The world’s greatest genocide?

Millions and millions of people died over the centuries because of an aggressive colonisation. Should we view this today as mass murder?

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

Updated:

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.

There’s a lot to see and I would recommend joining a guide to really appreciate everything and make you sure you don’t miss anything important.

I would highly recommend this city highlights tour of Lima.

Or, there are a few other good options for a Lima city tour here:

 

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 this 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.

I would suggest going on a guided tour through the historic part of Lima so you can hear a local’s perspective for yourself and ask any questions you have about this colonial heritage.

There is a fun food tour that will show you that side of Lima or I would highly recommend this city highlights tour of Lima.

Or, there are a few other good options for a Lima city tour here:

 
UNESCO logo

This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

31 thoughts on “The world’s greatest genocide?”

  1. 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

    Reply
    • 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!

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    • 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.

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      • Nazis exterminated “millions of Jews”?
        Please, check your facts!
        There are plenty of materila avalable to show how there were NO “six million Jews”, that perished. The Hasbara does not sink in anymore Dirk.
        (Not that it matters in this case, but equally as we have been led to forget the Spanish genocides 500 years ago, equally we are being misled with the number of Jews exterminated.)

        Reply
  2. 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.

    Reply
    • 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?!

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      • 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.

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  3. 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?

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    • 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?

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  4. 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

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    • 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.

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  5. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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….

    Reply
  8. Christian terrorism is a curse on humanity..christian terrorism now resides headquartered in america. The sooner this religion is uprooted,the better for humanity

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  9. I can understand different opinions, views etc on this topic, but what makes this really bad is that much of it was supposedly done in the name of “Christianity” but us real Christians know that this was in the name of Gold and Conquest. and NAyone who associates Christ with the behavior of cruel, greedy and ruthless military leaders, needs to learn something about a Man of peace before spewing nonsense thats blames him for it. Ive been to Lima many times, and Cuzco as well, and most of that construction was done by the Inca under the control of the Church at that time, and i consider the craftsmanship on a genius level, an Incredible place, its why i ended up marrying a Peruvian.

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  10. …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?
    Where do you get such facts? Isn’t it evident on the faces of the population that the indigenous people were not wiped out but rather a new race emerged. If what the Spanish did in South America was genocide, what do you call what the English, Dutch, German and French did in North America where there is no evidence of any natives amongst its population.

    Reply
    • That was also genocide. The Genocide the United States committed is even less debatable than Spain’s. The US systematically and purposefully destroyed the indigenous peoples main food source (bison).

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  11. I’m writing a 2000-2500 word research paper on this topic and I found this article to be very helpful. The one thing that I would change, is the title. Saying that it is the greatest genocide of all time makes it seem like it was a positive thing, which it certainly wasn’t. I get where you mean by the title, but the wording seems off. I definitely agree that this genocide isn’t talked about nearly enough, but the public school curriculum in my county has a whole unit based on the Inca Empire in 7th grade and I really appreciate it. Thank you for writing this article.

    Reply
    • Hi.
      Don’t know if you will ever see this, but I am also writing a paper on this and wondered how your turned out? My teacher was really surprised that I chose this topic, and seemed excited that I came up with something different from the rest.

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  12. Big lies in your numbers, if tye Spaniards killed so many why is South America why is it still full of indigenous looking people in South America why do so many of them have Spanish surname? And don’t tell me that it’s because they raped them, nobody would keep the surname of their rapist father. Yes they did conquer and killed at first. But the Spaniards were the first by far to accept that these people in the new world were people not slaves, they conquered easily because many civilazations joined with them to defeat the incas an other civilazations that were killing everyone over there.
    But you know why you wrote about the spaniards, because this is talked in history books because history has been written by the English the French and the American. But what about US and Canada ? Where the English, later Americans and French were? How many indigenous people, that are actually from North America, can you find there? In what conditions do they live? The Spaniards did not commit a Genocide, yes they conquered and killed at first but then they realized that these were people just as they were. The true Genocide was comited in North America by Americans, but they were jusy brave cowboys fighting savage indians of course…

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  13. Yes, that was genocide. And Inca Empire was pacific. Go Study. I think the only thing you want is to creat excuses to justify and legitimate what white people do around the world. A lot of rape and executions was did in name of God. That’s european culture.

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    • YOU go educate yourself. The Incas were at the stage of the neolithical sumarians 5.000 years ago. What the Spanish did was fast forward their development. Incorporating the indigenous into the renaissance period was an extraordinary feat that no other European culture EVER even attempt to do. A success story of 300 years of peace and prosperity until that unity was broken into 20 independent pieces, that only brought ruin and poverty. The USA attempted to take democracy to less developed cultures and has failed miserably.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndZR1Lm7SU0

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      • That’s not true. Spaniards push them far away. The Spaniards did nothing but steal gold. There are currently some indigenous tribes that are Inca remnants in Amazon rainforest protected areas, such as the Megantoni National Sanctuary in south-east Peru. 

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  14. How can you talk about genocide and population being wiped out by the Spanish when all of LatinAmerica is composed by people of Indian descent? Are you all blind? Spanish brought Sifilis from America to Europe. Was this a response from the Indians? illnesses went back and forth unintentionally. There’s no guilt there. There are a lot of history books that you can read about the conquest that will answer the questions you have. The Spanish were as violent as the locals but had the advantage of having better technology. They built alliances with those who were being enslaved by others and gave citizenship to all in equal terms. Educate yourselves, people!

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  15. At that point in time, it was genocide. Those who escaped went very far and died slowly. Whoever stayed to fight was killed or enslaved. The Spaniards arrived in 1531, and smallpox first appeared in Peru in 1558. Nowadays, no one wants to admit that. We have to recall that, just as part of Peru’s history, we are living in better times.

    Reply

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