The world’s greatest genocide?

historic centre of lima, peru

The world’s greatest genocide?

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Lima, Peru

When the Spanish first arrived in the Americas at the end of the 15th century, it’s estimated there were about 50 million people living in the New World. A few hundred years later, there were less than 2 million indigenous people left. Was this the world’s greatest genocide?

It’s something that crosses my mind from time to time as I travel in Peru and see the remnants of two different histories – the Old World and the New World.

historic centre of lima, peru

In the country’s capital, Lima, I find myself confronting the thoughts that had been swirling aimlessly in my head. For it was here that much of this death originated, in some form or the other. Lima was the most important city of the Spanish dominions in South America and the policies of colonisation and domination were led from this spot.

historic centre of lima, peru

Academics have long argued over the use of the word ‘genocide’ to describe the millions upon millions of people who died in South America during the European expansion. Those who don’t like the word say it undervalues the much more horrific examples perpetrated by Nazi Germany or the Khmer Rouge. Those who think the word is appropriate point to the fact that Europeans wanted the land for themselves and were prepared to eliminate the locals to get it. The process may not have been as cruel and systemic – but the aim was the same.

historic centre of lima, peru

Visiting Lima, Peru

Walking through the historic centre of Lima, you can see what remains of the opulent Spanish colonial capital – the Convent of San Francisco, the Plaza de Armas and the Plaza de la Vera Cruz. They all show the beautiful religious design and classic European architecture of the time, with some slight influences from local artisans. The sophistication and grandeur of the buildings and public spaces make for an enjoyable day as a tourist. But I can’t help looking beyond the facades.

historic centre of lima, peru

historic centre of lima, peru

These buildings represent the seizure and occupation of a continent. They are more than just ornate architecture – they are also the equivalent of a branding of a cow. As the temples of the Incas were torn down, the churches of Catholicism were erected. The tributes to a foreign god and a foreign monarch were meant as a symbol of power and an eraser of all that came before. Yes, these days they are intertwined with South American culture and local Peruvians come to these churches to worship… but only because centuries have normalised the colonial and religious invasion.

historic centre of lima, peru

Deaths because of Spanish in South America

On the question of genocide, it’s worth looking at why so many millions of people died because of the arrival of Europeans. The Spanish certainly brought with them the tools of murder. Guns, in particular, gave the foreigners a huge advantage over local armies and they were put to use. The Spaniard who famously conquered the Incas, Francisco Pizarro, attacked a local army of 80,000 people with just 200 men… with guns. Across the continent, from the capital in Lima, similar missions were initiated to take control of the whole area. Tens of thousands died this way.

historic centre of lima, peru

However, the largest cause of death by far for the original South Americans was germs. The Europeans (unwittingly, we must presume) brought with them diseases like smallpox and measles for which the indigenous populations had no resistance. The diseases swept through the lands from coasts to mountains to jungles, from community to community, leaving a trail of biological destruction. About 95 per cent of the deaths of local people were not from guns but by a far more dangerous weapon that nobody could see.

historic centre of lima, peru

historic centre of lima, peru

Was it a genocide?

This is the key point in the discussion about ‘genocide’. If the majority of deaths were ‘accidental’, rather than part of a vicious campaign, is it really fair to say that the Spaniards were mass murderers? I can certainly see that side of the argument and it makes a lot of sense. You could certainly claim that violence was used predominately for control, not elimination.

On the other hand, though, think about a situation where a robber breaks into a house without any intent of murdering someone yet, when they are disturbed and challenged, a fight breaks out and the homeowner is killed. Is the robber a murderer or is the death just an ‘accident’.

historic centre of lima, peru

historic centre of lima, peru

My thoughts

In many ways, the whole question and the discussion of it are moot. These were different times, when exploration and colonisation were the norm (whether you like it or not). The Incas themselves were no saints and had been conquering the people of South America for a couple of centuries before Pizarro and his guns arrived. And don’t forget that the Spanish are a product of Muslim conquests and, before that, the Roman Empire.

historic centre of lima, peru

Perhaps the answer is not to judge. And not to assign particular words like ‘genocide’ to the situation. You don’t have to like what happened here on this continent 500 years ago but nor should you view it without context.

Millions upon millions of people died and the world changed. That much is true. And, as I finish walking through the old buildings of Lima that played such a critical role in that part of our human history, I am glad of one thing. I’m glad that I thought about this, and pondered the different views, and came to some form of resolution in my mind… and that I looked beyond the facades at the world’s greatest genocide.

UNESCO world heritage siteThis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here.
You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.

14 Comments
  • Natalie | Jan 6, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Hard not to judge though. Seems like this episode was conveniently wiped from the history books. I have never read about it before and considering the mass scale that it happened on, the reason why has to be questioned
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 2, 2015 at 7:38 pm

      I don’t know why it’s not talked about more. I guess a lot of people see it as ancient history – it was 500 years ago and it was during a time when this kind of thing was more accepted. But personally I think it should be discussed more. It doesn’t have to be about blaming a particular race or religion, but it shows the consequences of empires expanding and countries trying to extend their influence… things that are still relevant today!

    • Dirk Badges | Aug 9, 2017 at 11:45 am

      I guess we shouldn’t judge the Nazis for exterminating millions of jews either right? There had been plenty of “genocides” going on at approximately the same time in various place around the world.

  • Bren | Jan 18, 2015 at 2:24 am

    I’ve also wondered the same thing – why do people never talk about the near-extinction of South America’s natives? The segregation with natives is also still quite apparent in countries like Peru and Ecuador as well. Like you say, different times back then, but I feel we should still make an effort to understand the history rather than forget it. The continent is an amazing place today, but the history of it seems a lot darker than many care or want to admit.
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    • Michael Turtle | Jan 30, 2015 at 4:27 am

      Great points! I guess it is easier to move on than dwell on things that happened 400 years ago. And I get that. But I think it’s also a shame not to discuss it and make sure people today understand what happened. A few boats arriving from Europe changed an entire continent and wiped out most of the population. Can you imagine the majority of the population of North America being wiped out today by invaders and how we would react?!

      • IM Laf | Oct 18, 2016 at 8:05 am

        The majority of population in North America WAS wiped out by foreigners. North America has not always been the country/countries of today, there were people before your ancestors and before English speaking people, you know?

        Anyway I am surprised that there are people who say that they didn’t know about this episode. Which episode? Spanish colonisation of America? Hard to ignore that, it’s not precisely a secret.

  • Raul Rengifo | Feb 8, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    I’m born and raised in Lima and not once I have Heard about “Plaza de la Vera Cruz”, I think you’re mostaken, which plaza are you referring to?

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 21, 2015 at 5:56 pm

      A good question, Raul. I was using that name because it’s the one that is part of the official UNESCO World Heritage Listing. It’s the plaza that has the Santo Domingo church on it. Perhaps it’s not commonly referred to like that by locals?

  • Raul Rengifo | Feb 8, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    Very nice images by the way, I’m glad you enjoyed Lima, it it a chaotic city but it does have a certain appeal, especially the historic streets, most tourists just focus on Miraflores or the touristy, considered “safe” side of town and miss on a lot

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 21, 2015 at 6:00 pm

      Ah – and thanks for this comment too! I liked Miraflores as somewhere to relax and have a nice meal, etc. But this part of town was much more interesting. I stayed in a small area nearby (Breña) that I thought might not be too safe – and I really enjoyed being amongst a local residential suburb without any tourists.

  • Brooke | Jul 3, 2015 at 4:11 am

    I visited Lima last year, and after spending a few weeks in South America, it’s hard not to think of the effects the Spanish Conquistadors had on the Incan Empire. However, as you mentioned the Incas also conquered other indigenous groups, so this was nothing new and certainly does not make them 100% innocent. Do I think poorly on them or the Spanish settlers? It’s hard to say now that it’s all said and done. I think all we can do is learn from the past and why it’s sometimes important to not make others like us and let people be who they are. Not an easy or simple concept, I know since there has been genocide and conquering all over the world, but I think it’s worth contemplating and exercising rather than always trying to take over. I also think there’s something to be said for preserving traditional and indigenous cultures rather than obliterating them.
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    • Michael Turtle | Jul 12, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      Thanks for your detailed comment, Brooke. I think you’ve got it spot on. This kind of thing has gone on for centuries and it’s happened to people who have done exactly the same thing before. It’s just the way humans are, sadly, and perhaps you can’t blame any one particular group too much (or at least hold a grudge, might be the better way to put it). But hopefully one day there will be a time and a world where things aren’t like this. The saddest part of it all is losing these cultures and everything becoming more and more similar.

  • K. Cocym | Apr 10, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    The Incas were also a smart empire that had colonized, connected, and assimilated much of western South America by the time the Spanish, who were more advanced, beat them to it. Most of the natives died do to sickness, so did many Europeans (including Columbus). Despite the calamities of war, it was NEVER the purpose of the Spanish conquistadors to eradicate the native population; thus, the term “genocide” is inappropriate and quite propagandistic.

    Had the Spanish never arrived, it would have been the organized and developed empires of the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs which would have eventually conquered the entire continent and drawn its borders. That said, America already had territorial wars, taxes, and slavery before the arrival of the Europeans. In fact, the Aztecs were so brutal and hated by other indian groups that these other groups sided with the Spanish to topple their rule.

    It is illusive to think that the Spanish, who were more powerful and advanced than the Incas, would have respected Inca leadership or subjugated to Inca rule and not challenged its power in the same way that the Incas challenged the power of less powerful indian groups. Men are men and the human condition has been the same in every corner of the glove. Atrocities, lies, and injustices must be condemned for what they are but we should not paint one racial group as the reason for all “evil” and or another as pure “victims” for the sole sake of historic simplicity.

    Ultimately, the Spanish took Peru to new heights and Peru became a much more significant and wealthy state than ever before. Its current shortcomings, whatever they may be, are the result of contemporary actions and not a long gone past that’s over 400-500 years old.

  • Rah Inti | Dec 17, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    Yes, it was the biggest horrifying genocide in history….more than 200 000 000 Natine Americans perished from Colorado til Tierra del Fuego within more than 3 centuries.

    For respects of our Ancestors we must LEARN the lesson: To avoid another genocide.
    Nevermore GENOCIDE of our people.
    Imitate. Igualate n surpass the dominant Elite groups….

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