The End of an Empire

Founder Bill Bonner

No big moves in the markets yesterday. The Dow down some 60 points. Gold holding steady. So let's change the subject.

We tossed and turned last night. Troubling our sleep was the Battle of Lima.

Anyone who wonders how the history (and prehistory!) of the human race is made should consider the plight of poor General Quis. The man was a gifted and experienced veteran of many years of wars. He had with him a force of some 20,000 troops, more or less prepared for the battle ahead. And he was fresh from two major victories.

General Quis had figured out how to meet the challenge of the mounted, armed Spanish cavalry. Instead of attacking the cavalry on level ground, where its horses and armor made it almost invincible to club-wielding Incan peasants, he ambushed it in narrow valleys.

In the few months leading to the battle, he had wiped out two Spanish armies (albeit few in number but previously considered unbeatable).

Now Quis faced Francisco Pizarro himself in his new city: today's Lima, Peru. His mission was not just to defeat Pizarro but to annihilate him -- to take him prisoner and kill every Christian in Lima and then every Christian still alive in the Inca Empire.

Lost Causes

Here in our Diary, we have a weakness for underdogs, diehards and lost causes. We are, after all, part of the Irish diaspora -- victims of 1,000 years of invasions, suppressions and self-mutilations.

First, the Vikings attacked our monasteries, stole our crops and violated our women. Then the Fitzgeralds -- an Anglo-Norman clan -- came in the 11th century and lorded over us. And then, in successive waves, with great violence and bloodshed, the English exterminated, starved and crushed the Irish and their various insurgencies.

The novel Gone With the Wind is the story of the subjugation of the Old South. It is also part of the Irish story. The O'Haras had left Ireland to find wealth and success in the American South, free from their English masters. To their great dismay, the New Englanders invaded and put them down again!

We naturally take the part of all lost causes -- political, financial, linguistic... whatever they may be. We shed a tear for dying languages. We cling to stocks trading at two times earnings. We say a prayer for lost traditions and disappearing tribes.

So we tossed and turned last night, thinking of how to unhorse a mounted Spaniard. Despite a huge superiority in numbers, the smart money was on the Spanish. Except in mountain ambushes, the Incas had found no way to stop their cavalry. And the conquistadores had had hundreds of years of experience fighting the Moors... and other European powers.

The Spanish who came to South America were hardened warriors with well-developed military tactics, the latest European weapons and ruthless ambitions.

They had already toppled one Incan emperor, stolen his treasures and burned him at the stake. Another one, Manco, set up as a puppet leader, they later put in chains and urinated on. But this puppet had escaped and now, in the 1530s, had declared total war on the bearded invaders.

How could the Incas have neutralized the Spanish cavalry, we wondered?

The End of an Empire

This weekend was Palm Sunday, when Christians remember Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. There was an underdog! The man was riding (on an ass) into a trap.

The local establishment, working with the imperial overlords (the Romans), was out to get him. The Dick Cheneys, the Donald Rumsfelds, the Lindsey Grahams and the John Brennans of the day were all gunning for this renegade Jew.

We attended services in our chapel high in the Argentina Andes, along with the local people -- who are descended from the Diaguita tribe that was once vassal to the Incas.

How it might have turned out so differently, we thought to ourselves as a dark-skinned woman with an Incan face and long, black hair read the gospel lesson.

Had General Quis been able to stop Pizarro's cavalry charge at Lima, the history of South America might have been different. Instead of a total collapse of Incan authority, Manco might have been able to hold his empire together.

And instead of allowing the Spanish to loot and murder at will all up and down the continent, organized Incan armies might have been able to hold them off for centuries.

Instead of being colonized by foreign conquerors, like Ireland and North America, the Inca Empire might have had time to learn from the invaders, like the Japanese after the visit of a U.S. fleet. Like the Japanese, the Incas might have been able to copy the technologies of the Europeans, instead of being crushed by them...

And then, perhaps, the people in the chapel on Palm Sunday might still be worshipping their own gods, rather than those imported from the Old World.

How could General Quis have neutralized the Spaniard's cavalry? Already, in Europe, the solution had been discovered. Long, strong, sharpened pikes (with the blunt ends stuck firmly in the ground and the sharp ends aimed directly at horses and riders) could usually stop an attack. Either the horses stopped short or they were impaled on the stakes.

Spanish warhorses were protected, but not well enough to break through a determined and disciplined rank of foot soldiers with these pikes.

Often the stakes were hidden in the ground and raised at the last moment, when it was too late for the horses to change course. Instead of wheeling around and attacking from a different direction, horses and riders were killed by the pikes.

The Incas also had their bolas -- leather cords with rocks tied to both ends. They were used for hunting guanaco and would have brought down a horse too. But the Incas never thought of them as military weapons.

Put to service in the battle, things might have turned out differently. The Incas could have thrown the bolas -- tying up as many horses and riders as possible -- and then retreated behind their sharpened posts.

It is also puzzling that the Incas did not try some sort of grappling hook to pull the rider from the horse. A mounted cavalryman is a formidable fighter, but once off his horse -- as the French discovered at Agincourt -- he is dead meat.

The Last Stand

Alas, the Incas -- with their own military doctrines and tactics that had been tested and adapted over hundreds of years of warfare in the Andes -- did not understand the horse or how to deal with a mounted fighter.

Pizarro's cavalry attacked at Lima and went straight for General Quis. The poor general was killed with a lance to the heart. Having lost its leader, the Incan army also lost its heart. Thousands were massacred as they fled for the hills.

Soon after, the siege of Cuzco was lifted, and the Incan rebellion collapsed. Then the Spaniards had no one to fight but each other -- which they did within months of defeating General Quis.

The first "European" battle in the New World took place between two factions of conquistadores, both mounted... and both with European weapons... at Las Salinas.

There are some battles -- such as the great battles between the Nazis and the Soviets in World War II and the battles between Iraq and Iran later in the century -- in which the underdog-backing observer doesn't know which side to root for. Mostly, he wishes they could both lose.

The Battle of Las Salinas was one such battle. Both sides deserved to lose. But only one did. Pizarro's brother Hernando won.

Regards,

Bill Bonner

Bill


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Instead, I believe it will start after a drastic decision by President Obama to shut down a large part of one of America's most critical industries...

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