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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.