Ramirez on Covey, 'Inca Apocalypse'

R. Alan Covey
Susan E. Ramirez

R. Alan Covey. Inca Apocalypse. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 592 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-029912-5.

Reviewed by Susan E. Ramirez (Texas Christian University) Published on H-LatAm (April, 2021) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55724

R. Alan Covey's massive and detailed Inca Apocalypse reconstitutes the Inca world in the broader context of transatlantic (and to a much lesser extent, global) historical events. The author shows how religious beliefs on both sides of the Atlantic allowed Europeans and natives alike to make sense of the evolving trajectory of what would become the Spanish colonial system. This work is a testament to the place of religion in the lives of people of the era.

In twelve chapters and an epilogue, Covey elaborates on several important examples that make clear how religion affected the interpretations of the actors. Both the Incas and the Spanish appealed to their god(s) for victory in battle. Both Europeans and Andeans appealed to material objects with presumed spiritual power: the Andeans had their idols (conopas and huacas), while the Europeans (including King Philip II) gave credence to talismans and saintly relics. During the siege of Cuzco, the Spaniards recalled that Santiago aided them during Manco Inca's attack.

Other highlights of the text include the way that events were propagandized and information controlled. Francisco Pizarro, with followers living in several outposts and cities on the coast, used these partisans to successfully communicate news and gain an advantage against his rival, his partner Diego Almagro. This reminds me of David Gonzáles Cruz’s chapter in Versiones, propaganda y repercusiones del descubrimiento de América: Colón, Los Pinzón y los Niño (2016) on the efforts of Christopher Columbus to spread news of this accomplishment after he returned to Spain from his first voyage. Covey also documents how witness testimonies were elicited from selected persons to bolster Viceroy Francisco de Toledo’s projects and outlook. These instances raise a cautionary flag on taking written documents at face value and out of context. Another key theme is the insistence on how quickly change occurred in the Andean world. Some historians have assumed that native cultures, particularly in the southern Andes, remained largely unaffected by the Spanish until the inspection tour of Viceroy Toledo in the 1570s. Elinor G. K. Melville’s book, Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (1997), however, shows how the importation of European grazing animals, most notably sheep, turned the former agricultural lands of the central highlands of Mexico into a quasi-desert in only four decades. Covey builds on this idea, using ample examples to show how native authority, the very structure and functioning of communities, and native narratives tied to the biographies of Inca names changed to fit Spanish expectations. Furthermore, unlike most other broad and general histories, Covey actively emphasizes the roles of both women and Afro-descendent individuals when the documentation permits. He mentions that Inca girls assigned to live in the royal cloisters mastered the production of textiles from the finest materials and prepared ceremonial food and drink for the most important festivals and offerings. Moreover, they learned praise songs to be performed at court and in public rituals that propagandized the heroics of the Inca past. In fact, what he writes about Inca women, and very specifically the Inca's coya (sister-wife), begs for additional studies that go beyond Irene Silverblatt’s Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru (1987) and Sara Guengerich’s more recent publications. Finally, most of his narrative, as is to be expected, focuses on native agency that has received ample attention since William Foote Whyte wrote his iconic paper, entitled “The Passive Peasant,” in the 1970s.

Of greater significance are the methodological implications of this treatise. Here we see the melting of disciplinary borders between archaeology and history (with a bit of demography and linguistics called up when necessary). The cross-disciplinary results lead to a much deeper understanding of the bias confirmation inherent in the works of the classical chroniclers and the conundrums and distortions left by some of these same sources and others. Thus, Covey mentions that decades of Inca provincial archaeology conducted in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina have shaped a material reconstruction of Inca provincial power that looks much more discontinuous and diverse than the Inca noblemen living in early colonial Cuzco once claimed (p. 61). Another example is that despite claims that the early Inca expansion was a defensive response to existential threats from powerful neighboring kings, recent archaeological research shows that the people of Cuzco were the only highland society with experience mobilizing large and well-supplied armies to wage offensive campaigns (p. 111).

The only demerits the book evinces, and these are minor, are annoying grammatical and proofreading errors that may have been beyond the author’s control; and the fact that after the encounter in Cajamarca, the text becomes almost exclusively Cuzco-centered. That is, Covey pays more attention to a new seat of Spanish colonial governance than to the wider provincial Andean scenario. Moreover, perhaps because this book is meant for specialists and not the typical undergraduate, small details, like noting that Theodore de Bry’s illustration (p. 291) is a depiction imagined by an illustrator who never stepped foot in the Americas, or that the word supay, the Quechua word used by the Spanish to represent the devil, was appropriated and redefined to convey the idea of evil to a population that had no concept of the “devil” in its native language, are omitted.

Overall, congratulations are in order. This is a masterful (if lengthy) synthesis of the encounter era written in a smooth, engaging, and easy style. It surpasses and complements other works, such as John Hemming’s The Conquest of the Incas, published over fifty years ago, that narrate the history of the same era but without the wider geographical context and religious focus. Graduate students, archaeologists, historians, and others will benefit mightily from Covey's nuanced perspective.

Citation: Susan E. Ramirez. Review of Covey, R. Alan, Inca Apocalypse. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55724

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