Pizarro’s ‘Line in the Sand,’ and our own lines to cross

Article by Sam Ellis. Edited by Emery Staines.

Technically speaking, this is an article about a speech that failed; a speech intended to be inspirational, that frankly, fell flat.

It was delivered on a beach along the west coast of South America, 1527. Francisco Pizarro, after having traipsed through miles of scorched earth and being thoroughly disheartened by the military strength of the Tawantinsuyu (Incan Empire), had retreated to the less hostile Isla Del Gallo. His ally, Diego De Almagro, returned to Panama along with the majority of the now fatigued conquistadors. Pizarro stayed. A short while later the rescue party arrived; led by Juan Tafur, charged with picking up the stragglers and whisking them back to Panama.

Pizarro however, had no plans of returning. It was at this point that he became the orator: delivering a rousing speech, promising glory and riches, complete with a dramatic flourish. Drawing forth his sword, he carved a line through the sand. Prodding each side of the line in turn, he declared “There lies Peru with its riches; Here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian.”

Of the two hundred and fifty or so who had travelled, only thirteen stepped forward. Worse, one of them had to be persuaded.  Another, who had apparently missed the point and thought Pizarro was just having fun with sandcastles, stepped back, not realizing what exactly he had committed himself to.

Pizarro had a short tantrum, declared he didn’t need help anyway because that would involve sharing the spoils, and then begged Tafur for the loan of a boat. They would then spend the next seven months on La Isla Gorgona, waiting for more provisions.

As pitiful as this sounds, the important thing is that it didn’t matter. The ‘famous thirteen’ would soon play a part in the conquest of Peru. By 1533, Spanish conquistadors had invaded and occupied Cusco. By 1535, the Incas had capitulated. However, none of this hinged on whether 13 or 250 crossed that line. Either way, they would still have been overwhelmingly outnumbered. That wasn’t it.

Instead, it had a lot to do with coughs and sneezes: germs that had devastated the South American population well before Pizarro’s landing. After that, there was a bloody civil war, famine, displacement and violence. It was into this chaos that Pizarro and his chums unwittingly stumbled. No master-plan; just convenient timing. Over the next eight years, they were treated as if they were a chess piece:  tracked down, used as bait, misunderstood more often than the castling rule, and eventually, as can be done with certain chess pieces that shall not be named but move in weird directions, underestimated. The point could be emphasized, but I won’t dwell on it. In short, Incan agendas before and after Pizarro showed up were what brought about their downfall. Not only were the conquistadors involved in a violent, merciless invasion, they also claimed it as their victory.

And this is where Pizarro’s speech is important. It is an example of the ridiculous level of melodrama European invaders applied to their conquests, and a precursor to the glories they consequently bathed themselves in. It’s like a footballer over-celebrating a quite simple goal, but far more sickening. And for years it has had terrible consequences: for the footballer, the TV is rewound, the simplicity of the goal highlighted, and the celebration mocked. There’s no such option for the Conquest. In fact the only accounts we have are transcriptions of tosh about ‘taming the wilderness’, ‘finding El Dorado’, or in Pizarro’s case, ‘drawing a line in the sand.’

As frustrating as it is, that is all we have to work with. We simply know a lot more about Pizarro than we do about his Incan contemporaries. But we absolutely have to find out more. We will never fully understand the 16th century upheaval in America if it is only ever perceived through the lens of a Conquistador. We have to read between the lines, pay more attention to what is left unsaid, which is not an easy task. If this is a line in the sand, it is one that needs to be crossed, no matter how unsafe the other side.

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A statue in Lima commemorates Francisco Pizarro


We can at least do two things. The first is easily done: to rubbish the victor’s bravado, think even more critically about existing European sources from the colonial era. The second is more theoretical: it is difficult to show how important indigenous actions were because it is difficult to provide the evidence, since the majority took place outside the sphere of European reporting, and European reports are almost the only things we have to go by. But we must at least recognize how important it could be.

An instance in Argentine writer Juan José Saer’s book The Witness sums up the potential of both these challenges. A captain, very similar to Pizarro, lands with his crew along the edge of a jungle. Unimpressed with initial scouting forays, the captain wanders up and down, deep in thought, planning his next words carefully:  words he will be remembered for. Finally, he draws up before his men, takes a deep breath, and announces, “This is a land without…” before he abruptly stops, his throat pierced by an arrow from the trees behind him. What was he about to say? Whatever it was, he couldn’t have known for sure.