Atahualpa (c. 1498–1533)

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Atahualpa (c. 1498–1533)

Atahualpa (or Atahuallpa, Ataw Huallpa in Quechua, called Atabalipa in the Spanish chroniclers) was the Inca ruler at the time of the Spanish Conquest of Peru. Little accurate information exists about his life; even his date and place of birth are uncertain. Some suggest he was born in the imperial center of Cuzco, others that he was from Tomebamba (Cuenca, Ecuador). His father was Huayna Capac, the last undisputed ruler of Tahuantinsuyu, the Inca Empire; his mother was a favorite secondary wife from the north, perhaps from the Schiri nation. Huayna Capac died of smallpox, which swept into the Andes ahead of the Spanish.

The Andean practice of succession was not based on primogeniture. Any male child from the principal or from any of the secondary wives could become último Inca (ruler). The division of Cuzco into separate halves (hanan and urinsaya) with a divided government and the importance of the cults of the lineages (panacas) of previous Inca rulers complicated the question of succession. As he lay dying, elder advisers repeatedly asked Huayna Capac about the succession. It seems he favored his youngest child, Ninan Cuyochi, who, however, also contracted smallpox and died. Huayna Capac's second choice was probably Huascar, his son with Ragua Ocllo. Initially the Cuzco religious and political elite supported Huascar. Indeed, the Cuzco leadership proclaimed him heir after Huayna Capac's death. But as Huayna Capac drifted in and out of a coma in his last hours, he also named Atahualpa, a favorite from the north, who had promising military potential. Atahualpa, with the support of great military commanders, moved southward in an attempt to secure control of Tahuantinsuyu. Victorious, Atahualpa's forces captured Huascar outside Cuzco and imprisoned him. General Quizquiz went into Cuzco, attempting to obliterate completely the Huascar faction.

Such was the political turmoil in the realm when a band of Spaniards under Francisco Pizarro arrived on their third expedition of 1531. Ata-hualpa had left commander Rumiñavi in charge of Quito and Chalicuchima in control of the central Andes while he, along with a few thousand troops, traveled to Cajamarca to rest and enjoy the thermal baths nearby. There the Spanish captured him on November 16, 1532, after he dropped or threw the Bible on the ground, saying it did not speak to him. After realizing the European thirst for gold, Atahualpa offered as ransom to fill a room within two months with gold, and twice with silver. Pizarro and the other Europeans were astounded as shipments slowly began to make their way into Cajamarca from throughout the realm. With the completion of the ransom (a total of about 13,420 pounds of 22 1/2-carat gold and 26,000 pounds of good silver), the quandary of what to do with the Inca ruler increased. Atahualpa began to mistrust the promise of release and had probably ordered his commander Rumiñavi to move toward Cajamarca. Around the same time Hernando Pizarro, half brother of Francisco, convinced Chalicuchima to come to Cajamarca with him. Chalicuchima's decision is incomprehensible because it resulted in one of Atahualpa's most formidable generals submitting himself voluntarily to captivity.

Ultimately, a group that included royal officials and the recently arrived Diego de Almagro persuaded Pizarro that it was dangerous to keep the Inca captive and that he should be executed. The principal Atahualpa defenders, Hernando de Soto and Hernando Pizarro, were away at the time the trial took place. Atahualpa was charged with ordering while in jail the execution of his half-brother and preparing a surprise attack against the Spaniards, charges for which he was found guilty and sentenced to die at the stake. Friar Vicente de Valverde succeeded in converting Atahualpa to Christianity, and therefore the Inca was garroted instead of burned, on July 26, 1533. In subsequent years myths evolved (the Inkarrí cycle) portraying Atahualpa's return, ushering in a new age during which the yoke of the invaders would be overthrown. This cycle of myths gave rise to actual attempts to overthrow the Spanish colonial regime as late as the 1780s (Tupac Amaru II) and became intertwined with pro-independence ideologies during the nineteenth century.

See alsoHuayna Capac; Incas, The; Peru: From the Conquest Through Independence; Pizarro, Francisco.


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                                    Noble David Cook