I’m about half-way through Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru (available free online). It’s a great book from the great age of New England letters. His account is still considered quite accurate, or so it seems, and he presents it in the form of a clear, vivid and impartial narrative based on the documentary evidence then available and an intelligent grasp of situation and character. It’s definitely readable, even memorable, which I think is important. After all, why read history if it’s not going to stick with you?
It’s an odd story, in which a small band of adventurers was able to take possession of an empire by the simple expedient of going up to the ruler and seizing him right under the noses of his soldiers and court. At the time Peru was a communist state ruled by a god-king, so everything depended on the top man. Once you grabbed him organized resistance became impossible and most people would do the least confusing thing and cooperate with the new situation. The maneuver was criminal, but effective, so that the actual conquest takes up considerably less than half the book. The book also includes a lengthy account of the condition of Peru before the conquest, and I think most of the part I haven’t read is an account of how the leading conquistadors all murdered each other in drawn-out disputes over the spoils of victory.
It’s hard to know what lessons to draw from history, especially the history of important but odd events. One lesson I suppose is that you can sometimes get unbelievable results by thinking outside the box and going straight for the basic point. If you find the thing that will transform the situation, and push it, you’ll sometimes be remarkably successful. The history of political radicalism, various reinterpretations of basic principles or applications of the Big Lie theory for example, offers enough other examples.More generally, the story is an example of the sadness of history. An entire civilization can be destroyed by a wonderfully bold but nonetheless sordid crime. Even where the civilization was likely doomed in any event, because it wasn’t suited to the radically new setting created by 16th century globalism, and even where it’s not clear what it could have added to the world, what actually happened seems a large and irretrievable loss from an unworthy cause.