Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE CONQUEST OF PERU. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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THE CONQUEST OF PERU. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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THE CONQUEST OF PERU.
The first of the Incas, or emperors of Peru, who conquered that country and gave the inhabitants laws, passed for a son of the sun. Thus we find the most civilized nations, both of the Old and New World, resembled one another in the custom of deifying great and extraordinary men, whether conquerors or legislators.
Garcilaso de la Vega, a descendant from the Incas, who was brought to Madrid, wrote the history of those kings, in 1608. He was then far advanced in years; and his father might easily have been a witness to the revolution which happened in that country in 1530. He could not, indeed, know with any certainty the minuter parts of the history of his ancestors. The people of America were strangers to the art of writing, resembling in this respect the ancient Tartar nations, the inhabitants of the southern parts of Africa, our ancestors, the Celts, and most of the people of the North; none of all these nations had anything that could supply the place of history. The Peruvians transmitted their principal events to posterity by means of knots tied on cords; but we find that in general fundamental laws, the most essential points of religion, and heroic exploits, are transmitted with tolerable fidelity from person to person by word of mouth, in which manner Garcilasso might have acquired his knowledge of some capital events, and in such only, he is worthy of our credit. He says that throughout all the Peruvian Empire they worshipped the sun; a worship which appeared more reasonable than any other, in a country that did not enjoy the light of revelation. Pliny admitted no other god, even in the most enlightened ages of Rome. Plato, who was still more enlightened than he, called the sun the son of God, the splendor of the Father; and we find this planet adored many ages before by the Magi, and the ancient Egyptians; the same appearance of truth and the same error prevailed equally in both hemispheres.
The Peruvians had obelisks and regular gnomonic instruments, to show the points of the equinoxes and solstices. Their year consisted of three hundred and sixty–five days; perhaps the science of ancient Egypt did not extend further. They raised prodigies in architecture, and cut statues with surprising art. In a word, they were the best polished, and the most industrious people of any in the New World.
The Inca Huascar, father of Atahualpa, the last of the Incas, in whose reign this vast empire was destroyed, had greatly augmented and embellished it.
In the pacific and religious ceremonies instituted to the honor of the sun, they formed certain dances; nothing is more natural; it was one of the ancient customs in our part of the world. Huascar, in order to render these dances more grave and solemn, made the performers carry a chain of gold, seven hundred of our geometrical paces in length, and as thick as a man’s wrist; each dancer took hold of a link. Hence we may conclude that gold must have been more plentiful in Peru than copper is with us.
Here let us observe, that if the Mexicans are chargeable with having sometimes sacrificed their conquered enemies to the god of war, the Peruvians were never known to offer such sacrifices to the sun, whom they looked on as a good and benignant deity. And indeed the Peruvian nation itself was perhaps the most gentle in its manners of any in the whole world.
The Mariana Islands, lying near the line, demand our particular attention. The inhabitants of those islands know not what fire is, and indeed that element would be altogether useless to them, as they live wholly upon fruits, which their land produces in great abundance; especially cocoa, sago, which is much superior to rice, and a kind of paste or dough, that has the taste of the best bread, and is formed in a pod or shell on the top of a large tree. It is said that these people commonly live to the age of a hundred and twenty; the same has been said of the natives of Brazil. When they were first discovered, they were neither wild nor cruel; nor did they want for any of the conveniences which were necessary for their subsistence. Their houses were built of the planks of cocoa trees, formed for the purpose, with great industry, and were neat and regular. Their gardens were laid out with great art; and they were, perhaps, the most happy, and the least wretched of any people whatever. Nevertheless, the Portuguese called their country “the Island of Thieves”—Islas de los Ladrones—because those people, not being perfectly versed in the meum et tuum, happened to eat some of their ship provisions. There was no more religion among them than among the Hottentots or many other of the African and American nations. But beyond these islands, towards the Moluccas, there are other nations where the Mahometan religion was introduced in the time of the caliphs. The Mahometans had sailed thither through the Indian Ocean, and the Christians came through the South Sea. Had the Arabians known the use of the compass, they were the only people to have discovered America, as lying in the very track; but their navigation never extended farther than the Isle of Mindanao, to the west of the Manillas. This vast cluster of islands was inhabited by different species of men, some white, some black, some olive, and some red, or copper–colored. Nature has been always found to vary more in hot climates than in those to the northward.
At the time that the Spaniards invaded the richest part of the New World, the Portuguese, glutted with the treasures of the new, neglected the Brazils, which they had discovered in the year 1500, without looking after them.
The Portuguese admiral, Cabral, after having passed the Cape Verde Islands, on his way to the coast of Malabar, through the southern sea of Africa, steered so far to the westward, that he fell in with the land of Brazil, which is that part of the continent of America, which lies nearest to Africa; there being but thirty degrees of longitude between this coast and Mount Atlas; it consequently was the first discovered. The country was found to be extremely fertile, and blooming with a continual Spring. The natives were stout, well–made, robust, and vigorous: their complexion was of a reddish cast; they went quite naked, excepting only a large belt round their middles, which served them as a kind of pouch.
They lived by hunting; and as they were not always assured of a certain subsistence, were consequently wild and fierce, making war on one another, with their arrows and clubs, for the spoils of the chase, in the same manner as the civilized barbarians of the old continent did, for the possession of a few villages. Anger and resentment for injuries actual or supposed frequently armed them against one another, as we read of the ancient Greeks and people of Asia. They did not sacrifice human victims, for they had no religious worship among them, and consequently could have no sacrifices to make, as the Mexicans had; but they feasted on the persons they took in battle; and Americus Vespucius relates, in one of his letters, that these people were struck with astonishment to hear that the Europeans did not eat their prisoners.
As to laws, the Brazilians had none, but such as were made on instant need, by the people assembled together. They were governed wholly by instinct. By this instinct they went to the chase when pressed by hunger, took to themselves wives, when necessity required, and satisfied the calls of a momentary passion indiscriminately.
These people are alone a convincing proof that America was never known to the Old World, or certainly some kind of religion would have found its way among them, from the continent of Africa, to which they are so near; and there must have remained some small traces of this religion, whatever it had been: whereas there is none to be found. They had indeed certain jugglers among them, who went about with their heads adorned with feathers, stirred the people up to battle, pointed out to them the new moon, and pretended to cure them of their maladies with certain herbs; but no one ever heard of either priests, altars, or any kind of religious worship among them.
The people of Mexico and Peru, who were more civilized, had a regular worship. Religion with them was the support of the state, because it was entirely subject to, and dependent on, the sovereign; but there could be no state or government among savages, who had neither wants nor a police.
The Portuguese government suffered the colonies which their merchants had sent to the Brazils to languish nearly fifty years unsupported, and almost unnoticed. At length, in 1559, it made some solid regulations relating thereto, and the kings of Portugal received tribute from both worlds at the same time. When Philip II., king of Spain, conquered Portugal, in 1581, he found a considerable increase of wealth in the Brazils. The Dutch afterwards took them almost entirely from the Spaniards from 1625 till 1630.