Guamán Poma Pleas for Inca Reforms Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the early seventeenth century, a native Andean named Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala sent a twelve-hundred-page, richly illustrated book to Philip III, recounting the history of his people before the Spanish conquest, the trauma and abuse inflicted upon them by the conquistadors, and the resulting disintegration of their society. Although he hoped to spur the king to implement reforms, it is unlikely the monarch ever received the letter.

Summary of Event

Almost everything known about the first years following the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in South America comes from European sources. In 1908, however, a startling tome was found in the Royal Library of Copenhagen. It was an extensive account, with almost four hundred illustrations, written by a native Andean in a mix of Spanish and Quechua. The book recounted the history of Peru before the arrival of the Spaniards and provided a detailed account of the problems that had beset the region when the Europeans established political control. This volume, written by a former Andean collaborator in the conquest named Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, took the form of a letter to King Philip III Philip III (king of Spain) of Spain. It was meant to elicit sympathy from the monarch, as well as his support for governmental reforms to improve the lives of the people of Peru. [kw]Guamán Poma Pleas for Inca Reforms (1615) [kw]Reforms, Guamán Poma Pleas for Inca (1615) [kw]Inca Reforms, Guamán Poma Pleas for (1615) [kw]Poma Pleas for Inca Reforms, Guamán (1615) Social issues and reform;1615: Guamán Poma Pleas for Inca Reforms[0680] Colonization;1615: Guamán Poma Pleas for Inca Reforms[0680] Literature;1615: Guamán Poma Pleas for Inca Reforms[0680] South America;1615: Guamán Poma Pleas for Inca Reforms[0680] Peru;1615: Guamán Poma Pleas for Inca Reforms[0680] Inca Empire Guamán Poma de Ayala, Felipe

Titled Primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno de las Indias (1615; Letter to a King, 1978, better known as The First New Chronicle and Good Government First New Chronicle and Good Government, The (Guamán Poma) ), Guamán Poma’s twelve-hundred-page work at first elicited mixed reactions from scholars. While the history it recounted was deemed flawed, the drawings provided valuable visual images that provided unusual insight into local Peruvian culture immediately following the conquest. At the end of the twentieth century, historians, anthropologists, and students of literature continued to assess the extraordinary contributions of Guamán Poma’s work. By then, a consensus had been reached that the text and drawings allow for a far better understanding of the tensions and contradictions that emerged among individuals like Guamán Poma as the Spanish colonization of Peru proceeded. These Andean Indians at first had cooperated with the Spaniards, but when they later realized the cost of the conquest to their people, they sought redress.

In the immediate aftermath of the conquest, groups that had been subjugated by the Incas found opportunities to rise socially by allying themselves with the Spaniards. Inca Inca Empire noblemen also struggled to maintain their status as the world they knew drastically changed. Infighting among the conquistadors themselves further complicated the political situation. Political unrest, native revolts, and civil wars among the Spanish raged in the Andes from the 1530’s to the 1560’. Only with the arrival of Viceroy Francisco de Toledo Toledo, Francisco de and the execution of the last Inca emperor in 1571 did the turmoil subside. At last, a more effective, centralized colonial government emerged. Even so, navigating the new political landscape remained challenging for many native Andeans. Guamán Poma, a member of an important Inca family, became an interpreter for and supporter of both the Spanish religion and the Spanish crown in Peru. His career as a Spanish interpreter, his subsequent change of heart, and above all his chronicle of the period provide crucial insight into the uncertainties Andeans faced in the years following the conquest.

Ironically, before the Spanish conquest of Peru, Guamán Poma’s family had served the Inca government as ambassadors to newly conquered regions of the Inca Empire. Their job was to move to a new region and persuade local inhabitants to submit to the new government. While this was a prestigious appointment, indicating that they were trusted subjects, it also separated them from their clan attachment to land and ancestors. When the Spaniards arrived, then, the Pomas were fairly recent migrants to the region in which they lived. These loyal servants of the Inca eventually transferred their allegiance to the Spaniards. Guamán Poma embraced Christianity Christianity;Peru : Taking on a Christian first name and surname, he became Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala. He was acculturated as well to Spanish ways, learning the language and collaborating with colonial authorities.

When Viceroy Toledo organized a campaign to subdue a revolt that had spread through old religious networks, Guamán Poma accompanied priests on their tours of inspection and eradication of idolatry, acting as an interpreter for the Spaniards. In his travels with Spanish authorities, he witnessed both the good and the ill the newcomers brought to his homeland. He was appalled by the depopulation that resulted from the relocation of Andeans in order to make them more readily available for service in the new silver and mercury mines. Mining;Peru This forced labor required of native communities, although based on Inca precedent, proved far more onerous under the Spaniards, and many were injured or even killed in the dangerous mines. Guamán Poma was also troubled by the violence and venality of some churchmen, yet he admired the Jesuits, particularly the well-known missionary José de Acosta Acosta, José de .

Although he was tightly connected to Spanish authorities, Guamán Poma also experienced the vulnerability of native Andeans under this new colonial order. Colonization;Spain of Peru In the late 1580’, a group of Peruvian Indians who had in the 1540’s helped the Spanish crown establish control over rebellious conquistadors petitioned and won claim to a parcel of land. The Poma family had also been granted that same land, however. For almost fifteen years, the two groups struggled to assert their competing claims, until Guamán Poma’s ties to the colonial church and state bureaucracies seemed to provide his family with the upper hand. By 1600, he believed the dispute had been settled in his family’s favor, but the other claimants to the land exploited the Pomas’ crucial weakness: As relative newcomers to the region, they had no local clan ties. Therefore, no one would vouch for them or support their claims to noble status. The Pomas’ opponents asserted that Guamán Poma was in reality a low caste Indian who had falsely passed himself off as a nobleman. When this most likely fraudulent allegation was upheld, Guamán Poma was publicly punished with a whipping of two hundred lashes and then exiled from the region for four years.

This setback, which Guamán Poma must have seen as a betrayal on the part of those he had served so faithfully, changed his view of colonial government. It was probably when he began his period of exile that he also started to pen his letter to the king of Spain. In The First New Chronicle and Good Government, he sought first to establish his noble lineage by providing a history of Peru’s pre-Spanish past and his own family’s place in it. Guamán Poma, who was only Inca on his mother’s side, claimed that his father descended from a royal dynasty that predated the Incas themselves. He then enumerated a series of abuses carried out by Spanish authorities and advised the king on changes that were required to assure good government (and Indian support) in the viceroyalty of Peru. This twelve-hundred-page letter, most likely composed over a twenty-year period, was written mostly in Spanish, interspersed with a few passages in Quechua, the imperial language of the Inca. Having learned to draw under the instruction of Spanish priests, Guamán Poma included almost four hundred illustrations, possibly believing that the images would convey to the king even more strongly than his prose the urgency of the situation in Peru.


Guamán Poma’s letter in all probability never reached Philip III. In fact, it disappeared, resurfacing only in 1908 in an archive in Copenhagen. Given its fate, the letter may somehow have fallen into the hands of the Dutch ambassador to Spain. The discovery of Guamán Poma’s letter revitalized Andean studies by providing scholars with an unusual, extensive view from a native’s perspective of the harsh realities of the century following the conquest.

The First New Chronicle and Good Government provides invaluable insight into the struggles of an early generation of acculturated Indians to adjust to the system brought by the Spanish conquest. It illustrates the extent to which competing interests on all sides made for a complex and unpredictable world. The best public servants could see themselves punished rather than rewarded for their service to the crown. More than anything, Guamán Poma’s chronicle allows us entry into the mind of a descendant of the Incas at a time when it still seemed possible that Indians and Spaniards might share authority in the New World.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adorno, Rolena. “Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala: Native Writer and Litigant in Early Colonial Peru.” In The Human Tradition in Colonial Latin America, edited by Kenneth J. Andrien. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2002. Focusing on the land litigation as the probable reason Guamán Poma wrote to Philip III, this essay provides excellent background on Guamán Poma and his world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adorno, Rolena. Guamán Poma: Writing and Resistance in Colonial Peru. 2d ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. Considers Guamán Poma’s letter as an early, uniquely Latin American critique of Spanish colonialism. Provides excellent insight into ways in which Guamán Poma used what he had learned from the Spaniards to attack the Spanish system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guamán Poma de Ayala, Felipe. Letter to a King: A Peruvian Chief’s Account of Life Under the Incas and Under Spanish Rule. Edited by Christopher Dilke. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978. English translation of excerpts from the Primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stern, Steve J. Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982. Excellent account of the transformation of the region of the viceroyalty of Peru that was home to Guamán Poma, giving good background to both the opportunities and the problems Guamán Poma faced.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Philip III; Saint Rose of Lima. Inca Empire Guamán Poma de Ayala, Felipe

Categories: History