Keep Your Enemies Closer















This story of a golden crown with an exquisite golden plume caught my eye yesterday. Actually, it did far more than catch my eye. It brought to mind a relatively little-known chapter in the history of the Inca Empire—the fierce conquest of the proud and wealthy chiefs of highland Ecuador, nearly a thousand miles away from Cuzco.

But before I get to that, let me tell you first about the crown. It comes from a royal tomb in or near the small Ecuadorian town of Chordeleg, a place where the Cañari people once buried their greatest chiefs and nobles. In 1854, someone digging in the site—someone I haven’t been able to track down, so possibly a curio collector—discovered this Andean masterpiece. What happened next is unclear, but in 1862, the president of Ecuador sent the crown as a present to one of the greatest queens of the day, Victoria, soon after the death of her beloved Albert. Perhaps this Latin American statesman was a sentimentalist and meant to cheer her up. In any case, the queen’s officials duly logged it into the royal collection at Windsor Castle. And there it remained until another British queen, Elizabeth, prepared to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

To mark the grand occasion, curators planned a major exhibition of the queen’s royal treasures in Edinburgh. The gold crown from Ecuador fit the bill perfectly, but no one knew much about it, though some had described it as a symbol of the Inca Empire. Was it really? The queen’s curators called in the experts, who proceeded to conduct metallurgical studies and stylistic analyses. These revealed a surprise. The crown wasn’t Inca at all: it was likely the work of a Cañari goldsmith. And this raised two different scenarios. Quite possibly, the goldsmith fashioned it for a wealthy Cañari chief in the early 1400s.  Or perhaps he designed it later in the century for an Inca king.  Such rulers, after all, delighted in donning crowns adorned with the plumage of tropical birds.

As early as 1471, the Inca king Topa Inca set his sights on the conquest of Ecuador. Over the next half century or so, he and his fierce son Wayna Qhapaq, whose Quechua name means “Powerful Youth,” led their massive armies against the rich chiefs of the north—chiefs who soon mastered the art of guerilla warfare. Their mountainous homeland became the Inca version of Afghanistan, a place of treachery and terrible massacres and almost unassailable mountain strongholds (all of which I have written about here). But in the end, the might of the Inca armies prevailed. The Cañari and their neighbors bent their knees to the Inca king.

Sun Tzu, the famous sixth century Chinese military general, once advised his readers, “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Half a world away,  the Inca kings followed a very similar philosophy. They deported many of the troublesome Cañari to the Inca heartland, where they could be carefully guarded. Indeed, a lawsuit filed in the colonial era shows that Wayna Qhapaq dispatched many Cañari to his private royal estate at Yucay, to  toil on his back-breaking landscaping projects, which including leveling hills, draining entire marshes and moving the Urubamba River.  Meanwhile, in their former northern homeland, Wayna Qhapaq began building a spectacular northern capital, a capital that would look much like Cuzco.

And perhaps it was there that a Cañari goldsmith crafted a golden plumed crown for Powerful Youth.

But the Cañari did not forget or forgive their Inca conquerors. When Francisco Pizarro’s ragtag army of Spanish adventurers rode into Cuzco, the Cañari could not wait to desert their posts. Indeed, they swiftly swore their allegiance to the Spanish and sided with the Europeans –anything to revenge themselves on their Inca lords.

Upper photo courtesy of  Lower photo of the ruins of Incapirca in Ecuador courtesy of Orban Lopez Cruz.