Friday 26 April 2024

To Tate Britain - and Ellen Terry’s Dress. By Penny Dolan

The iconic portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in her beetle-wing dress has been a favourite painting of mine for many, many years.


I am not alone in my enthusiasm as, with the detachment of someone who had been on stage almost all her life, the actress herself commented:

“The picture of me is nearly finished and I think it magnificent. The green and the blue of the dress is splendid, and I think the expression as Lady Macbeth holds the crown over her head quite wonderful.”

A while ago, studying Victorian theatre for my children’s novel, I learned that the beetle-wing dress still existed, and was kept as part of Terry’s costume archive at her last home, Smallhythe Place.

The property, a small half-timbered cottage with a tiny theatre, is deep in the Kent countryside, between Tenterden and Rye and now owned by the National Trust. However, the opening hours and parking were limited and Kent is a long way from my home in Yorkshire.

                     Visiting Smallhythe Place's garden | Kent | National Trust

Later, when I was passing through Kent for work, the website informed me that the Trust was now focused on a nearby archaeological site, that Smallhythe Place itself was under renovation and Terry’s dress away for conservation. Ah well, so be it, I thought. By then, my novel A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E was out into the world, other things were happening, and life moved on.

However, about fortnight ago, Ellen Terry came back into my mind. In ‘The Motive and The Clue’, Jack Thorne’s play about the tensions between ageing Sir John Gielgud and young hellraiser, Richard Burton, who wants direction as Hamlet. In response to Burton’s tirade about life as a miners son, Gielgud - most wonderfully played by Mark Gattis - says in a hollow, lonely voice something like “What else could I be, coming from a theatrical family like mine?” Which is when I remembered that Gielgud’s family tree included great-aunt Ellen Terry of the beetle-wing dress. 

Almost on the same day, in a series of tweets by fashion historian Dr Kate Strasdin, I read that, right now, both the Lady Macbeth portrait and that famous dress are on display in Tate Britain, which has prompted this History Girls post today.

The Dress

In 1888, John Singer Sargent, an American-born, European artist, and the leading portrait painter of his generation, attended the opening of Henry Irving’s production of Macbeth. Seeing Terry as Lady Macbeth, he immediately asked to paint her but, as he wrote to his wealthy American patron, Terry delayed until the reviews of the play were in. She “had not yet made up her mind to let me paint her in one of the dresses until she is convinced she is a success. From the pictorial point of view, there can be no doubt about it – magenta hair!”

The blue-green dress was designed by Alice Comyns Carr who made many of Terry’s costumes. The dress ‘shone with a strange metallic lustre’. And had a hint of soft chain mail about it. Carr recorded that her “fine needlewoman” Adaline Cort Nettleship, had “bought this fine yarn for me in Bohemia . . a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel, and wanted ‘something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent”. Photographs, rather than the a painting, show that ‘Mrs Nettles’, as Terry called her, used crotchet work to create the effect.

The design was chosen to invoke fear. Not only was green a dangerously sinister hue but the dress was covered in a thousand glittering scales: the shining wing-cases or ‘elytra’ of the green jewel beetle, which were harvested when the farmed insects had died, which meant little in an era of feathers and furs.

Beetle-wing embroidery originally came from Mughal India, where small sequin-like pieces of ‘elytra’ were traditionally added to decorative and household fabrics and to clothing and accessories for all genders and ages. In the eighteenth century, English women living in India wore soft white dresses embroidered with small green elytra motifs.

However, during the nineteenth century, elytra and elytra fabric were imported to Britain. The fabrics were of lesser quality, but the hard wing cases that glittered in gas or candle-light, were ideal for evening dresses. Terry’s dress, however, was so well-made that it was re-used many times and went on tour to America, before becoming part of her costume archive.

Continuing to describe Lady Macbeth’s costume, Carr noted that: “When the straight thirteenth-century dress with sweeping sleeves was finished it hung most beautifully, but we did not think it was brilliant enough, so it was sewn all over with the real green beetlewings, and a narrow border of celtic designs worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffons were embroidered with flame-coloured tinsel . . . two long plaits twisted with gold hung to her knees.

Note that cloak: though the cloak in the description above is described as “heather”, Carr had also designed a bright scarlet cloak for Terry’s appearance after the Macbeth murder scene. The second cloak offers an interesting view of Terry and Irving’s relationship: although Irving praised the look of the cloak when Terry wore it on the first night, by the second performance, Irving appeared with the cloak thrown around his own shoulders, aware that the splash of the blood-red focused the audience’s eyes on him, on Macbeth. Terry, I assume, shrugged her shoulders.

This action was not necessarily as harsh as it seems. Irving must have felt that, on stage, the cloak would look better on Macbeth as the central character. Irving was always aware of the quality of the acting, but he was also conscious of the picture the scene was creating. He was particular, not only of the positioning and gestures of the actors but also the quality of the painted scenery and the drama added by all the lighting effects. Irving’s intention was that his audience would see each scene as a beautiful, carefully constructed painting: as an example of theatre as high art, not common music-hall entertainment. Ellen Terry, appearing in her green dress, helped to fulfil to his purpose.

The Painting.

Dressed in costume and wearing her long dark-red theatrical wig, Terry took her carriage to Sargent’s studio in Tite Street, London each day for a couple of weeks. She noted that during that time, her “face’s appearance”, as she put it, earned her no fee. Ellen, who loved luxury, was also aware of poverty.

Oscar Wilde, who lived nearby, watched her daily arrival. A Terry fan, he wrote “The street that on a wet dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia . . . can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.”

                                     File:Sargent, John SInger (1856-1925) - Self-Portrait 1907 b.jpg ...

John Singer Sargent, although his image indirectly promoted Irving’s play, did not choose a scene from the production. Originally he started work on a series of grisaille sketches, showing Lady Macbeth leaving the castle keep, surrounded by flares and bowing court ladies. 

                                     Drawing by Sargent for Terry's golden jubilee programme, 1906

However, Singer was keen to use the richness of oil paints to show the “stained glass effects” that he had observed on the Lyceum stage, so he chose to paint a solitary Lady Macbeth, holding Duncan’s crown above her head, a queen from the Celtic twilight.

In the picture, Terry gazes up at the crown with an extraordinary, enigmatic expression. She saw Lady Macbeth as a woman who, because of love, was as one with her husband and his ambition: “a woman of highest nervous organisation, with a passionate intensity of purpose.” Terry loved the work, describing her look as apprehension, and said that the portrait felt “more like me than any other”.

Jonathan Jones, art critic of the Guardian, writing about twenty years ago, suggested that she looks like a sacred figure from an ancient temple. He also criticised the work, pointing out thatthis is not a real moment of self-loss. It is a painting of what theatre meant to the people at the time, an evocation of Terry’s power to inspire fantasy in her public.”

Sargent may have decorated the frame with Celtic motifs, ready for the portrait's first public viewing, which took place in 1889, at the New Gallery in Regent Street’s  owned by Alice’s Comyns Carr’s husband Joseph. The work became a great attraction. Terry reported it as “the sensation of the year . . . There are dense crowds round it day after day . . . but opinions differ about it.” Though some critics loved Sargent's painting, others did not, and The Saturday Review declared it “the best hated picture of the year.”

Sir Henry Irving bought the painting and hung it at The Lyceum Theatre, where he hosted the all-male Beefsteak dining club and eventually celebrated the hundredth performance of 'The Merchant of Venice'. The painting was also exhibited in Europe and South America, until finally being auctioned off and bought for the Tate by a wealthy donor in 1906.

The Actress

Ellen Terry (1847-1928) was born into a large theatrical family. As an infant, her cot would have been an open chest of drawers in that production’s lodgings. As a young child, she grew up reading the works of Shakespeare with her siblings. Terry grew up as familiar with the hardships of the touring life as with the glamour of life on stage.

Her father, Ben, was the business man, the one who found work with the actor-manager Charles Keans’ company. Sarah, Terry’s mother, who taught the child actress about performance and the importance of being ‘useful’ on stage to the leading actors. Aged five, Terry appeared as Prince Arthur in King John and other young roles in Kean’s productions. At eleven, she took the role of Puck in his A Midsummer Nights Dream, and also appeared in a genteel Shakespearian Entertainment attended by Queen Victoria.

Terry’s lively manner, burnished gold hair and Pre-Raphaelite beauty brought her to the attention of wealthy artistic circles, and her life was not without notoriety. At sixteen she retired from the stage to become the wife of the renowned painter G. F. Watts. Already in his mid-forties, Watts was unsure whether he should adopt his model or marry her.

Watts painted The Sisters, a double portrait of Ellen Terry and her older sister Kate, he also painted her alone: in his work ‘Choosing’, she appears as a young girl, caught between the attraction of a scarlet, scentless camellia and the humble, maidenly sweetness of a bunch of violets. Knowing the circumstances and the outcome, this is a rather unsettling image.

Terry also modelled for the pioneer photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was related to Mrs Princeps, Watt’s too-dominant patron. Terry appears as a simple young girl in classical dress, her eyes closed and her head resting in an innocent dreamlike pose. Sadly, as Watts’ spirited wife, Terry found no role in his already well-organised home and was shunned by his reverential circle of admirers. The marriage was not a success, and Terry returned to her parents. 

                                       Wikipedia:Featured picture candidates/Ellen Terry - Wikipedia 

After some brief appearances on stage, Terry fell deeply in love with the designer and architect Edwin Godwin. She ran away from her parents and the public to live with him in rural Hertfordshire, and was soon the mother of two adored children. With Goodwin often away and Terry cut off from society, the relationship was strained, and their mutual love of art and luxury soon brought financial problems.

Then, in 1874, when Terry’s pony-cart lost a wheel on a country lane, Charles Reade a passing horseman, recognised her. He was a playwright and an old theatrical friend who helped her and persuaded her to return to the stage in one of his own plays. With the bailiffs at the door, and Reade’s money on offer, Terry accepted and found that her audiences welcomed her back warmly, both in London and on tour.

Terry’s true ascent to theatrical stardom came not long after. Squire Bancroft, the renowned theatre manager, cast her as Portia in his 1875 production of The Merchant of Venice. Her appearance, first in a china-blue and white gown designed by Alice Comyns Carr and then in black velvet as lawyer, stole the eye. According to the artist Graham Robertson, she was “the painter’s actress” appealing to the eye and ear, “her gestures and pose being elegance itself; her charm held everyone but predominantly those who loved pictures.” Though the actor playing Shylock did not live up to the role, Terry herself, and the production, shone.

Though Godwin’s stage sets, based on his visits to Venice, were praised, Terry’s trust had gone and the relationship broke down. Before long, now formally separated from Watts, she married the actor Charles Wardell Kelly whom she knew on tour. Marriage brought her respectability and her mother and family, who had disowned her, happily accept their daughter again. Kelly, though, was not happy to accept roles of lesser stature than his wife and so, as Terry’s theatrical reputation rose higher, envy and jealousy blighted the marriage.

Besides, Ellen Terry, at that point, was beginning the most important professional relationship of her life. Henry Irving, the leading stage manager and actor of the Victorian age invited her to play Ophelia to his Hamlet at his Lyceum Theatre. She became his stage partner, establishing a theatrical marriage that continued for twenty-four years. Their personalities on stage were complementary and were once described as “the flower and the tree”. Terry’s warmth, womanliness and lightness contrasted with Irving’s serious attitude and sometimes stiff manner. For her part, she was content to use her famed femininity as a foil to his dominant roles.

                                            File:Henry Irving portrait.jpg - Wikipedia

Irving, in his turn, gave Terry the chance to star in all the female Shakespearean roles: Ophelia, Desdemona, Portia, Juliet, Viola, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Imogen, Volumnia and Queen Katherine, for his theatre and she was dubbed, by Oscar Wilde, “Our Lady of the Lyceum.”

And the ‘Missing’ Dress . . .?

I had long given up thoughts of seeing the dress itself, and I did not see the painting when I visited Tate Britain last year, after the great rehang. However, Dr Kate Stradin’s tweet sent me searching online, and there was an answer to the missing garment.

Around the millenium, the National Trust had found that Terry’s archive at Smallhythe Place needed serious attention. There was particular concern about the presence of 'wooly bear moths' within the house and the fabric collection. Consequently, twelve years ago, Zenze Tinka Conservation starting major preservation work on the beetle-wing dress, which was in preparation for the “Sargent and Fashion” exhibition to be held at the Boston Museum of Fine Art in 2023. Reading on, I discovered that the whole exhibition was due to transfer to Tate Britain, in London, in 2024. 

It is 2024 now, and Ellen Terry's famous costume is right here, on display. For the first time since 1889, her green beetle-wing dress, the heather-coloured cloak and Sargent’s portrait will be together in the same place. 

 And on the day this History Girls post appears, I will be down at Tate Britain, meeting and greeting Ellen Terry’s famous green beetle-wing dress at last.

 Maybe, over the summer, I might even take a look at Smallhythe Place again, and see how the conservation work is getting on.

Penny Dolan

PS. After being disappointed by Jonathan Jones’ rather dismissive Guardian review of the Sargent and Fashion exhibition recently, I was hugely cheered to see, on the Letters page, a spirited response from Cally Blackman, asserting the importance of fashion and frocks.

She writes

Whatever the distress caused to Jones by the lighting, wall colours and glass cases in wrong places, it is a very rare thing indeed to see garments displayed next to the paintings in which they are depicted, and a special joy to see these same garments interpreted on the canvas with Sargent’s consummate skill and aesthetic judgment. Some of the gowns on display are by Charles Worth, the most prestigious couturier in Paris (not “designer” – the word had not been invented then).” 

 Then came Blackman’s warning:

Compared with these, Ellen Terry’s beetle-wing-embellished Lady Macbeth stage costume (“costume” is the term for clothing worn for performance, not for garments worn in everyday life) looked dull and lifeless, yet scintillated in radiant, glowing colour from Sargent’s portrait, a testament to his quality as an artist.”  

I am still looking forward to seeing the dress, and the whole exhibition, tremendously. It has been a long time.


Further information:

Ellen Terry by Joy Melville.

Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World by Jeffrey Richards.

A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families by Michael Holroyd

Tom Gurney:

A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E by Penny Dolan


Dr Kate Strasdin @kateStrasdin The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes

                    16 stunning Victorian textiles from The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes

Friday 19 April 2024

Ada Lovelace - by Sue Purkiss

 On a recent stay on Exmoor, I came across an article about someone called Ada Lovelace. I had vaguely heard of her, but if you'd asked me why, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. Yet she turns out to have been a fascinating and significant character - in a number of different ways. 

Born in 1815, she was the only legitimate child of Lord George Gordon Byron, who was famous as much for his scandalous, buccaneering lifestyle as for his status as one of the Romantic poets. His shadow would loom over her life - she called her sons Byron and Gordon; yet she never met him: he and her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke (known as Annabella), separated a month after Ada was born, and he subsequently left England for Europe, never to return. He died in Greece eight years later. Part of the reason for his departure was the amount of scandal surrounding his love life - in particular a probable relationship with his half-sister Augusta. These were the things that pushed him, but there was also something that pulled him: an irresistible craving for adventure, and for a life unshackled by the mores of English society.

Ada Lovelace

Annabella, left with her child, does not seem to have been a particularly affectionate mother, largely handing over the care of Ada to her own mother; but she did have strong views about how the child was to be brought up. Disturbed by Byron's behaviour and black moods, she had come to believe he was insane, and she determined to protect her daughter from insanity by means of education: Ada was to be taught mathematics and logic, and kept away from the dangerous possibilities of literature. One of her tutors was eminent mathemetician and astronomer Mary Somerville - after whom Somerville College in Oxford was later named - and the two became good friends. Ada seemed to have a natural propensity for science: when she was twelve, she decided she was going to learn to fly, and she went about her project methodically and seriously, deciding on suitable materials for wings and studying the anatomy of birds.

Her interest in mathematics continued, and she became friends with the eminent scientist Charles Babbage, working with him on his Analytical Engine, which is often said to be the first computer. Another eminent scientist, Michael Faraday, was impressed by the scientific papers she wrote on the workings of the engine; she saw possibilities as to how it might be used in a way which was over a hundred years ahead of her time. This was a time, remember, when new ideas were bubbling up in all sorts of different spheres: technology, botany, agriculture, ballooning, astronomy, the use of electricity - and, of course, in literature too. Byron himself was one of a group of successful poets including Shelley and Keats, with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey at a slight remove, all of whom, to a greater or lesser degree, plundered the worlds of science for imagery and ideas.

Ashley Combe House (now demolished)

In 1835, Ada married William, the eighth Baron King, later to become the Earl of Lovelace. The main family home was in Surrey - but they honeymooned at another family house on Exmoor, near Porlock Weir, called Ashley Combe. The house was on the steeply wooded slopes of the north coast, with dramatic views of the Bristol Channel. It's a stunningly beautiful area, and it's no surprise that Ada came to love it. She returned there frequently, and she and William redesigned the house, turning it into an opulent Italianate mansion - and they also improved the woodlands, planting exotic trees and creating dramatic viewpoints and a network of paths: she and Babbage discussed their ideas as they walked along these paths, perhaps ending up at the tiny Anglo-Saxon Culbone Church. These woods are a focus of interest again now: along the cliffs are pockets of temperate rain forest, where trees are hosts for lichens and mosses and ferns, thanks to the damp air which sweeps in from the west. Like many other nature-rich habitats in Britain, temperate rain forests have declined, so any remnants are doubly precious - and Ada played her part in protecting them.

She died young, at only 36 - the same age as her father. Like him, she had a life which didn't follow the expected pattern for her time and milieu. Her name is less well-known than his - yet arguably, she achieved far more. Sadly, she became estranged from her husband just months before her death; her mother swept in to care for her. Rather poignantly, she requested to be buried beside the father she had never known, in Nottinghamshire, near his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.

Friday 12 April 2024

Art, Colonialism and Change by Stephanie Williams

If you move fast, you can just catch the fabulous exhibition Entangled Pasts 1768-Now, Art, Colonialism and Change at the Royal Academy in London which ends on 28 April.

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA used the banisters of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire for his magnificent piece, 'Woman Moving Up'.  Slowly, but steadily, her head a globe of the world, she heaves herself and a suitcase full of heavy baggage, up a splendid marbled staircase. Photo Stephanie Williams

Moving round this exceptional exhibition, I was struck by how much more powerfully a single work of art – rather than any number of words -- can express the pain and contradictions of history. Yet at the same time, offer a fresh perspective on the brutally contrasting and intimately entangled pasts of Africa, India, Britain and the Americas.

Of which we still know so little.

Bust of a Man by Francis Harwood, 1758,
John Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
You enter the RA’s central rotunda to be greeted by a handful of fine portraits of Black men. Strong, handsome, elegant – among them works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, and John Singleton Copley. Each is accorded all the care and dignity, of any of their white sitters of their time. In the centre stands a black stone bust of a man from 1758 by Francis Harwood. Wonderfully lit, it is reflected up on a series of mirrors to alternate with busts of famous white men beneath the dome. The normal order of the white world has been subverted.

This is a show that makes its points with a light touch. Huw Locke’s Armada imagines the flotillas of craft engaged in the servicing of the plantation economy. At first these look magical. Mesmerising, tiny craft: fishing boats and lighters, miniature Spanish galleons. Look closer. High-rigged slaving ships, their sails, blackened and tattered, like the death ships they were. All are realised from abandoned lengths of string and cloth, plastic, wood and rubber and are suspended like flotsam and jetsam on uneven waves from the ceiling.

Hew Locke RA, Armada, 2017–19, Tate.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. 

Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe – celebrated in my Canadian past as one of the nation’s great heroes – was painted twenty years after his death after defeating the French on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec in 1759. At his feet sits an idealised First Nation man. In fact he is a Delaware, rather than any of the native tribes to be found in the locale.

Benjamin West, The Death of General James Wolfe (1727-1759) 1779.
National Gallery of Canada

As edition after edition of prints and copies of this painting, conceived as record of a great patriotic victory, were reproduced and circulated around Britain and the world, this image laid the ground for the ideal of the ‘noble savage’ — the admiring onlooker, which recurred in similar works again and again. Here it is challenged by the work of Robert Houle, a Saulteaux Anishinaabe artist, whose Lost Tribes, 1990-1991 can be seen in the next room.

Similarly, Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point series combines print-making and drawing to make the white figures who dominate well-known classical paintings, such as Titian, recede into the background, mere outlines impressed into paper, while traditionally marginalised Black figures rendered in graphite come vividly to life.

Each of these contemporary works force the viewer to assess well-known paintings from the white European canon afresh.

The Royal Academy itself comes under scrutiny for the works of art that were displayed at its Annual Exhibitions. And consider Johann Zoffany’s family portraits. A founder member of the Royal Academy, he had fallen out of favour with his royal patrons and sailed for India in 1783. Colonel Blair and His Family and an Indian Ayah shows an officer of the East India Company listening to his daughter Jane play the piano, fondly holding hands with his wife. To the right of the picture, his younger daughter, Maria, plays with a cat held by an Indian girl of about the same age. She is too young, surely, to be an ayah, the child’s nurse? Much more likely, she is the offspring of Blair’s Indian mistress.

Johann Zoffany, Colonel Blair and His Family and an Indian Ayah, 1786. Tate 

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) Poems on Various Subjects,
 religious and Moral, 1773.  The British Library
I make many new discoveries.

I had never heard of Phillis Wheatley, kidnapped from the Senegambia region of West Africa and enslaved by a family in Boston, who became a poet. Writing as confidently as any white male of the time, she bitterly protested the painting made by Richard Wilson of Niobe, — in Greek mythology the archetypal bereaved mother, who weeps throughout eternity for the loss of her 12 children, murdered by the gods. Niobe was made in 1761, the same year in which Wheatley was captured.

Nor did I know Shahzia Sikander, whose Promiscuous Intimacies 2020, knits together the Mannerist tradition of the west with classical Indian art to highlight the contradictions of a one-sided history.


Shahzia Sikander Promiscuous Intimacies  
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry

And have fun unpicking the rich symbolism of the Singh Twins in Indiennes: The Extended Triangle from the ‘Slaves of Fashion Series, 2018. 


The Singh Twins, Indiennes: The Extended Triangle 
from the 'Slaves of Fashion series, 2018, 
© The Singh Twins 

I have always been struck by the bombastic power – and incongruity -- of British architecture set down, often by Royal Engineers according to pattern books, in every former colony from Jamaica to Hong Kong. In Primitive Matters: Huts Karen McLean projects a series of large European style homes once owned by wealthy merchants and plantation owners in Port of Spain in Trinidad onto seven huts replicating the local vernacular.

Karen McLean, Primitive Matters, Huts 2010


There is much, more more to see.  Sit for a moment in front of Isaac Julien's film, Lessons of the Hour, about the abolitionist Frederick Douglas, who questioned, What to the Slave is the 4th of July?'  Consider Edwin Long's The Babylonian Marriage Market of 1875 shown not far from El Antsui's poignant Akua's Surviving Children 1996.   

University of London, Egham. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry

The counterpoint between past and present is a potent device indeed.  What a waste it is this show is not on for longer.


Entangled Pasts, 1768 - NOW 

Art, Colonialism and Change is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 

until 28 April 2024

Photo Bill Knight

Stephanie Williams is a Canadian writer based in London and delighted to be writing for the History Girls, a blog she has often investigated when doing historical research.  Author of BBC Book of the Week, Olga's Story, the life of her Russian Grandmother, her most recent book, Running the Showwas based on an 1879 questionnaire which revealed the extraordinary characters who were Queen Victoria’s colonial governors. She is now at work looking into the back-offices of the East India Company in London to find out  exactly what went on there. See more at

Friday 5 April 2024

The Men who Ate Gold ~ by Lesley Downer

Like a great cloud
The Wiraqochas [Whites]
Demanding gold
Have invaded us.         
The Death of Atau Wallpa, Runasimi [Quechua] epic lament
                                           put into writing in the 18th century
Inca Emperor, Museo Inkaryi, Valle Sagrado

I was recently lucky enough to go to the enchanting country of Peru and was captivated by its extraordinary landscape and tragic history ...

The all-conquering Atahualpa
In November 1532 the emperor of all the Incas, Atahualpa, was marching south to his capital, Cusco, accompanied by an army of 80,000 men in a vast triumphal cavalcade. After a long civil war he had captured his half brother, the then Inca, and made himself emperor - Inca - of the whole vast land of Tawantinsuyu.

Deep in the mountains he ordered his men to pitch camp in a lush fertile valley outside the small city of Cajamarca. There were so many tents pitched across the hillside that it was like a city. Atahualpa and his women stayed in a beautifully-appointed residence a few kilometres away, at a hot spring where mineral waters hissed and bubbled out of the ground. There was a bathhouse, hot and cold running water and a garden. There he engaged in a ceremonial fast, took the waters and recuperated from a war wound.

Inca emperor and courtiers in a palace 
of Inca stonework, Museo Inkaryi

 Atahualpa was an incredibly impressive presence. His crown was a multi-coloured braid like a coronet from which hung the imperial fringe ‘of fine scarlet wool’ spreading across his forehead. When he travelled he was borne aloft in a gold litter with such majesty that people left the roads on which he passed and ascended the hills to worship and adore him. He was far too grand for his feet ever to touch the ground.

The Four Quarters of the World

His grandfather, the great emperor Thupa Inka, who died in 1493, had been an Alexander the Great, who expanded his territory across not just modern-day Peru but much of modern-day Ecuador and Chile, creating the empire of Tawantinsuyu, ‘The Four Quarters of the World’, which ran along most of the east coast of South America. 

This was an incredibly sophisticated empire with a network of roads built for llamas to walk on, carefully irrigated agricultural terraces, great monuments and
Performer depicting an Inca woman

public buildings of masonry, great blocks of perfectly smooth stonework that slotted together like pieces of jigsaw puzzle and were never toppled even by the most violent earthquake. The Incas were the last of a long line of peoples all of whom left their mark on Peru; the Inca themselves were only here for a hundred years.

After his grandfather’s and his father’s deaths, civil war broke out between various half brothers; the old man had had some sixty sons. Eventually Atahualpa proved victorious. Now the time had come to consolidate his empire and establish his rule.

He’d already had news of the extraordinary strangers who had landed on the coast.

The gold eaters
There are coming men who never sleep and who eat silver and gold, as do their beasts who wear sandals of silver. And every night each of these speaks with certain symbols; and they are all enshrouded from head to foot, with their faces completely covered in wool so that all that can be seen are their eyes.
Waman Puma, 16th century native chronicler 
Performer depicting an Inca 

The newcomers were pale and hairy. People soon realised that they were not half man and half beast, like centaurs, but sitting on enormous animals, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. Atahualpa also heard that they were pillaging the countryside and abusing the local people.

But there were not that many - 168. Atahualpa had bigger things to worry about. He was still tidying up pockets of resistance, issuing orders to his army, arranging the occupation of the newly-won empire, awaiting reports from his commanders in the south and planning his journey to Cusco. In fact one of his nobles on his way south had already met the newcomers and spent a couple of days with them. He had even given them stuffed ducks to eat and gifts of pottery.
Atahualpa, 14th Inca, 18th century portrait,
courtesy Brooklyn Museum/wiki commons
The Spanish sent representatives to Atahualpa, who agreed to meet their leader, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, the following day in the central square of the town of Cajamarca. The town had been largely evacuated for the war. The barrack-like buildings that surrounded the square on three sides were empty. There Pizarro hid his men, horses and cannons. The 168 Spanish crouched in the shadows, awaiting the Inca, trembling with fear.
Showdown at Cajamarca
It was November 16th 1532.

Atahualpa arrived in a ceremonial parade. First came liveried men in chequered coats who sang as they cleared and swept the ground before him. Then came a troop of five or six thousand, almost all bearing only ornamental weapons. He left his main troops outside the town. He was not expecting an attack.
Gold and blue chequered cape
of feathers, Museo Larco, Lima

All the retainers wore large gold and silver discs like crowns. Eighty lords in rich blue livery carried Atahualpa’s litter on their shoulders. The timber ends were covered in silver and the litter was lined with multi-clouded parrot feathers and gleamed with plates of gold and silver. Atahualpa himself wore his imperial crown and a collar of large emeralds around his neck. A staff bearer carried Atahualpa’s royal standard with his personal coat-of-arms.

Perhaps Atahualpa was expecting this tiny contingent of men to be awestruck by the grandeur of his procession. He demanded that they return everything they had stolen since they had arrived in his kingdom.

Pizarro meets Atahualpa, by Waman Puma,
courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 But things did not go as expected. A Spanish friar stepped forward and started talking what must have sounded like nonsense to Atahualpa’s ears. He thrust a breviary - a service book - into the Inca’s hands. It must have been closed in some way. Atahualpa tried to open it and at first he couldn’t. He finally succeeded and stared at the pages, turning them over, not seeing the purpose of them. The Incas had no writing at this point. Then he tossed it impatiently onto the ground, looking furious.
‘By the grace of God’
It was the moment the Spanish had been waiting for. The Spanish Royal Council had issued a Requirement proclaiming that the newly discovered peoples should submit to God and the king of Spain and had declared that this Requirement had to be delivered before any bloodshed could take place. The friar screamed that Atahualpa had desecrated Holy Writ, giving the Spanish the excuse they needed to rush out and start killing.

What followed was a massacre. The Spanish, firing cannons, wearing armour and mounted on horses - none of which the Incas had ever seen - burst out of the barracks and into the square. The Inca troops were utterly panicked by the smoke and fire and steel and charging animals. Hundreds, trying to flee, trampled each other to death. The Spanish killed almost all the rest.

Portrait of Atahualpa, Museo Inka, Cusco

Atahualpa’s retainers gathered around him, protecting him and holding his litter high. When the Spanish sliced off their hands with their swords they heaved the litter up on their shoulders and when some were killed others rushed in to take their place. But eventually they were all slaughtered.

A Spanish soldier tried to kill Atahualpa but Pizarro parried the blow, shouting, ‘Do not kill him.’ Then he personally dragged the Inca emperor out of his litter by his hair.

As the Spanish records recount triumphantly, ‘And since the Indians were unarmed they were routed without any danger to any Christian.’ They later added, ‘It was by the grace of God, which is great.’

Gold, gold, gold!
Atahualpa was dragged off and imprisoned in a small room in Cajamarca. The Spanish were impressed with how very intelligent he was and what an able and resourceful man he was - obviously so if he’d won all these battles to make himself emperor. He was very curious about the Christian way of communicating by writing and spent his captivity learning Spanish, chess and cards.

Pizarro, Lima Cathedral

He quickly became aware of the Spanish obsession with gold. In fact he wondered whether they ate gold or were suffering from a disease for which gold was the only cure. To the Incas and the preceding peoples of Peru, gold and silver were beautiful materials from which to make marvellous objects. They were not interested in money, they had no money. They saw gold and silver as beautiful and even with religious significance.

Pachacuti, the great 9th Inca, Atahualpa's
great grandfather, in Cusco

Atahualpa offered to fill a large room, 22 feet long by 17 feet wide (6.7 by 5.17 metres), with gold objects and two equivalent rooms with silver in exchange for his freedom.

Even though he was imprisoned he was still emperor of his country. He ordered his general to strip Cusco of its gold and silver. He had never lived there - he’d grown up in the equatorial north - and had no attachment to it. Also it was the headquarters of one of his brothers who was of course his rival.

Between December 1532 and May 1553 caravans of precious objects crossed the mountains on llama-back to Cajamarca. When Atahualpa had fulfilled his part of the bargain and the rooms were full, Pizarro had it all melted down into ingots and shipped to Spain. Then he had Atahualpa garrotted and the Spanish marched on Cusco.

Cusco, Plaza de Armas

My sources are three wonderful books: The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming; Cut Stones and Crossroads by Ronald Wright; and 1491: The Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. Plus my own experiences of Peru.

All pictures except the Brooklyn Museum portrait of Atahualpa and Waman Puma's depiction of Atahualpa meeting Pizarro are mine.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. And watch out for The Shortest History of Japan, out soon! For more see