Kura Ocllo, a Peruvian heroine

By Nicholas Asheshov

As Franacisco, Gonzalo, Hernando and Juan Pizarro entered Cuzco in 1533 they were met by a deputation presenting to them the 17-year-old Manco Inca.

The Pizarros, who had just garotted Atahualpa, Manco’s half-brother, in Cajamarca and they were happy to set up young Manco as a front man.

It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway but a new tragedy unfolded that has coloured Peru ever since. Gonzalo Pizarro, a tough, tall, ferociously brave bully, conceived a passion for Manco’s young wife and half-sister, the beautiful, clever, loyal Kura Ocllo.

Gonzalo persisted. The Inca court gave him all the girls he could want. They even gave him another pretty half-sister and dolled her up to look like Kura. But after a few nights Gonzalo soused her out and kicked the sister out.

Gonzalo and a gang of his thugs simply sequestered and raped Kura and kept her. Manco, furious and desperate, left Cuzco. The rape by Gonzalo of Kura Ocllo set off a 40-year rebellion that blocked any possibility of a meeting of the minds between Conquistadores and Incas.

Kura escaped back to Manco and they both retreated to the mountain-jungle fastness of Vilcabamba, beyond Machu Picchu. From here they waged a partly-successful war against the Spaniards.

In one incident it was Kura Ocllo herself, now 20, who spotted a detachment of Spaniards creeping up a steep path to Oncoy, above the Apurimac, to capture Manco. She organized the womenfolk to impersonate Inca troops to frighten the Spaniards while Manco himself led the charge on the Spaniards, killing all 30 of them, a tremendous victory that ought to be celebrated by an annual national holiday.

Gonzalo himself then led a military expedition into the Vilcabamba. With him went two of Manco’s half-brothers, full brothers to Kura Ocllo. These went ahead to try to negotiate with Manco who, however, had them immediately beheaded –in front of Kura Ocllo. As Gonzalo and his men closed in Manco escaped, but alone. The horrified Kura Ocllo paralysed with shock refused to desert the bodies of her brothers.

Gonzalo threw Kura to his men. On the way back to Ollantaytambo, she tried to protect herself by covering herself in her own excrement.

In the plaza of Ollantaytambo, where today hundreds of tourists park their buses every day, Francisco and Gonzalo Pizarro ordered her stripped naked, tied to a stake and whipped while Cañari mercenaries stoned her and shot darts into her.

She refused to cry out, the chroniclers report, until just before dying, she shouted out, “Cowards!”

Manco, like his wife-sister, was clearly a noble, brave, devastatingly young leader. He was assassinated in Vilcabamba a few years later by the same renegade Spaniards who earlier had killed Francisco Pizarro himself down in Lima.

Gonzalo rebelled against the Crown, killed the Viceroy and 300 royalist Spaniards and was later executed in Cuzco by a new Virrey.

Manco and Kura Ocllo, youthful, dashing, are the stunning heroes in one of the epic moments of world history.

Here is Othello and Romeo & Juliet all in one, a crueler, nobler Helen of Troy-Paris-Achilles. But how many Peruvian children, or their parents, know this story? Two of my children did their early-ays schooling within a couple of miles of the scene of her outrageous death. But I’ve asked them, and other Urubamba kids, and they know her not.

Nor did I, of course. I have extracted and summarized the Kura Occlo story from Kim MacQuarrie’s excellent “The Last Days of the Incas” due to be published shortly in Spanish in Lima, in time for the Bingham-Machu Picchu fandango in July.

Kura Occlo and Manco are just two of a great cast of characters in a gigantic confrontation, the collision of two of the great traditions of humankind.

In France, Joan of Arc, burned at the stake by the English in 14xx, is a much-loved heroine, a registered saint and indeed us English treat her memory with equal affection. The English are also proud of Boadicea, the Celtic queen who was, with her daughters, publicly tortured, gang-raped and killed by the Romans two millennia ago. Kura Ocllo deserves, surely, to be remembered with similar pride by Peruvian schoolchildren. Manco, likewise.

MacQuarrie’s sources for the Kura Oclloa story are the account dictated by Manco’s son, Titu Cusi, the last-but-one Inca, to Cristobal de Molina, and a letter by a Spaniard explaining to the King of Spain how Gonzalo stole Manco’s wife.

MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas tells the stupendous story of the Conquista better than anyone so far. It is deliberately dramatic “…blood dripped from Pizarro’s sword…” etc. But it is also carefully researched and runs parallel to John Hemmings’ classic The Conquest of the Incas which appeared in 1970 and updated and translated into Spanish in 1995, a gripping must-read.

But Kim MacQuarrie’s “Last Days” brings the cruelty, the civilizing savagery, the wealth that was to transform the economy of Europe and above all the characters to immediate life. The five Pizarro brothers, unbelievably tough and courageous, impossibly wealthy, low-born and ambitious,

The backdrop was a society, the last, sadly, of a score of great cultures produced here over many millennia, which functioned much better than any contemporary in Europe, and incomparably better than any that has struggled to succeed in Peru or anywhere else in South America.

Perhaps MacQuarrie’s “Last Days” will inspire teachers in schools all over Peru, high and low, to take a new, proud look at their own world-class predecessors.

Published in Caretas Country Notes in Spanish

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