Pizarro and the Spanish Conquest of the Inca Empire

Francisco Pizarro

Francisco Pizarro was a conquistador in the truest sense of the word. He conquered the Incas, the largest empire in the Western Hemisphere, with only a few hundred men and established a Spanish foothold in South America that would last for several centuries to come.

The son of a Spanish soldier, Pizarro, like Hernan Cortes, was not of royal descent. He was, however, driven by the desire for fame, fortune, and adventure. Like many Spaniards of his day, he sought to make these dreams come true in the New World.

Pizarro was with Nunez de Balboa during his 1513 expedition in Panama. Balboa’s expedition is believed to be the first time any European saw the Pacific Ocean. While in Panama, Pizarro heard many rumors about a rich empire to the south. These rumors were true of course. The Inca Empire had wealth even greater than that of the Aztec Empire of Mexico.

For the next 15 years, Pizarro moved slowly south and helped to subdue native tribes. At every step, he continued hearing about the rich empire of the Incas. In fact, Pizarro did find the Incan city of Tumbes (sometimes spelled Tumbez). This, along with visits to two other Incan cities in the region, convinced Pizarro that he needed to explore further south and that he needed more men.

In 1528, Pizarro sailed to Spain to get support from King Charles V of Spain for a full-scale expedition to find and conquer the huge empire he had heard about. He took several natives, a llama, and New World golden treasures and showed them to the Spanish monarch. Charles V agreed to finance the expedition, and named Pizarro Governor and Captain General of the territories he would soon conquer.

Conquest of the Incas

Pizarro knew the conquest of the Incas would not be easy. He had the benefit, however, of knowing the strategies and tactics that Cortes used against the Aztecs, and Pizarro used many of them quite successfully against the Incas. Cortes went against the Aztecs less than 30 years after the arrival of Columbus, when Spain still barely had a foothold in the New World. Pizarro had a much larger body of knowledge to draw on when he set out from Panama in 1530 to conquer the Incas.

Pizarro also had the benefit of having other seasoned conquistadors along with him. Among these were Pizarro’s brothers, and in 1532, Hernando de Soto (the conquistador who explored Florida a few years later) joined the expedition.

From 1530 to 1532, Pizarro and his expedition probed the outskirts of the Inca Empire, conquering and recruiting allies along the way. He also discovered that the Incas were already fighting a war. This of course was a huge advantage to Pizarro. It slowed communication among the Incas, and it meant easier recruitment of allies that were hostile toward the central government of the Incas.

Perhaps the defining moment in Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas was the capture of Emperor Atahualpa. Like Cort├ęs’s capture of Moctezuma II, Pizarro’s capture of Atahualpa increased the confusion among the Incas, and helped slow the response to the inevitable attack on the heart of the Incan Empire.

Pizarro and Atahualpa met in 1532 at the city of Cajamarca. Pizarro had only about 180 men, but he also had the advantage of firearms, cannon, and horses. Atahualpa had thousands of Incan warriors with him.

Pizarro’s secretary, Francisco de Xeres wrote about the approach of Atahualpa.

First came a squadron of Indians dressed in a livery of different colors, like a chessboard. They advanced, removing the straws from the ground and sweeping the road. Next came three squadrons in different dresses, dancing and singing. Then came a number of men with armor, large metal plates, and crowns of gold and silver. Among them was Atahualpa in a litter lined with plumes of macaws' feathers of many colors and adorned with plates of gold and silver. Many Indians carried it on their shoulders on high . . .

According to Xeres, Pizarro sent a priest to speak first to the Incan emperor. The priest, Vicente, approached Atahualpa with a bible and said

I am a priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like manner I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book. Therefore, on the part of God and of the Christians, I beseech you to be their friend, for such is God's will, and it will be for your good. Go and speak to the Governor, who waits for you.

In effect, Friar Vicente was telling Atahualpa that resistance was futile. The Spaniards believed that, despite the long odds, they would be victorious (by peaceful means or otherwise) because God was on their side.

Xeres further reported that Atahualpa asked to see the Bible he was carrying, opened it, and threw it saying, “I know well how you have behaved on the road, how you have treated my chiefs, and taken the cloth from my storehouses… I will not leave this place until they bring it all to me.”

Vicente then returned to Pizarro and told him what happened. Chaos ensued…

Atahualpa stood up on the top of the litter, addressing his troops and ordering them to be prepared. The monk told the Governor what had passed between him and Atahualpa, and that he had thrown the Scriptures to the ground. Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly; and, with only four men who were able to follow him, he came to the litter where Atahualpa was, and fearlessly seized him by the arm, crying out, "Santiago!" Then the guns were fired off, the trumpets were sounded, and the troops, both horse and foot, sallied forth. On seeing the horses charge, many of the Indians who were in the open space fled, and such was the force with which they ran that they broke down part of the wall surrounding it, and many fell over each other. The horsemen rode them down, killing and wounding, and following in pursuit. The infantry made so good an assault upon those that remained that in a short time most of them were put to the sword. The Governor still held Atahualpa by the arm, not being able to pull him out of the litter because he was raised so high. Then the Spaniards made such a slaughter amongst those who carried the litter that they fell to the ground, and, if the Governor had not protected Atahualpa, that proud man would there have paid for all the cruelties he had committed. The Governor, in protecting Atahualpa, received a slight wound in the hand. During the whole time no Indian raised his arms against a Spaniard.

And so it was that the great Atahualpa was captured. The Incan emperor assumed that he would be killed by the invaders if they did not get what they wanted—gold. He was partly right. Gold was a primary motivation for the Spaniards in the New World, but they also wanted the true measure of wealth in their culture—land.

It merits reference that the Incas and Atahualpa probably did not understand the concept of land ownership. In most Native American cultures, such a concept did not exist. Native Americans had the belief that they belonged to the land, not the other way around.

Because he believed all the Spanish wanted was gold, Atahualpa made a generous offer to Pizarro, in the hope that the Spaniards would leave.

Atahualpa said: "I will give gold enough to fill a room twenty-two feet long and seventeen wide, up to a white line which is halfway up the wall." The height would be that of a man's stature and a half. He said that, up to that mark, he would fill the room with different kinds of golden vessels, such as jars, pots, vases, besides lumps and other pieces. As for silver, he said he would fill the whole chamber with it twice over. He undertook to do this in two months. The Governor told him to send off messengers with this object, and that, when it was accomplished, he need have no fear....

Realistically of course, Pizarro had no intention of letting Atahualpa go, but he could not refuse such a handsome offer. Pizarro must have also known that the Incas would not stand idly by and let their emperor be held in captivity. Perhaps, Pizarro used Atahualpa as bait to draw some of the empires remaining high officials into a fight. Whether or not this was the plan, word got back to Pizarro that the Incas were planning a counterattack, and the Spaniard seized the opportunity to charge Atahualpa with treason and execute him.

Then the Governor, with the concurrence of the officers of his Majesty, and of the captains and persons of experience, sentenced Atahualpa to death. His sentence was that, for the treason he had committed, he should die by burning, unless he became a Christian . . .

They brought out Atahualpa to execution; and, when he came into the square, he said he would become a Christian. The Governor was informed, and ordered him to be baptized. The ceremony was performed by the very reverend Father Friar Vicente de Valverde. The Governor then ordered that he should not be burned, but that he should be fastened to a pole in the open space and strangled. This was done, and the body was left until the morning of the next day, when the monks, and the Governor with the other Spaniards, conveyed it into the church, where it was interred with much solemnity, and with all the honors that could be shown it. Such was the end of this man, who had been so cruel. He died with great fortitude, and without showing any feeling . . .

One cannot help but question whether Xeres’s account is reliable. The section quoted above, however, does align with the practices of the day. Read any book about the inquisitions of the Church in Europe, and you will find very similar happenings. Non-Christians or Christians believed to be heretics were rounded up and asked to repent. Depending on the alleged crime, if the accused did repent, they could be executed anyway. The penalty for those that did not repent was most certainly always execution by burning. The fact is that Pizarro probably would have been well within his rights, by the standards of the day, to have executed Atahualpa immediately after he threw the Bible at their first meeting.

No doubt, the capture and execution/murder of Atahualpa hurt the Incas, but it did not lessen their resolve. They fought on, but their fate was sealed. Like the Aztecs and countless other Native American tribes, disease, inferior technology, and the world view of their opponents meant annihilation. Some estimates claim that 90% of the Incas were killed by disease alone. They continued their fight against the Spanish with spears and slings, but these weapons were no match for swords, crossbows and cannons. Furthermore, the Spanish believed it was their right and duty to conquer, subdue, and Christianize the Incas and anyone else they came upon.

In 1533, the Incan capital of Cuzco fell to the Spaniards. The conquest then continued south until Spain controlled all of Mexico, Central America, and South America (except Brazil and a few other small regions).

Francisco Pizarro went on to found the city of Lima, Peru in 1535. He ruled the South American portion of Spain’s New World empire from Lima until his assassination in 1541 at the hands of a rival conquistador’s men.

Related Links:

Capture of an Inca King: Francisco Pizarro
Incas and Conquistadors