How could the massive Inca Empire have been conquered by Francisco Pizarro and just 168 Spanish conquistadors? Pizarro and his men were the first Europeans to make contact with the vast Inca Empire, high in the Andes Mountains. In less than a decade, the Spaniards defeated the entire Incan army, hundreds of thousands of warriors strong.
The Inca Empire was the consolidation of former warring tribes of over 12 million, covering 700,000 square miles. The Empire had built over 15,000 miles of stone roads to connect its cities. Even before Columbus, the Incas possessed the largest empire in the Americas, surpassing even the Aztecs. Their land was also rich in gold and silver. Their empire included territory between the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon River, and stretched from today’s Ecuador down to northern Chile.
Who was the man who accomplished this? Francisco Pizarro was born in 1474 in Trujillo, Spain. His father and mother were poor farmers of low birth. Lured by tales of gold and adventure in the New World, a 28-year-old Pizarro joined 300 other settlers, to establish a colony in present day Colombia. Three months into their settlement, with food running low, only 100 managed to survive the natives and tropical diseases.
There, Pizarro next joined forces with Vasco de Balboa as a captain on the 1513 expedition to found a new colony on the opposite side of Panama. There they ‘discovered’ the Pacific Ocean and it became the first Spanish settlement on the South American west coast. From 1519 to 1523, Pizarro served as mayor of the town of Panamá and slowly grew wealthy and powerful. But this was not enough for the ambitious Pizarro. He’d read Hernando Cortes’ account of the conquest of the Aztecs and was greedily inspired. Pizarro partnered with another fellow soldier, Diego de Almagro. From 1524 to 1528, they sailed numerous voyages of discovery and conquest down the west coast.
In 1526, Pizarro arrived on the coast of Peru and heard stories of the Incan Empire, a great ruler, and his vast riches, high in the Andes mountains. They encountered an Incan trading ship full of silver and gold. He captured the ship and trained some of its crew to be interpreters. He then sailed back to Spain to get royal permission to claim the land for the Spanish Empire. King Charles agreed and promised him governorship of any lands he conquered.
Pizarro quickly returned to Columbia on his quest.
In 1532, Pizarro was 54 years old, with now three decades of fighting experience in the Americas. He was accompanied by three half-brothers and two other conquistadors, Diego de Almagro and Hernando de Soto. They landed on the Peruvian coast and began to march inland. But even with a handful of experienced soldiers, how did this small company defeat the mighty Incan army? Pizarro’s company consisted of only 168 men who were generally lower class, illiterate, and title-less. Joining military campaigns in the New World offered one of the few ways to better one’s status by stripping the wealth from the natives.
Through his interpreters, Pizarro learned that the Inca Empire had recently been embroiled in a long civil war, following the death of the former Incan ruler Huayna Capac. Atahualpa, his younger illegitimate son, had just defeated his older half-brother Huascar in a battle at the Incan capital of Cuzco. This war had divided the people’s loyalties. Atahualpa was still in the middle of reuniting his weakened kingdom when Pizarro and his men arrived. The conquistador realized the new Incan ruler was vulnerable. On his way inland to the capital, Pizarro began secretly recruiting warriors still loyal to Huascar.
Similar to Cortes’ earlier conquest of the Aztecs, Pizarro benefited from confusion on the part of the native people. When the Spaniards first entered their empire, the Incans were not sure whether the armored Spanish conquistadors atop horses they had never before seen were gods or men.
Word reached the Emperor that they were in fact evil men who enslaved people and cherished gold. Rather than attacking, Atahualpa agreed to meet with Pizarro’s half-brother and Hernando de Soto. The two men vigorously denied the rumors and said that they were there simply to bring the word of their benevolent God to the Incan people. They invited him to meet with Pizarro in person at the city of Cajamarca, at a great feast in honor of the new emperor. Atahualpa agreed.
It would prove to be a deadly decision.
On November 16, 1532, Francisco Pizarro daringly sprung his trap on the Incan emperor with only 168 men. Though the emperor had nearly 80,000 warriors in the surrounding mountains, Atahualpa attends the feast with only 6,000 unarmed men. The Spanish conquistadors arrived fully armed with their armor, artillery, horses and weapons hidden.
On reaching the square, Atahualpa remained high on his litter. The emperor was met first by Vicente de Valverde, a Catholic friar holding a crucifix and a bible. “I am a priest of God, and I teach Christians. And in like manner, I come to teach you what God says to us in this holy book. “
While Pizarro’s men lay in wait, Valverde urged Atahualpa to convert to Christianity and accept King Charles V as his sovereign. Atahualpa asked for the book, then carelessly tossed it to the ground. “I know well how you have behaved, how you have treated my people, and robbed from my storehouses.”
Upon seeing and hearing this, Pizarro, came out with only four men and approached the litter where Atahualpa sat. He jumped up, seized the emperor’s arm, crying out a signal his hidden men, “Santiago!”
A bugle was sounded, artillery guns fired off, and the 168 conquistadors, on horse and foot, rushed in. The Spanish gunfire, artillery and cavalry stunned the Incans, allowing the outnumbered Spaniards to dominate the attack. Trapped in tight quarters, the unarmed Incan soldiers made easy prey for the conquistadors. Some panicked and ran. The horsemen rode them down, killing them in pursuit.
Pizarro still held the Emperor by the arm, with his sword drawn.
In a short-time, most Incans were shot or put to the sword. All those surrounding the litter of Atahualpa were his chiefs. They were all killed as well. Pizarro’s men slaughtered over 6,000 Incans in just over an hour … with no Spaniard lost. The end result was the capture of Atahualpa himself. Pizarro took Atahualpa to his headquarters, ordered his royal robes removed and replaced with native clothes.
“Do not take it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, by Christians so few in number. I have conquered greater kingdoms than yours for the dominion of the King of Spain.”Francisco Pizarro to Emperor Atahualpa
Pizarro knew Atahualpa was more valuable alive than dead. He kept the emperor captive while he made plans to take over his empire. Pizarro forced Atahualpa to order his military leaders to back down and not attack them. This was key for Pizarro, as he was heavily outnumbered. They marched to the capital of Cuzco and used Atahualpa to control the Incan army and people.
In response, Atahualpa appealed to his captors’ greed. He told Pizarro that in exchange for his freedom, he would give the Spaniards a great quantity of gold and silver, ‘enough to fill a room twenty-two feet long and seventeen wide, up to the height of a man.’ Pizarro agreed of course, without ever intending to release the emperor. He told him to send off messengers with this order.
The Spanish conquistadors oversaw the Incans gathering gold and silver from across the Empire. They brought vases, jars, statues, and furniture made of gold and silver. Hundreds of thousands of pesos worth arrived, and undertaking that took two months to complete. The Spaniards began to melt it down to prepare it for shipment back to Spain.
Having received their ransom, Pizarro was now faced with what to do with Atahualpa.
Now that the emperor had played his part, Pizarro considered him disposable. A rebel chief informed Pizarro that Atahualpa had secretly sent orders to collect troops to march against and kill the Spaniards. Pizzaro then spoke to Atahualpa, “What treason is this that you have prepared for me? For me who have treated you with honor, and have trusted in your words!” Atahualpa reportedly answered with a laugh, saying: “What am I and all my people that we should trouble such valiant men as you are? Do not talk such nonsense to me.”
Pizarro brought Atahualpa up on charges of insurrection and treason. The emperor was to be publicly burned at the stake—a fitting death for a “heathen.” Friar Valverde offered the emperor clemency from the fire, if he would convert to Christianity. Atahualpa submitted. He was baptized by the Friar, then executed by strangulation at the stake the same day, August 29, 1533. It is said he died without showing fear. The body was left there until the next day when the Spaniards conveyed it into a new church, where it was buried with honors.
Pizarro replaced him with a puppet emperor from amongst the resistance, Manco Inca Yupanqui. However, after three years, the young emperor escaped and gathered a guerrilla army against Spanish rule. A final Spanish-Inca War started with the siege of Cuzco in 1536.
The empire had been able to conquer neighboring lands. However, their weaponry proved to be less effective against the conquistadors. Incan warriors were armed with spears, arrows, and axes; and were skilled at hand-to-hand combat. This was not well-suited for fighting Spanish armor, swords and guns. Another disadvantage was the efficient Spaniard cavalry. Like the Aztecs, horses were completely foreign to the Incas, though Pizarro’s force included only 37.
The Incan army had lost Atahualpa’s top 3 generals, in fighting following the emperor’s execution. The siege of Cuzco lasted a year, from 1536 to 1537. Manco Inca’s 200,000 troops began their assault, occupying most of the city, while 196 conquistadors and 500 native allies held out in the city center. The conquistadors then counterattacked. They battled brutally in the streets for days, the Spaniards using their guns and cavalry to push the rebels out.
Manco Inca’s forces failed to oust the handful of Spanish conquistadors from their own capital city. The Incan army was forced to retreat into the mountains. From there, Manco Inca would be hunted through the Andes until his ultimate death at the hands of the Spaniards in 1544.
What became of Francisco Pizarro in the end?
Pizarro’s old partner Diego de Almagro became his rival for control of Cuzco in 1537. Almagro took control of Cuzco after one of Pizarro’s half-brothers was killed during the revolt. Pizarro was in Lima, now too old to fight, so he sent his other half-brother to Cuzco. They succeeded in defeating and capturing Almagro. Pizarro had him beheaded for treason.
In retaliation however, armed supporters of Almagro’s son, snuck into Lima and broke into Pizarro’s palace at night. They assassinated the conquistador in his bed chamber on June 26, 1541, brutally stabbing him in the throat. For the Spanish conquistador, who claimed only to be spreading Christianity to the heathens, it mirrored the old biblical adage, he who lives by the sword, shall die by the sword.