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Pizarro, Francisco (c. 1478–1541)

Pizarro, Francisco (c. 1478–1541)

Francisco Pizarro (b. ca. 1478; d. 26 June 1541), conqueror of Peru. Pizarro was born in Trujillo, in Estremadura, Spain, the illegitimate son of the young hidalgo Gonzalo Pizarro and a peasant woman, Francisca González. Never recognized by his father, Pizarro seems to have grown up in the household of his mother or her relatives, although he did visit frequently the home of his grandfather, Hernando Alonso Pizarro. He never received a formal education. As a youth he probably traveled to Italy, where he may have served in the Spanish forces. In 1502 he joined the large fleet of fellow Estremaduran Governor Nicolás de Ovando that set sail for Hispaniola.

Pizarro experienced a long apprenticeship in the Caribbean area, serving with Alonso de Ojeda in the exploration of the Gulf of Urabá (1509–1510). He helped found Nuestra Señora la Antigua del Darién with Martín Fernández de Enciso and was a leader of Vasco Núñez de Balboa's 1513 trek across the Isthmus of Panama in search of the South Sea. He was one of the founders of Panama (1519). He served under Governor Pedro Arias de Ávila in other minor expeditions that set out from the isthmus, receiving an encomienda for his services to the crown. He acted as lieutenant governor, chief magistrate, and council member of the city of Panama.

Pizarro, along with Diego de Almagro (1480–1538) and cleric Hernando de Luque (d. 1532), began to plan the exploration of lands along the west coast of South America, rumored to be rich. He was by then one of the most experienced explorers in the Caribbean region. Largely in control of the enterprise, with Almagro securing supplies and recruiting men and Luque providing additional financial backing, Pizarro moved south on the first expedition in 1524. The group, facing contrary winds and currents, reached as far as the territory controlled by the Cacique de las Piedras, with little success.

The second expedition, beginning in 1526, ended in near disaster at the Isla del Gallo in 1527. Here, some of Pizarro's men returned to Panama for reinforcements, taking along a secret message calling for the rescue of those remaining. When a ship offering to return the men to Panama appeared, Pizarro, according to some, took out his sword and drew a line on the sand, declaring that all who crossed to the south side of the line and stayed with him would be rewarded with vast riches. The famous "thirteen" of the Isla del Gallo who remained with Pizarro ultimately became the heroes of Peru's conquest. They were transferred to the Isla de la Gorgona, and continued exploration southward. When they reached the city of Tumbes, on the edge of the Inca empire, in 1527, they knew then that their quest would bear fruit. After sailing as far south as the Santa River, they returned to Panama to announce the discovery and exhibited gold objects as proof.

Francisco Pizarro returned to Spain to secure backers and soldiers, as well as authority to continue as leader. The Agreement of Toledo (26 July 1529) placed Pizarro in full control of the venture and alienated Almagro, whose resentment ignited a civil war in Peru. Pizarro returned from Spain with a fleet and recruits, including half brothers Hernando, Juan, and Gonzalo, and other soldiers mostly from Estremadura. Near the end of 1530 the group left Panama. Sailing southward, they reached the Bay of San Mateo, where some of the men disembarked and marched overland, facing difficult conditions; others continued by sea. By early 1532, they were in the city of Tumbes. From there they continued southward and founded the first Spanish city in Peru, which they named San Miguel. On 24 September 1532 Pizarro and a large group set out from San Miguel for the highland city of Cajamarca, where it was rumored the Inca ruler was staying. Pizarro met the Inca leader Atahualpa at the central plaza of Cajamarca on 16 November 1532. Friar Vicente de Valverde read the requerimiento demanding submission to Spain, and the Inca was handed a religious book, which fell or was thrown to the ground. The Spanish, enraged by the insult, rushed out of hiding and massacred thousands of unarmed retainers, capturing Atahualpa.

The Spanish had in their hands a puppet they could manipulate to control an empire. The tactical maneuver was not unlike the taking of Aztec ruler Motecuhzoma by Hernán Cortés a few years earlier. In this case, Atahualpa offered to fill a room with gold and silver as ransom. Pizarro accepted, and for several months a vast treasure was collected from all parts of the realm and later distributed among the Spaniards present at Cajamarca; the crown also received a large portion. Rather than release their captive after the gold and silver was amassed, the Spanish charged Atahualpa with planning a surprise attack and executed the Inca ruler on 26 July 1533. Pizarro then marched toward the Inca capital of Cuzco, fighting several skirmishes along the way. He had named another captive member of the royal family, Tupac Amaru, as Inca, and hoped to rule through him.

There were a number of reasons why a handful of outsiders were able to establish control over a vast empire of up to 14 million people: the recent devastation caused by smallpox; the subsequent civil war between half brothers Atahualpa and Huascar; the many ethnic entities of the Andes who were ready to assert independence from the Incas; the superior weaponry and astute diplomacy of the Spaniards; and the initial hesitation about what type of creatures the outsiders really were (were they gods, Viracocha?). Francisco Pizarro entered the city of Cuzco, established a Spanish municipal corporation, chose officials, and distributed lots and nearby lands to followers. Pizarro also issued grants of Indians (encomiendas) as soon as a region was under Spanish control. Cuzco's location, isolated far from the coast at an elevation of about 11,000 feet, made the small number of Spaniards uneasy. An administrative center nearer the north, and the coast, was needed. After a first attempt at highland Jauja, Pizarro founded Lima (18 January 1535) on the central coast. The Spanish conquerors quickly founded other cities and distributed lands, offices, and Indians. Simultaneously, the first Christian missionaries began their work.

In the meantime, the conflict with Diego de Almagro intensified. Almagro reached Cajamarca too late to share in the ransom of Atahualpa. He had received the governorship of New Toledo to the south of Pizarro's jurisdiction, however. Unfortunately, the exact boundaries dividing the territories were imprecise. Almagro was at Cuzco and in 1535 left in search of rumored treasures to the south, in Chile. While the Almagrists were absent, a massive Indian uprising under Manco Inca broke out; the Inca besieged Cuzco, and even the Spanish in the Lima area suffered major Indian resistance. As the uprising faded away in 1537, Almagro and the survivors of the Chilean fiasco returned and wrenched Cuzco from the Pizarrists. This, however, was only a temporary setback. With cunning diplomacy, military victory at Salinas (6 April 1538), and the execution of Diego de Almagro, Francisco Pizarro secured his position.

During the next three years Pizarro traveled extensively, founding several other Spanish cities. The king even made Pizarro a marquis, but on Sunday, 26 June 1541, a group of malcontents, claiming to act in the name of Diego de Almagro the Younger, broke into the house of Francisco Pizarro in Lima and assassinated him. Several others, including Francisco's half brother, Francisco Martín de Alcántara, was killed in the fray. Francisco Pizarro was survived by four mestizo children: doña Francisca and don Gonzalo by doña Inés Yupanqui Huaylas; and don Francisco and don Juan by doña Angelina Yupanqui.

See alsoAlmagro, Diego de; Luque, Hernando de.


José Antonio Del Busto Duthurburu, Francisco Pizarro, el marqués gobernador (1966).

James Lockhart, The Men of Cajamarca (1972), pp. 135-157.

Additional Bibliography

Lavallé, Bernard. Francisco Pizarro: Biografía de una conquista. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, Instituto Frances de Estudios Andinos, 2005.

Lavallé, Bernard. Francisco Pizarro y la conquista del Imperio Inca. Madrid: Espasa, 2005.

Olaizola, José Luis. Francisco Pizarro: Crónica de una locura. Barcelona: Planeta, 1998.

                                    Noble David Cook

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