Left: Front cover of 1553 edition of Chronica del Perú by Pedro de Cieza de León
Following on the heels of Spanish conquistadores and adventurers in the Americas was a significant number of fellow Crown subjects who – for a variety of motives – hoped to provide accounts of these unprecedented events. Among these chroniclers was Pedro de Cieza de León, the son of a minor Extremaduran merchant who had connections to the Castilian court. Few writers of the early period of Spanish conquest retain as much respect among modern historians as Cieza de León, whose straightforward style and simple prose camouflaged the sharp-eyed analysis and detached ethnography lurking in the thousands of pages of material he composed.
This essay examines the writings and historical legacy of Cieza de León within the context of several perspectives. The attitudes of Cieza de León toward natural phenomena he encountered in the Americas are the first subject of inquiry. Elements of early modern humanism that creep into Cieza de León’s writing are next examined, and the essay concludes with an analysis of the views of Cieza de León with regard to the indigenous peoples who inhabited the lands through which he traveled.
The secondary literature on Pedro de Cieza de León is relatively limited, and such commentary that exists consists mainly of brief introductions to translations of his works. Part of the reason for this paucity of secondary sources is due to the fact that there is little material in the documentary record on the life of Cieza de León beyond his own writings. Yet one might convincingly argue that Cieza de León has been overlooked by biographers and literary critics, his work remaining obscure beyond the narrow circle of colonial Peruvian historians, while chroniclers such as Bartolomé de las Casas have been the subject of a wide variety of biographical and analytical texts.
Then again, the works of Cieza de León fell into obscurity after a brief period of popularity in the mid- to late-sixteenth century, and with William Prescott’s considerable use of Cieza de León’s Crónicas in his History of the Conquest of Peru, the historical reputation of Cieza de León as an authoritative source on pre-conquest Peru and the first decades of Spanish domination of the former Incan Empire began to rise. It was not until Clements Markham began translating the Cieza de León texts in the nineteenth century, though, that historians began to appreciate the soldier-scholar.
Pedro de Cieza de León was likely born in 1520 in Llerena, a town in southeastern Extremadura. Little is known of his early life; given the fact that he left home at age thirteen, Cook argued that it is doubtful that Cieza de León received more than a rudimentary education at a local parish school. His father, Lope de León, was a shopkeeper in the town, and his mother was a native of Llerena, and there is scant documentary evidence of the young Cieza de León’s childhood. Von Hagen postulated that the poor soil of “this bald and eroded land” was one of the reasons that Extremadura seemed to be the birthplace of so many New World conquistadores. Still, the lure of the reputed vast wealth of the newly discovered lands would have likely served as a magnet to impoverished young men irrespective of the relative fertility of the Extremaduran soil.
Left: Map depicting expansion of Incan Empire from 1438 to 1527
It appears that Cieza de León began his journey to the Americas aboard a ship referred to in the Asientos de Pasajeros as “the vessel of Cifuentes.” The date of departure was listed as 2 April 1535, and von Hagen provided the text of the brief entry delineating Cieza de León’s passage to the New World:
Pedro de León, son of Lope de León and of Leonor de Cazalla, citizens of Llerena, sailed with Juan del Junco to Cartagena in the vessel of Cifuentes; Rodrgo Pérez and Luis de Llerena swore that he is not one of the forbidden ones.After arriving in Cartagena, Cieza de León joined an expedition headed by Pedro de Heredia that raided native tombs in Cenú. Likely working initially as a page to one of the expedition’s officers, Cieza de León was duly impressed with the quantity of gold being harvested from Cenú gravesites:
Some of them [native tombs] were so ancient, that there were tall trees growing on them, and they got more than a million from these sepulchers, besides what the Indians took, and what was lost in the ground. In other parts great treasure has been, and is every day, found in the tombs.Cieza de León was next assigned to an expedition headed by Alonso de Cáceres that was created to subdue the indigenous peoples of the Urabá Gulf region. Von Hagen noted that it was during this period that the young Cieza de León began taking “mental notes” of the peoples, practices, and landscapes he encountered. Cieza de León observed that the region was unhealthy for his compatriots, though he placed the blame for illness and death on the food choices of the hungry conquistadores:
But the province is covered with dense forest in many parts, and the plains are full of very large palm trees with thick bark, and bearing large palmitos, which are white and very sweet. When the Spaniards explored this country, in the time when Alonzo Lopes de Alaya was lieutenant to the governor of this city, they ate nothing for many days except these palmitos. The wood is so hard and difficult to cut, that it took a man half a day before he could cut a tree down and get the palmitos, which they ate without bread, and drank much water, so that many Spaniards died.After helping to found the cities of Antioquía and Cartago, Cieza de León spent the six years from 1541-46 in and around the Cartago region. Von Hagen wrote that it was during this period of a relatively settled state that Cieza de León began the process of writing his Crónicas. Cieza de León described his primary motivation for beginning what would become the largest part of his life’s work, the Crónicas:
The first [consideration] was, that in all the parts I had been, no one was engaged in writing anything concerning what had occurred; and time destroys the memories of events in such sort that soon there is no knowledge of what has passed.Cieza de León’s six-year career as an encomendero came to an abrupt end with the arrival and enforcement of the royal proclamation containing the “New Laws”, which were ostensibly designed to protect indigenous peoples but which instead fomented a period of civil war between the some of the encomenderos and representatives of the Spanish monarchy. Cieza de León wound up fighting with the royalist forces, and participated in many of the major battles led by Pedro de la Gasca. It was during this time that the budding scholar came to the attention of the influential La Gasca, who would become the acting Viceroy of Peru. Impressed with Cieza de León’s work, La Gasca appointed him to the position of Cronista de Indias, a position he held until he turned in his manuscripts to royal authorities in July 1550. After obtaining clearance from the Audiencia of Lima, Cieza de León returned to Seville in 1551.
Left: Pedro de la Gasca, Spanish bishop, diplomat, and the second (acting) viceroy of Peru
Yet Cieza de León did not live to profit from his fifteen-year project to document the history of Peru, and the few years he spent back in Spain were filled with tragedy. His young bride Isabella, who Pedro married immediately after his 1551 return, died of unknown causes in 1554, and the author himself died six weeks later; only the Primera Parte had been printed. The task of seeing the rest of the Crónicas to print fell to Cieza de León’s brother, and the manuscripts became lost in a bureaucratic maze.
Ultimately, much of Parts Two, Three, and Four of the Crónicas wound up being incorporated – often line-for-line – in a multi-volume collection by court historian Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas entitled Historia General de los Hechos de los Castellanos en las Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Océano.
Since the rediscovery process of Cieza de León’s works began in the nineteenth century, historians have poured praise upon the soldier-scholar. Prescott expressed his appreciation of the “great comprehensiveness of mind” of Cieza de León, commending his “highly respectable, sometimes even rich and picturesque” literary style. Markham lauded Cieza de León as “the most important historian, and is now the best authority, on ancient Peru,” and added that the chronicler was “an intelligent observer, humane and conscientious, striving after impartiality.” Diffie maintained that Cieza de Leon’s works are “indispensable and should be the first read” for scholars working on Incan society. Von Hagen argued that the observations of Cieza de León were “extraordinary,” and that the only chronicler who came close to matching Cieza de León’s objectivity and accuracy was Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Pease argued that Cieza de León “surpasses the classic definition of a chronicler,” and he noted that Cieza de León possessed skills that placed him in a rarified category of early modern writers:
Cieza de León was working within a particular temporal context in his Chronicle of Peru, but he also depicts the events with minute detail and makes a distinction between various historical periods, far exceeding the standard criteria of his contemporaries.Scholars interested in using the Crónicas should be aware that there exist a number of English-language translations of Cieza de León’s works, that some editions omit portions of the original manuscripts, and that certain translations may be lacking in both quality and completeness. The first comprehensive efforts to publish the Crónicas were undertaken by Clements Markham, who published considerable portions of Parts I, II, and III through the Hakluyt Society between 1864 and 1883.
These English translations were considered definitive for nearly a century, but Diffie began the movement to diminish the value of Markham’s work. Diffie discovered over two hundred mistranslations and omissions in The Travels of Pedro de Cieza de León, and he excoriated Markham for being unwilling to “bear to put into English Cieza’s observations on the sexual perversions of the Indians.” The 1959 translation by Harriet de Onis, while much more careful to the original and possessing a higher degree of readability, skips Chapters I-XXXV of the Prima Crónica because these chapters are focused on lands outside of the Incan Empire (largely modern-day Colombia and Panama). The excellent work of Alexandra Parma Cook and Noble David Cook establishes new standards for future translators, but unfortunately the pair only translated Part Three of the Crónicas - The Discovery and Conquest of Peru.
Yet for general readers, all of the aforementioned translations of the work of Cieza de León offer compelling depictions of indigenous societies, native-newcomer relations, and the natural world of the portions of the Americas traversed by the soldier-scholar. Cieza de León’s keen eye for detail and his conscious efforts to maintain objectivity are especially remarkable given the fact that the writer essentially learned as he went along, and the resulting works are a phenomenal ethnographic effort that continue to offer insight nearly five centuries after they were written.