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Conquest: The Destruction of the American Indios



Conquest: The Destruction of the American Indios

Massimo Livi Bacci

ISBN: 978-0-745-64000-6 January 2008 Polity 368 Pages


The arrival of Europeans in the Americas brought with it a demographic catastrophe of vast proportions for the native populations. What were the causes?

The surviving documentation is extraordinarily rich: conquistadors, religious figures, administrators, officials, and merchants kept records, carried out inquiries, and issued edicts. The native world, for its part, has also left eloquent traces of events as well as direct testimony of its harsh subjugation at the hands of the Europeans.

Drawing on these sources, Livi Bacci shows how not only the 'imported' diseases but also a series of economic and social factors played a role in the disastrous decline of the native populations. He argues that the catastrophe was not the inevitable outcome of contact with Europeans but was a function of both the methods of the conquest and the characteristics of the subjugated societies.

This gripping narrative recounts one of the greatest tragedies of human history, one whose protagonists include figures like Columbus, Montezuma, Atahuallpa, Pizarro, Corts and Tupac Amaru.


I In which are described three voyages that changed the face of a continent, the American population at the time of contact, the demographic catastrophe of the Indios, the sorrowful increase of the Africans, and the expansion of the Europeans

II A humble Franciscan, two combative Dominicans, an Italian humanist at the Court of Spain, a remorseful viceroy, a naturalist ‘alcade’, a Europeanized Inca and an Inca fallen on hard times, a conquistador observer... different witnesses and a common analysis of the catastrophe

III A tireless traveler disrupts a continent, but a quarter century too late. From the Caribbean to Perú: a brief history of a long voyage and of the suspected assassin of Huayna Capac, father of Atahuallpa. The true and presumed sins of smallpox and other crowd diseases

IV A golden nose ring and the tragic destiny of the Taíno. An Indio follows a deer and discovers a mountain of silver. A people in constant movement, over 1000 miles and at an elevation of 4000 meters, and the wealth of Potosí. Deeds and misdeeds of gold and silver

V Hispaniola, the territorial paradise of Columbus and the imagination of modern scholars. One hundred thousand or ten million Taíno? The catastrophe of the Antilles as seen from close up and a credible leyenda negra. People die while animals flourish

VI A great and rich city, dreamed of by Columbus and destroyed by Cortés. The modern dispute over the population of Mesoamerica. Tributaries, tributes, and population. Thirteen brigantines hauled overland and a tunnel in the rock. Men and beasts

VII The Incas and many millions of subjects. A quarter century of wars: Indios versus Indios, Spaniards versus Indios, Spaniards versus Spaniards. ‘Quipu’ pen and ink. A viceroy who counts, measures and acts. Epidemics: the moderns debate them, the ancients ignore them

VIII Colonists and ‘Paulists’ hunting down Guaraní between the Paraná and the Uruguay. One hundred Jesuits for 100,000 Indios. Steel axes and security in exchange for Christian habits. Monogamy and reproduction stronger than crowd diseases








Note on Illustrations


"An impressive argument for a more complex way of understanding the conquest of what is now Latin America than the single-cause explanations that have been dominant for the past several decades. The translation is lucid and easy to follow, and the generous contemporary illustrations of the life of the Indios at the time of conquest further enrich the text."
Population Studies

"An excellent study ... the book provides fresh insights into one of the most catastrophic episodes of early modern history and the narrative thrust of the work makes it very readable."
Historical Association

"Well-illustrated, useful and balanced ... an excellent provocative volume which should have wide appeal."
European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 

"Bacci makes a significant contribution and should be applauded for tackling a difficult academic question. [He] commendably moves the discussion away from singular epidemiological explanations and refocuses debate on the multiple means and various trajectories involced in the conquest of indigenous peoples."
American Historical Review

"Massimo Livi-Bacci's Conquest is a brilliant, fascinating history of the demographic catastrophe that enveloped the New World after 1492. Thickly illustrated with the artistic visions and voices of native peoples, it is the most even-handed, comprehensive narrative available - now in a lively, fluid English translation. Livi Bacci examines the evidence with the eye of a seasoned detective, solving a series of mysteries - in the West Indies, Mexico, Peru, and the Río de la Plata. Along the way, he finds much previously overlooked evidence, which he ingenuously assembles into a compelling, nuanced interpretation."
Robert McCaa, University of Minnesota

"Was the decay of the Amerindian population man-made, or was it brought about by the uncontrolled spread of pathogens or some other factor? Massimo Livi Bacci, a world-leading demographer, joins, in the present translation of his well-read book, the centuries-long debate on the extent and the causes of the post-Conquest collapse, adding to the discussion fresh insights based on his expertise in population studies and on a judicious and thorough historical research."
Nicolás Sánchez-Albornoz, New York University

  • A major reinterpretation of the European conquest of the Americas which ranges over the whole of the Americas, from North America through Central America and the Caribbean to South America
  • Focuses on the demographic consequences of the conquest and the massive destruction of native populations through diseases like smallpox
  • The book is very clearly written and well illustrated with original documents left by native populations which show their harsh subjection at the hands of the European conquerors
  • Written by one of the world’s leading demographic historians