European Contact Overwhelms the Inca Empire: Francisco Pizarro's Conquest of Peru

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European Contact Overwhelms the Inca Empire: Francisco Pizarro's Conquest of Peru


Unknown to the indigenous people of the New World, their destiny was being determined by political and economic forces taking place across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, thousands of daring adventurers would be crossing the ocean to conquer within a few centuries what had taken the Indians thousands to years to inhabit. This "Age of Exploration" was fostered by technological advancements in maritime practices, the belief in an economic philosophy called mercantilism, and an interest in converting the religious beliefs of native populations. Mercantilism was the idea that if a nation was not self-sufficient in its affairs, then its neighbors would dominate it. The two areas that seemed ripe for establishing this ideal were the Middle East and the Americas. Many of the Spanish conquistadors headed for the New World seeking wealth and adventure. One such conquistador was Francisco Pizarro (1470?-1541).


Spanish interest in the west coast of South America grew after Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513 and brought back tales of untold riches. In 1523, Pizarro, Diego de Almagro (1475?-1538), and Hernando de Luque undertook the initial exploration of Peru that eventually led to its conquest. Their initial contract called for them to divide their shares equally. By 1527 they were convinced of the wealth of the Inca Empire. Failing to secure help in the New World, Pizarro returned to Spain, where he received authorization from emperor Charles V to conquer and govern the area extending 600 miles south from Panama. When Pizarro returned with his brothers to deliver the news, Almagro became incensed at Pizarro, claiming that Pizarro was trying to cheat him out of his fair share of the spoils. Despite this conflict Almagro continued to collaborate with Pizarro, and they were working together when the expedition embarked for Peru in late 1530 with 180 men.

When Pizarro arrived in Peru, he established a base at San Miguel on the north coast of Peru. He crossed the mountains to seek an interview with Atahuallpa, the Inca Sun King who had been victorious in the recent civil war. It is clear that the Spanish understood the implications of that war as they were dealing with emissaries from both factions. The actions of the Spanish were to just cover all the bases, but this may have been puzzling to Atahuallpa. At the same time Pizarro was deposing leaders who were loyal to Atahuallpa, he was sending messages that recognized him as the legitimate ruler. Prior to the meeting set up in Cajamarca, the Spaniards indicated that they would come to the aid of Atahuallpa against any group that opposed his rule. Atahuallpa clearly underestimated the Spanish when he agreed to meet with them on November 16, 1532.

Atahuallpa arrived at Cajamarca with an army of about 30,000 men. Confident that the Spanish would not attempt an attack, he saw no reason not to accept their invitation into the village square. He entered the village square carried on a litter and surrounded by 5,000 men. He was approached by a priest who asked him if he would accept God and the King of Spain. He was then given a Bible. According to scholars, he promptly glanced at a few pages and then cast the book to the ground. The priest then implored Pizarro to strike down the heathens; with that, Pizarro lunched a surprise attack. Soldiers came bursting out of buildings, horsemen came flying through doors, and canons and arquebuses opened fire, cutting down the Inca by the hundreds. The Inca were so overwhelmed that many tried to flee the square only to find themselves being suffocated by the weight of the others trying to escape. Despite the overwhelming numbers of the Inca, they were not prepared for such a fight. The battle lasted less than an hour, and the Inca lost 5,000 men and had just as many injuries. But most importantly, Atahuallpa was captured by Pizarro himself.

While in prison, Atahuallpa was allowed to carry on much of his daily existence. Realizing that it was gold that the Spanish were after, he agreed to fill a room with gold and two others with silver as a ransom. The enormous ransom was raised, but Pizarro feared that to release Atahuallpa would mean certain death for the Incan ruler, so they had him executed after a mock trial. Realizing that Atahuallpa's death was a mistake because it weakened their position, the Spaniards approved the coronation of a new leader, Topa Huallpa. He was subsequently poisoned, so the Spanish placed Manco Inca on the thrown. The real Spanish conquest of Peru then began in earnest. The Spanish prevented Manco Inca from having any real power, and he soon realized that the Inca needed to fight for their freedom or at least die trying. He led a year-long rebellion against the city of Cuzco, which had been occupied by the Spanish. In the end, the Spanish weaponry and war tactics were too advanced for the Inca to overcome with just sheer numbers. The Spanish won, and the Incan people were subjected to the perils of slavery, many of them literally being worked to death mining their own precious metals.


Expeditions similar to those conducted by Pizarro in Peru served to motivate thousands of Spanish peasants to join the military. The discovery of riches and wealth enticed these peasants to travel to the New World in search of a new life. A successful colonial mission could possibly lead to a governorship, wealth, or a pension for the participants. If one were particularly lucky, he could procure riches beyond his wildest imagination. Other men were drawn to the New World by promises of adventure. They looked for quick advancement in the military and diplomatic careers. Still others came on a mission of God. These men wanted to convert the native population to Catholicism. By converting the Americas to God, they believed they would receive eternal blessings.

The discovery of the Inca Civilization in Peru proved to be a huge downfall for the natives. In what would be their first contact with Europeans, nearly 5,000 were killed in just over 30 minutes. With their leader captured, the populace did not know what to do. They were intelligent, loyal subjects willing to do anything for their human god, but they were not trained to think and act for themselves. They offered little resistance to the Spanish onslaught. In fact, many people lament that that was the day the Inca civilization died. While that is probably an overstatement, things changed drastically from that day forward. The Spanish had superior technology with their weapons and were much more enlightened when it came to military strategy. Many warriors were severely injured or killed following confrontations with the Spanish, and entire villages were wiped out, not as the result of warfare, but from the introduction of European diseases against which the Indians had no natural immunity. These included such diseases as smallpox, measles, and the flu. The native population had a difficult enough time defending themselves against a known enemy like the Spanish, but it was impossible to protect themselves from the invisible attacks from these diseases.

Another factor that greatly favored the Spanish over the Inca was the constant struggle between neighboring factions. The civilization seemed to always be at war with someone, and therefore the indigenous populations did not fight for common goals. This pattern of dispersed regional groups that frequently were at war with one another may have facilitated the relatively effortless Spanish victory because the people would not or could not band together.

Spain was obsessed with its quest for gold and riches from the New World. The Spanish were single-minded and brutal in their efforts to obtain their prize. Villages were often taken by force until Spain had moved the Americas from a conglomeration of thousands of separate tribes to hundreds of scattered remnants, leaving Spain as the ruling power. One could not have been predicted how quickly the Spanish would rise to power and how far they would extend their influence. Within 50 years they had become the richest, most influential nation in the world. The pushed their way inland and established footholds to expand their territory with ruthless efficiency. They believed it was their divine right to expand their empire and even had papal approval for their conquests. They were ruthless and unyielding in their endeavors and built themselves the enviable position of controlling much of the known gold and silver in the New World. At the same time, Portugal was getting rich through the sea trade routes to India and the Orient. Thus Portugal and Spain had taken the early lead in the race for riches from far-away lands. The English, Dutch, and French, who argued that the seas should be open and that possession of land should depend on occupation, would soon challenge this position. Soon all five of these countries would vie for supremacy of these lands. Because Spain had such a vast area to defend, it could not adequately protect its interests in some areas. This paved the way for the English, Dutch, and French to step in and seize command of much of the trade in that area. Thus, although Spain pioneered the way and showed tremendous immediate profit, in some instances, it was other countries that would reap the long-term benefits.


Further Reading

Berger, Josef. Discoverers of the New World. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1960.

Faber, Harold. The Discoverers of America. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

Marrin, Albert. Inca & Spaniard: Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989.

Wilcox, Desmond. The Ten Who Dared. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.

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European Contact Overwhelms the Inca Empire: Francisco Pizarro's Conquest of Peru

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European Contact Overwhelms the Inca Empire: Francisco Pizarro's Conquest of Peru