Peru Table of Contents
Woodcut of Potosí's Cerro Rico 123 by Agustín de Zárate, 1555
Church of San Antonio Abad in Cusco
Courtesy Inter-American Development Bank
While the Inca empire flourished, Spain was beginning to rise to prominence in the Western world. The political union of the several independent realms in the Iberian Peninsula and the final expulsion of the Moors after 700 years of intermittent warfare had instilled in Spaniards a sense of destiny and a militant religious zeal. The encounter with the New World by Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) in 1492 offered an outlet for the material, military, and religious ambitions of the newly united nation.
Francisco Pizarro, a hollow-cheeked, thinly beared Extremaduran of modest hidalgo (lesser nobility) birth, was not only typical of the arriviste Spanish conquistadors who came to America, but also one of the most spectacularly successful. Having participated in the indigenous wars and slave raids on Hispañiola, Spain's first outpost in the New World, the tough, shrewd, and audacious Spaniard was with Vasco Nuñez de Balboa when he first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean in 1513 and was a leader in the conquest of Nicaragua (1522). He later found his way to Panama, where he became a wealthy encomendero (see Glossary) and leading citizen. Beginning in 1524, Pizarro proceeded to mount several expeditions, financed mainly from his own capital, from Panama south along the west coast of South America.
After several failures, Pizarro arrived in northern Peru late in 1531 with a small force of about 180 men and 30 horses. The conquistadors were excited by tales of the Incas' great wealth and bent on repeating the pattern of conquest and plunder that was becoming practically routine elsewhere in the New World. The Incas never seemed to appreciate the threat they faced. To them, of course, the Spaniards seemed the exotics. "To our Indian eyes," wrote Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, the author of Nueva crónica y buen gobierno (New Chronicle and Good Government), "the Spaniards looked as if they were shrouded like corpses. Their faces were covered with wool, leaving only the eyes visible, and the caps which they wore resembled little red pots on top of their heads."
On November 15, 1532, Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca, the Inca's summer residence located in the Andean highlands of northern Peru, and insisted on an audience with Atahualpa. Guamán Poma says the Spaniards demanded that the Inca renounce his gods and accept a treaty with Spain. He refused. "The Spaniards began to fire their muskets and charged upon the Indians, killing them like ants. At the sound of the explosions and the jingle of bells on the horses' harnesses, the shock of arms and the whole amazing novelty of their attackers' appearance, the Indians were terrorstricken . They were desperate to escape from being trampled by the horses, and in their headlong flight a lot of them were crushed to death." Guamán Poma adds that countless "Indians" but only five Spaniards were killed, "and these few casualties were not caused by the Indians, who had at no time dared to attack the formidable strangers." According to other accounts, the only Spanish casualty was Pizarro, who received a hand wound while trying to protect Atahualpa.
Pizarro's overwhelming victory at Cajamarca in which he not only captured Atahualpa, but devastated the Inca's army, estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 warriors, dealt a paralyzing and demoralizing blow to the empire, already weakened by civil war. The superior military technology of the Spaniards--cavalry, cannon, and above all Toledo steel--had proved unbeatable against a force, however large, armed only with stone-age battle axes, slings, and cotton-padded armor. Atahualpa's capture not only deprived the empire of leadership at a crucial moment, but the hopes of his recently defeated opponents, the supporters of Huáscar, were revived by the prospect of an alliance with a powerful new Andean power contender, the Spaniards.
Atahualpa now sought to gain his freedom by offering the Spaniards a treasure in gold and silver. Over the next few months, a fabulous cache of Incan treasure--some eleven tons of gold objects alone--was delivered to Cajamarca from all corners of the empire. Pizarro distributed the loot to his "men of Cajamarca," creating instant "millionaires," but also slighting Diego de Almagro, his partner who arrived later with reinforcements. This sowed the seeds for a bitter factional dispute that soon would throw Peru into a bloody civil war and cost both men their lives. Once enriched by the Incas' gold, Pizarro, seeing no further use for Atahualpa, reneged on his agreement and executed the Inca--by garroting rather than hanging--after Atahualpa agreed to be baptized as a Christian.
Data as of September 1992
Peru Table of Contents