In 1492, when Christopher Columbus, a Genoese merchant turned an explorer in the service of the Spanish Royal Crown, reached the first island in the western hemisphere, little did he suspect he’d just discovered a brand new continent. He called these new territories West Indies, since he believed he reached the goal of his voyage, India, the land of spices.
In total, Columbus made four voyages to the West Indies, where he founded, with his brother, the settlements of La Navidad and Santo Domingo on the Hispaniola Island (what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
By 1500, an estimated 300 to 1000 Spanish settled in that area. In 1509, Jamaica was colonized, three years later in 1512, Cuba.
That laid the foundations for the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
Alonso de Ojeda set out for today’s Columbia and Vasco Nuñez de Balboa for Panama, but it wasn’t until Hernan Cortés conquered the first great indigenous empire, the Aztec Empire, that the phase of inland expeditions and conquests fully started. Cortés set foot on the territory of today’s Mexico in 1519, and it took him two years to conquer the Aztecs. In 1521, he destroyed their capital of Tenochtitlan and built on its ruins the first Spanish metropolis on the American continent, Mexico City. He named it in honor of the Aztecs, who called themselves Tenochca or Mexica.
The Inca Empire was next.
An illegitimate son of a Spanish captain, of Pizarro’s early years little is known. Growing up in one of Spain’s poorest regions, he never learnt to read or write. In 1507, at the age of 27, and after gaining some military experience in local wars, he set out for Hispaniola with the governor of that colony.
After arrival, he showed little interest in the settled life of a colonizer, preferring instead to take part in various missions of exploration and conquest, such as an expedition to Columbia, or an expedition that ended in the discovery of the Pacific Ocean.
In 1523, Pizarro set out on a voyage of his own down the coast of the Pacific, an expedition, that would eventually lead to his fame. Hearing of a gold-rich territory located on a river called Pirú (the name was later corrupted to Perú), he decided to explore and ultimately conquer the land. For this reason, he formed an alliance with two partners, a soldier named Diego de Almagro and a priest named Hernando de Luque.
The search of Colombia and the Ecuadorian coast didn’t bring any of the golden treasures their compatriots had found in the Aztec Mexico a decade earlier. Instead, they encountered hardships, such as bad weather, lack of food and skirmishes with hostile natives, which caused Almagro to lose an eye by an arrow-shot.
The expedition was a failure, and so was the second one two years later.
Pizarro wouldn’t give up. While he and his men stayed on an Ecuadorian island, Almagro was sent back to Panama for reinforcements. When he returned with orders from the Panama governor to terminate the expedition, Pizarro drew with his sword a famous line in the sand and said: “Those on that side of the line can go back to Panama and be poor, those on this side can come to Peru with me and be rich.”
Only 13 of Pizarro’s men decided to stay with him, who later became known as “the thirteen of the fame,” the conquistadors of Peru.
Needing the Crown’s support for his third expedition, Pizarro left for Spain to apply to the sovereign in person to gain his approval for his conquest.
The king was impressed at the accounts of Pizarro, and gave him not only a license for the expedition but also Spanish authority over any lands conquered.
The new expedition left Spain the following year, in January 1530, with Pizarro, his brothers and friends onboard. In total, it numbered three ships, 180 men and 27 horses.
The ships sailed directly for Panama, and soon after arrival by January the next year, Pizarro and his associates, all well in their 50s, set off for Peru.
At that time, the Inca Empire was the largest in the Americas, with the most developed political and administrative structures. It extended across western South America from Quito in the north to Chile in the south, comprising Peru, Bolivia, upland Argentina and southern Colombia, a total of 3,400 miles north to south. This huge territory with some 10 to 15 million inhabitants was governed by 40,000 Incas, who disposed of an army of 40,000.
The rise of the Inca Empire had been spectacularly quick. The Inca started out as a minor agricultural state in the valley of Cusco in central Peru in the early 13th century, and 200 years later, in the 15th century, grew into a mighty empire.
During this time, the Inca constructed some of the most marvelous stone structures in the world, using stonemasonry techniques that are not satisfactorily explained to this day. They constructed systems of advanced aqueducts, canals and drainage channels, all tremendous works of civil and hydraulic engineering that are still in place. Their extensive road network run for around 25,000 miles across some of the most difficult terrains on earth, and is also still in use. To maximize the efficiency of their agriculture, the Inca used terraced mountain farming, which created breath-taking mountain landscapes, models of successful adaptation to the environment.
In 1532, when the Spaniards arrived to Peru, a devastating six-year war of succession between Huascar and Atahualpa, the sons of Inca Emperor Huayna Capac, had gripped the empire.
Huayna Capac was the grandson of Pachacutec, the ninth Inca Emperor, who had started the expansion of the Inca Empire from its base around Cusco. Huayna Capac continued this expansion by taking Inca armies north into Ecuador, from where, after his death, Atahualpa ruled the northern part of the empire and Huascar ruled the southern part with Cusco.
In May 1532, Atahualpa’s army defeated the forces of his half-brother Huascar, imprisoning him and massacring his family.
That day, Atahualpa became the last Inca Emperor.
Six months later after this victory, Pizarro and his 180 soldiers appeared.
At that time, Atahualpa was encamped with a force of nearly 80,000 battle-tested troops in northern Peru near Cajamarca in the thermal baths, known today as the Baños del Inca. He was getting ready for his final takeover of Cusco.
On Friday, November 15, the Spaniards approached Cajamarca.
After marching for almost two months, Pizarro and his meager force of only 110 foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets (light cannons) were ready for a confrontation.
The dilemma Pizarro faced was that a direct assault on the Inca armies would be suicidal; a retreat would invite pursuit and doing nothing would undermine the natives’ fear of their horses, fire arms and iron weaponry.
Instead, he prepared an ambush with the intent to capture the Inca emperor from within his own armies.
Since this couldn’t be accomplished in an open field, Pizarro invited the Inca ruler to meet in Cajamarca.
Fresh from his victories against his half-brother and confidently surrounded by his own army, the Inca emperor felt he had little to fear from Pizarro’s tiny troop of soldiers. He agreed to see him in his Cajamarca plaza fortress the next day.
Pizarro proceeded to stage an ambush, taking advantage of the labyrinth-like architecture of the Inca town. He strategically has his men hide within the buildings of the plaza, his infantry guard the entrances to the square, and the men with arquebuses and small cannons take up places within it. They are all to remain silent until guns are fired.
During the long hours of waiting, tensions rose to the point that many of the outnumbered Spanish soldiers urinated “out of pure terror.”
In the afternoon, Atahualpa finally showed up with his forces.
As a sign of good will and absolute confidence, he decided to enter the city with only his retinue, leaving the armed warriors far outside the walls about half a mile from the city.
This is a fatal mistake, that will seal his fate and that of the Inca empire, one of the world’s greatest civilizations.
Atahualpa’s intentions are not to fight, but to impress the Spaniards with a display of splendor. His party numbers of over seven thousand are unarmed, except for small battle axes intended for show, and lassos for hunting llamas. The Inca himself is carried by eighty courtiers in vivid blue clothing in a palanquin lined with parrot feathers and covered in silver. Banner bearers are dressed in ceremonial garments, wearing gold or silver discs on their heads, and preceded by a group of servants in checkered colors, who sing while sweeping the roadway in front of Atahualpa.
The Inca emperor has no idea of the ambush.
The whole procession enters the center of the square and stops.
Out of one of the houses comes a priest carrying a cross and a Bible. He approaches the Inca ruler and starts demanding that he accepts Catholicism as his faith and Charles V of Spain as his ruler.
The priest offers Atahualpa the Bible, saying “it has all the answers.”
Atahualpa has never seen a book before, so he puts it next to his ear and waits for it to give him the answers. When it doesn’t, he throws the Bible to the ground and claims: “I will be no man’s tributary!”
This is perceived as the signal to attack. A shot from a cannon is fired, followed by a battle cry of “Santiago!” It is November 16, 1532, and the Battle of Cajamarca has just started.
Unleashing gunfire at the vulnerable natives who have never seen firearms before, the Spaniards charge with a cavalry, whose horses have ringing bells on them to frighten the Inca.
The effect is devastating. The shocked and unarmed Inca offer so little resistance that the battle soon turns into a massacre.
The first target of the attack is Atahualpa. The Spanish lunge forward, severing the hands and arms of the attendants, that carry Atahualpa’s palanquin, to force them to drop it so they can reach him. Ignoring their wounds, the attendants use their stumps and remaining hands to hold it up, until several are killed and the palanquin slumps.
Immediately, large numbers of Atahualpa’s servants rush to place themselves between the Emperor and the Spaniards, allowing themselves to be killed in the process.
While his men are violently cutting Atahualpa’s court down, Pizarro rides through to where a Spanish soldier has just pulled the Inca down from his palanquin to kill him, and blocks the attack.
He is well aware of the Emperor’s value as a hostage.
Atahualpa is hit by a blow on the head and taken captive.
The battle is over shortly after sunset. Seven thousand Inca are killed, including Atahualpa’s 12-man honor guard, against zero Spanish losses.
The main Inca force that remained outside Cajamarca, scatter in confusion. Although they are seasoned warriors who outnumber the Spaniards more than 45 to 1, the shock of the Spanish attack and the spiritual significance of losing the Sapa Inca, the Emperor of the Inca, shatter their morale to the point that they initiate a massive retreat.
In exchange for his release, the captured Atahualpa offers to fill a room with treasure. Pizarro gladly accepts.
Brought over the next 8 months from throughout the Inca empire are 24 tons of gold and silver. A chamber of 22 x 17 feet is piled high with gold objects, then filled twice again with silver items. The total value amounts to well over $50 billion today.
Although Atahualpa provides the ransom (the richest ransom in the history of the world), Pizarro has no intention of releasing him. Instead, Atahualpa is put on trial. Trying to find a reason to execute him, Atahualpa is convicted of 12 charges, including killing his brother (that he had had removed during his captivity thinking he’d use the Spaniards as allies to regain power), and plotting against Pizarro and his forces.
On August 29, 1533, at the age of 31, the Inca Emperor is tied to a stake and offered the choice of being burned alive or strangled, if he converts to Christianity. In the hope of preserving his body for mummification, a prerequisite to enter the afterlife, Atahualpa chooses the latter and an iron collar is being slowly tightened around his neck until he dies.
The execution of Atahualpa, the last reigning Sapa Inca, marks the end of 300 years of Inca civilization and the starting stage of the conquest of Peru.
After the execution, Pizarro and his army initiate their march on Cuzco, entering the city in November 1533. The golden treasures of the Inca capital city and the Coricancha Temple are stripped, melted down and made into bars, just like Atahualpa’s ransom.
Manco Inca, another of Huayna Capac’s 50 sons, is installed as a puppet Inca emperor.
A year later, Manco escapes and attempts an unsuccessful recapture of Cuzco that is quickly crushed. Retreating to the fortress at Ollantaytambo, Manco Inca keeps launching attacks against Pizarro, and manages to defeat the Spanish once in an open battle.
Eventually, though, he is forced to flee south into the jungle where he sets up an Inca enclave at Vilcabamba, the legendary Lost City of the Inca. From here, he and his successors will resist for another four decades until in 1572, a Spanish force captures the last Inca king, Tupac Amaru, takes him back to Cuzco and executes him.
With him, the last Inca ruler is gone.
That seals the conquest of Peru, which took about forty years to complete.
In 1535, two years after capturing the Inca capital, Pizarro established the coastal city of Lima as the new capital of Peru in order to facilitate communication with Panama, since Cusco was too high up in the mountains and too far from the sea. It was this Lima foundation he considered his greatest achievement.
After the final takeover of Cuzco, a dispute occurred between Pizarro and Almagro, concerning the limits of their governorates since both claimed the city. This led to confrontations between the Pizarro brothers and Almagro, who was eventually defeated in 1538 and executed.
In June 1541, allies of Almagro’s son penetrated Pizarro’s palace in Lima, and assassinated the 63-year old conquistador while he was eating dinner.
Almagro’s son proclaimed himself governor of Peru but the Spanish crown refused to recognize him, had him captured and executed.
Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador of Peru, was laid to rest in the Lima Cathedral.
Pizarro left behind the mestizo children he had with Inés Yupanqui, a sister of Atahualpa, whom he took as a mistress and who gave birth to a son (who died when 14) and a daughter, Francisca. After Pizarro’s death, Inés married a Spanish cavalier and left for Spain, taking her daughter with her, who’d later be legitimized and eventually marry her uncle, Hernando Pizarro.
Another son of Pizarro, by a wife of Atahualpa, that he took as a mistress as well, was never legitimized and died shortly after reaching Spain.
Historians have often compared Pizarro’s and Cortés’s careers and conquests in North and South America as very similar in style and execution, since they both used alliances with the enemies of the Inca or the Aztecs to achieve their conquests. Pizarro, though, faced the Inca with a smaller army and fewer resources than Cortés, and at a much greater distance from the Spanish Caribbean outposts that could support him.
A large part in both conquests was also played by superior weaponry and epidemics of Old World diseases, like smallpox and measles, that were new to the native populations of South America, who had no immunity to them and suffered very high rates of death.
These, along with violence and enslavement under the Spanish elite, amounted to 93 % of mortality rate of the local populations between 1491 and 1691, or to around 130 million people.
The lands of the New World were transformed forever.