History’s ratchets

I recently learnt about a historical battle that was won against the worst possible odds.

It was the remarkable story about how a ragtag bunch of Spaniards – 62 horsemen and 106 foot soldiers to be precise – confronted an Inca army that was 80,000 strong, captured their chief and slaughtered about 8000 of them without a single casualty.

Stories such as Francisco Pizarro’s conquest at the Inca capital of Cajamarca aren’t the exception, but rather the norm of Spanish conquests in South America. The accounts of these Conquistadors are filled with chest thumping stories of their bravery and valiance against all odds. But what really swung these impossible battles in their favour?

The clues to this answer lie in historical events that are at least 13,000 years old – back to a time when all humans on the planet were hunter gatherers. Since that point, environmental factors shaped each part of the world very differently. Several uncontrollable factors were at play to turn the tide in the favour of those Spanish soldiers – the fact that 95% of native American populations fell prey to epidemics that the Europeans carried with them, the absence of steel weapons or cavalry with native warriors, the lack of exposure to European politics and treachery or the means to communicate this learning afterwards using a written text.

All of these primary causes, of course, had secondary and tertiary causes rooted in the history of the hunter gatherers who went on to settle these faraway continents 10,000 years ago and developed in isolation. A small difference in the landscape or the weather, the fertility of the soil, the ready availability of metal or the presence of domesticable animals on the planet provided small advantages to certain civilizations that amplified over 10 millennia to result in a string of impossible Spanish victories.

And that is what thousands of years can do. They can turn a ratchet that magnifies one small step ahead into giant continental leaps.

The truth is that these advantages and disadvantages of our past legacies still surround us. It has been a mere 500 years since Pizarro’s conquest and subsequent massacre of the Inca people. Sure, these 500 years have seen incredible technological progress and globalization. But that doesn’t mean that the playing field is level yet. As young Indian students, we were taught that India was conquered by a handful of visiting Britons because we weren’t inherently united – that it was something wrong with the way we were as people that led to 200 years of British colonial rule. I am afraid that explanation is blatantly wrong and has collectively reinforced a complex of inferiority that Indians share with several other countries that have inhereted a colonial legacy.

We live our lives a certain way, with advantages and adversities that resulted due to a millions of conditions that we did not control. On the one hand, we Indians ought to start doing the difficult job of shedding our colonial baggage. On the other, each one of us ought to have the requisite humility to recognize that we can never really understand the historical factors that have gifted us the 500:1 odds we have against some of our peers.

As Seth Godin says,”You only have to be good enough. Then it’s a giant spin of the wheel. The arrogance of Western civilization is to say, ‘I won the spin, therefore I must be good,”. What we are in control of is to try and be good enough. What we ought to discard is the arrogance that comes with winning the lottery – one that those boastful Spanish Conquistadors were blissfully unaware of.

Inspiration: Guns, germs and steel – Jared Diamond

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