The Conquest of the Americas (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)

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The Conquest of the Americas (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)

Major Figures

Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés (ca. 1484–1547) led the conquest of Mexico, which resulted in the defeat of the Aztec empire and the establishment of Spanish rule on the American mainland.

Before the Americas

Cortés’s parents were minor nobles named Martín Cortés de Monroy and Catalina Pizarro Altimarano (a relative of Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of Peru). The parents hoped that Cortés would choose law as his profession, but after only two years of study, he left the University of Salamanca. Cortés intended to assume a soldier’s life in Italy, but an injury delayed his departure. When he finally did set sail in 1506, he went not to Italy but to the Americas.

Early Years in the New World

After several years as a farmer, miner, and notary in Hispaniola, Cortés joined the 1511 Cuban campaign of Diego Velázquez. Here Cortés again worked as a notary, acquired land, and found gold, and he also married Catalina Suarez. Despite trouble between the two men, Velázquez appointed Cortés captain-general of the expedition to Yucatan in 1518. This required financial investment from Cortés, who set about making the arrangements. In early 1519, Velázquez changed his mind, but Cortés set sail anyway.

The Conquest of Mexico

After a brief period at the island of Cozumel, the expedition proceeded to the mainland. Although vastly outnumbered, Cortés led his men, equipped with horses, guns, and Spanish military tactics, to victory against the Tabascans. The defeated Tabascans gave Cortés gold from a land they called “Mexico” and twenty slave girls, among them a young woman called La Malinche who served as interpreter and who later gave birth to Cortés’s son.

Aware of the riches to be found inland, Cortés took his fleet up the coast to a site where he founded Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. He then established a town council to elect him chief justice and captain of the army. This was a crucial step, because by founding a colony Cortés removed himself from Velázquez’s jurisdiction and put himself directly under that of the Spanish crown. Some members of his party considered this to be an act of rebellion, but in the end all threw their lots in with Cortés.

By the time he arrived at the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, in November 1519, Cortés had greatly increased the size of his forces. Through a series of bloody battles, he won the allegiance of the Totonacs, the Tlascala, and other groups who were willing to oppose the Aztecs. Lying to Moctezuma, Cortés claimed to be an emissary of Charles V, come to invite Moctezuma to become a vassal of a king who already ruled (as Cortés said) most of the world. The deaths of several Spaniards in a dispute with an Aztec vassal on the coast gave Cortés the opportunity to convince Moctezuma to surrender himself. Somewhat amazingly, Moctezuma complied, and so Cortés gained control of the emperor of the Aztecs.

But Velazquez had sent Pánfilo Narváez after him, forcing Cortés to leave the capital in May 1520, under the care of Pedro de Alvarado. After Cortés had dealt with Narváez, he returned to find Alvarado besieged by the Aztecs. The Spaniards escaped the city in a devastating retreat known as La Noche Triste (“Sorrowful Night”), but returned to besiege Tenochtitlan through the summer of 1571. After the siege was successful, Cortés razed the magnificent Aztec city and, upon its ruins, founded Mexico City.


His victory won him appointment as governor in 1522, the same year La Malinche gave birth to his son Martín, and his wife Catalina died under questionable circumstances. (Cortés’s possible guilt in the matter was debated by both his contemporaries and modern historians.) Cortés took advantage of his status to promote conversion of the local population to Christianity, which he had initiated even during the conquest. He encouraged the introduction of European crops and domestic animals. He also undertook the production of guns and artillery and authorized an expedition that sailed as far west as the Philippines.

The Campaign in Honduras

Cortés dispatched Pedro de Alvarado to seize Guatemala and Cristóbal de Olid to take Honduras. Olid, under the influence of Cortés’s old rival Velázquez, declared his independence from Spain, so Cortés, in the company of the new Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc, went south to defeat him.

This brutal campaign lasted nearly two years. By the time Cortés caught up with the rebels, many of his soldiers were dead, Cuauhtémoc had been murdered, Cortés himself was wounded, and Olid had already been killed. Cortés returned to Mexico in 1526, to the surprise of many. They had thought him dead, and the government of Mexico was now in the control of others.

A Decline of Power

A cloud of suspicion, generated by the purportedly suspicious deaths of two Spanish officials, fell over Cortés, whose enemies were generating rumors both in Mexico and in Spain. In spring of 1528, Cortés traveled to Spain hoping to convince Charles V to appoint him viceroy. The emperor granted him titles and what amounted to a huge land grant, but his bid for the viceroyship failed, and Cortés and his new wife, Juana de Zúñiga, returned to New Spain.

Even stripped of his formal high appointments, Cortés was wealthy and could send out expeditions. In 1534 he founded a pearl fishery in Baja California, but the new viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, refused to let him seek out the “Seven Cities of Cíbola,” now known to be pueblos in Arizona and New Mexico.

Frustrated, the conqueror of Mexico returned to Spain in 1540, only to discover that Charles V was away from the court. The following year Cortés joined a campaign to capture Algiers, a port in North Africa used as a base by a dangerous band of pirates. A shipwreck nearly cost him his life and did cost him five priceless carved Mexican emeralds. The undertaking also cost him a significant portion of his honor, when he was not invited to a war council at which it was decided to cancel the siege. Back in Spain, Cortés gave up on lawsuits he had pending and drafted his will. On December 2, 1547, he died. His remains were returned to Mexico.

Pedro de Alvarado

The Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado (1485–1541) participated in the Spanish conquest of Mexico and led the conquest of Guatemala. During the former, his actions brought about a series of events culminating in the battle known as La Noche Triste.

Early Years in the West Indies

Born in Badajoz, Spain, to a family of minor nobility, Pedro de Alvarado left to seek his fortune in the New World in 1510. Eight years later he joined Juan de Grijalva’s expedition to the Yucatan, dispatched by Governor Diego Velázquez. During this expedition, Alvarado disobeyed orders by navigating up a river when separated from the rest of the fleet. This was an early display of his typical brashness, a trait that would later cause great trouble for himself and his fellow Spaniards.

Grijalva discovered that the Yucatan was a peninsula of a mainland and that a gold-rich land called Mexico lay at the heart of it. Alvarado sailed back to Cuba with the news and the gold to prove it. In 1519, Velázquez arranged for another expedition, commanded by Hernán Cortés, with Alvarado as Cortés’s lieutenant.

The Conquest of Mexico

In the company of his four brothers, Alvarado sailed for Cozumel before the rest of the fleet, again without authorization. Cortés caught up the following day, and together the fleet set off for the mainland. The Spaniards penetrated Mexico quickly but not easily; by early November, using wits rather than weaponry, they occupied the Aztec island-capital Tenochtitlan and had the emperor Moctezuma as their privileged hostage.

The Aztecs seemed to like Alvarado, whose sense of humor they appreciated. When tallying Cortés’s points in a game played between the Spaniard and the emperor, he would add to Cortés’s score, an open bit of cheating that everyone found amusing because what Cortés won was given to the Aztec servants, and what Moctezuma won was given to the Spanish guards. However, this camaraderie would not last.

In late spring 1520, Alvarado found himself commanding a garrison of no more than 120 men in Tenochtitlan, while Cortés took the rest to fend off a rival party of conquistadors landed on the coast by Velázquez. The motivation for Alvarado’s next display of unfortunate audacity will never be known for sure. Whether inspired by fear of an Aztec revolt or merely opportunism (humor aside, he was known for his brutality), Alvarado led a massacre of Aztec nobility during a religious celebration.

This precipitated a revolt that pinned the Spaniards in the city until Cortés returned with reinforcements. During La Noche Triste, the Spaniards escaped but only with a heavy loss of life. Alvarado brought up the rear and narrowly escaped death, but the story that he vaulted across a gap in the causeway by means of a pike is merely legend. By his own account, he crossed that gap on a beam.

After the siege and destruction of Tenochtitlan (in 1522), Alvarado was appointed alcalde (administrator) of Mexico City, a place founded upon the ruins of Tenochtitlan. Yet bureaucratic chains did not bind him to the city.

The Conquest of Guatemala

Alvarado ventured farther south in 1522, at which time he subdued the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of the Oaxaca Valley. He went south again in 1523, taking an army into Guatemala for two years of campaigning. He made an alliance with the Cakchiquels, who helped him defeat their enemies (the Quiché), but the partnership disintegrated in the face of Alvarado’s cruelty, and he spent several years putting down indigenous resistance. During this period he founded what became the colonial capital of Guatemala, Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala. In the course of his conquests, he was so badly wounded in one leg that it shortened, and he walked thereafter with a limp.

Last Years

Alvarado sailed to Spain in 1526 and returned a married man bearing the titles of governor and captain-general of Guatemala. But he was widowed in 1528 before he and his new bride could reach Guatemala. By then, he had heard of the immense wealth to be had even farther south, in what is now Ecuador and Peru.

Although lacking royal sanction, Alvarado assembled a company of five hundred experienced Spaniards and thousands of Guatemalans and brought them toward the Inca city of Quito, a region already occupied by the forces of Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro. Almagro hurried to the area and negotiated Alvarado’s withdrawal. In return for a sizable sum of money (some sources put the amount at 120,000 gold coins), Alvarado surrendered most of his forces and returned home.

Word of this affair reached Charles V of Spain, who forgave Alvarado’s indiscretion and granted him the title of governor of Honduras. While in Spain from 1537 to 1539, Alvarado also received papal permission to wed the sister of his late wife before sailing back to Guatemala. In 1541, the Viceroy of New Spain (as the Spanish colonies were called) sent him to aid the governor of Guadalajara, who was trying to suppress an uprising of the Cazcanes. While retreating from an unsuccessful attempt to take the peak of Nochixtlan, Alvarado’s horse fell. Alvarado died of injuries sustained in this fall a week later.

His widow, Doña Beatriz de la Cueva, assumed her husband’s title, becoming the only woman governor in the Spanish colonial Americas. Her reign lasted only a few days, cut short by the eruption of the volcano called De Agua, which destroyed the city of Guatemala and claimed many lives, including that of the new governor.

La Malinche

Also known as Malinali, Malintzin, and Doña Marina, La Malinche (c. 1505–1530 or 1551) served as an interpreter for the Spanish conquest of Mexico led by Hernán Cortés. After the defeat of the Aztecs, she became Cortés’s lover and bore him a son.

Before the Spaniards

Malinali, as she was originally named, was born into a Nahuatl-speaking family of high status. (“Malinche” derives from “Malintzin,” a form of her name with an honorific suffix added.) Hernán Cortés related what La Malinche told him of her origins, an account recorded years later by his secretary, Francisco López de Gómara: La Malinche was stolen from her parents in a village near Coatzacoalcos by merchants during a war. By the account of Bernal Díaz (who was with Cortés in Mexico), her father was a chief who died. When her mother remarried, Malinali’s stepfather (also a chief) sold her into slavery to prevent any possible problem with an inheritance when Malinali’s mother bore him a son.

Malinali’s native language, Nahuatl, belongs to the Uto-Aztecan language group, one of several spoken in the region at the time of the Spanish conquest. Another language group from that time was Mayan; when the Spaniards encountered La Malinche, she was a slave of Mayan-speaking Tabascans, and she spoke not only her native Nahuatl but also the Tabascans’ Mayan language.


In 1519, Malinali found herself as one of twenty female slaves the Tabascans granted as a gesture of goodwill to the Spaniards who had come to explore and conquer the region. Hernán Cortés, leader of the expedition, had all twenty baptized and parceled out among his men. La Malinche, baptized “Marina,” was given to Alonso Hernández de Puertocarrero. However, when Cortés saw her speaking to Nahuatl-speakers, whom none of the Spaniards understood, he realized her utility and reclaimed her from Puertocarrero.

Among Cortés’s men was one man, Gerónimo de Aguilar, who had learned Mayan after being shipwrecked in the region in 1511. What the Aztecs spoke in Nahuatl, La Malinche translated into Mayan, which Aguilar then rendered into Spanish. Through the course of her time with the Spaniards, she eventually learned enough Spanish to dispense with Aguilar.

In exchange for making the Aztecs friendly to the Spaniards by her speech, Cortés promised La Malinche “more than her liberty.” Certainly such liberty as she enjoyed—traveling and moving among men and participating in privileged conversations of treaty—would have seemed exceptional, not only for the Spanish but for the Aztecs themselves.

La Malinche became Cortés’s mouth and ears, relaying Cortés’s lie that he was seeking to visit the Aztec emperor Moctezuma as an emissary from Charles V, emperor of (as Cortés claimed) most of the world. Her role in this Spanish subterfuge against Moctezuma and the other native peoples earned her a reputation as a traitor after Mexican nationalistic movements began in the nineteenth century. Díaz refers to her as a “a person of great importance,” while Cortés in his letters and Gómara in his biography of Cortés downplayed her role. Whether traitor or saint, La Malinche was instrumental in the conquest.

Whatever inspiration lay behind her loyalty to Cortés, she served him faithfully throughout the campaign, accompanying him everywhere. More than just a translator, she provided Cortés with intelligence—noting, for example, that Moctezuma’s capital city, Tenochtitlan, was situated on an island in a lake, and that the ruling Aztecs were newcomers in the region. When the Spanish were in the city of Cholula, a Cholulan woman offered La Malinche escape from a massacre about to occur. Although the woman also offered her son in marriage, La Malinche remained steadfast beside Cortés, whom she warned about the attack and who meted out a bloody punishment upon the Cholulans. Nor, does it seem, was La Malinche above taking some degree of initiative, as she exhorted the Aztecs to bring food and water to the tired Spaniards and advised Moctezuma to surrender himself into Spanish custody to spare his life.

After the Conquest

In 1522, about ten months after the siege of Tenochtitlan, La Malinche gave birth to Cortés’s son, named Martín after Cortés’s father. He recognized the child as his own and sent him to Spain.

Cortés’s lawful wife joined him in Mexico, and La Malinche came to the end of her usefulness. La Malinche was married off to a Spaniard named Juan Jaramillo, by whom she had a daughter named Marina. Scholars do not agree on the date of La Malinche’s death. Some believe that she died in 1529 or 1530, while others suggest that she lived until 1551.


Known popularly as Montezuma, Moctezuma II (c. 1467 or c. 1480–1520;) ruled the Aztec empire when the Spaniards discovered mainland Mexico and began their conquest. Moctezuma died in Spanish custody.

Moctezuma’s Road to Power

Moctezuma’s father was mostly likely the emperor (or “Speaker”) Axayacatl. Upon Axayacatl’s death in battle in 1481, Moctezuma’s uncle Tizoc III was chosen emperor, and he was succeeded in 1486 by another uncle, Ahuitzotl. Ahuitzotl added to the great pyramid at Tenochtitlan and to obtain victims for sacrifice, Ahuitzotl pushed his reach as far south as Guatemala. Ahuitzotl died in 1502, either from a concussion sustained in an accident or from disease contracted on campaign.

Moctezuma (also known as Motechuzoma and Montezuma) was a practiced warrior as well as a priest; this experience, coupled with his noted eloquence, probably contributed to his election as emperor in 1502. He promoted a new social exclusivity, limiting access to temple colleges and official appointments to members of the highest social status, contrary to the policies of his predecessors.

Known for stubbornness and displaying a tendency for perfectionism and deep religious devotion, Moctezuma sought obedience through the promotion of fear. Although he was not as aggressive in campaigning as his predecessor, he was said to have remarked that not being in battle was the same as being idle. He was not popular with his vassals.

The Spaniards in Mexico

Presented in 1518 with evidence of strange-looking foreigners on the coast (Spaniards, yet unknown to the Aztecs), Moctezuma’s reactions were more ritual than tactical. He consulted with priests and considered erecting a new temple complex to the war-god Huitzilopochtli. He also killed his consultants if he did not care for their replies. Gifts of Spanish goods (beads and biscuits), did not particularly impress him, but these strange-looking foreigners who had characteristics of divine beings worried him.

In 1519, the next encounter between Moctezuma’s vassals and the Spaniards—led by Hernán Cortés and accompanied by firearms, horses, and large dogs—frightened Moctezuma considerably more. This time the strangers had not just come and gone away, which is what Moctezuma himself contemplated doing. The year 1519 was noted in the Aztec calendar as one in which the wind-god Quetzalcoatl might strike at the emperor. This and many other troubling coincidences and omens (Quetzalcoatl was neither the only, nor the most dangerous, deity with whom the Spaniards might have been associated) were greatly alarming. It was perhaps not surprising for a devout man such as Moctezuma to seek a divine explanation for the Spaniards’ appearance.

Yet even as the possibly divine Spaniards approached, Moctezuma vacillated between welcoming or murdering them. Moctezuma opted for the former, but he tried to minimize the effect of the Spaniards’ approach by forbidding crowds from watching their approach to Tenochtitlan. This order was not strictly obeyed, and in the city great numbers of onlookers watched as the strangers crossed the causeway and entered the island-city. Moctezuma and his courtiers met Cortés in November. He housed his guests in a palace formerly occupied by his father, Axayacatl.

A Hostage Emperor

Even the Spanish eyewitnesses differ in their accounts of how Moctezuma received his dreaded guests, whether he recognized them as mortal or divine. Certainly their objection to Aztec religious practices, and their devotion to Christianity, insulted him.

News reached Cortés that one of Moctezuma’s vassals had killed a number of Spaniards on the coast. The emperor denied having anything to do with the matter, but, frightened by threats of death, he allowed himself to be held hostage in Axayacatl’s palace until the matter was resolved.

Whether for his own self-preservation or through an acceptance of his forecast fate, Moctezuma settled into his captivity. He continued to govern and take his leisure and even participate in human sacrifices, but he relied on the Spaniards, whom he rewarded with gifts of precious stones and girls, to protect him. He also revealed the sources of his gold.

This arrangement disturbed the Aztec nobility. Moctezuma remained a willing captive as the Spaniards burned to death a number of noblemen, and he later surrendered himself and his empire into the vassalage of Charles V, rendering any action against the Spanish an act of treason against Moctezuma. Food, water, and gold were supplied to the Spaniards, who installed Christian icons in place of the Aztec ones (which Aztec priests removed) in the Great Pyramid.

In March 1520, Moctezuma informed the Spaniards that his gods had decreed a war between the Aztecs and the Spaniards. The Aztecs were assembling an army. At about this same time, Cortés made preparations to leave and to take Moctezuma with him to Spain.

A rival party of conquistadors, whom Cortés had to defeat on the coast, cut this plan short. In his absence, Aztec hospitality was withdrawn, and tortured prisoners yielded rumors of rebellion. During Toxcatl, an important religious feast whose celebration had been approved by both Cortés and Pedro de Alvarado (who was left in command of the garrison), the Spaniards massacred the Aztec nobility. Moctezuma, present at the feast, was guarded and spared.

The End of His Reign

Moctezuma remained in Spanish custody, besieged in Axayacatl’s palace. After Cortés returned and the Spaniards failed to escape the city that June, Moctezuma was forced onto the roof to talk to the Aztec lords among the attacking crowd, which included his brother Cuitlahuac and young cousin Cuauhtémoc.

Before a hail of stones was directed at him, Moctezuma learned that Cuitlahuac had been elected emperor. Moctezuma died several days later, either of the wounds received from the stones or by the hands of his captors. His body was cremated without the usual honors of a dead king, and bystanders berated his corpse as it burned.


Cuauhtémoc (c. 1494?–1525) was the last Aztec emperor. Ruler during the siege of Tenochtitlan, he was taken prisoner and later executed by the Spanish.

During the Reign of Moctezuma II

Cuauhtémoc was the son of the Aztec emperor Ahuitzotl (who was uncle of two other Aztec emperors, Moctezuma II and Cuitlahuac) and Ahuitzotl’s wife Tiacapantzin. At the time Hernán Cortés brought his expedition into Mexico, Cuauhtémoc was a lord of Itzapalapa and a high level functionary at Tlatelolco. When the nobility secretly asked officials to assemble an army to oust the Spanish who were holding Moctezuma hostage, Cuauhtémoc was among those who responded. However, when Moctezuma presented himself to the population in June of 1520, one account claims that Cuauhtémoc disparaged him as womanish and rejected his authority. Moctezuma’s brother, Cuitlahuac, was chosen emperor. The crowd then stoned Moctezuma to death, the fatal blow possibly coming from Cuauhtémoc himself, although an Aztec account of the story attributes his murder to the Spaniards.

The Aztecs inflicted heavy losses upon the Spanish when the invaders retreated from Tenochtitlan during La Noche Triste. Yet in 1521, the Spanish returned to besiege the city.


By this time, Cuauhtémoc was emperor as Cuitlahuac had died of smallpox, a disease introduced to Mexico by the Spaniards. Cuauhtémoc seems to have killed Moctezuma’s sons whom he thought might oppose his opposition to the Spanish occupiers, but he was married to Moctezuma’s daughter, Xuchimatzatzin.

No doubt Cuauhtémoc’s resolve against the Spanish, in addition to his reputation for bravery, were factors in his election as Cuitlahuac’s successor. Surrounding towns that had allied themselves with the Spanish were fiercely punished, and Cortés’s offer of a pardon in exchange for surrender was rebuffed.

Like Moctezuma and Cuitlahuac before him, Cuauhtémoc summoned allies to gather forces for his cause, but the responses were unenthusiastic: the Aztecs had made too many enemies. Even bribes of gold and exemption from future tribute (including victims for human sacrifice) did not rouse much hostility against the Spaniards.

Following an Aztec victory in June 1521, numerous captive Spaniards were sacrificed very publicly. Word of this, and the realization that the Spaniards could be defeated, finally frightened away many of the Spaniard’s indigenous allies, but Cuauhtémoc failed to mount a follow-up campaign on the heels of this victory. Hunger, thirst, and disease brought on by the protected siege had debilitated his forces. To inflate the appearance of his army, the emperor even dressed women as warriors.

After rejecting repeated calls for peace from Cortés, Cuauhtémoc performed a final series of human sacrifices and held a meeting of his officials, at which it was decided that there would be a retreat from Tenochtitlan rather than a surrender. Yet a priest divined that in four days victory would come to the Aztecs, so the war continued. In the next battle on the lake, however, Cuauhtémoc surrendered (or was captured) and was presented to Cortés. The war was finally over.

After the Fall of Tenochtitlan

Hostilities between the two groups ended, but Cuauhtémoc’s battle continued. He tried to kill himself before being tortured to reveal the location of gold the Spaniards believed to be missing. He confessed it had been dumped into the lake, but if this was true, the Spaniards recovered only a fraction of it.

Despite his mistreatment by Cortés, Cuauhtémoc provided support for later Spanish campaigns, giving some fifteen thousand men to help the Spaniards extend their conquests in the south. Even so, he remained a prisoner of the Spaniards. Cuauhtémoc was brought along on Cortés’s expedition to put down a revolt led by Cortés’s former officer, Cristóbal de Olid. He was hanged during the campaign (in February 1525) for allegedly fomenting a rebellion.

Cuauhtémoc became a symbolic figure for later Mexican nationalist movements, a historical representative of patriotism, in stark contrast to La Malinche, who facilitated the Spanish conquest.

Francisco Pizarro

An illiterate man of humble beginnings, Francisco Pizarro (c. 1471?–1541) led the conquest of Peru, which he governed until his assassination.

Pizarro’s Family

Sometime between 1471 and 1478, Francisco Pizarro was born in Extremadura, Spain. He was the illegitimate son of Gonzalo Pizarro, an infantry officer of minor prestige, and Francisca González, a servant in a convent. Never acknowledged by his father, Pizarro had several younger half-brothers: Gonzalo (junior), Juan, and the elder Gonzalo’s legitimate son Hernando. Among his cousins was Hernán Cortés, who led the conquest of Mexico.

Early Expeditions

Pizarro left for the Americas in 1501 and the next year participated in Alonzo de Ojeda’s expedition to the coast of Columbia and Panama. He was left in command of a settlement called San Sebastian but abandoned it after an attack by the indigenous population. Accused of cowardice, he found sympathy from Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who convinced Ojeda to relocate the destroyed colony. Pizarro was with Balboa when Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513, but after Pedro Arias de Ávila replaced the discredited Balboa as governor, Pizarro turned on his former commander, who was subsequently executed in 1519.

Although a grant of land and of forced local labor afforded Pizarro a far better living than he could possibly have achieved in Spain, he aspired to more. With Diego de Almagro and Hernando de Luque (a priest acting on behalf of Gaspar de Espinosa), Pizarro formed a company to undertake exploration along the southern Pacific coast, from which a previous expedition had returned with news of a wealthy kingdom. Pizarro departed Panama in November 1524, leaving Almagro behind to prepare a second vessel and more men.

Pizarro met great hardships, storms, disease, and shortage of supplies. He turned back, catching up with Almagro at Chicama, near Panama. Despite their failure, the attempt had yielded enough gold to warrant a second expedition.

The Second Expedition and a Visit to Spain

On March 10, 1526, Pizarro, Almagro, and Luque entered into a formal agreement in which all the acquisitions of the enterprise, from conquest or royal grant, would be divided equally among them. They departed that year, sailing to the Rio de San Juan, where they looted a village. Pizarro dispatched Bartolomé Ruiz to explore the coast to the south and Almagro to return to Panama for more men while he and some men remained behind.

They suffered again from privation, but Ruiz returned with gold, silver, and emeralds, as well as three interpreters. With Almagro, the expedition pushed south to Tacamez (in what is now southern Colombia), at which point the question of returning to Panama was again raised. They had encountered more formidable opposition than they had previously. Convinced by Almagro, Pizarro stayed behind while his partner sought reinforcements.

A ship sent by the new governor, Pedro de Los Rios, came to Pizarro, not to deliver reinforcements but to bring back the survivors. A letter from Almagro and Luque asked Pizarro not to return because reinforcements would soon arrive. Fourteen Spaniards, including Pizarro, put faith in the partners and refused passage to Panama.

Almagro returned seven months later, without reinforcements. Even so, Pizarro explored further to the south, finding more evidence of the wealth of the Inca Empire and cause for a third expedition. Yet de Los Rios denied future expeditions, which forced Pizarro to return to Spain to seek permission from Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Contrary to the March 1526 agreement, Pizarro accepted titles above those of his two partners, including governor and captain-general, which created ill will among the parties.

The Conquest of Peru

The third expedition launched in 1531, with Almagro seeking more recruits in Panama while Pizarro sailed on. In 1532, word of the Spanish presence along the coast reached the Inca emperor, Atahualpa. Pizarro was invited to meet him, so the Spanish soldiers headed for Cajamarca.

Pizarro tricked and defeated Atahualpa at the brief battle of Cajamarca in November 1532. Despite receiving a vast ransom for the emperor’s life, at the urging of Almagro and his new troops, Pizarro tried and executed the emperor. While this angered the Incas, it engendered support from those whom the Incas had lately conquered.

With these allies, the Spanish, who numbered only about 160, marched on the Inca capital of Cuzco. Pizarro took the city in 1533, installing a puppet emperor, Tupac Hualpa, who died and was replaced by Manco Inca in 1535. That same year Pizarro founded a new capital, Lima.

Manco rebelled and besieged Pizarro’s forces in Lima and Cuzco. Control of the latter city was a major point of contention between Pizarro and Almagro, whom Charles V of Spain had appointed governor of Chile. After Almagro returned from rather unsuccessful campaigns in Chile, Manco withdrew his siege, leaving the Spaniards to fight among themselves. Pizarro’s brother Hernando defeated Almagro and executed him in 1538.


Pizarro governed Peru until 1541, beleaguered not only by Manco Inca’s forces and other local uprisings but also by supporters of Almagro. In June of that year, a party of Almagrists—including Almagro’s son, called Diego Almagro “El Mozo” (“the Lad”)—forced their way into the governor’s palace in Lima and assassinated Pizarro.

Neither of Pizarro’s surviving brothers (Juan had died during the siege of Cuzco) succeeded him as governor. Until 1560, Hernando was imprisoned for the execution of Almagro. Gonzalo led a rebellion against the new viceroy, Blasco Núñez Vela, who was appointed in 1544 and imposed new laws protecting the native populations. Vela’s successor, Pedro de La Gasca, repealed these laws that offended the Spaniards. This undercut support for Gonzalo. After surrendering, Gonzalo was executed in 1548.

Diego de Almagro

Diego de Almagro, who died in 1538, accompanied Francisco Pizarro on his conquest of Peru. Although instrumental in the Spaniards’ success, his strained relations with Pizarro and Pizarro’s brothers led to conflicts between the Spanish conquistadors, resulting in the supremacy of Pizarro’s faction.

Before the Expeditions

An illegitimate child, Almagro adopted as his surname the name of the city in Spain where he was born, but the year of his birth is unknown. Sources refer to Almagro as blunt-speaking, hasty, and short of stature.

In 1514, Almagro sought his fortune in the New World with Pedro Arias de Ávila when Ávila went to forcibly replace Vasco Núñez de Balboa as governor of the Isthmus of Darien (modern Isthmus of Panama). Almagro married an indigenous woman, who in about 1522 gave birth to a son named Diego (later called “El Mozo” or “the Lad”). Ten years after arriving in the Americas, Almagro entered into an agreement with Francisco Pizarro for an expedition that ultimately led to the discovery and conquest of Peru.

The First Expedition

Almagro oversaw the purchase and provisioning of the expedition’s two small vessels, with funding arranged by Hernando de Luque, a priest acting as an agent for Gaspar de Espinosa. Almagro was also assigned the task of assembling men for the expedition. In November 1524, Pizarro, the expedition commander, set sail with more than one hundred men. Almagro then spent several months outfitting and assembling a company for the second ship.

Setting sail in 1525, Almagro followed Pizarro’s southward coastal route. At Pueblo Quemado, Almagro’s party received a hostile greeting from the local people. In retaliation for what amounted to little more than a show of force, Almagro attacked and burned the village. In the encounter, he received a head wound that cost him an eye, but this injury did not deter his progress.

Almagro arrived at the Rio de San Juan (modern Buenaventura, Columbia), where again he saw inhabitants, but no sign of Pizarro. Here he turned back, meeting up with Pizarro at Chicamá, near Panama. Pizarro had abandoned his southward course because of a supply shortage, but both men had acquired gold on their voyages. Certain of the wealth that was to be gained, the two resolved to undertake a second expedition.

The Second Expedition

Hernando de Luque had to convince Ávila to endorse the second expedition. To Pizarro’s displeasure, Ávila appointed Almagro to be Pizarro’s equal in the venture. In March 1526, Almagro, Pizarro, and Luque (still acting for Gaspar de Espinosa) agreed that the land and all other gains acquired during the expedition or by grants of the Spanish crown were to be divided into equal thirds.

In command of new vessels, Almagro and Pizarro sailed for the Rio de San Juan, where they looted the village. Rather than campaign any farther, Pizarro encamped at the river while one vessel scouted the coastline and Almagro sailed back to Panama for more men and supplies. Almagro returned to the Rio de San Juan with some eighty soldiers of fortune and provisions. There he found Pizarro’s remaining men near starvation, with many others dead from an unsuccessful attempt to penetrate inland.

Bolstered by Almagro’s men and supplies and aware of a rich civilization to the south, the expedition continued. They landed at Tacamez, a coastal city in a gold-rich territory now in the south of Columbia, only recently conquered by the Incas. The local forces, perhaps as many as ten thousand, dismayed some of the Spaniards; in an argument that nearly came to blows, Almagro insisted that the expedition must continue.

Leaving Pizarro behind again, Almagro returned again for more troops, but found his efforts complicated by the discovery of a letter of complaint that had been smuggled back with him. The new governor, Pedro de los Rios, refused to grant anything to Almagro and Luque, and instead sent a ship to fetch any remaining survivors.

Almagro and Luque sent Pizarro a letter, begging him to not return because Almagro would be bringing necessary supplies and men. Meanwhile, Almagro and Luque persuaded Rios to give Pizarro more time. Having rejoined Pizarro, they resumed exploration of the coast in the company of some Indians who had joined them. Traveling south brought further confirmation of the location and vast wealth of the Inca Empire. After a total of about eighteen months, the expedition turned back to Panama to arrange a third expedition.

The Third Expedition and Conquest of Peru

When the governor proved unreceptive, Pizarro sailed to Spain to petition the Spanish court directly. He returned appointed governor, while Almagro was to be commander of the fortress at Tumbez. This unequal division, contrary to their agreement, angered Almagro. Luque, appointed Bishop of Tumbez and Protector of the Indians of Peru, had feared that something like this might happen, and the relationship between Pizarro and Almagro became especially strained. In 1531, Pizarro left for the south again with almost two hundred well-armed men.

Luque died before Almagro departed with his 150 men, fifty horses, and suitable arms the next year. After his arrival at Tumbez, others warned Almagro not to trust Pizarro, who had gone on to Cajamarca and captured Atahualpa, ruler of the Inca Empire. By mid-February 1533, Almagro was also at Cajamarca with his troops. Fortified by Almagro’s recruits, Pizarro felt confident about claiming the empire, which he had been, in effect, only holding hostage with Atahualpa. A huge ransom was collected for the emperor, and this was divided among the parties, with lesser amounts for Almagro’s men. Almagro and certain men who accompanied him now insisted that they were better off with Atahualpa dead, and they convinced Pizarro to execute the Inca ruler.

The Spaniards left Cajamarca to conquer the rest of Atahualpa’s domains. Upon entering the Inca capital Cuzco (where Atahualpa’s half-brother Manco Inca was installed as a puppet emperor), Almagro took up residence in the palace built for Huascar, Atahualpa’s brother and rival. In January 1534 he and a party went north, where the Spaniards continued to meet with local resistance. Another Spaniard, Pedro de Alvarado, had entered the northern region of Quito with an army, intent on conquest, only to find it already occupied by Pizarro’s forces. Almagro convinced some of Alvarado’s men to join his own ranks, and Almagro negotiated the intruder’s withdrawal from the region with an offer of payment in gold, which left Pizarro with seven additional ships, horses, ammunition, and men.

The Expedition to Chile

Pizarro rewarded Almagro’s success with Alvarado by appointing him governor of Cuzco, but this situation was complicated when the Spanish crown awarded Almagro the southern portion of the Inca empire. No one was sure yet whether or not that included Cuzco, which Pizarro’s brothers wanted. Pizarro had to make peace between his brothers and Almagro.

In July 1535, accompanied by Manco’s half-brother Paullu, Almagro went south into Chile on a well-armed and brutal expedition that did not yield the riches Almagro had anticipated. Upon returning to Cuzco, he found the city occupied by Pizarro’s brothers but under siege by an army raised by Manco Inca, who had rebelled against his Spanish overlords. Believing Manco to be in the better position, he promised the emperor that he would see that those who had wronged him were punished. This anti-Pizarro alliance never solidified. Manco withdrew, leaving the Spaniards to fight among themselves for Cuzco, a struggle won by Almagro. Almagro installed Paullu as Inca.

Civil War

Almagro’s forces continued a civil war with Pizarro’s. At Las Salinas in April 1538, Hernando Pizarro defeated and captured Almagro, and, after a brief trial for extremely lengthy charges, had him strangled and beheaded. In the wake of this event, Paullu remained Inca but abandoned Almagro’s supporters for Pizarro’s. Almagro’s supporters continued to struggle against Pizarro and assassinated him in 1541. Almagro’s son Diego was among the Almagrists who murdered Pizarro in 1541. “El Mozo” was captured and executed the following year.

Huayna Capac

Huayna Capac (c. 1493–1527) ruled the Inca empire, centered in what is now Peru. His sons Huascar and Atahualpa fought a dynastic war resulting in such division that a small force of Spaniards, led by Francisco Pizarro, was able to conquer the empire.

Huayna Capac’s Early Years

Born as Titu Cusi Hualpa, Huayna Capac was a son of the emperor, Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1471–1493), and the emperor’s sister-wife Mama Ocllo. Tupac Inca extended the Inca empire, known as Tahuantinsuyu, far south into Chile, expanded the eastern borders, and seized the highlands as far north as Quito in modern Ecuador.

Upon his death, one of his other widows advised her own kin that Tupac Inca had initially appointed Capac Huari as his successor, but on his deathbed had changed his mind and named his other young son, Titu Cusi Hualpa, instead. Capac Huari’s supporters plotted to kill Titu Cusi Hualpa, but Tupac Inca’s brother, Huaman Acachi, uncovered the plot, safely concealed Titu Cusi Hualpa, and slew the conspirators. The boy was declared “Huayna Capac,” “youthful chief.”

Being quite young when he was awarded the fringe of feathers that denoted his supreme rank, Huayna Capac required a regent. First appointed to this position was his uncle Hualpaya, but Hualpaya coveted the fringe for himself. His treason uncovered, Hualpaya and his supporters were put to death. Huaman Achachi served as his replacement, and Huayna Capac’s mother, Mama Ocllo, remained influential until she fell ill and died.

Huayna Capac had numerous wives, including his sister Cusi Rimay. She may have given birth to the heir, Ninan Cuyuchi. His other sister, Rahua Ocllo, gave birth to Tupac Cusi Hualpa, better known as Huascar. Atahualpa’s mother, known as Tocto Coca or Tupa Palla, is sometimes identified as a princess of Quito, a city conquered by Tupac Inca.

Inspection and Campaign

Following Mama Ocllo’s death, Huayna Capac undertook an inspection of Tahuantinsuyu, during which he changed government appointments, formed alliances, and ordered various construction projects and foundations. These projects ranged from establishing immense farms to refurbishing fortresses.

In addition to civil work, Huayna Capac attempted to expand his empire, but these military exploits were unsuccessful. Expansion might have been a bit ambitious, given that Huayna Capac and his forces were constantly putting down revolts by conquered peoples and rebellions by other nobles in Cuzco. Tomebamba, where he had been born, became Huayna Capac’s stronghold for these efforts.

The Fates Portend Darkly

Toward the end of his reign, ominous signs—including strange lightning, coastal floods, earthquakes, and a comet—deeply worried Huayna Capac. In Cuzco, a plague was raging; it was probably smallpox or measles, two diseases recently introduced into the Americas by Spaniards and other Europeans. A number of Huayna Capac’s relatives perished in this epidemic.

While in Tomebamba, Huayna Capac received word of thirteen bearded, white-skinned strangers who came to the coast at Tumbez in floating houses. The “houses” left, but two of the wild-looking foreigners remained behind. Huayna Capac ordered them brought to Quito, where he was staying.

These men, two members of Francisco Pizarro’s second expedition, never arrived at Huayna Capac’s court, disappearing from the historical record instead. Plague, however, did arrive, and the emperor was stricken. Before dying, he declared Ninan Cuyuchi to be his heir, but only if the reading of the entrails of a llama, sacrificed for the purpose, augured good fortune. If it augured bad, some accounts relate that the empire would go to Huascar. The signs for Ninan Cuyuchi were unfavorable, but Ninan Cuyuchi died before word could be sent to him.

The emperor’s corpse was mummified and sent back to Cuzco, where Huascar had survived the plague. Fearing trouble with the succession, the members of his court tried to disguise his death until Huascar had been confirmed as emperor. However, Huascar’s mother, who had been with the emperor, returned to Cuzco with the news of her son’s succession.

Meanwhile, Huascar’s half-brother Atahualpa remained behind in the north. His failure to accompany their father’s funeral procession to Cuzco no doubt stoked Huascar’s suspicions as to his motives, and soon Tahuantinsuyu was plunged into a dynastic war that would weaken it enough that it would fall to Pizarro’s third expedition, which arrived in 1532, only five years after Huayna Capac’s death.


At the time of Francisco Pizarro’s third expedition in 1532, Atahualpa (c. 1502?–1533) had just defeated his half-brother Huascar in a dynastic war for rule of Tahuantinsuyu, also called the Inca Empire. Atahualpa’s defeat at Cajamarca opened the way for the Spanish conquest in Peru and Chile.

Atahualpa’s Early Years

Atahualpa was born in about 1502 to a woman called either Tocto Coca or Tupa Palla. Possibly she was the daughter of a chief of the city of Quito, although some chroniclers record that she was related to a former emperor, Pachacutec. Atahualpa was one of several sons of the ruler Inca Huayna Capac.

His father brought him and his half-brother, Ninan Cuyuchi, on his long campaigns to secure the northern regions of Tahuantinsuyu. Atahualpa’s grandfather (Tupac Inca Yupanqui) had originally expanded the empire into this territory, which included Quito, but the local people resisted and continuously rebelled against Inca rule.

The Succession

Both Huayna Capac and Ninan Cuyuchi died of smallpox or measles, Old World diseases introduced by European explorers to which the people of the New World had no resistance. Atahualpa remained in Quito while his father’s mummified body was conveyed to Cuzco, the capital; his death was kept secret at this time. In some accounts, Huayna Capac named Huascar as successor if the augurs deemed Ninan Cuyuchi to be unsuitable, but it is possible that Huascar’s succession was due, at least in part, to the influence of his mother. She too had been with the campaign and traveled to Cuzco with the news.

That Atahualpa remained in the north with some of Huayna Capac’s generals angered Huascar. Each half-brother was particularly associated with one of the ten Inca royal kin groups, but Huascar disassociated himself with his own kin group and certain other groups (comprising what was known as Upper Cuzco) and aligned himself with the less illustrious kin groups (known as Lower Cuzco). Huascar then had members of Upper Cuzco tortured to reveal why Atahualpa had not accompanied the funeral procession to Cuzco. Some of the survivors ran to inform Atahualpa.

If Atahualpa coveted Huascar’s position in the immediate wake of their father’s death, he completely concealed his interest, and by most accounts he accepted his brother’s rule without question. In Tomebamba, Atahualpa began to erect palaces for his brother, but the local governor (who disliked Atahualpa) sent word to Huascar of Atahualpa’s activities, implying that they were for Atahualpa’s own gain.

This confirmed Huascar’s fears. He rebuffed Atahualpa’s gifts and killed the messengers who brought them. In return, Huascar sent Atahualpa a present of women’s garments and ornaments. This exchange marked the beginning of the dynastic war. Atahualpa and the generals knew that they could not submit to Huascar’s rule without forfeiting their own lives.

The Dynastic War

The Cañaris, a tribe that rebelled against Atahualpa, might have carried out the first encounter in the brothers’ war. Atahualpa was wounded and captured in a skirmish with the group, but he escaped and retreated north with his forces to Quito. Having regrouped, Atahualpa led his men against Tomebamba, his father’s northern stronghold, which he destroyed.

The next encounter occurred between Atahualpa and Atoc, one of Huascar’s generals and possibly another son of Huayna Capac. Atoc prevailed, but the following engagement went to Atahualpa—Atoc and the governor of Tomebamba were killed. While Huascar raised an army, Atahualpa proceeded south, destroying a famous oracle that predicted an unfortunate end for him.

Huascar sent Huanca Auqui at the head of a powerful army against Atahualpa. Although oracles predicted success for Huanca Auqui, Atahualpa’s forces (commanded by Quizquiz and Challcochima) continually defeated him, prompting later speculation of collaboration between the general and the rebel. After a battle against Quizquiz at Cajamarca, Huanca Auqui’s forces broke and ran, and some defected to Atahualpa’s cause. Atahualpa himself remained in the town of Cajamarca, perhaps because he did not wish to risk approaching Cuzco personally or because, like his father, he had heard news of Spaniards along the coast.

As Atahualpa’s general led his enlarged army south, Huascar relieved Huanca Auqui of command. This change in leadership did not help Huascar, whose forces continued to accumulate losses at the hands of Quizquiz and Challcochima. Huascar himself joined the campaign, but was captured near Huanuco Pampa. His imprisonment marked the defeat of his forces, and Atahualpa’s army entered Cuzco.

Cusi Yupanqui, a relative of Atahualpa, went to Cuzco and oversaw the massacre of most of Huascar’s family before Huascar’s eyes. He also burned the mummy of Huascar’s kin-group ancestor, Thupa Inca. Huascar was spared for the time being, to be brought to Atahualpa at Cajamarca. In the north, the Cañaris, who had supported Huascar, were punished with death or removal from their homeland.

The Arrival of the Spaniards

Atahualpa was in Cajamarca awaiting delivery of Huascar when news arrived that a small party of strange foreigners (the third expedition of Francisco Pizarro) had landed on the coast. Having no reason to suspect the threat these men would ultimately pose, Atahualpa remained in Cajamarca while they approached. He sent a force of twenty thousand to meet them and received the Spaniards at a hot spring near the city. However, Atahualpa was soon tricked into entering the city (which the Spanish had occupied), and his forces were massacred.

Like his half-brother Huascar, Atahualpa found himself the captive of an enemy army. Not realizing the Spaniards’ imperial ambitions, he offered a vast amount of gold and silver in ransom. It took time for this treasure to accumulate; in the interim, Atahualpa learned about his captors’ ways (including the game of chess) and they learned of the dynastic war that had just concluded. His captivity precluded any direct attack on Cajamarca, even for a rescue, by his own forces. Once the ransom was paid, Diego de Almagro and his men persuaded Pizarro that Atahualpa’s usefulness had come to an end. Atahualpa had expected this. Like his father Huayna Capac, he had witnessed omens forecasting an unfortunate end.

In a move that outraged Emperor Charles V of Spain (as Atahualpa was fellow royalty), Pizarro convicted Atahualpa on a false charge of ordering one of his commanders to revolt and—because Huascar had been killed en route to Cajamarca—of murder. The penalty would be death by burning at the stake unless he converted to Christianity.

Horrified by the prospect of bodily destruction, Atahualpa acquiesced. He took the Christian name Francisco, after the conqueror who had defeated him. Sometime in June or July 1533, Atahualpa/Francisco was strangled as a Christian. Given a church burial, his body was taken by his supporters to be mummified and hidden.

Atahualpa’s successor was another half-brother, Tupac Huallpa, installed by the Spaniards for only a brief time before being replaced by yet another of Huayna Capac’s sons, Manco Inca.

Manco Inca

Manco Inca (died 1544, date of birth unknown) succeeded Tupac Hualpa as ruler of Tahuantinsuyu (the Inca empire) during the period of the Spanish conquest of the region. He ruled with the cooperation of the Spaniards but abandoned them to set up a “Neo-Inca” state called Vilcabamba.

Rise to Power

Manco Inca was one of the many sons of Huayna Capac. During the dynastic war fought between his half-brothers, Atahualpa and Huascar, he was among those family members in the capital city of Cuzco who Atahualpa had marked for death. Atahualpa’s kinsman, Cusi Yupanqui, carried out the slaying but Manco escaped.

After the Spaniards captured and killed Atahualpa at Cajamarca in 1533, they bestowed the royal fringe of the Inca on another half-brother, Tupac Hualpa. Tupac Hualpa was to be only a token figure, with Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores being the real rulers of the empire. The Spaniards then moved south, finding alliances among local peoples who opposed Atahualpa.

Before reaching Cuzco, Tupac Hualpa died of illness. This left open the question of the succession, which was never a simple affair among the Incas. Manco Inca probably saw this opportunity as his chance to rule, and he made this offer to the Spaniards. Knowing that they could not conquer Tahuantinsuyu without having control of the emperor, the Spanish accepted this offer. Exactly one year after they had defeated Atahualpa at Cajamarca, the Spaniards took Cuzco with little difficulty.

The next month, December 1533, the Spaniards had Manco Inca formally appointed emperor. His appointment did not create peace within the empire, which even in the days of his predecessors faced rebellions and unrest, and not all of the empire acquiesced to Manco Inca’s rule.

In the north, Atahualpa’s commanders, Quizquiz and Rumiñawi, continued to resist the invaders until their deaths. Quizquiz was killed by his own army, while Rumiñawi was captured and executed by Spanish forces. To the south, Pizarro dispatched Diego de Almagro and Manco Inca’s half-brother Paullu Inca in an attempted conquest of Chile in 1535.

The Rebellion

By late 1535, Manco had had enough of the Spanish, who pestered him ceaselessly for gold and silver. His first attempt to escape failed, and the Spanish abused him in his subsequent captivity until he was freed in January 1536.

He made his second escape attempt in April, under the pretext of attending to ceremonies outside of Cuzco. Manco promised Hernando Pizarro that he would return with a large statue of his father, Huayna Capac. Pizarro let him go, to the great alarm of many of the noblemen who feared—rightly—that Manco Inca would return with an army to destroy them.

Since before his first escape, Manco Inca had been secretly dispatching word of his impending rebellion. Unknown to the Spaniards, forces were assembling for Manco Inca near Cuzco. Within days of Manco Inca’s departure, Hernando Pizarro learned of the revolt.

Manco’s army besieged Cuzco and other Peruvian cities. Almagro and Paullu returned from their expedition to Chile to find things in a disrupted state; Spanish forces commanded by Hernando Pizarro were pleased to learn of Almagro’s approach, believing that he would be able to provide them with some relief. However, Almagro, who had quarrels against Pizarro and his brothers, attempted to form an alliance with Manco, promising to punish those who had offended the Inca and also promising that his rebellion would be forgiven. Unable to trust the Spaniards, Manco withdrew. The Spaniards then installed his brother, Paullu, as Inca.

The Foundation of Vilcabamba

Manco Inca retreated to Vilcabamba, in the mountainous jungles west of Cuzco. Here, in 1539, he founded a new Inca state. That same year, Francisco Pizarro’s brother Gonzalo sought him out through difficult terrain. He brought two full-brothers of Manco’s sister-wife, Cura Ocllo, to try to convince Manco to surrender, but the Inca murdered them instead, to the immense grief of his wife.

Gonzalo forced Manco to flee into the jungle and, in sacking Vilcabamba, captured one of his half-brothers as well as Cura Ocllo. When Manco rebuffed gifts from the Spaniards by killing the messengers, Pizarro brutally murdered Cura Ocllo. Pizarro followed this up by killing chiefs whom he suspected of harboring sympathies for Manco or his wife.

The difficulty of the terrain in the region of Vilcabamba dissuaded the Spanish from further campaigns, although Manco continued to stir up trouble for them. In 1544 he took in several men who had sympathized with Diego de Almagro, whose forces had been defeated by Pizarro’s. Unbeknownst to Manco, these men had been promised pardons if they assassinated the Inca, which they did as they played a game of horseshoes.

Manco’s son Titu Cusi, who was about nine years old at the time of the assassination, became Inca, and the state of Vilcabamba held out against the Spanish until the reign of Tupac Amaru ended in 1572.

Tupac Amaru

Tupac Amaru (died 1572, date of birth unknown) was the last native ruler of the Inca people. He ruled the Inca state of Vilcabamba until he was captured and executed by the Spanish. His resistance made him a model for later Peruvian revolutionaries.

The Succession at Vilcabamba

In 1536, Manco Inca, the puppet emperor installed by Francisco Pizarro, rebelled and founded a new Inca state at Vilcabamba. After Manco’s assassination by the Spaniards, his young son Sayri Tupac Inca succeeded him. Sayri Tupac and his regents surrendered to the Spanish but remained for years at Vilcabamba after the current puppet ruler, Paullu, died of disease. Sayri Tupac was baptized and granted estates, but he died in 1561, leaving behind a widow and a daughter.

Following his death, the officials in Vilcabamba declared one of his older half-brothers, Titu Cusi, ruler. It is possible that this position should have gone to the young Tupac Amaru, who was, like Sayri Tupac, a son of Manco and Manco’s chief wife.

The Spaniards tried to tempt Titu Cusi from Vilcabamba. Negotiations were successful, culminating in peace treaties in 1566 and 1567, in which Titu Cusi would be permitted to remain in Vilcabamba. Catholic missionaries entered Vilcabamba and baptized Titu Cusi’s son, and later the Inca himself, but the old Inca practices persisted. Upon Tito Cusi’s death (brought about by illness or poison), the Inca’s men slew a group of visiting Spanish missionaries, and the succession passed to Tupac Amaru.

Failed Diplomacy

In 1571, Francisco de Toledo—Viceroy of Peru, who did not yet know the fate of the first party or Titu Cusi—sent some ambassadors to meet with the Inca. The Inca’s men killed this group too, though it is possible that they did so against Tupac Amaru’s wishes. While the Inca was told that the Spaniards had sent a party to kill him, the Spaniards were told that Tupac Amaru had ordered the would-be diplomats killed.

When word of the murders reached the Viceroy Toledo, he was furious. In 1572, he sent a military expedition to conquer Vilcabamba, a feat that had been tried during the reign of Manco Inca. The Spanish force met the Inca’s at the Chuquichaqa bridge, where the last murders had occurred. By one account, four rounds of small artillery and some shots from the arquebuses were enough to put the Inca’s men to flight, so quickly that they did not have time to burn the bridge.

The Spanish pursued, and the Incas abandoned Vilcabamba. Captives taken along the way revealed to the Spaniards which direction Tupac Amaru had taken, so a reduced force of no more than fifty soldiers, led by Captain Martín Garcia Oñez de Loyola, continued the chase. Loyola finally caught up with Tupac Amaru and captured him, his wife, and all of his men and their families.

Trials and Executions

Tupac Amaru’s generals were given quick, defenseless trials and sentenced to death, though only two survived the proceedings to die by hanging. Tupac Amaru was also convicted of crimes for which he could not have been held legally responsible and sentenced to beheading.

In the course of three days, two monks who spoke the Quechua language converted Tupac Amaru to Christianity in prison. The execution took place in front of as many as fifteen thousand witnesses. Some four hundred Cañaris, whom Tupac Amaru’s forefathers had fought, served as guards; one would serve as executioner. The respected Bishop of Popayan and other clergymen begged on their knees that the Inca be sent to Spain to serve or be judged by the king, but it was to no avail.

Tupac Amaru was beheaded. His body was interred in the cathedral in Cuzco, but his head was left on a pike until the people began to worship it, at which point it was deposited with the rest of the corpse.

Although Tupac Amaru’s death ended Inca rule, it did not end the resistance movement against the Spanish. The late eighteenth century revolutionary José Gabriel Condorcanqui took his ancestor’s name. Tupac Amaru’s resistance also inspired late twentieth century revolts in Peru, including the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (1984–1997).

Major Battles

La Noche Triste, July 1, 1520

La Noche Triste occurred when the Spaniards and Tlascalan allies of Hernán Cortés escaped from their besieged quarters in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan with heavy loss of life.

The Journey to Tenochtitlan

In early 1519, Hernán Cortés led an expedition of about six hundred men—authorized by Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba—to the Mexican mainland. After founding Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (and thus removing himself legally from Velázquez’s jurisdiction), Cortés began the inland trek to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Along the way, the Spaniards gained allies, notably the Tlascalans, who were hostile toward their Aztec overlords.

The Occupation of Tenochtitlan

After the Spaniards massacred the city of Cholula in November 1519, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma agreed to meet them in Tenochtitlan, a city situated on an island in Lake Texcoco. On one hand, the Spaniards were dazzled by the enormous city’s engineering, its market place, royal menagerie, and treasury; they were also horrified by the evidence of human sacrifice, carried out here on a scale they had not previously encountered. The Spaniards and their allies were housed within the palace of Moctezuma’s father, Axayactl, and treated as honored guests.

An incident on the coast gave Cortés an excuse to convince Moctezuma to deliver himself as hostage into Spanish custody. Although the emperor continued to rule, this situation deeply worried the Aztecs.

Cortés might have maintained control of the situation if not for the untimely arrival of an expedition sent by Velázquez to curtail him. Cortés departed the city in May 1520, leaving behind a garrison of fewer than a hundred men. Pedro de Alvarado was in charge of this force and the hostage emperor.

The Aztecs had secured permission from both Alvarado and Cortés to celebrate the festival of Toxcatl during the latter’s absence. Whether inspired by genuine fear of an uprising or brash opportunism, Alvarado and his men slaughtered the celebrants. The remainder of the population rose up against the Spaniards, trapping them in the palace.

The Spaniards and Tlascalans Besieged

When Cortés returned in late June with more than a thousand men, several of Alvarado’s soldiers had been killed and there was no more food or water. He was furious at both Alvarado (who had precipitated the uprising) and Moctezuma (who had allegedly conspired against the Spaniards and who had issued orders to deny the Spaniard’s food). Cortés demanded provisions, but Aztec warriors had gathered in the city and killed more than a dozen Spaniards.

The Aztecs set the palace ablaze and attacked; the Spaniards battled the fire and beat back an onslaught fiercer than anything even their most experienced soldiers had ever seen. Intent on escape, they constructed siege towers made of timbers taken from the palace. These were able to conceal twenty-five arquebusiers and crossbowmen who would cover the other troops as they marched out of the city, while cavalry charges kept the enemy at bay.

With the aid of these towers, the Spaniards and their allies advanced with great difficulty to the temple of Huitzilopochtli. They tried to set the city afire, but conditions prevented the blazes from spreading. The horses were useless in the streets and damp pavement of the temples, as were the firearms and crossbows once four thousand additional Aztec soldiers assumed defensive positions to prevent the advance up the temple steps.

Although a single cannon shot took out a dozen or so Aztecs, the numbers seemed insurmountable. Finally the Spaniards and their allies took the great temple. Earlier the Spaniards had installed Christian icons here, but these were gone, so the Spaniards burned the sanctuaries. The Aztecs attacked once more, and the Spaniards and Tlascalans had to return to the palace.

The siege continued. Cortés had Moctezuma go onto a roof to calm his subjects, but the Aztecs rejected Moctezuma’s speech. They had already replaced him as ruler with his brother, Cuitlahuac, and they assaulted the former emperor with stones. Whether Moctezuma died of these wounds or, as Aztec sources later claimed, by Spanish hands is not certain.

The Sorrowful Night

Gunpowder, food, and water grew in short supply within the palace, although the Spaniards had amassed fortunes in gold, silver, and precious stones. Most of the gold and silver was melted down into ingots. Some was set aside for the royal taxation. The soldiers took what they liked.

By this time, the Aztecs had taken control of the bridges that made the causeways between the island and the mainland passable, so the Spaniards built a portable bridge. On a rainy July night (sources vary as to the exact date), one hundred fifty Spaniards and four hundred Tlascalans carried this bridge to a causeway. The cannons were also brought, and companies of soldiers were deployed. Some of the Tlascalans guarded the prisoners and women, including La Malinche, Cortés’s translator.

The Spaniards placed the bridge across to the first section of the causeway leading to the town of Tacuba. Cortés and some others crossed but the Aztecs, alerted by a passerby, arrived on the scene through the streets and by boat. In the ensuing battle, the Spaniards and their allies tried frantically to escape, while the Aztecs tried desperately to destroy those who threatened their empire. Some of the Spaniards and Tlascalans escaped when the Aztecs began to concentrate their attack on the rearguard. The looting of the baggage train also caused the attack to lose focus.

The Price of Escape

Cortés’s forces sustained heavy losses, especially with men whose inexperience had led them to more heavily weigh themselves down with loot. Among the dead were no fewer than six hundred Spaniards, several thousand Tlascalans, some of Moctezuma’s children, and other important prisoners. Firearms and most of the crossbows had been left behind, and most of the treasure was lost.

The survivors gathered at Tacuba but were attacked there, too. Their Tlascalan allies guided them north, where they would meet another massive Aztec army in the battle of Otumba.

The Battle of Otumba, July 1520

The Aztecs’ failure to defeat the Spanish and Tlascalan forces led by Hernán Cortés at the battle of Otumba in July 1520 paved the way for the siege of Tenochtitlan that brought down the Aztec empire.

Leaving Tenochtitlan

In 1519, Hernán Cortés led a small force of Spaniards and their Tlascalan allies in a successful occupation of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan; in the course of events, they were also able to take the Aztec ruler Moctezuma hostage. On the night of July 1, 1520, Cortés and his supporters were forced to flee the island city in a bloody retreat called La Noche Triste.

The Spaniards and Tlascalans escaped to the western shore of Lake Texcoco. The Tlascalans led the Spaniards northward to go around the lake, then eastward toward Tlascala, where Cortés had stored gold on the approach to Tenochtitlan.

During the escape from Tenochtitlan, the Spanish had lost the majority of their men and, according to the account of Bernal Díaz (an eyewitness), all but twenty-three horses. They had also lost their gunpowder, firearms, and most of their crossbows. The wounded, Spaniard and Tlascalan alike, were placed in the middle of the company with the supplies, and those too ill to walk were placed on lame horses. Fit horsemen and their mounts were deployed ahead and on the flanks.

Skirmishes on the March

Through the countryside and villages the Spanish were harried by arrows, darts, and stones. Hostile voices taunted that they were all headed toward the place where they would die.

At one village, a number of Aztec warriors gathered in an attempt to surround Cortés’s force. They could then make a more concerted attack with not only projectiles but also macuahuitl, wooden swords with blades of obsidian expertly chipped to razor-sharpness.

The terrain was too rough for Cortés to make effective use of the horses, but with their own steel blades the Spanish managed to ward off the Aztecs, killing several but at the cost of the lives of two Spanish soldiers and a horse. The Spanish occupied the town, where the starving Spaniards spent the night eating the flesh, skin, and bones of the slain mount.

The Battle on the Plain

Early the next morning, either July 7 or 14 (accounts vary), the Spanish resumed their march, sending some horsemen ahead. About three miles beyond this pass lay the plain of Otumba (also called Otampan), and here the scouts reported seeing a large number of Aztec warriors lying in wait.

Once the forces met, the Aztecs attempted to surround Cortés’s men, who remained in close formation to guard the baggage, the wounded, and other noncombatants, including their translator La Malinche. As Cortés had ordered, the cavalry, in groups of five, charged. These cavalry squads broke the Aztec ranks so that the swordsmen and the large dogs the Spaniards had brought with them could attack. Cavalry charged and retired, only to charge again, lancing the enemy.

The fighting was extremely close. Badly wounded, Cortés and his men persisted in their attacks, targeting the ornately attired Aztec officers, hoping that disrupting the command would put the troops to flight. Cortés personally led a contingent toward the commanding general. Cortés’s charge caused the general’s banner to fall. By Cortés’s own account he slew the officer with two strikes of his lance, but according to Díaz, credit for that death belonged to another soldier, Juan de Salamanca.

With the officers stricken, the Aztec attack became weaker; the battle finally ended in a rout, in which the Spaniards and Tlascalans pursued the retreating survivors. According to Díaz, Cortés lost seventy-two Spanish soldiers and five Spanish women, all late-coming recruits who had not campaigned against the Aztec subjects en route to Tenochtitlan. Aztec losses numbered in the hundreds.

After the Battle

People from nearby towns had witnessed the battle. Cortés’s force was still attacked by projectiles as it marched eastward toward the Tlascalans’ territory, but it met with no more organized resistance. Cortés spent more than two months in Tlascala (where they found that their stashed gold had been stolen) before moving on to Tepeaca, which resisted the Spanish advance and was seized. There Cortés began to prepare for the siege of Tenochtitlan.

The Siege of Tenochtitlan, 1520–1521

Led by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, the final campaign against the Aztecs ended with the siege of Tenochtitlan. When the city fell to the devastating blows of warfare and smallpox, the Aztec empire came to an end.

Preparations for the Siege

The Aztecs had driven Cortés’s Spaniards and local Tlascalan allies from the island-city of Tenochtitlan in July 1520, yet Cortés’s victory at the battle of Otumba gave the Spaniards hope. What he had previously attempted to achieve through guile he would now attempt through more conventional (in the European experience) tactics: namely, a siege.

Prompted by the Tlascalans, Cortés aimed his first attack against Tepeaca, one of the Aztec’s subject cities. Unlike the Tlascalans, the Tepeacans refused to capitulate to the foreigners. Cortés took the city in early August, sold the inhabitants as slaves if they were not executed (or sacrificed by the Tlascalans), and founded a Spanish settlement, Segura de la Frontera. Other cities were treated similarly.

In preparation for the siege, Cortés had gunpowder, firearms, and horses brought from the coast. Vessels from Cuba—not actually intended for Cortés—provided the necessary supplies as well as men. Resources were also obtained from Hispaniola and Jamaica. To take advantage of the fact that Tenochtitlan was in the middle of a lake, Cortés ordered ship’s carpenters to construct thirteen brigantines which could be broken down and transported overland. The Spanish soldiery numbered five hundred and fifty. The Tlascalans were probably about ten thousand in number, with many more available to fight.

Meanwhile, the Aztec emperor Cuitlahuac also made preparations, largely of a different sort. His attempts to rally allies had failed, so he repaired damage the Spaniards had done during the occupation of Tenochtitlan. Priests sacrificed prisoners to gain divine favor in their fight against the foreign invaders. New weapons, such as lances, were devised. Before the siege, Cuitlahuac fell victim to an assault against which the Aztecs could not defend themselves: smallpox.

Subduing the Surrounds

Cortés began the campaign in late December 1520. He took some cities—such as Texcoco (an important Aztec city of some 25,000) and Tacuba (strategically joined to Tenochtitlan by a causeway)—by force. Others willingly aligned themselves with the foreigners. Cuitlahuac’s successor, Cuauhtémoc, refused Cortés’s offers of peace. While more swords, firearms, gunpowder arrived, fighting continued between the Spaniards and Aztec armies around the lake.

Tenochtitlan Besieged

Cortés and his allies had taken all but Tenochtitlan and the neighboring city Tlatelolco. He denied the Aztecs fresh food and water by destroying crops and the aqueduct, adding to the general misery caused by the smallpox.

In April 1521, Cortés launched his thirteen brigantines into Lake Texcoco, but he did not put them into action until June. He arranged his forces into four divisions: one naval (commanded by himself) and three infantry and cavalry, commanded by Pedro de Alvarado, Cristóbal de Olid, and Gonzalo de Sandoval. Cuauhtémoc appropriately mirrored his own forces to engage the Spaniards, but even hundreds of Aztec watercraft (probably logboats) were no match for the brigantines, which bombarded the city and severed vital waterborne supply lines.

Each day the Spaniards crossed the causeways to attack from three directions simultaneously before vacating the city each nightfall. Under cover of darkness, the Aztecs would undo Spanish efforts to make the causeways passable. The Aztecs disabled two brigantines by luring them into a section of the lake where submerged stakes tore open the hulls. Both Alvarado and Cortés, on separate occasions, fell for an equivalent ruse on land in which the Aztecs retreated, drawing the Spaniards forward. The Spaniards then found themselves attacked from the flanks or rear. The Aztecs killed or captured a number of Spaniards, including very nearly Cortés. Those the Aztecs seized in these actions were sacrificed, while their comrades could only watch helplessly from a distance.

This obvious demonstration of Spanish mortality, coupled with the tenacity of the Aztec defenders, undermined the morale of some of the Spaniards’ allies, who fled their positions. (Prior to the Spaniards, Aztec battles did not drag on in this manner.) Cuauhtémoc sent Spanish body parts to his former subjects to convince them to relinquish their loyalty to Cortés, and Cortés had to fight to keep them.

For the first half of July, Spanish victory seemed in doubt, but the Spanish and their allies rallied. Ferocious fighting continued until mid-August. Cuauhtémoc was finally ready to surrender but the priests were not, so there was a final assault against the Spanish. However, on August 13, when Alvarado led his troops into Tlatelolco, he did so without a fight. Amid piles of corpses, people desperate to escape met him. The Tlascalans, against Cortés’s orders, showed no mercy and slew countless noncombatants.

A brigantine encountered several Aztec boats. Among the passengers was Cuauhtémoc, who either surrendered or was captured. The siege was finally over.

The City Destroyed

In name, Cuauhtémoc remained emperor as a vassal of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. At Cuauhtémoc’s request, Cortés allowed the survivors of the siege to return to the Aztec homeland, Aztlan.

The city itself did not survive. Cortés had so admired it when he arrived in 1519 that he once hoped to hand it intact to Charles V. Spanish attacks, however, had demolished so much of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco that what remained was burned. Upon these ruins, Cortés founded Mexico City.

Cajamarca, 1532

At the Inca highland city of Cajamarca, in the northern Peruvian highlands, Spanish and Inca forces met for the first time in battle. Here the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured, and later killed, Atahualpa, ruler of the Incas, whose death facilitated the Spanish conquest of their empire.

The Early History of Cajamarca

Indications of settlement at Cajamarca date back to at least 1500 bce . In the late fifteenth century ce , the semi-arid but productive Cajamarca Valley was incorporated into the Inca kingdom (also called Tahuantinsuyu). The city of Cajamarca was founded near hot springs.

During the dynastic war that followed the death of the emperor Huayna Capac, his son Atahualpa remained at Cajamarca while his generals pressed the army of his brother Huascar southward. Atahualpa’s forces defeated Huascar, and Atahualpa was still at Cajamarca when Francisco Pizarro led his third expedition into the region.

The Spaniards at Cajamarca

In 1532, Pizarro and his forces began the trek into the highlands from San Miguel de Piura, a city Pizarro had founded. Atahualpa had learned of their arrival and dispatched messengers with threatening gifts. News of their previous activities—raiding coastal villages—had reached Atahualpa, and he was most displeased.

When the Spanish arrived at Cajamarca in November, they found only several hundred men in the town, while the women were making preparations for festivities. Atahualpa and his forces were encamped near the hot spring. A hailstorm struck, forcing most of the Spaniards under cover, but Hernando de Soto and Pizarro’s brother Hernando went with horsemen and an interpreter to confront Atahualpa. They obtained a promise from the Inca to enter Cajamarca the next day. Atahualpa’s offer of friendship was as false as the Spaniards’. He intended to variously kill them or castrate them for use in the emperor’s harem.

Pizarro concealed his men and horses within the buildings that surrounded the plaza. This meant that Atahualpa was met not by the Spanish soldiers he expected, but a single Dominican friar and his interpreter instead. When Atahualpa discarded a book of prayer the friar gave him, Pizarro signaled the Spanish to attack.

Bursting from their concealments on horseback and firing cannons, the Spaniards destroyed Atahualpa’s forces in about two hours. The Spaniards suffered no fatalities, while the Incas might have lost seven thousand. Atahualpa was not among the dead, however. Pizarro knew that he and his force of less than two hundred Spaniards were now trapped in an empire with an army of tens of thousands, and he needed Atahualpa to stay alive.

The Ransom of Atahualpa

In exchange for his freedom, Atahualpa proposed that he could order a certain room in Cajamarca to be half filled with gold objects and then half filled twice again with silver. Over the course of the next eight months the treasure slowly amassed, as did information. Some came from Atahualpa himself, who divulged enough that the Spanish knew that they could turn the divisions of loyalty within the Inca realm to their own purposes. Men sent to investigate Cuzco, the Inca capital, and the coastal city Pachacamac came back with word of the wealth of resources of Tahuantinsuyu, and they brought one of Atahualpa’s generals, Challcochima, back to Cajamarca.

Beginning in late spring of the next year, the artifacts sent to ransom Atahualpa were melted down. The appropriate royal taxation was set aside, and the remainder was divided among the Spaniards. Pizarro received more than six hundred pounds of gold, a horseman one-seventh of this amount, and newly arrived reinforcements from Panama much less.

Led by Diego de Almagro, the Spanish reinforcements were especially suspicious of Atahualpa, and there were rumors that he had secretly dispatched orders for his general to lead an assault on Cajamarca. Pizarro eventually gave in to these fears; he accused Atahualpa of insurrection and, because his half-brother Huascar had been killed en route to Cajamarca, of murder. Found guilty, Atahualpa allowed himself to be baptized in order to avoid being burned at the stake. Instead, he was killed by strangulation in June or July 1533.

The End of Tahuantinsuyu

News of Atahualpa’s death brought sorrow to his supporters and his family, as well as the ire of King Charles V of Spain (who disliked the precedent of having rulers killed). To fill the leadership void, the Spaniards set Tupac Huallpa, Atahualpa’s half-brother, as a token king of Tahuantinsuyu, but he succumbed to illness soon afterwards.

Atahualpa’s own generals took advantage of his death to attempt a more vigorous repulsion of the invaders, which they previously had not dared to do because of the danger posed to their king. However, many local populations chose to side with the Spaniards against Atahualpa’s forces, which had committed atrocities against them.

The remaining Inca resistance, led by Atahualpa’s commander Quizquiz, attempted and then failed to defend Cuzco, the Inca capital. In November 1533, Pizarro’s troops took the city. In December they installed yet another puppet king, Manco Inca, yet another half-brother of Atahualpa. His rule also did not last long, but only because he abandoned Cuzco in 1536 to set up a new state at Vilcabamba, which resisted and otherwise opposed the Spanish occupation until Vilcabamba was finally conquered in 1572.

Key Elements of Warcraft


Because of their speed, size, and ability to be trained, horses have had many uses for military operations throughout history. These tasks have included carrying supplies, pulling chariots, and providing mounted soldiers with a movable weapons platform.

Domestication of the Horse

Archaeology has not revealed a clear picture of the domestication of the horse. Certainly by about 2000 bce , a fully domesticated breed had appeared in the steppes of western Asia. Domestic horses spread rapidly throughout Asia and Europe and into Egypt during the Bronze Age.

Horses in the Wars of Antiquity

Horses made their first significant contributions to warfare during the Bronze Age, the heyday of chariot warfare. Beginning in the seventeenth century bce , horse-drawn chariots dominated many battlefields in the region of the Aegean Sea, the Near East, and Egypt. The Iron Age, however, saw the replacement of chariot warfare with that of infantry, although some cultures—including the Persians and the Celts—continued to field chariots in battle.

Riding on horseback is attested to unequivocally in the artistic and archaeological record beginning only a little before 1000 bce . Cavalry had superior mobility compared to chariots and infantry, but it could not be used to full advantage until the invention of the stirrup.

Warhorses in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

The Huns swept into Europe on horseback in the fifth century ce . By the time the mounted archers of the Mongols followed eight centuries later, the dominant European cavalrymen were heavily armored knights. Large breeds were required to support the immense weight of the rider, and the horse itself also often wore armor. The style of riding typically associated with the knight was known in Spanish as a la brida. Subduing the horse and controlling it forcibly by bit and bridle, the rider sat stiff, legs braced forward in the stirrups.

Monarchs and horse traders alike recognized the value of the many regional breeds available throughout Europe. Spanish and Frisian breeds were especially prized. To improve their own stocks, governments variously mandated or banned specific imports, and the trade in military horses tended to be tightly regulated. Even so, shortages of good warhorses, of both heavy breeds and light, sometimes occurred.

Although heavy breeds predominated, smaller horses and even ponies saw battle. As was demonstrated, for example, during the Crusades and the wars between the English king Edward II and Robert the Bruce, this sort of cavalry could defeat heavily armored opponents through greater swiftness and dexterity.

From the Moors who occupied the Iberian Peninsula until the Spanish Reconquista, the Spanish adopted new techniques for smaller, faster breeds that were better suited to mounted combat with swords. This sort of riding, with knees bent, was referred to as a la jineta. Control was achieved less by force upon the mouth with the bit and more by coercive pressure of the rider’s legs upon the horse’s sides.

In Europe, both styles of riding fell out of fashion in the mid-sixteenth century, when Federico Grisone published two highly influential books on horsemanship which combined features of brida and jineta techniques. Jineta riding persisted in the Americas, however.

The Horse in the Americas

At the time the first Spaniards arrived, horses were unknown in the New World. Except for the llamas and alpacas of the Andes, the Americas lacked domesticable animals capable of carrying sizeable burdens, let alone a rider.

Thus, when the Spaniards did arrive with horses, the cavalry initially terrified people, who thought each mount and rider to be a single creature. A horse is a large, intimidating animal—still useful today for crowd control—and it was no less so at the time of the Spanish conquest.

At first, the indigenous tribes had no tactical defenses against nimble cavalry, whose repeated charges could break up their infantry formations. Yet the Aztecs and the Incas did capitalize on the weaknesses of horses, particularly during sieges, when they used pits, for example, to stop their advance, or devised long lances to unseat Spanish riders.

For a time, Spanish colonial law forbade the indigenous subjects from riding horses. Such rules could hardly be enforced on the plains of North America, where, in the late seventeenth century, the tribes acquired horses in revolts against the Spaniards. By the time the United States came into full conflict with the indigenous tribes, the horse was an integral part of tribal warfare and daily life.

Horses in Modern Warfare

Horses, as pack and draft animals and as cavalry mounts, were of vital importance during wars of the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries.

Ironically, military horses are most useful today in situations in which they would have been least useful during the days of chariot and cavalry warfare. From World War II to the twenty-first century conflict in Afghanistan, they played vital roles in the transport of men and supplies in mountainous terrains and other regions beyond the reach of mechanized transport.

Arquebuses and Other Matchlock Guns

The matchlock was the first ignition device to allow the shooter to use both hands to steady the gun. Prior to the invention of the matchlock, firearms were ignited by means of a match stick, which had to be held in one hand while the other steadied the gun.

Firearm Improvements

Two innovations made the more convenient matchlock possible. One was the matchcord, or slow match. This was a long wick of cotton, hemp, or flax soaked in a solution of saltpeter. It burned at a rate of four to five inches per hour. The second innovation was the serpentine, an S-shaped lever that held the matchcord. Variations of this mechanism abounded; in its simplest form, pressing one end of the lever brought the lighted matchcord down to the flashpan that held the priming powder beside the touchhole in the barrel of the gun. This led to the ignition of the gunpowder and discharged the weapon.

Also instrumental in the utility of the matchlock was the stock. The stock of the arquebus could be pressed against the chest to steady it, and the barrel of the gun provided a line of sight for purposes of aiming. The weight of the weapon required the use of a fork stick to support the barrel, hence the name “arquebus,” from the German Hakenbüchse (“hook-gun”).

Although the matchlock was a German invention of the fifteenth century, its technology underwent no single evolutionary line of development. Individual gunsmiths innovated at will. Improvements were made to the flashpan (moved from the top of the barrel to the side, and often covered to protect the powder from dampness and the soldier from mishap) and the stock (given large butts and thumb notches). The introduction of a spring-loaded catch improved the triggering mechanism, and by the late sixteenth century the trigger itself had roughly assumed its modern form, operated by a pull of the index finger.

By 1475, the principle of rifling—in which grooves in the barrel improve the accuracy of a bullet’s trajectory—was in deliberate use, though smoothbore barrels remained the norm. A good smoothbore arquebus had a range of a hundred yards. At sixty or seventy yards, a heavy arquebus could pierce most plate armor.

Gun Types

During the period, terminology was often not well defined. “Arquebus” and its many variations (including Hakenbüchse, harquebus, hackbut, hacabuche, and archibuso) might refer to any of a number of matchlock weapon types that today fall under other terms. The caliver, originally called une arquebuse du caliber, was a hand-held gun up to forty-four inches long and up to about ten pounds in weight. It was developed in the middle of the sixteenth century.

At about twice the weight of the caliver, the mosquete or musket required the use of a rest. Some authorities believe that the great weight of the early musket led the musketeer to brace the gun against his shoulder, a practice that persisted even after the weight had been reduced to sixteen pounds in the seventeenth century.

Use of the Arquebus

Between shots, the arquebusier or musketeer had to reload his weapon, a process that began with removing the burning match from the serpentine. He held the match (often kept lit at both ends) and the barrel with one hand while he opened and poured a charge of gunpowder. The arquebusier then inserted a ball and a wad of paper or tow (which then had to be rammed into the barrel). Using the other hand, he added priming powder to the pan. Then he aimed and fired. While this seems difficult, it was easier to train a man to perform these complicated and hazardous actions than it was to train a competent crossbowman.

The Arquebus in Asia and the Americas

The Spaniards and other Europeans were armed with crossbows and matchlocks when they came to the New World in the late fifteenth century and when they arrived in eastern Asia in the sixteenth century. The Japanese, with highly developed metallurgy, had the opportunity and ability to adopt and improve firearms provided by the Portuguese, but for cultural reasons they regulated the weapons and later rejected them for more than two hundred years.

The Aztecs in Mexico and Incas in Peru had only limited experience with metalworking and, unlike the Japanese, no experience with gunpowder. Although conditions were far from optimal for the operation of matchlocks, these and other guns (coupled with many other factors including disease and political instability) heavily contributed to the downfall of these two New World empires.

The End of the Arquebus

Its many weaknesses, from its slow rate of fire to the impracticality (in damp or windy conditions) and danger of the matchcord, ultimately doomed the matchlock. Yet its simplicity and economy of production sustained its use. It took the wheellock, first developed in about 1520, and other ignition devices about two centuries to supercede the matchlock in both the Americas and Europe.

The Impact of the Conquest of the Americas

Most immediately, the Spanish invasion resulted in the destruction of two major American empires, the Aztec and Inca, and it took a devastating toll on neighboring people. Warfare, disease, and forced acculturation and conversion exterminated or transformed indigenous cultures.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a flood of immigration into the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese being the first to arrive in significant numbers. That they were mostly men led to intermarriage with local women, and this resulted in a greater mingling of cultures than would be the case farther north among the English, Dutch, and French and their indigenous neighbors. This population of Europeans, natives, and mestizos (mixed-race) were joined by forced migrations of enslaved African men, women, and children sent in as substitutes for the native labor lost in epidemics of European diseases.

On these Iberian heels, late in the sixteenth century came other Europeans, notably the British and French. These immigrants established their own colonies and trading outposts (such as Jamestown, Plymouth, and Tadoussac) in northern North America. Here too, the native populations suffered from the effects of disease and the introduction of European economic systems and technologies.

By their initial control of the American trade in precious metals and other commodities, Spain and Portugal usurped Italy’s position as the premier luxury commodity agent of the Renaissance. However, enormous amounts of capital were required to exploit American resources. Labor, both slave and specialized, had to be imported either from Europe or Africa. Wilderness needed to be “tamed” with clear-cutting and the imposition of economic and political infrastructure.

By engaging in contraband trade, English and Dutch companies avoided certain overhead expenses. In time Spain lost possessions in the region to other nations. It was England and Holland that benefited the most from the transatlantic trade, turning imported raw materials (from the Americas, Asia, and Africa) into manufactured goods sold in Europe and the colonies.

What Spaniards and their laborers extracted at a high price benefited not only Spain but also the rest of Europe. Merchants from many nations prospered from the transatlantic trade. Besides using illegal trade to access the wealth of the Caribbean, the British also attacked the Spanish plate fleet. One consequence of this piracy and privateering was the launch of the Spanish Armada against England in 1588.

The influx of wealth also aided military operations. Spain was part of the Habsburg Empire; consequently, American silver especially helped to fund the Thirty Years War and campaigns that checked the advance of the Turkish Ottoman Empire into Europe. The influx of silver and gold also promoted the use of minted coins that served as internationally recognizable collateral for credit and helped to expand European trade. This helped foster a global economy.

More than just men and metals crossed the Atlantic. Old World crops, such as sugarcane and rice, would become staples of New World plantation economies. Domestic animals, such as pigs, and accidental introductions ranging from rats to nightcrawlers, would transform American ecosystems. American crops, notably maize and potatoes, as well as fish from its Atlantic waters, fed European nations. American tomatoes, chocolate, and chili peppers would refashion cuisines from Italy to China, and tobacco would create a worldwide addiction.

The foundations laid by the Spanish conquest and other early European presences in the New World would eventually bring forth independent nations, but not until such wars as the American Revolution and the European wars of empire of the nineteenth century.

Díaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain, translated by J. M. Cohen. London: Penguin, 1963.

Gómara, Francisco Lopez de. Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary, translated and edited by Lesley Byrd Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.

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The Conquest of the Americas (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)

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