An overview of the history of Perú

An overview of the history of Perú

Pre-inca PerU

People entered the American continent around 20,000 years ago, and human remains marking a simple fishing community on the coast of Perú have been dated back 9000 years. Major settlements, such as Chilca, date from around 6000 years ago. Life was then oriented to the exceptionally rich ocean, and the climate may have been wetter than it is at present. Cotton, now the coastal staple, appears around 5000 years ago, as do plants which originate from the Andes. Inter-regional trade would, therefore, appear to have been established. More on antiquities here.

The first centre of influence arose at Caral, about 4600 years ago. This may well be the oldest city in South America and, as a result, it has attracted a great deal of attention. It lies on the coast, and may well have been associated with a trade route into the interior. It possessed many small one room dwellings, made of mud brick or woven reeds, but also impressive monuments. These are almost certainly of a religious nature, and are the first ceremonial pyramids in South America. It appears to have flourished for around 500 years.

Highland settlement was also developing and Kotosh, near Huanuco, is an early highland ruin that is probably around 3800 years old. Brazilian evidence suggest that humans were beginning to move into the jungles at around this time.

Chavín de Huántar was established around 1800 years ago. In the five hundred years in which it held sway, this civilisation produced pottery and textiles of much greater sophistication than anything seen previously. It was the first site to work precious metals. It appears to have been the centre of a jaguar cult that spread along almost all of the coastline, leaving its characteristic monuments and ornaments. The carvings emphasise the gods of the air, earth and and netherworld, and are the origins of the crux Andino, the Andean cross.

Carvings also emphasise the San Pedro cactus, which has hallucinogenic properties. The main site at Chavín de Huántar has a set of underground passages which offer access both to a hidden god and to a set of conduits which in turn lead to an open pool. San Pedro cactus grows around the site, and it may well be that the water was sacramentally transformed for the population by this means. Whether the cult followed commercial success or led to it is not know, but Chavín collapsed after 500 years, leaving a stylistic heritage which has influenced all that followed. A similar but less influential centre at Sechin dominated the North.

Jewellery from Sipan

The next 500 years were something of a dark age in Perú, with no dominating centres and no common culture. Nevertheless, farming developed. Cultures that left their mark on the landscape appeared at Paracas and Nazca. The Paracas culture is known from its dead, who were buried in the dry desert and so preserved. The quality of their textiles was outstanding. In addition, they evolved the custom of binding the heads of infants between two boards, such that they became sharply elongated, with the features crammed into the end of the resulting oval. Such deformation seems to have cause problems which were treated with trepanation: that is, a flint knife was used to cut through the skull in order to expose the brain and so to relieve the pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid. Visitors can see the results of this in the rather macabre Paracas museum, which displays many water-melon shaped skulls with healed, healing and open trepanation scars on them. One wonders at human idiocy.

Nazca is famous for the enormous lines that have been laid out in the desert. Rocks which are exposed to the sun and wind develop what is called "desert varnish", a shiny dark coating. Moving the surface stones shows the lighter under-soil, and this is how the lines were made. Exactly why they were made remains a mystery. Some of them represent animals, and are designed as a continuous line. It may well be that these and some of the more common linear features were processional. Others resemble stretches of highway, with added artificial perspective. One theory has it that these represent river alluvium, and that they are offerings to encourage water flows from the mountains to the coast. The people of Nazca were wholly dependent on such water to irrigate their desert, and developed a still-working system of underground canals to move the water to where it was best used.

The patchwork of cultures was broken by the first of the violent empire builders, the Moche. It arose about 1900 years ago and lasted for 700 years, encompassing almost all of the current Peruvian coastline. Its centre was near Trujillo. The ruins offer two large and eroded mud brick pyramids or huacas, supposedly representing the sun and moon. The Moche built roads throughout their dominion, and established a messenger system which was based on based on relays of runners and way stations. They established marine trade links with Ecuador and Chile.

Moche is now chiefly know for the quality of its ceramics and other art work. The tomb at Sipán yielded some of the richest grave goods from the new world. So-called portrait vases represent the face of the person who - perhaps - commissioned them, with great fidelity and verve. Many other styles of ceramics, sometimes comic, frequently on an erotic theme create the impression of an earthy, sensual culture which enjoyed a joke. A visitor might, for example, be invited to drink from a vase the spout of which was the erect penis of a youth; or the udder of a goat.

A parallel development was the Huari culture, which ran up the Andes from the South. Its capital was established near Ayacucho. This was the first expansionist empire of the Andes, which vigorously repressed local cultures in order to subsume them into its own model.

Around these two great blocks lay a number of lesser cultures. The Chímu built the huge (20 square kilometre) adobe city of Chan Chan. This was a civilisation of conquest and subjugation, human sacrifice and social stratification. Development was also proceeding in the jungle-facing Andes, with the Chachapoyas culture spreading down the Utcubamba River. Its focus is Kuelap, one of the highland ruins about which we know least. Lurking in near insignificance was the centre of influence around Inca Cusco, which was eventually to dominate the rest.

the incas

Perú is known for the Inca, yet their period of overwhelming dominance lasted for only a century. Their greatest strength was to combine military power with administrative zeal, and to see that which they conquered as a part of an engine which had to be made to function. Their eye for detail, and their systematic approach to engineering and social order made them something new on the continent. It was their tragedy that they should collide with a technology that acted upon their culture as a full stop does upon a sentence.

At its apogee, the Inca empire reached from central Chile in the South to the Northern parts of Ecuador, extending East into Bolivia and Northern Argentina. It covered approximately a million square kilometres, divided into four administrative districts under the overall authority of the Inca in Cusco Cusco was regarded as as the umbilicus of the world, surrounded by sacred sites such as Machu Picchu. Each administrative district was required to dress in a distinct manner, and to wear its hair in a certain way. Even hats were prescribed: the Chancas wore a black and red sweat band, the Collas a cap made of wool, the Canaris a device made from wood and the Huancas had to make do with complex plaits.

The growth of the Incan empire was initially brought about through conquest, but later through alliance and absorption. The Incas believed in diplomacy and alliance-building over frontal assault, and few other than the displaced elite amongst those whom the incorporated seem to have resented their rule. Extant power structures were retained, with the local nobility being taken to Cusco for indoctrination before returning as curacas, of proxy rulers. Marriage was also used to cement relationships.

The Inca also used their superior wealth to influence tribes with the near-universal native American tradition of potlach. This consists of the aggressive giving of gifts and favours, feasts and ceremonies in order to create mutual obligations. The wealthy giver eventually 'owns' the debtor. Obligations so incurred are collectively referred to as mit'a, and are paid off by work. The Incas thereby collected labourers and soldiers by gifting kings and nobles, and in doing so gained the resources to repeat the process. Once institutionalised, the mit'a became a continued part of life, what one owed to the god-Inca. If her or she was fortunate, the the mit'a merely consumed all of a peasant's time notional spare time. If they were less fortunate, however, then the mit'a swallowed them whole. Groups, often numbering in the tens of thousands, were simply transplanted without choice or warning to wherever they were needed, and there settled into a stereotyped form of life in which public works consumed all of their spare time.

Farm production was taxed by being divided into thirds: one part for the grower, one for the Inca and one for "the gods" or, in other words, for the priestly tithes. Agriculture was anyway minutely regulated: what to plant and when to plant it, all aspects of water management, who had which rights over what land, all lay in the hands of the state. The result was, however, better farming than the Spanish had seen in Europe, conducted in some of the least promising land on Earth: desert, near-vertical slopes, impoverished soils subject to seasonal rains.

In exchange for this minute control, the Inca offered security, certainty and support in adversity. The agricultural surplus - and particularly that owed to the Inca - was stored in warehouses, such that any district had up to five year's dried food to hand. These warehouses were also used to store military equipment and clothing, so as to allow rapid mobilisation. The sick and incapable were supported as by right from this source (and also provided with housing;) but the able bodied had to work intensely and continually. The Inca was the incarnation of the Sun, and not to do his will was innately blasphemous. Vast programs of public works, from farming to drainage, ceremonial buildings to communications devoured spare time through the medium of the mit'a. The collective was advanced through the direction of the elite through the labours of the many; the collective grew by conquest, and all of this was consecrated by the divinity of the Inca.

Inca society was rigidly stratified, with an administrative, militarised or religious nobility and a land-bound peasantry. Nobles were descended from the Inca's concubines, of which there were many, and were seen as a race apart, children of the Sun. They received a complex education, including a dialect of Quechua unintelligible to the broad masses, physical development and indoctrination in the principles of the empire. Their tasks were prescribed from an early age, and defection was punished by death, blinding and mutilation. One should note that there was not, even amongst the nobility, much of a concept of individual property - as opposed to rights owing to an individual's station in life - and money was itself unknown.

The chief entity in society was not the individual, but the collective to which an individual belonged. The Aymara ancestors of the Incas developed the idea of the ayllu. This is a group of 50-100 people who are both close blood relatives and neighbours. This super-family was the primary unit of loyalty and identity, of far greater significance than the immediate family or any concept of nation. A town would consist of several ayllus, each with their own administrative structure, welfare system and exposure to the mit'a system of forced labour. Punishment and reward in the Inca empire was often collective, with the ayllu the target of this. For example, if and individual offended against the Virgins of the Sun, then the members of the corresponding ayllu were killed and their lands scarified, their houses destroyed. This and other measures afforded strong community policing. [See here for the religious slant on this.]

The lives of the lower orders were completely prescribed. Recalcitrant members of an ayllu were warned once and then either dispersed or slaughtered. Difficult men might be castrated, and such individuals were seldom given permission to marry. As already noted, the Inca practiced mass relocations of ayllus, particularly when new peoples were to be incorporated into the empire. A whole block of people would be uprooted from their ancestral village and inserted elsewhere, amongst alien people, much as the Chinese government has diluted the Tibetan population by the mass transplantation of lowland Chinese.

Equally in common with the practice of Imperial China, the Inca took from "bad" areas to reward compliant people when times were hard. They did much the same for ayllus within a stricken village, based on tax records, general behaviour and contributions to the mit'a. There were, therefore, potent incentives to conform.

This said, the Inca also brought technology and with it, wealth. Farms became more productive and people lived better. It also appears to be the case that most people felt happier in a dynamic society which was achieving great things, and there is evidence that subject peoples identified with the empire and felt safe within it. Newly integrated tribes were allowed to retain their gods - although the effigies were removed to Cusco as sacred hostages - but the worship of the Sun was required in parallel to this and in priority over it. The Quechua language was made compulsory. Young people were not only told whether and when to marry, but to whom. Marriage was handled by the local chieftain or curaca, usually with the after-the-event compliance of the parents of those affected, by a mass ceremony in which hands were joined by the curaca and that, as they say, was that. Sexual misconduct after marriage was punished ferociously, and the bond could not be reversed. In essence, a married couple were there for the efficiency of the division of labour that the state afforded, and to create more little workers, and nothing more.

WH Prescott, writing in 1846, says: "The extraordinary regulations respecting marriage under the Incas are eminently characteristic of the genius of the government; which far from limiting itself to public concerns, penetrated into the most private recesses of domestic life; allowing no man, however humble, to act for himself, even in those most personal matters in which none but himself [...] might be supposed to be interested. None was so high that he was not made to feel his dependence upon it for every act of his life. His very existence as an individual was absorbed in that of the community. His hopes and his fears, his joys and his sorrows, the tenderest sympathies of his nature [...] were to be regulated by law. He was not allowed even to be happy in his own way. The government of the Incas was the mildest, but the most searching, of despotisms." Contemporary readers may question the use of the word "mild".

Inca infrastructure still survives in use, as with the coastal irrigation systems. These remnants are, however, trivial when compared to the mature system of aqueducts which brought water - allegedly hundreds of miles - from Andean rivers to the coastal desert. Their highways were equally impressive. Great roads - raised causeways on which two groups of marching soldiers could pass abreast - ran the length of the empire. More narrow avenues of communication allowed information to flow freely. At the empire's peak, there were around 30,000 km of paved highways and an elaborate network of footpaths, bridges and way-stations.

Visitors to the highlands will see the word "tambo" on frequent display. This was a way station, relay point and inn on the extensive system of roads and paths which the Inca installed. They placed great stress on communications and intelligence, on the ability to move soldiers swiftly and, of course, on the movement of goods and livestock.The tambos were used both to manage these flows and to replace exhausted messengers. These runners, chasquis, were able to move fresh produce such as fish from the coast to Cusco in less than a day, and information flowed freely from all corners of the empire to Cusco, or wherever the Inca happened to be resident. The Spanish allowed all of this to decay and few traces of it now remain.

An Inca trail still in use

The Incas placed great store by records and information. They did not, however, have writing or a system of hieroglyphs, and instead relied upon a unique system which had been developed by earlier coastal powers. Quipus are loops of string, of which many branching additional bits of string are tied. The knots on these strings can take many forms: with one or more loops, braided this way or that, facing front or back relative to their neighbours. We still do not know how this encoded information, but the number and complexity of these objects which are unearthed - and the observation of the Spanish as to their efficacy - show us that they played a major role. However, individual scribes appear to have had personal systems, which others could not read. This cannot have made for stable record keeping, despite the penalty for failure being death. The solution seems to have been massively parallel and overlapping responsibilities, by which all aspects of the empire were recorded and assessed.

The development of the Inca empire was not inevitable. Visitors will encounter the names of the major players over and again, so it is worth rehearsing what we know of them. The Quechua-speaking Inca appear to have been a tributary tribe of the powerful group of Aymara-speakers, who were then centred on Lake Titicaca. As was frequently the case in the Andes, as a power declined, so its regional offshoots became independent. This appears to have happened to the Inca, whose architecture, social ideas and religion were much influenced by preceding Southern powers.

Their own legends are many and various. The 'official' version, which gave legitimacy to the divinity of the Inca himself, was as follows. The first Inca was Manco Capac, who was sired by the Sun on Lake Titicaca. His twin sister Mama Oello was to be the co-founder of the dynasty. She emerged from the lake carrying a golden wedge, which was to sink into the soil where they were to settle. This event happened at Cusco, so that is where they settled, married and taught the local people many arts: she, all that is feminine - seen as farming, weaving, medicine - and he, the arts of war, building and organised religion. (The practice of incestuous marriage in order to maintain the purity of the bloodline of the Sun was continued down to the time of the Spanish conquest.)

Manco Capac probably is a historical figure, who perhaps lived around 900 years ago. As a law-given and visionary, he set the Cuzqueños on a path that would, after 200 years, result in a century of absolute dominance. Initial growth was slow, and it was the ninth Inca, Pachacutec, who set the group on the expansionary path. The Inca were in fact on the verge of defeat by the central Huanca power, and the then-Inca Viracocha and his heir were about to surrender. His third and youngest son nevertheless managed to snatch victory - an act which included the supernatural creation of warriors from a mountainside - and subsequently seized power as Pachacutec Inca. In 25 years, the conquered almost the entire spine of the Andes. He was a great builder, creating cities and diverting rivers.

His descendant, the 11th Inca, died as the master of a vast and tightly-administered empire. He made the mistake of dividing the empire between a the legitimate heir and a favourite son by a courtesan, and his death was marked by civil war over the succession. The winner of this dispute - the less legitimate of the two - was to be the last to rule as Inca. Atahualpa Inca was engaged in mopping up operations in 1532, which may have entailed murdering the entire blood line of all rivals to the throne, when Francisco Pizarro landed and began to travel inland.

The spanish conquest

Francisco Pizarro was one of four sons of a Spanish military man of middle rank. Three of them were illegitimate, including Francisco. He was neglected as a child and spent his early years as a swineherd, before finding passage to Panamá and attaching himself to a number of unsuccessful ventures. The recent conquest of Mexico by Cortes was, of course, alive before the eyes of every such adventurer, and - after reaching middle age with few accomplishments to his name - Pizarro and a colleague called Diego de Almagro were able to fund and staff a small expedition South, down the Pacific coast of South America, towards legendary lands of gold. It was a fiasco, but it did substantiate the golden legends with some small amounts of actual gold, and even more valuable information. Another expedition met with similarly if tantalising results, the upshot of which was that Pizarro obtained an audience with the Spanish monarch and received the right to conquer - in the name of religion and the crown - such lands as he could find South of the Ecuadorian river Bíru. (From this came the name "Perú".)

The resulting mission was wildly under-equipped to assault a highly militarised empire of eight million people. Pizarro landed near what is now Piura with less than two hundred men, fifty or so horses, poor armour and only two light cannon. The journey had not been a happy one and his band of adventurers were in mutinous mood. However, they established and garrisoned a settlement, the church of which is still active. The main body, now short of fifty men, moved down to what is now Trujillo, before traveling inland to Cajamarca. Their arrival was unopposed and the local people in fact gave them every support.

The new Inca Atahualpa received Pizarro peacefully in Cajamarca on 16 November 1532. Accepting an invitation to dine with Pizarro in the city of Cajamarca, a major town which he had ordered evacuated in order to make room for the Spanish, he was summarily kidnapped. Pizarro's force turned cannon, horse and sword on his unarmed followers, killing thousands. (Pizarro had, of course, been influenced by the similar strategy of Cortez in Mexico, and the result was indeed to paralyse the entire Inca state.) It was agreed that Atahualpa would be ransomed for a room full of gold and one of silver. (You can visit the room today, and see the mark drawn on the wall to indicate the amount of gold that was required.) However, a moment's thought - and the facts of Pizarro's royal commission - show that this could never have been more than a pretext. It was necessary both to show a fast result to the Spanish throne, and to placate the fractious adventurers with their share of the loot. The collection process did, however, show the soldiers how rich the kingdom was in precious metals. Two of them were dispatched to visit Cusco to speed up the stripping of the temples, for example, and came back both laden and full of stories of golden walls and life sized statues.

Atahualpa was a danger to Pizarro. He was therefore subjected to as show trial and sentenced to be burned alive. This was commuted to garroting when he agreed to be baptised, and after what can only be called his Church-sanctioned murder, Pizarro threw his officers into official mourning. A youngster was crowned as Inca, and the army set off for Cusco. Their march was unopposed until they reached the Huancayo valley, when light opposition was decisively smashed. However, the young Inca died en route, and Pizarro was fortunate to be intercepted by Manco, the legitimate heir, who appeared happy to be a puppet prince. Pizarro therefore arrived at Cusco in a cloud of invincibility, and the succeeding period saw the establishment of the beginnings of Spanish rule. The Spanish crown was overjoyed, reinforcements came in droves and Pizarro was made a Marquis. He busied himself founding the city Lima as a suitable seat for his government.

Clownish, frightening conquistador figures

These events made it clear that the Spanish intended to take over the empire, rather than simply trade with it. After false steps, Inca Manco slipped away from Cusco and raised an enormous army. This besieged and burned Cusco, trapping the small Spanish force within. The encounter was a close run thing, with the Spanish turning the tide only by breaking out of the siege near the fort of Sac'sayhuaman, a place which you can visit today. Manco Inca retreated to Ollantaytambo - also still extant, in ruined form - and from there into the jungle at Vilcabamba, where he established a miniature court. He was later assassinated by a Spanish adventurer and succeeded by Túpac Amaru, a militant figure whose name is still synonymous with resistance to repression. (The rainbow flag that you see all over the Southern highlands was the symbol of the rain goddess, and carried above all representations of the Inca. Túpac Amaru used it as a flag of resistance, which is what it now signifies: treat us fairly, or else take the consequences.) The photograph, above, shows burlesques of how the Spanish are remembered in the South.

There followed a period of sporadic resistance to the Spanish, not least as the vast engine of prosperity created by the Inca began to run down. Fanatical religious movements spread across the Andes, involving hysterical shaking fits on the part of the devotees and a suicidal commitment to the violent removal of the Spanish.

At the same time, squabbles began to erupt amongst Pizarro's piratical supporters. A group under Diego de Almagro challenged the rule of Pizarro over the Southern regions, which had been promised to him by the Spanish crown. At stake was the city of Cusco itself. Although the issue was primarily one of technical geography - where lines were to be drawn - the matter came quickly to a pitch only to be settled through force. The result was a decisive battle and Almagro's judicial murder. A rag-bag of his former followers, impoverished by they fall from grace, assassinated Pizarro three years later.

Robert Southey wrote of Pizarro: ("For a Column at Trujillo")

Pizarro here was born; a greater name
The list of glory boasts not. Toil and pain,
Famine, and hostile Elements, and Hosts
Embattled, failed to check him in his course,
Not to be wearied, not to be deterred,
Not to be overcome. A mighty realm
He overran, and with relentless arm
Slew or enslaved its unoffending sons,
And wealth and and power and fame were his rewards.

There is another world, beyond the grave,
According to their deeds where men are judged.
O Reader! If thy daily bread be earned
By daily labour - yea, however low,
However wretched be thy lot assigned -
Thank thou, with deepest gratitude, the God
Who made thee, that thou art not such as he.

The first settlers were ruthless in their dealings with the local population - for example, by hunting them to death with dogs, for sport. The chief abuses were, however, economic. The "encomendero" system gave settlers the right to enslave native Americans in return for Christianising them. The Spanish crown and the Church were shocked by early reports of such events and dispatched a spectacularly impolitic Viceroy to take over from the late Pizarro. He arrived, proclaimed a new order and set about seizing for the Crown all goods and lands deemed to have been acquired by plunder or through slavery. This measure, in effect, confiscated the entire plunder of the campaign and, of course, led to a settler revolt. Pizarro's brother Gonzalo provided the leadership of this. The Viceroy was killed in battle and Gonzalo Pizarro took control of Perú, as and autocratic Governor and Captain General. He was, however, soon to be outmanoeuvred by an emollient, diplomatically-astute incoming Viceroy. After a further series of battles - in the last of which his supporters abandoned him without a single casualty - he was summarily executed. Of the four Pizarro brothers, only Hernando remained alive, imprisoned for twenty years in Spain on charges of general peculation. The great fortune was gone, the Marquisate without an heir, and the country that the family had conquered was in ruin.

Manco Inca was killed at much the same time, by a group of the followers of Almagro, with whom he had struck up an uneasy alliance. Twenty years of repression, starvation and social chaos brought much of the Inca empire under Spanish control. The last Inca, Túpac Amaru was beheaded by the Spanish in Cusco in 1572. The vice-regency of Perú covered most of the former Inca empire, encompassing Ecuador, a large fraction of present day Chile, Bolivia and northern Argentina. It was ruled as a Spanish colony until 1824, when most of the Spanish colonies were lost to the efforts of el liberador, Simon de Bolivar.

the spanish vice-regency

The immediate effect of the Spanish conquest was the collapse of the Inca economy. The second, and ultimately more profound event was the collapse of the population. The Americans had offered Europe new diseases such as syphilis, but the impact of Old World diseases on the indigenous population proved catastrophic. Contemporary best estimates are that the Inca empire had something over 8 million inhabitants. Only three million people were alive twenty five years after the arrival of the Spanish, when Túpac Amaru was executed. The native American population continued to decline to about one million at the end of the eighteenth century. Andean culture, oral tradition and religion were all lost in this decline.

In the face of this collapse, Perú could have become a backwater. What transformed its history once again - and what had an immense impact on contemporary Europe - was the discovery of the "mountain of silver" at Potosí, in what is now Bolivia. Subsequent mineral strikes - of mercury, of gold - transformed Perú into "Spain's great treasure house in South America." The result was an explosion of immigration, chiefly drawn from the of the poorest of Spain's peasants. Their dispersal into the highlands brought Spanish mores and culture into intimate contact with the indigenous population at the village level, and completed the dilution and erosion of this once-pristine world.

The Viceroy Francisco Toledo y Figueroa arrived in Lima in 1569, when its population was 2,500. He proved to be the architect of a system that lasted for centuries. Native Americans were forcibly relocated to new sites, where they provided labour. Taxes and the forced purchase of Spanish goods brought them into the money economy, requiring that they work for a wage. Land holding was consolidated into Spanish hands, generating the hacienda system that lasted until late in the twentieth century. Land tenure fell into two blocks. The vast estates employed tied, peon labour - more elsewhere - who owed fealty to a landlord. The other was the mostly-highland scatter of native-owned small holdings and common land. The Spanish-Catholic church was a major landowner in this system.

Mass slavery was used to exploit the mines, taking its legitimacy on the Incan mit'a system. Potosí had 150-175,000 people working the mountain by the end of the century, making this 4000 metre desert site one of the largest cities in the contemporary world. Virtually all those who were set to mining at Potosí died within a few years. It is probably true that Potosí silver funded the development of Spanish South America. Lima itself underwent explosive development, and it gradually became the administrative centre of the Viceregency, not least as the the Inca system of highways and messengers was allowed to isolate Cusco.

Once established, this system quickly consolidated itself and its forms were essentially fixed at the end of the sixteenth century. The structure institutionalised nepotism and corrupt practice. The crown sold of posts in the bureaucracy, where the incumbent expected to reap a profit from bribes and favours. The shadow of this approach to government has lain over much more than Perú - indeed, over many former Spanish colonies - until very recently.

Very little changed over several hundred years, however, although occasional native revolts broke out and were suppressed. The Vice-regency was allowed to manage its own affairs until silver production began to decline in the late seventeenth century. This re-established crown interest, and some element of state reform was brought to bear in the 1730-1790 period. This failed completely, and the Crown responded in 1776 by establishing a new vice-regency to rival Perú, based on what is now Argentina.As a particular punishment, Bolivia was removed from the Vice-regency of Perú and the silver revenues were shut off.

Peruvian commerce collapsed. What remained of commercial life revolved around Lima. Interest in the highlands and the jungle essentially ceased. Coastal agriculture was focused around an aristocracy of land, characterized by its utter disinterest in rural matters. Perú was not completely sunk, however, for the Crown decreed that goods which were destined for Argentina were nonetheless required to be shipped through Perú: that is, to travel overland at Panama, and again overland through Cusco and Bolivia, before descending to the new Vice-regency! Further, only finished goods of Spanish origin were to be imported - that is, no industrial machinery or tools - a measure calculated to keep the colonies dependant upon the mainland. Latin America was to be the dumping ground of Spanish industry; and its pension. The consequence was, of course, both a flourishing, organised system of contraband around Argentina - in which the British played a major role - and a cynicism amongst the criollo elite as to the competence of Spain. (It is clear, however, that the concept of import management and the support of inefficient domestic industry left a lasting legacy on the colonial economies, from the influence of which they are only now beginning to recover.)

Economic stringency, a rising tax burden and still-declining populations brought the native American populations to the boil, culminating in the Túpac Amaru rebellion of 1780. This was organised by a mestizo intellectual, who took the name of the last Inca as his nom de guerre. He was captured and executed after a hard campaign that brought the entire Andes to arms. (As a comment on the nature of the Spanish administration, the execution is exemplary. His entire family were executed before his eyes, and he was then torn apart between four horses. All of this was done as the festive culmination of public celebrations.)

Ultimately, however, change did not come from the oppressed people of the Andes, but from the wealthy people of Lima. The motivation was the continent-wide desire to be free of Spanish taxes, Spanish trade restrictions and what they saw as Spanish liberalism.

independence and oligarchy

The colonies of Spain were impatient of the systems of governance and the limits imposed upon them. However, their fear of the subject populations - and the extremely narrow elite upon which power rested - made the repressive power of the Spanish military preferable to the unknown of self-government. Vague thoughts of nationalism were fine for the middle classes, but the oligarchs of the continent had a clear vision of what was needed for their interest to prevail.

Spain under Charles IV lost control of its foreign policy, its economy and ultimately its territory when an alliance with Napoleon turned into an invasion in 1808. Spain proved unable to police its colonies, and ideas originating from the French revolution began to spread. Venezuela was one of the least governed of the colonies, and two of its citizens - Sebastián Francisco de Miranda and Simon de Bolívar - provided the intellectual and military stimulus to revolution. De Bolívar, in particular, was able to eject the Spanish from what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú and Bolivia. In doing so, he precipitated fierce internal dispute and an explosion of warlordship and civil chaos. Many innocents were massacred in conditions of absolute barbarity. De Bolivar's attempt to restrain this - for example, executing a warlord who had taken to sewing captives together back to back - were largely unsuccessful. Bolívar remained in the country for only a short period, however, and his departure brought a counter-coup from the oligarchy and secession from the super-state which he had attempted to create. Despite the failure of de Bolívar to "win the peace", he is nonetheless revered across Latin America as the Liberator.

Perú was the administrative capital of Spanish South America, and it is less that surprising that is was amongst the last of the nations to seize independence. Revolution developed in Argentine vice-regency more or less in parallel with that of Venezuela, much influenced by the organised business of evading Spanish import controls. Initial attempts at liberation in Chile ended in internal struggles for power, and it was Argentine armed force which consolidated the independence of Chile. The extraordinary figure of General José de San Martín was both the catalyst and moderator of this process.

Born in Argentina, San Martín served in the continental Spanish army. Aided by the British intelligence service, he returned to Argentina to serve the independence movement. His vision was to invade Perú by way of Chile, and after years of meticulous planning, this is exactly what he achieved. He landed at the head of a large armed force in 1820. He was, therefore, engaging the Spanish in the South when Bolivar invaded from the North, and the two forces forced the Viceroy to capitulate. De Bolívar won the decisive battle of Junín in 1824, and the decisive battle of Ayachucho, under Gen. Sucre, brough the independence of Perú from Spain.

San Martin was an example of that rare individual, the public-spirited autocrat, and it is clear that he accepted none of the rewards or honours which the liberated countries tried to pile on him. Nevertheless, his name appears on every second public building in Perú. As a mark of his personal humility, he met de Bolívar in Ecuador before the latter had a toe-hold in Perú and, after two days of discussion, agreed to resign his command - five years in the planning - in favour of el Liberador.   (Readers who find this interesting will be riveted by Liberators, South America's Savage Wars of Freedom by Robert Harvey. Robinson 2002.)

San Martin

Proclamation of independence

de Bolivar

As a result, Bolivar became the the first ruler of the Republic of Perú. He attempted to establish a liberal, open constitution. However, his departure after only two years in office led to a vacuum, soon to be filled by a series of warring generals. The constitution was re-written six times in the next ten years. The period ended in war with Chile, in support of Bolivia, and the Bolivian silver mines ceased to work. The economy collapsed and with it, central government. The fall of the established government led, as it so often does, to more primitive institutions, in this case to the reign of the caudillos, warlords, who seized power in patches all over Perú. These fought with each other by all methods available to them for primacy in their region.

The worst of this phase was over by the 1840s, with the onset of the guano boom. (Guano is, of course, decayed bird manure, collected from islands off the coast. It found a role as a fertilizer in the increasingly technified European agriculture, but was abruptly undercut by the Haber process, which enabled Nitrogen to be fixed from the air in a chemical process.) The boom created a period of fast growth and underpinned a long-lasting presidency, during which a workable political framework was created. Slavery and serfdom were abolished, at least in name. (However, as late as 1929, a coastal landowner had the hand cut off a six year old girl for daring to look him in the face.)

The latter years of the guano boom were marked by scandals. The President of the time handed out large sums to the wealthy families, including his own, on the basis that they had been dispossessed during the war of independence. More fundamentally, however, the government borrowed increasing sums from foreign bankers, doing so against future revenues. Spain anyway claimed title to the guano islands and eventually occupied them, which finally brought down the entire house of cards. The economy collapsed.

The last throw of a discredited government was entry into the self-evidently pointless and catastrophic War of the Pacific. The roots of this also lay in guano, in this case in deposits claimed by Bolivia in what is now Chile. Perú once again supported Bolivia and, in the resulting war, much of the coast - and above all, Lima - were invaded. The Chileño occupation lasted for a decade. Bolivia lost its access to the sea (and the massive copper deposits of the Atacama desert, then-undiscovered.) The ramifications of this war were not resolved until 1929, and still dwell in the Peruvian mind.

Civil government was thoroughly discredited. However, after a lengthy period of "musical generals", Perú found stable government towards the end of the nineteenth century, under a liberalising movement known as the Civilistas. These administrations began a process of modernisation and social change which ultimately changed the nature of the country. Liberalisation of markets brought in technology and created commercial change. Peasants began to move to the coastal cities. Elections were cleaned up, although voting was subject to property and literacy clauses that excluded much of the population. Social unrest began to find a voice.

The crushing of the left

World War One disrupted the economic relationships which Perú had forged. At its close, however, a further Civilista presidency generated a decade of expansion. Ultimately, this ran away with itself and collided with the global crash of 1929. The onset of the Great Depression galvanized the forces of the left. The Peruvian Socialist Party became the Peruvian Communist Party. Mariátegui, whose name has also been scrawled on many walls in Lima, believed in revolutionary potential of Perú's native Americans. He began the intellectual heritage that led to the contemporary Sendero Luminoso.

The American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana or APRA) was an anti-imperialist, continent-wide, revolutionary alliance, founded in Mexico. In Perú, it became a political movement which is still active. Reacting to this development of left wing power, the Right and the armed forces feel into an uneasy alliance.

APRA agitation moved into active rebellion in Trujillo, where over fifty army officers were executed. The response was violent, and included bombs dropped from aeroplanes on civilian dwellings. This began a long-drawn struggle, with the army intervening to prevent APRA gaining political power. There were frequent assassinations of activists, torture and general repression. Perú's oligarchy saw this as a direct challenge to their authority and reacted accordingly.

The impasse was punctuated by war with Ecuador and by World War II. The leading spirit of APRA, Haya de la Torre, also began to softened his stance, presumably in recognition of politics as the art of the possible. APRA now officially embraced wealth generation, inward investment and property rights. The consequence of this was its legalization, and the next administration contained an economic minister from APRA. State intervention in the economy began as a result of this, with measures aimed to help the poor - such as subsidy, price controls and mandated wage levels - appearing for the first time. (These were eventually to swell to levels that sank the economy in the late 1970s.). Fiscal expansion - essentially, printing money - was also introduced to stimulate jobs, and the consequence, then as now, was stagnation and inflation. (APRA, later in government in the late 1980s and, even with the benefits of monetarism to guide them, proceeded to do the same thing and with exactly the same result. History teaches us that history teaches us nothing.)

APRA was not wholly tamed, however, and a naval mutiny developed as a result of APRA agitation. Several conservatives were assassinated. Economic chaos and revolutionary agitation caused the military to stage a coup in 1948, installing General Odría as President. APRA members were subject to repression and de la Torre fled overseas. Populist welfare programs by the military government also drew support from APRA. Inward investment led to rapid growth, particularly on the coast, and immigration increased. The population of Lima rose from half a million in 1940 to three times that in 1960 (and to four million by 1980.) The young towns (pueblos jovenes) made their first appearance, ringing the town in a misery of cardboard and effluent. Economic improvement was largely confined to the coast, and instability and revolutionary movements were rife in the sierra, which became even more isolated and impoverished as a result. Valuable land was defended with great and arbitrary brutality by the latifundistas who owned it. Hugo Blanco - another name quickly familiar to visitors from the graffiti of Lima - organised peasant land invasions against such people. The army crushed this movement, as it crushed many others which opposed the status quo.

Odria is still a bogey-man to the Peruvian Left. However, he completed his spell in office and stepped down. The military, feeling their task to be complete, handed administration back to the civil oligarchy. Modified democracy was re-established, with much turmoil. New political parties began to form, reflecting middle class sentiments on the coast and the spread of liberal education. Accion Popular occupied the centre left, and the Christian Democrats the centre right. APRA, too, migrated sharply to the centre. It became a mainstream political party, putting up candidates across the country. However, this did not mean that the army trusted the left, and when APRA won the election in 1962, the army again stepped back into the scene. A moderate civilian government was established, but when this also ran into economic trouble in 1968, it was also subject to a military coup, led by General Velasco Alvarado. The resulting junta changed Perú as radically as anything in its post-conquest history.

Military radicals and land reform

General Velasco was a mestizo who had grown up in humble circumstances. The recruiting grounds for the officer corp had gradually expanded down the social tree, but few had first hand experience of life beyond the coastal strip. A small nucleus of officers from working class backgrounds had begun to grow under Odria and subsequent administrations, however, and these were now an articulate and patriotic body within the armed forces. After seizing power, they began a program of extremely radical reform. Agrarian reform transferred the latifundia lands to their workers, and perhaps a quarter of the rural population became cooperativistas. The army nationalised many foreign holdings in Perú, reasoning that three-quarters of mining, one-half of manufacturing, two-thirds of the commercial banking system, and one-third of the fishing industry were under direct foreign control.

The result of this was that state enterprises soon owned half of all mining, two thirds of banking and a half of all capital employed in industry. Managers, many of whom had no experience of large enterprises, had now to fulfil a political as well as an economic and functional role. This is not a recipe for success, and success was not achieved. The South American fashion for "import substitution" was also taken as a cure-all (although it is now known to be a poison.) Worker protection, some forms of social security and emphasis on education and health care also followed, certainly with more positive long term affects but, in the short term, adding to costs.

Whatever the motives behind these actions, the economic and social consequences of them were not happy. The new management were often incapable of their task, and the agricultural co-operatives suffered economic collapse. Many engaged in range wars with their neighbours. Title to the land was at best vague, and co-operatives were unable to borrow money or invest. State enterprises were were forced to sell at "social" prices and many lost money very heavily. The government borrowed from abroad in order to shore them up. Inflation began to increase.

Velasco was replaced by the more conservative General Francisco Morales Bermúdez Cerrutti - wonderful drum-roll of a name, betokening old money - and he continued in office until 1980. He once again returned the country to civil rule. A hopeful centre-right government came to office at a time of 50% monthly inflation, grave indebtedness and a portfolio of state enterprises that seemed incapable of reform. Wages fell by a fifth in the first two years of the administration. The government declared this the worst crisis of the century. It was forced to revert to heavy international borrowing.

The impact of events was strongest on the remote areas. By 1985, over half the children living in these areas were malnourished, and overall life expectance fell sharply. The promise of the Agrarian Reform, and its chaotic reality; growing awareness that life could be better; even more sharp understanding that it was the country people who were bearing the brunt of events: all of these factors made the hills-people increasingly inclined to give ear to the terrorist movement, the Sendero Luminoso.

The Shining Path and Its Impact

Perú's main Marxist line was formulated in the 1920s by Mariátegui. The communist influence had been weakened by the successes of APRA, however, and it was for a university lecturer in Ayacucho, Abimáel Guzmán to produce a new synthesis, the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. Conventionally described as "Maoist", the movement was in fact populist-traditionalist. It appealed to the Inca ideas of central moral authority, to Mao for the endorsement of "the people" and the goal of revolution by small steps, and to Mariátegui for its reactionary component, in which the capitalist world movement was set on crushing the small man. Modernity was to be eschewed and traditional values developed within a rural community in which the peasant was to rule, guided by a benign aristocracy of the mind. Those who disagreed were to be re-educated, but those too citified to be redeemable were not wanted in the paradise to which the Shining Path was to lead. "So much, so Pol Pot", observed one Asian veteran.

The geographical breadth and immediate impact of the movement came as a complete surprise to the government of the day. The Sendero Luminoso had been active in the early Eighties, but its growth after the economic collapse was explosive. Another terrorist group, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement also emerged in Lima, based vaguely in Uruguayan urban terrorists. The two groups fought the state, and each other.

The armed forces had a long tradition of crushing rural insurgency. Houses and whole villages were demolished to discourage collaboration, and over 20,000 civilians are known to have been killed. A quarter of a million people were displaced from their homes and land, and ended as refugees in the coastal towns. The rural population around Ayacucho, the intellectual centre of the movement, fell by two thirds, with many villages abandoned. They have yet to recover. The displaced people received no state assistance, and were often the subject of physical attack by the local rondas campesinas - militias organised by the co-operatives in each department - and by the police. Many formed vigilante groups to protect themselves, which was seen as a confirmation that they were indeed Senderistas. This, of course, added to the general violence.

The coca shrub, from which cocaine is derived, is cultivated in the ceja de selva, the strip that lies between the high Andes and the low jungle. The Sendero Luminoso came to control much of this difficult terrain. Indeed, much of the early gains by the Sendero came as a result of the protection which they offered coca growers from the eradication program, which the government had adopted in the late 1970s under foreign pressure. The upshot was that the Sendero Luminoso became the local production manager for the Colombian narcotics program, netting an estimates $20-50 million annually from this service. This financed the movement, and made it possible for it to offer both carrots and sticks, and to avoid the more typical forced collections of money that other such groups must use. The commission that was subsequently established to clarify the facts around this period indicate that the unrest cost the nation over US$20 billion directly, and led to more deaths than all of the wars in Perú's history. About 70% of these were attributable to the Sendero, and some 15% to the military.

President Belaúnde had presided over this sorry transition from military rule. The electorate threw him out at the 1985 election, with his party received only 6% of the vote. Alan Garcia of APRA was installed, with the Marxists receiving a quarter of the vote. Perú was in the hands of the Left, and in the middle of a deadly war. The prevailing view had, however, plainly and permanently swung against the traditional model that had run Perú since the conquest. However, whilst three quarters of the electorate put social injustice and poverty as the root cause of Perú's problems, as many said that the Sendero Luminoso were the greatest threat that the nation faced. APRA, now a party of the soft left, was given a mandate to do what it had always argued to be necessary. It was to make this opportunity into a major disaster.

Recent events

Garcia proved incapable of controlling the Sendero Luminoso, and the deficit-based economic policies which APRA followed, once again, increased inflation without improving the economy. Real wages, which had fallen by a third through the 1980s, now fell still further. Garcia was ejected in the 1990 elections.

A relatively unknown Japanese-Peruvian, Alberto Fujimori won the Presidency. He proceeded to apply the entire "IMF" package of economic measures: that is, to remove import controls, to abolish subsidies and to abandon failing state enterprises. This built external confidence and inward investment began to flow. The Sendero Luminoso and other revolutionary movements were suppressed. Fujimori was able to achieve change because he suspended the constitution and ruled by decree. As history now shows us, he was able to hold this together through bribery and worse. His key ally in this was the head of the Peruvian intelligence service, Vladimir Montesinos.

His successes cannot be discounted. On the military front, management of terrorism was taken from the police and given to the armed forces. New legislation which gave them a free hand and the hitherto indecisive war on the insurgents became hard, focused and effective. The heads of both the Sendero Luminoso and the Túpac Amaru were captured. Military control was achieved over the previously "too difficult" Huallaga valley and its cocaine production. This severed the Sendero's income stream, and its influence began to decline.

Fujimori had other problems with which to contend. Just as the revolutionary movements were suppressed, so a war broke out with Ecuador (the second such in twenty years). Additionally, the 1998 el Niño was the most potent ever recorded. The chaos which this caused to communications and farming allowed Fujimori to manipulate the system to give him a constitutionally-illegal third term in office. He did not, however, remain in office for long.

Vladimir Montesinos had been much more than an intelligence chief: manipulator, plenipotentiary, fixer, he had dominated the fight against the insurgents and been instrumental in gluing the civil-military alliance together during the 1990s. Television exposées showed him to be bribing politicians, and further investigation produces a maze of corrupt practice. Montesinos was found to be a major figure in the very drug trade that he was charged to eradicate, and he was equally implicated in money laundering, assassination, extortion, bribery and theft of public money. The privatisation program involved the sale of public assets to private interests are very low prices: $15,000 for an active gold mine, for example. As the architect of this system, Montesinos was arrested, "escaped" overseas, came back on the promise of a deal, "escaped" when the deal was reneged upon, was hunted down (live, on television, personally by the President) before being held sine diem for trial.

Public enquiries then announced that the President was personally involved in at least some of this. The military and many arms of civil governance have since been shown to have also had active involvement. Naval vessels were used to ferry cocaine paste North for refining, for example, and the banking system and its regulators are heavily implicated in money laundering. Fujimori had left Perú on a state visit to Japan when the scandal broke. He immediately resigned from the Presidency, by e-mail and remained in Japan. He now claims to have been a Japanese citizen all along, or perhaps to have had dual nationality; and as the Japanese do not extradite Japanese citizens, this means that he is immune from prosecution by the Peruvian state. The Peruvian government has appealed to the United Nations over this, whilst Fujimori himself indicates an interest in running for Presidency in 2006.

A celebrant at the Southern Candeleria festival

Despite all of this excitement, Fujimori is still extremely popular in Perú. To understand why this is so, one has to look at the extraordinary economic transformation which he was able to generate. After decades of economic instability and inflation, a completely new spirit of enterprise and economic predictability has infused coastal Perú. Growth an effective tax collection has made possible extensive state investment in energy, roads, irrigation, health, education and telecommunications. These have contributed a radical and very positive change in the life of people in the Andes. Further, the changes which have occurred to the physical and social realities of Lima itself are very remarkable to those who have followed Perú over some decades. It is a huge pity that so able a figure proved to be so flawed.

The new President, Alejandro Toledo, is the first native American to gain the Presidency. He defeated APRA which, once again, had put up Alan Garcia. The President lead a coalition that depended on economic improvement for its chances of success. This said, the past two decades have been a period of house cleaning and self-appraisal in which almost all of the historical assumptions of the country have been torn up. Younger Peruvians know that there is a better world. Toledo's party is called "Perú Posible" - the Perú that might be. Perhaps the most radical change that has come to Perú is the general sense that the factors which have held the country back are institutional and social, not to do with capital, foreign threats or subversion. There is a desire for change, and it is to be hoped that this can be harnessed for the ultimate good of the people of Perú. Its peoples have taken a hard pounding in a past three centuries, and done so with remarkably good grace. As an outsider, one must wish them well.