Sebastian de Benalcazar

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Sebastián de Benalcázar

The Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar (died 1551) conquered large areas of Colombia and founded several cities in South America.

Sebastián de Moyano, the original name of Benalcázar, was probably born at Belalcázar in Estremadura, Spain. The year is sometimes given as 1495, but his own statement that he reached Santo Domingo (Hispaniola), in 1507, presumably as an adult, points to a considerably earlier birth date. Of poor parents, and originally a manual laborer, he adopted the name of his birthplace.

Benalcázar is known to have been at Nombre de Diós on the Isthmus of Panama in 1511, and he probably served with the explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Under Pedrarias he went to Central America and took part in the founding of León, Nicaragua. On returning to Panama, he joined Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro for the Inca conquest in Peru. From Cajamarca, Pizarro sent Benalcázar to govern the recently founded Spanish settlement of San Miguel de Piura in northern Peru. On the way Benalcázar received exaggerated reports of the wealth of Quito, Inca Atahualpa's original seat of power, and went there instead. He defeated the Quitan general Rumiñaui and entered the city, which he found disappointing as to riches. In 1534 Pizarro appointed Benalcázar governor of Quito, and the following year Benalcázar founded Guayaquil on the coast, a city soon abandoned and to be refounded by Francisco de Orellana.

Wishing to be independent of Pizarro, Benalcázar with a large expedition headed north beyond the former Inca limits in 1538. He fought the Quillacinga and Pasto Indians and founded the towns of Cali and Popayán in southern Colombia. From Popayán he went on to the Chibcha capital of Bacatá (Bogotá). There he found Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada from Santa Marta already in possession. A little later Nikolaus Federmann from Coro in Venezuela also arrived. The three chiefs parleyed instead of fighting; Benalcázar and Jiménez became friendly in opposition to Federmann, who wished Bogotá for himself. In May 1539 they all departed for Spain to lay their cases before King Charles. Benalcázar received substantially what he desired, the province of Popayán, or roughly southern Colombia. He returned there in 1540.

When the Peruvian rebellion led by Gonzalo Pizarro broke out, Benalcázar remained steadfastly loyal to the Crown. Though age now made further military activity difficult, he nevertheless took a force to Peru and commanded it in the final battle which saw Gonzalo defeated. Benalcázar described himself in a letter to the King in 1549 as "very old and tired."

Benalcázar's last year was troubled by personal enemies who charged him with many crimes, though the same charges could have been brought against any conquistador. He died at Cartagena, Colombia, in 1551 while on the way to Spain to plead his case.

Further Reading

There are no books in English devoted to Benalcázar. The major work is in Spanish: J.Jijon y Caamaño, Sebastián de Benalcázar (2 vols., 1936-1938). Valuable discussions of this conquistador are found in Frederick A. Kirkpatrick, The Spanish Conquistadores (1934; 2d ed. 1946), and Walker Chapman, The Golden Dream (1968). □

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