Garcilaso de la Vega (El Inca)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Garcilaso de la Vega (El Inca)

Garcilaso de la Vega (El Inca) (1539-1616) Peruvian historian

A learned Incan mestizo, Garcilaso de la Vega (El Inca) preserved the history of two cultures in South America. Born in Cuzco, Peru, to an Incan princess and a Spanish conquistador, he accepted and promoted the Roman Catholic exoneration of imperialism. For events in his chronicle Comentarios reales de los Incas (Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru, first part published in 1609, second part in 1617), he drew on the STORYTELLING of his mother and Peruvian relatives about dynasties, Amerindian pageantry, and local feudalism. Using his classical education, he began constructing a history of the Inca Empire in the style of European CREATION LORE by picturing Manco Capac, the first Inca, in the role of creator and governor of the first Andean residents at Tahuantinsuyu (Peru). With details from an uncle, Garcilaso summarized the civilizing effects of Incan sun worship, agriculture, herding, and spinning, weaving, and styling of cotton, maguey, and wool into clothes and shoes. Of the establishment of social order, he characterized the first Inca king and queen as leaders of a savage race and builders of Cuzco, the empire's capital. The text describes native industry as strictly gendered, with the king leading men and the queen superintending women. The myth of El Dorado grew from descriptions of the reign of Huayna Capac and stories of an Eden on Lake Titicaca, a prize that enticed the Hapsburgs (rulers of Austria 1278-1918 and of Spain 1516-1700) to establish a colony in South America.

Bilingual in Quechua and Spanish, Garcilaso spent his adult life, from age 21, in exile in Madrid and Cordoba, as a disinherited bastard of mestizo parentage. Critics accuse him of allowing homesickness to inject sentiment into his writings, especially his belief that divine providence selected the Inca as the New World receivers of Spaniards and Christianity. On the contentious differences between pagan Incas and orthodox Catholic Spaniards, he defended Andean customs and ancestral history, which Peruvians preserved in oral history and recorded on quipus (knotted strings). Of the Indian dream visions that appointed Mesoamerican women as midwives and handmaidens to the Earth Mother, his text vindicates the profession from accusations of sorcery on the grounds that each practitioner had to have given birth twice to living children and completed ritual training under priestly supervision.

The Price of Conquest

Garcilaso's narrative supplied the American historian William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859), author of History of the Conquest of Peru (1847), with details of the battle of November 16, 1532, that enabled Francisco Pizarro and 150 soldiers to overwhelm the Incan king Atahualpa at Cajamarca. At the initial confrontation with the Inca, Fray Vicente de Valverde, a Spanish bishop

from Segovia, gave him no choice but capitulate to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V or else “be constrained with war, fire, and the sword, and all your idols shall be overthrown and we shall oblige you by the sword to abandon your false religion” (Garcilaso 1966, 102). The ensuing melee substantiated a dire PROPHECY of Viracocha, the god emperor of the 15th century, who foresaw national doom. Some 1,500 Inca died by trampling and the collapse of a wall that buried them alive. Drawing on the notes of Padre Blas Valera, a priestly scribe, Garcilaso recalls of the deaths, “I weep over them afresh” (108).

In the 1560s, after the Spanish abandoned the pretense of fair government for the Andes, Garcilaso ventured to approach King Philip II with objections to violence against Indians and to subjugation by Spaniards posing as Christian evangelists. Risking his reputation as a court translator, soldier, and historian, he denounced a labyrinth of laws controlling Inca choices of marriage, commerce, profession, and land ownership. He also supported the silver miners of Potosi and the laborers of Huanca who supplied the mercury for purifying gold ore: “If they ceased to do so, neither the silver nor the gold of the empire would be brought every year to Spain” (167). Unconscionable to Garcilaso were Viceroy Francisco de Toledo's abandonment of 300 Inca on the coast to starve to death, his claims of liberating Peru from paganism; and, in 1572, his sham trial and beheading of Tupac Amaru, the last Inca monarch, for rebelling against Spain and Christianity. Of Garcilaso's own identification as a half-breed Inca, he asserted, “I call myself [mestizo] in public and am proud of it” (88).

Reflecting on Florida

In 1599, well before the Royal Commentaries, Garcilaso completed La Florida del Inca (The Florida of the Inca), a six-book chronicle begun in 1567 and published in Lisbon in 1605 concerning Hernando de Soto's explorations of southeastern North America and a subsequent naval battle off Santiago de Cuba. The first book, based on incomplete cartographic knowledge, assumed that land north of Florida may have been part of New France, an established territory that spurred the Spaniards to carve out their own colony. Garcilaso valorizes aboriginal habits and quashes rumors that Florida's Indians are cannibals. He describes Chief Hirrihigua's variation of the running of the gauntlet, during which white captives from the company of explorer Pamphilo de Narvaez run across a courtyard to avoid arrows aimed at them. The chief spares a young Spanish expeditioner, Juan Ortiz, but saves him for a more bizarre torture, grilling over live coals. The chief's wife and daughters plead successfully for Juan's life and treat his burns with herbs.

The historian presents enough details to substantiate the exploration of the Americas as hardship duty. Low on salt and supplies, de Soto's forces tramp over rugged Appalachian terrain and through the marshes of the Mississippi Delta to reach the sea. The hardened Spaniards grieve the passing of Governor de Soto from fever on May 21, 1542, on the eastern side of the Mississippi River at Guyachoya (present-day McArthur, Arkansas). In the masculine style of Homer's Iliad (ca. 850 B.C.) and VIRGIL'S AENEID (17 B.C.), they honor the warrior with stories of his “heroic feats and invincible spirit, his promptitude in battles and attacks, his patience in hardship, his strength and courage in fighting, and his caution, counsel and prudence in both peace and war” (Garcilaso 1951, 628). The lengthy history concludes with de Soto's burial in a weighted blanket in the Mississippi River and the abandonment of Florida as a likely colony. In 1780, Charles III of Spain suppressed Garcilaso's commentaries to prevent their use by Tupac Amaru II, leader of an Inca revolt against imperialism.


Arias, Santa, and Mariselle Melendez. Mapping Colonial Spanish America: Places and Commonplaces of Identity, Culture, and Experience. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2002.

Garcilaso de la Vega, Inca. The Florida of the Inca. Translated by John Grier Varner and Jeannette Johnson Varner. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1951.

----- . Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru. Translated by Harold Livermore. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.