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History Book Club

Join History Book Club for a great deal on THE LAST DAYS OF THE INCAS

Review by Peter Winn

The epic story of the conquest of the mighty Incan empire by a few hundred Spanish adventurers led by an illiterate and illegitimate Francisco Pizarro continues to fascinate nearly five centuries after he shocked the Andean world by first seizing the divine Inca Atahualpa and then seizing his empire. In recent decades, the attention of many historians has shifted from the Spanish conquistadors to their indigenous adversaries—and collaborators. As a result, it is now possible to retell the story of the conquest in a more balanced manner.

Kim MacQuarrie is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and writer, who has extensive experience of Peru and is the author of an acclaimed book on its Manu National Park.In this book, his primary interest is what he terms "the last stand of the Incas," their flight and continued resistance once their attempt to regain their empire was defeated. He begins his account of the conquest with Hiram Bingham's 1911 "discovery" of Macchu Picchu, the ruined city down the Urubamba River from the Inca capital of Cuzco that Bingham styled "the lost city of the Incas" and imagined was their final residence, the Vilcabamba described in the Spanish chronicles of the day as the Inca's secret refuge and capital. Bingham was wrong about Macchu Picchu, but MacQuarrie ends his book with a recent expedition to Vilcabamba, now correctly identified and explored.

Between these modern archaeological bookends, MacQuarrie retells the story of the conquest, from its conception in Panama as a partnership between Pizarro and Diego de Almagro, and rapid initial victory over the Incas, to the war between the two aging conquistadors that claimed both their lives. But his central concern is the Incan resistance, beginning with the Great Rebellion of Manco, Pizarro's puppet Inca, because of his ill treatment at Spanish hands, which almost succeeded in driving the Spaniards out of the Peruvian highlands in 1536. It was the failure of Manco's siege of Cuzco, despite a huge numerical advantage in warriors, which set the stage for his defeat by Almagro and flight to Vilcabamba, seeking a refuge among loyal Amazonian Indians. From there, Manco and his successors kept up an effective resistance for more than three decades, organizing guerrilla warfare and disrupting Spanish plans to consolidate their new empire, until 1572, when a large Spanish force finally conquered Vilcabamba and captured and killed Tupac Amaru, the last ruling Inca. Two centuries later, one of his descendants would take the name Tupac Amaru II and raise a revolt that would once again set the Andes aflame and threaten Spanish rule.

It is a great story and MacQuarrie tells it well, finding his dialogues in the Spanish chronicles and his landscape descriptions in his own travels. Although some of his claims and novelistic reconstructions are unconvincing, for the most part his book is a balanced synthesis of contemporary chronicles and recent scholarship, narrated by a writer who knows Peru—and knows how to write. 544 pages • 5 1/2" x 8 1/4" • illustrations • 20 b&w photos

Kim MacQuarrie is a four-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and author of the photographic books Peru's Amazonian Eden, Gold of the Andes, and From the Andes to the Amazon.

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