Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Book Review: The Last Days of the Incas (2007)

Kim MacQuarrie, The Last Days of the Incas (London, Piatkus: 2007)

Kim MacQuarrie has achieved something pretty impressive with this history of the supplanting of the Inca empire by the Spanish empire.  He commences by noting the documentary difficulties: the records from the Spanish side are distorted by the needs of their authors and records from the Inca side are sparse.  Both sets of records were often compiled years or decades after the events described (pp. 2-4).  Despite this, the book rattles along at a gripping pace, taking us through the simultaneous rises of Pizarro and Atahualpa and the long subsequent struggle of Manco Inca to preserve some part of his empire.  It ends with chapters on the discovery and exploration of Macchu Picchu and Vilcabamba.


There are a couple of criticisms to be made.  Often the narrative refers to the presence of thousands or possibly hundreds of thousands of Inca warriors (pp. 201, 247).  I find it improbable that so many labourers and peasants would have been available to wage war in an agrarian society with minimal mechanisation and animal power (compare the difficulties faced by King Harold II in fighting back to back battles at Stamford Bridge and Hastings with a part-time army).  This is especially troubling when one remembers historian Lyndall Ryan's cavalier (and utterly unethical*) statement that "Historians are always making up figures".

The other criticism is organizational.  The discussion of the exploration of Peru by Hiram Bingham and subsequently had the feeling of being tacked on because the author had done the research.  Don't misunderstand me: it's a good story and worth telling, but it might have been better included as an appendix.

None of this, however, shoud be viewed as more than a quibble.  This is a heroic recovery from long ago records of a tale that needed to be told for a new audience.  Any place where the book falls short from an academic perspective it makes up for by its bringing of history to life.

* "Historians should not misrepresent their sources.  They should report their findings as accurately as possible and not omit evidence that runs counter to their own interpretation. ... They should oppose false or erroneous use of evidence, along with any efforts to ignore or conceal such false or erroneous use": Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct (American Historical Association, Washington DC: 2012), p. 7.

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