The Incan Empire was the most gold rich of its time; making its rulers extremely wealth and the victims of a belligerent Spanish empire
The Inca Empire was established in Peru around 1438, and incorporated a large portion of western South America. Gold was considered a sacred metal with no material value, praised for its beauty and sent by the generous sun god: Inti. To the Spanish ‘Conquistadores’ however, who were attracted to its pecuniary value, gold meant opulence, material riches and indulgence. Ultimately, this historical distinction led to the destruction of the giant Inca Empire.
The Incas were magnificent goldsmiths. They combined metallurgy with architecture, producing impressive results. They constructed buildings using a dry-stone technique and carefully decorated them with precious metals. Their grandiose work was embodied in the Coricancha – the temple of the sun in Cusco, Peru. The Incas customarily used gold for ornamental purposes: to adorn edifices and clothes. They also used it for religious ceremonies in the form of animal figures, masks, pectorals, anklets, bracelets, hats and bells in order to pay respect to their gods.
Their attraction to gold and its symbolism can be attributed to its incorruptibility, shine and its metaphorical connection to divinity and solar cults. The objects made of gold were of extreme importance; not only were they linked to a religious cult but they also represented daily life and emphasized hierarchy in society by drawing attention to the owner’s social class.
Gold as a form of money?The Incas had no market-based exchange; gold and other metals were not used in a monetary fashion per se, as opposed to the concurrent monetary systems of Europe and Asia. However, some argue that the employment of gold to reward the elite in ritualised exchanges gave it a money-like quality. Additionally, the use of gold as merely an ‘adornment’ is questionable due to the extensive amount of labour required in the gold mines to acquire such quantities of bullion.
Although not coinage, gold was, in effect, something like money and an important tool of statecraft; a standardised trading unit to secure vows of allegiance, grant rewards and pay tribute. For example, Topa Inca Yupanqui, the fifth Inca ruler, bought allegiance from the coastal Chincha state with gifts of gold beads and fine cloths. Such rewards were also prevalent following successful expeditions.
Gold was also used to pay ransoms following the arrival of the Spanish. During the Spanish conquest, the Spanish, led by Francisco Pizarro, captured Atahualpa, the Inca leader. In exchange for their king, the Incas offered Pizarro a room filled once with gold and twice with silver. Gold, therefore, was used as a payment in the form of ransom to the Spanish conquistadores for the return of the Inca emperor. However, following a show trial Atahualpa was sentenced to be burnt at the stake. This was then commuted to garrotting following Atahualpa’s conversion to Christianity. The Inca empire ultimately fell to the Spanish in 1533 (Lewis, 2017:53-55).
Exploitation over growth
The conquistadores’ thirst for gold had no boundaries. In the 1500s, gold-laden ships landed in the Port of Seville to disembark their cargo of treasure. These ships brought a huge fortune across the Atlantic Ocean from the New World to Spain, causing astonishment all over Europe. The shipments consisted of gold and other precious metals in the form of bullion, produced in the foundries of the New World. Over 11 tons of jewellery, vases, figures, furnishing ornaments and treasures, including the emperor’s throne were melted down to facilitate their transport.
Estimates suggest around 13,431 pounds (6,092 kilos) of gold was melted down as part of the ransom. Although the purchasing power of gold has altered since the 16th century and gold was worth less in Peru than in Europe, Atahualpa’s ransom would still fetch a significant sum on today’s bullion market. The six metric tons of gold would be worth approximately £180 million today.
Such was the potential for profit that within a few decades Spain had forged an entire new industry of gold exploitation. Mining operations began all over the new colonies, exploiting native labour as the Spanish sought to bring as much gold as possible back to Spain.
However, historians have argued that, ironically, Spain did not realise the wealth and power that the conquistadores and the king anticipated. Such a great windfall was essentially mismanaged: the seemingly never-ending imports of gold stimulated spending but lowered production incentives. The sudden decline in gold shipments from 1630 brought attention to Spain’s missed opportunity to transform their gold boom into a new, productive wealth source. (Bernstein and Volcker, 2012:131-139). This was recognised by the Spanish parliament: “The more [gold] that comes in, the less the Kingdom has… Though our kingdoms should be the richest in the world… they are the poorest, for they are only a bridge for [gold and silver] to go to the Kingdoms of our enemies” (2012:139).
Bernstein, P. and Volcker, P. (2012). The Power of Gold, With New Foreword. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Hemming, J. (2004). The conquest of the Incas. London: Pan Macmillan.
Lewis, Nathan K. (2017). Gold: The Final Standard. New Berlin, NY: Canyon Maple Publishing.