So did the Spanish invaders ever feel guilty about what they had done?

Just a little bit … even though they believed in the right of arms – and the right of the right faith (being a Christian vs. heathen, i.e. Inca, religion) – and in the right to take control of a people who in some ways must have seen less civilised, less human (occasionally sacrificing their children to hungry gods)?

Still, the Spanish bloodshed in the new world, the oppression of its native peoples, all of that didn’t occur without a few people in high places taking notice and taking moral stock.

The monk Las Casas, for example, wrote scathing criticisms of the treatment of the indigenous peoples and were at the forefront of the discussions that did occur amongst the clergy in particular, but also at the Spanish court on occassion: How do we treat the Indians?

But what about the average soldier, who took part in the bloodshed? Was he just a mindless marauder? A savage thief? A brutal rapist and exploiter?

We might not have entertained such stereotypical views of the Spanish soldiers, if somebody asked us to stop and clarify and really think about it? After all we don’t subscribe to the notion that all of Germany’s soldiers, even the SS, were inherently ‘evil’.

Reality is more nuanced than that! Still, for a long time the image of the conquering, pillaging raping Spanish conquistador was probably one that just was allowed to stay with us by default.

And it seems not to be far from the truth in the majority of cases. The majority of Pizarro’s soldiers were some really, really bad boys, judged by modern standards. You definitely would not want to sit down and have a beer with them …

So now we are not going to find that one exception to the rule, a soldier who, say, refused to carry out orders or some such. This article is about something more: A soldier who actually repented his deeds during the conquest, but until then had fought as long and hard to secure that conquest as everybody else.

Prepare to read a remarkable document … On his death-bed in Cuzco on September 18, 1589, at the age of 78, the conquistador, Mancio Sierra de Leguízamo addressed this testament to King Philip II:

“For the peace of my soul and before I start this will, I declare that for many years now I have desired to speak to the Catholic majesty of King Philip our lord, knowing how Catholic and most Christian he is, because I took part in the name of the Crown in the discovery, conquest and settlement of these kingdoms when we deprived those who were the lords, the Incas, who had ruled them as their own. And it should be known to His Most Catholic Majesty that we found those realms in such good order that there was not a thief or a vicious man, nor an adulteress, nor were there fallen women admitted among them, nor were they an immoral people, being content and honest in their labor. All things from the smallest to the greatest had their place and order. And that the Incas were feared obeyed and respected by their subjects as being very capable and skillful in their rule, as were their governors.

I wish your majesty to understand the motive that moves me to make this statement is the peace of my conscience and because of the guilt I share. For we have destroyed by our evil behaviour such a government as was enjoyed by these natives. They were so free of crime and greed, both men and women, that they could leave gold or silver worth a hundred thousand pesos in their open house. So that when they discovered that we were thieves and men who sought to force their wives and daughters to commit sin with them, they despised us. But now things have come to such a pass in offence of God, owing to the bad example we have set them in all things, that these natives from doing no evil have turned into people who can do no good, something which must touch your Majesty¯s conscience as it does mine, as one of the first conquistadors and discoverers, and something that demands to be remedied.”

I inform your Majesty that there is no more I can do to alleviate these injustices other than by my words, in which I beg God to pardon me, for I am moved to say this, seeing that I am the last to die of the conquistadors.”

(Source: Stuart Stirling – The Last Conquistador)

After reading this we couldn’t help but be a little … moved. Here was a soldier who actually regretted what he had participated in: The destruction of Inca civilisation, and the oppression of the Inca people and other natives. What more could we want?

Well, if you think about it for too long, doubts – as always – begin to creep in.

Reality is just … messy.

Let’s hear what the great Inca writer, John Hemming, has to say on the topic of Mancio Sierra de Leguízamo’s confession, and you will hopefully understand why this single, powerful confession of guilt shouldn’t be high-lighted as something romantic, hopeful and unique – a testament to some quality of love in the darkest of human spirits:

“These pious sentiments [the confession] were rather contradicted by Serra de Leguizamo’s earlier complaining at having to surrender some of his lands to Paullu [Inca], and by his testimony in 1572 when he said that the Incas had sacrificed children and made drums of the skins of their enemies. “

(Source: John Hemming – The Conquest of the Incas.)

Hemming’s sour remark is of course just the tip of the iceberg … For isn’t it more to the point that Mancio first participated in the Conquest, then took an Inca royal woman as a mistress, dumped her (after she had had his child), and later on profited greatly from the lands he was granted in Peru, complete with slaves and whatnot? How can we take seriously that he apparently regrets all this on his deathbed and, furthermore, suddenly feels like painting a very romantic (too romantic) picture of Inca civilization – out of the blue?

But perhaps it is not that simple … Why should regret be any less worth if it is felt in the 11th hour? Sure, it would have been nice, from a modern POV, if Mancio had joined the ranks of Las Casas and co. a little earlier and denounced the treatment of the defeated Incas, perhaps given up most or all of his lands and gone home to Spain and started writing books about why it was so Wrong that Peru had been conquered. But … he didn’t.

He said just before he died that he regretted what had been done to the Incas. Given how few of his comrades-in-arms who ever said something similar, close to dying or not, it is worth taking note of – and taking seriously, we say.

But … another caveat: Was Mancio just afraid of his immortal soul, suspecting that God would not condone everything the Spaniards had done to the heathen Incas, including after most of them were baptized? Perhaps. We can never know.

Also we can’t know if he, in this case, really believed that God would pardon him his sins against the Incas, if his regret and repentance was not heartfelt. It’s seems a little too cynical an interpretation …

Then again: Why should you even care?

We can only tell you why we care:

Because, as already hinted at – whatever critique you might justifiably be able to level against the honesty or value of Mancio’s confession, it is there … and it is one of the only confessions we know of of this kind – so direct, so profound (in its wording), from a man who participated in the conquest of the Incas.

The conquest was a very brutal affair done by very brutal people against other brutal people in a brutal century, 500 years removed from hours.

We felt it was worth recognizing when one of these people showed some traits not of brutality – but of humanity.