At least the colonists and other elites got a temporary tax break for their trouble. Marriage and labor were compulsory for all, education limited to the elite, and resistance punished severely.
With a system like this—of aggressive incorporation of unique neighboring societies—is it any wonder that it was a struggle for the Inca state to hold its domain, a patchwork of semiacculturated, unwilling denizens, together in 1530? With a system like this, where so much power hinged on becoming the Inca or being connected to him and the royal caste, is it surprising that Pizarro and his men were able to find an in and take over through regime change? Is it surprising that the colonial government proceeded to extract forced labor from Andean people through the encomienda and mit’a labor taxes with the aid of curacas and other elites? No. Centralization makes populations vulnerable to conquest, both because of their internal disunity and because they’re all yoked together politically. Millions of lives hang in the balance. The state apparatus must be thoroughly shattered and decentralized, both to mitigate domestic tyranny and protect ourselves from regime change conquest. Hopefully the subjects of the large states of our day will see this and start cleaving off.