Incan Life and Society - The Merchants


pp 103-107


In an agricultural and craft-based state, where the government restricted the movement of population and goods, and where all surpluses were sent to public storehouses by government order, one might suppose that trading, under the best of conditions, can-not have been anything more than bartering. But once again, in fact, it is not as simple as that. It is true that the Inca, or his governors, could regulate interregional exchanges just as they wished. If the crop was insufficient in one province, the Inca sent in supplies from a region where it was abundant; foodstuffs that could not be grown in a certain zone, because of the climate, were regularly imported on a barter basis; finally, luxury goods made by the Inca's craftsmen were redistributed in the shape of gifts. The market controllers sometimes sought to get products in short supply in the empire from the unconquered peoples beyond the frontiers. It was no doubt by means of a regular barter trade with the Amazon forest Indians that the Incas obtained the tropi-cal feathers with which they adorned themselves, as well as resins and medicinal plants.

To deduce from the above that the state had a trading monop-oly would be both a misuse of language and an anachronism. In a mountainous country like Peru, where short distances often separate very different geographical zones, the barter of certain products was perfectly logical. Even before the Inca period the people from the cold regions would penetrate into the semi-tropical valleys with the object of getting at least some variety in their food. The Peruvian markets have grown since the use of money was adopted, but they are no novelty introduced by the Spaniards. In 1532, Estete was struck by the bustle at the Jauja fair, and there was an important market at Cuzco. No doubt trad-ing was done only by means of barter and the market served only limited areas. Each family owned the products from its own land and could dispose of the animals it had raised. Certain raw materials essential for the craftsmen and technicians must also have been traded.

The commerce of the empire, limited though it was, was not merely barter between neighboring localities. It appears, though there is no definite proof, that there were a number of real merchants who traveled long distances to trade in certain prod-ucts. It is true that this class of persons was not numerous and that the references to them are rare. But if commerce was a state monopoly, how does one explain the tolls levied at bridgeheads, noted by the Spaniards when they first came into the empire? At Cajas the guards extracted a toll in kind from those who came and went, "for nobody could leave the town with a bundle unless he paid a tax." This old custom was abolished by Atahuallpa, at least for produce going to the army. No one might leave the town, under pain of death, except by a road on which a guard was posted.

The emperor Pachacuti had even ordered that there should be merchants, and if the people trading in raw materials such as gold, silver, and precious stones were strictly supervised, it was not so much to restrict their business as to discover whence came the produce they carried. Does not the capture, by Pizarro's pilot Bartolome' Ruiz, of an immense raft loaded with goods, prove that the coastal peoples had not abandoned commerce, in spite of their subjugation by the Incas? Finally, the abundance of pure Inca-style objects found from Ecuador to Chile suggests the survival of old trading customs which the Incas did not try to destroy in order to retain their so-called monopoly. However, archaeologists maintain that exchanges between the coast and the interior were more numerous in the Tiahuanaco period than during the Inca dynasty.

By virtue of this system, the empire's communities were self-sufficient and produced a surplus, thanks to which the nobles and officials lived a life of ease, or even of luxury. This surplus was so big that veritable armies of workers could be maintained to build the enormous Inca structures and to carry on wars against innumerable people, and the artisans could be paid. Part of the taxes collected by the Inca was regularly redistributed in the form of presents to the court nobles, to the more zealous officials, and to local chiefs and princes whose fidelity and devotion had to be ensured. Such generosity, carried out on a large scale and sancti-fied by custom, has led people to believe there was an Incaic "Welfare State." In fact the Inca was merely behaving as a chief, behavior common in many archaic societies, particularly in Amer-ica. He who commands must be generous, for if not, he risks losing the support of his men. The Indian cacique, like a good father, sees to it that no one is hungry or naked, even if it means he himself must make sacrifices.

The immense size of the buildings constructed by the Incas, their cyclopean magnificence, the daring roads over the moun-tains, and the huge agricultural terraces have led us to greatly admire the sovereigns who ordered such works, but we should not forget the toil of the workmen engaged in their construction. Most of the chroniclers praise the spirit of justice in which work was distributed. It seems in fact that the number of peasants en-gaged in labor service was small compared to the rest of the popu-lation. It has been conjectured that to construct the fortress of Sacsahuama'n, the largest Inca building, required a labor force of 30,000 men. If we assume that the population of the empire was eight million, then this represented not more than 1.9 percent of those eligible for labor service-that is adult men between twenty and fifty years old-and even if we assume the population to have been only four million, these 30,000 are still only 3.8 percent.

The administrative system of the Incas seems to have been designed mainly to secure the easy working of the different cor-ve'es, whether the aims were to provide for the ruling class, public works, or war. A Spanish official saw it in this way:

The government of the Incas suits them very well, for they have liberty in practically nothing. They have plenty of superiors and chiefs set over them, making them work, till the fields, sow, weave, and do other tasks, so that they can pay their taxes. If the Indians were just left alone, if the caciques were not after them all the time, they would give way to idleness and do no work with which to pay their tax.

The Inca's authority stretched through a complete hierarchy of officials which ran from viziers, chosen from among his closest associates, down to humble foremen in charge of a gang of five persons.
Interpret the following statement:
"In an agricultural and craft-based state, where the government restricted the movement of population and goods, and where all surpluses were sent to public storehouses by government order, one might suppose that trading, under the best conditions, cannot have been anything more than bartering."

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