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Primary sources vital to understanding history

Posted on May 14, 2020 by Vauxhall Advance

By Trevor Busch
Taber Times

In the most basic sense, the study of history — and many other disciplines — can be boiled down into two areas of source material: primary and secondary sources. Primary sources provide raw information and first-hand evidence — often history told through the senses of those who were there to witness it, and record it. Secondary sources are second-hand information, commentary and the analysis of other researchers. In other words, the vast majority of source material is secondary: analyzed and re-analyzed, interpreted and re-interpreted, hashed and re-hashed, all in an attempt to find meaning, develop context and reach conclusions.

Without secondary sources to largely explain to us the reasons why such-and-such an event took place here on what date and in what context, we would have difficulty understanding the meaning or message behind a primary account. The real importance of history to modern audiences is not the who, what, where and when — it’s the how and the why. Unfortunately, the history I was mostly taught in elementary and high school focused much more on memorizing names, dates and events than in actually explaining the reasons behind an historical event, or transmitting meaning. It’s what I’ve come to term in the intervening years between then and now as the teaching of “surface history” without imparting the lessons that can be learned from studying momentous events. It is little wonder to me now that most of my student colleagues that I remember at the time loathed history class. The study of dates and events without the context and meaning filled in between the blanks would easily qualify as what most called it: boring.

Secondary sources are important, even vital from the perspective of fully understanding the past. But it is in the primary sources — the very eyewitness accounts of history — that it can make it really come alive. Sadly, these sources and accounts are often significantly more lacking that the vast body of literature that may exist that analyzes them. And a selection from that body of literature is often the only account of an event that most people will ever read. That, I would argue, is one of the key deficiencies that can come to turn away the casual reader from studying the past: it is in primary sources where we can sense the passion and taste the essence of what it might have been like to actually witness such events with our own eyes. In my experience, inhaling this kind of history is the furthest thing from “boring.”

Early on during the pandemic that has swept our globe in 2020 (and perhaps for obvious reasons that can be discerned in the title) I decided to re-tackle Jared Diamond’s landmark Pulitzer-prize winning work of sweeping historical analysis, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997). While Diamond’s work is a fascinating deconstruction of the origins of civilization and the confrontations between peoples this has often lead to, that’s not actually what caught my attention on the second attempt. Early on in the work in a chapter entitled “Collision at Cajamarca”, Diamond pauses for a moment to provide a primary account of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro’s capture of Inca emperor Atahuallpa in 1532. This event is considered to be one of the key moments of confrontation between a sophisticated indigenous empire in the New World and the militant, technologically-driven world of 16th century Europe.

Prior to reading Guns, Germs, and Steel I had read literally dozens of accounts of the same event in innumerable secondary works of history in elementary, high school, and post-secondary. They are all largely the same, glossing over the actual minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow account that Diamond provides and filled with facts, figures and greater contextual analysis. Atahuallpa is captured, Pizarro triumphs, in a few short years the Inca are brought low. Instead of just giving us another boring re-hashing of Inca destruction at the hands of bloodthirsty conquistadores that can be read in innumerable secondary works on the subject, Diamond instead chooses another path: providing that history through some of the very eyes who witnessed it, namely six of Pizarro’s companions, including two of his brothers.

What’s initially remarkable is that Pizarro was able to come away with possession of his own skin left intact. Consider the actual logistics of the operation: Leading a ragtag group of 168 Spanish soldiers, Pizarro was in unfamiliar terrain, ignorant of the local inhabitants, hopelessly out of touch with the nearest Spaniards almost 1,000 miles to the north in Panama and leaving him far beyond the reach of any possible reinforcements. By contrast, Atahuallpa was absolute monarch of the largest and most advanced state in the New World, deep within his own empire that included millions of subjects, and at the head of his army of more than 80,000 indigenous soldiers. Despite this, Pizarro managed to capture the Inca emperor within minutes of their first encounter. That fateful meeting would take place in the Peruvian highland town of Cajamarca on Nov. 16, 1532.

“On reaching the entrance to Cajamarca, we saw the camp of Atahuallpa at a distance of a league, in the skirts of the mountains. The Indians’ camp looked like a very beautiful city. They had so many tents that we were all filled with great apprehension. Until then, we had never seen anything like this in the Indies. It filled all our Spaniards with fear and confusion. But we could not show any fear or turn back, for if the Indians sensed any weakness in us, even the Indians that we were bringing with us as guides would have killed us…on the next morning, a messenger from Atahuallpa arrived, and the Governor (Pizarro) said to him, ’Tell your lord to come how and when he pleases, and that, in what way soever he may come I will receive him as a friend and brother…no harm or insult will befall him’.”

After inviting Atahuallpa, Pizarro arranged his concealed troops around a square in the town and awaited their arrival. After a great procession carrying the emperor and half his army reached the square, Pizarro sent a priest to offer the Bible to the Incas and invite them to submit.
This is remarkable in itself; despite being a sophisticated empire, the Incas were not a literate society. The Bible and its words would have meant next to nothing to Atahuallpa, so when he tossed it disdainfully to the ground, this was taken as a great insult and an excuse to ambush the indigenous procession — which they apparently had planned to do anyway given Pizarro’s initial entreaty.

“The booming of the guns, the blowing of the trumpets, and the rattles on the horses threw the Indians into panicked confusion. The Spaniards fell upon them and began to cut to them to pieces. The Indians were so filled with fear that they climbed on top of one another, formed mounds, and suffocated each other. Since they were unarmed, they were attacked without any danger to any Christian.The cavalry rode them down, killing and wounding, and following in pursuit. The infantry made so good an assault on those that remained that in a short time most of them were put to the sword.”

It seems almost unbelievable to us today that a handful of grizzled Spanish veterans carrying a few primitive harquebuses (early guns) could have overwhelmed an enemy force that massively outnumbered it. The Incas should have been able to smother the Spanish through sheer weight of numbers, right? Here’s where the analysis part comes in: for one, the Incas had never seen horses, let along seen them used in battle; or ever heard or seen gunpowder weapons. Not to mention white people themselves. It shouldn’t be hard to understand that they were terror-stricken and panicked by the assault, unable to react.

Shouldn’t have Atahuallpa been more cautious? Perhaps, but he was also deep within his own empire at the head of his own army, and staring down what looked like a handful of interlopers. Would you have been afraid?

“If night had not come on, few out of the more than 40,000 Indian troops would have been left alive. Six or seven thousand Indians lay dead, and many more had their arms cut off and many wounds…all those Indians who bore Atahuallpa’s litter appeared to be high chiefs and councillors. They were all killed, as well as those Indians who were carried in the other litters and hammocks…it was extraordinary to see so powerful a ruler captured in such a short time, when he had come with such a mighty army.”

After his capture, Atahuallpa was brought before Pizarro and offered these words of “consolation”:

“The Governor ordered Atahuallpa to sit near him and soothe his rage and agitation at finding himself so quickly fallen from his high estate. The Governor said to Atahuallpa, ‘Do not take it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, for with the Christians who come with me, though so few in number, I have conquered greater kingdoms than yours, and have defeated other more powerful lords than you, imposing upon them the dominion of the emperor, whose vassal I am, and who is King of Spain and of the universal world. We come to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge of God and His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mission, God, the creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know him and come out of the bestial and diabolical life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few in number, subjugate that vast host. When you have seen the errors in which you live, you will understand the good that we have done you by coming to your land by order of his Majesty the King of Spain. Our Lord permitted that your pride should be brought low and that no Indian should be able to offend a Christian’.”

Today, we can only imagine what Atahuallpa must have been thinking after he was so easily and ignominiously captured. Pizarro went on to imprison the emperor for eight months, exacted what is considered to be the largest king’s ransom in history — enough gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide to a height of over eight feet — before reneging on his promise and ordering the Inca emperor’s summary execution.

Full of the fear, excitement, casual violence, and the desperation of history’s eyewitness accounts, Diamond’s translation shows us all that can be lost when we only focus on the greater context of past events.

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