Incan Life and Society - The Peasants/Slavery


pp 93-98


Inca society did not practice slavery, at least in the usual inter-pretation of the word. It is only very late that we find the emperor and his governors tearing people from their homes and settling them on their own estates. Tributes could not be paid in money, since its use was not known, even in the primitive form developed in Mexico and Colombia. Gold and silver were thought of only as raw materials for the purpose of making ornaments or religious objects. The Incas would certainly have been able to pre-empt part of each village's crops, but they preferred to draw on a far richer tribute, the work and energy of their people. The Incas, as local country chieftains, had had a right to the corvée and to the personal services of the peasants. Being masters of a great empire, they maintained the right to press the inhabitants into their service on a vast scale and to their own profit, as they had done in former times on a smaller scale.

The corvée system became so important in the economic life of the empire that, even at the height of its power, "tributes," that is taxes, were all paid in personal services, and no Indian was taxed on his goods. The notion of compulsory service was so deeply in-grained in the Indians' mentality that, as the Spaniards found with considerable surprise, an Indian would prefer forced labor, even of two weeks' duration, "rather than give the authorities so much as a bushel of potatoes."

As soon as a province was conquered, the first task of the Inca's officers was to evaluate the resources of the area in men and crops. On the basis of this information, the Inca proceeded to mark out the lands that would fall to the state, and those that would go to the religion of the Sun and the principal official divinities.

In taking a part of the conquered people's land, the Incas changed the existing landowning system, but the change was not fundamental. It would be slanted to their own advantage and to the advantage of their own titular gods: the structure was not altered, the ayllus did not lose their communes, even if a part were confiscated, nor did the huacas and the curacas lose their properties. The changes introduced by the imperial officers re-sulted in the incorporation of the Inca into each conquered ter-ritory, since the Incas were content merely to claim for themselves and their gods the rights and privileges previously given from time immemorial to the ayllus and idols of the region. Looked at in this way, it was not so much a question of the community adapt-ing itself to new conditions as the dynasty of the Incas, to some extent, identifying itself with the old order and taking root in the community. The whole weight of this new distribution of land, and of the new personal services demanded, fell on the peasants who now, in addition to their obligations to their old chiefs and traditional gods, had to cultivate the fields of the Inca and those of the new gods.

What were the proportions of the Inca's and the Sun's lands to those left to the community? Once again our sources are vague and even contradictory on this point. According to Polo de Ondegardo, considered an authority on this matter, the Inca took the lion's share but saw that the community was left with enough to live on. A valuable sixteenth-century document informs us that in the Chincha valley, on the coast of Peru, every thousand house-holds were forced to give the Cuzco sovereign lands which varied in area according to the nature of the soil, but usually averaged about fifteen acres. In reality these expropriations were not always from the arable land. The conquerors were often content to ac-cept part of the wasteland, which they made productive by irriga-tion and terracing. We must remember that the Incas favored the growing of maize, and the admirable terraced hills they formed on the slopes of the valleys were designed for that purpose.

The lands set aside for maintaining the religion were rela-tively large, whether taken from one tenant or several, even if the area was not as big as the Inca's share. Polo de Ondegardo goes so far as to say that he thinks there is no nation in the world that "spends so much in sacrifices and devotes so much land to this end." It is true that these "gods' acres" did not all belong to the Sun God, for the sanctuaries and local gods kept the fields they owned before the conquest.

The soil needed to be rich indeed to support such demands; the confiscations were bitterly resented by the subject peoples. They did not forget their lost lands, and had no hesitation in reclaim-ing them from the Spaniards after the fall of the Incas.

It seems unlikely that the Incas tried to interfere in local affairs or attempted to control the amount of land going to each family. Local usages were respected. Whether the land was dis-tributed annually or not, the community certainly took notice of each family's needs, "although they never received more than was necessary for their subsistence, even if there was additional land available." As there were no day laborers or slaves, the area of land a family could use effectively was proportional to its numbers. In certain ayllus the fields were cultivated in turn by the whole community; in others, only relatives helped each other.

The empire's land system, then, was characterized by the con-trast between the communal lands and those belonging to the Inca and to the Sun. However, private sequestration of the soil was not unknown. Private property was acquired through gifts made by the Inca to those nobles enjoying his friendship, or to those whom he wished to reward for service in time of war or for great works undertaken for the public good. This type of generosity was also extended to the priests and the royal concubines sent back to their own countries. The lands bestowed by the Inca could not be taken away or taxed. On the death of the owner they passed to the beneficiary's heirs, who were expected to cultivate them in common and make an equal distribution of the produce. The amount of produce going to each household was equal, but anyone who failed to do his share of the sowing lost the right to his portion of the crop. Were these royal gifts made at the com-munity's expense, or were they taken from the royal property? It is still in doubt. The lands the Inca distributed could probably be taken either from the ayllus or from his own estate; there is no text extant which enables us to answer the question. Doubtless there was no fixed rule on the subject, and decisions on this point were dictated by the particular circumstances and the situation of the gift land.

The nobleman or civil servant who received a gift of property did not on that account lose his rights in his ayllu's common lands. The Inca's favor was thus the origin of a new type of prop-erty grafted onto the old system.

On the outskirts of Cuzco, notably in the fertile Yucay valley, the Incas had big private estates, which remained theirs even after death since they served for the support of their mummies and the domestic staff that cared for them. We do not know by what means the Incas had succeeded in appropriating the best land in the Cuzco region. Doubtless they had no qualms about arbitrary confiscation; Pachacuti turned out all the Indians in a radius of five leagues around the capital and distributed their lands to members of the imperial family.

The Incas attacked the territorial integrity of communities, not only by taking a third for themselves and another for their gods, but by the outright confiscation of all the land of rebel areas. Many such punitive confiscations date from the reign of the last great emperor, Huayna Capac, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The lands taken from their legitimate owners fell to the Inca or were given to his favorites.

Did the sapa Inca have a pre-emptive right to all the empire's lands or only to the wasteland, pasture, and forest? This question has often been debated, but it seems a little pointless when we are dealing with an absolute sovereign disposing of the life and prop- erty of his subjects as he wished. Communities might profit from exploiting the natural resources of their area, always provided it did not harm the interests of the ruling class. The gold and silver mines and the gold-bearing rivers no doubt belonged to the Inca, though certain local chiefs, or even communities, seem to have exploited them to their advantage. Nevertheless, they were obliged to send part of the metal as tribute to Cuzco. The coca plantations in the hot valleys belonged to the Inca. They were cultivated by his own men, often Indians guilty of some offense, for work in the unhealthy subtropical valleys was considered a punishment.

The Indians did not have the right to hunt game on their land, this pleasure being reserved for the Inca and his nobles. From time to time immense hunts, called chacu, were organized, using veritable armies of peasants, in the course of which thousands of animals were slaughtered.

Interpret the following statement:
"The soil needed to be rich indeed to support such demands; the confiscation were bitterly resented by the subject peoples. They did not forget their lost lands, and had no hesitation in reclaiming them from the Spaniards after the fall of the Incas."

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