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by Professor Mark Thurner (ILAS)

Professor Mark Thurner (ILAS) shares a segment from a forthcoming piece called ‘The Names of Spain and Peru.’

23 April was World Book Day. Although it is unlikely that all three died on this date, the bookish celebration ostensibly commemorates or markets the passing in 1616 of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, William Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. In the UK and indeed at the University of London, Shakespeare steals the show. Spanish institutions in the UK, particularly the Instituto Cervantes, obviously do celebrate Cervantes but UK interest is only slight. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega is almost totally ignored, or if mentioned appears only as a token, supporting player who no one seems to know anything about. This is due in part to the fact that today Shakespeare and Cervantes are celebrated as ‘universal’ authors, and that both wrote fiction and drama that is still widely read and performed today. The ‘universal’ superlative is not bestowed on Inca Garcilaso, who moreover did not write fiction, or at least not in the sense in which that term is understood today. Unlike Cervantes and Shakespeare, Inca Garcilaso was a translator and historian, and pretty much only Peruvians and scholars read his work today and then, sadly, normally not as history but as ‘literature.’ Nevertheless, I will contend here that although not ‘universal’ the modest Inca Garcilaso de la Vega was more ‘global’ and pioneering than the two giants who, every 23 April, dwarf him.

In the Plus Ultra domain of the Hispanic, the fictional characters of El Ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha strangely tread as ‘Spaniards’ where its Castilian author could not. Indeed, it is tempting to speculate that the first modern novel was written in no small part because its future author was denied passage to the Peru of his desire, ostensibly for wounds suffered at the Battle of Lepanto. In contrast, the author of Los Comentarios Reales de los Incas would pen his history of the Incas while in Andalusian exile, as he watched his Peru’s precious metals sail up the Guadalquivir. After soldiering for His ‘Sacred, Catholic, Royal Majesty, Defender of the Faith [and] King of kings’ in Peru and Andalusia, the Peru-born and baptised Gomez Suarez de Figueroa (1539–1616) retired to a monkish life near Cordova, adopting, in a genealogical and poetic gesture authorized by patriarchal custom, the pen name of ‘Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.’ Gomez was the son of the union of captain Sebastian Garcilaso de la Vega y Vargas and the niece of the Inca Huayna Capac (the twelfth ‘Capac’ Inca who apparently fell victim to smallpox before Pizarro’s arrival in the Inca realm), baptized Isabel Suarez Chimpu Ocllo. Gomez was born out of wedlock, since at the time Crown policy prohibited marriage between ‘Indians’ or ‘New Christians’ and ‘Old Christians’ or ‘Peninsulars.’ Sebastian later married Luisa Martel, arranging for Chimpu Ocllo to be wed to the commoner Juan del Pedroche. Gomez sailed to Spain in 1560, and three years later adopted his father’s aristocratic surname and the titular and matrilineal ‘Inca.’ Some scholars have suggested that he favoured his father’s surname for its literary prestige: Garcilaso de la Vega (1503–1536) was a celebrated Golden Age poet-soldier. At any rate, in his work the author of the global age’s first antipodal mestizo history would thus present himself to the world of letters as an ‘Inga yndio’ or Indian Inca with a prestigious Spanish surname of resonant literary fame. But is his two-part history of Inca civilization and ‘Roman’ traslatio imperii or ‘Spanish’ conquest best understood as a literary gem of ‘the Spanish Golden Age’?

Garcilaso de la Vega family shield

Garcilaso de la Vega family shield

Los Comentarios Reales was by contemporary standards ‘history’ or ‘historical commentary’ or ‘chronicle,’ not ‘literature,’ ‘fiction’ or ‘fable.’ Those anachronistic markers were applied to the text by critics, centuries later. In its general design, The Royal Commentaries may be characterised as a providential, Neoplatonist or exegetical dynastic history, or what at the time was known, after the Old Testament and classical traditions of royal genealogical history, as a ‘Book of Kings.’ It clearly distinguishes, via the exegetical or etymological method and with considerable erudition, between ‘fable’ and ‘similitude,’ the latter being the measure of truth in early modern historiography. In this account, the Inca or Capac dynasty uncannily parallels the Roman, and it is no coincidence that there are twelve Incas before the dynasty’s fall, as in the twelve Caesars of Suetonius. The bloody and providential finale of the dynasty also echoes the storied travails of the late imperial tetrarchy and, in particular, of Constantine as narrated by Eusebius. Nevertheless, it is not a mere aping of Roman history, and it does not present itself as a ‘Spanish’ account. Still, it would not be incorrect to argue that in certain respects it was an ingenious ‘imitation’ of Roman history in the early modern sense of that word, when a well-executed ‘resemblance’ implied a genial artifice that could improve upon and thus exceed, its original.

Indeed, and like other accounts of the period, Garcilaso’s Inca empire exceeds the Roman in every way but one: the written word. By writing a providential history of the Incas based primarily on the exegesis of Inca and other native oral sources, complemented by the observations of trustworthy eyewitnesses and early chroniclers, our Peruvian author provided, in a retrospective gesture of mourning that opened a new future, that missing element. On paper, at least, the ‘Peruvian empire’ of the Inca’s pen could now compete with and indeed surpass the ancient Roman empire of Virgil and Suetonius, the same that had conquered and civilized ‘Hispania.’ Decisively, that great empire of the book now had its antipodal and mestizo, ‘Inca’ historian.

On April 23 we may celebrate the Inca as the author of the first truly ‘global’ or antipodal history book.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of ILAS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Mark Thurner is a Professor of Latin American Studies at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida. His current research and writing traces the critical place of the Americas in the global history of knowledge.  He directs the Leverhulme-Trust-funded LAGLOBAL project, an international research network examining the global historical significance of Latin American knowledge.  He also convenes the London Andean Studies seminar.