Never Trust a Conquistador


Atahualpa at Cajamarca

In the fall of 1532, the Incan emperor Atahualpa was resting at the city of Cajamarca, after the defeat of his brother, Huascar Capac, and the seizure of the Incan empire.  Cajamarca has several natural hot springs that served as a place of relaxation and fulfillment, and Atahualpa was partaking in the natural splendor after the end of a long civil war.  He was awaiting the arrival of some very interesting guests, the company of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who had arrived in Peru only the year before.  Atahualpa did not perceive the Spanish as a threat; Pizarro had about 170 men, and Atahualpa’s army numbered around 80,000.

Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca on November 15, and sent a delegation to meet with Atahualpa.  Atahualpa claimed that he was engaging in a fast and could not dine with the Spanish, and said that he would meet with Pizarro on the following day.  In the meantime, the Spanish holed up in Cajamarca, while the Incas stayed outside the city.  One of the early historians of this event, William H. Prescott, records in his book A History of the Conquest of Peru, the general feeling among the Spanish when they observed the opulence and sheer numbers of the Incan army:

As they contrasted all this with their own diminutive force, too far advanced, as they now were, for succour to reach them, they felt they had done rashly in throwing themselves into the midst of so formidable an empire, and were filled with gloomy forebodings of the result. Their comrades in the camp soon caught the infectious spirit of despondency, which was not lessened as night came on, and they beheld the watch-fires of the Peruvians lighting up the sides of the mountains, and glittering in the darkness, “as thick,” says one who saw them, “as the stars of heaven.”*

Pizarro saw in the fear of his men an opportunity, and Prescott records that he went to


Francisco Pizarro

each of them, exhorting them not to be afraid, and painting their situation as a crusade. He plotted with his men to capture Atahualpa, reasoning that by capturing the head, the body would whither.  He laid out plans for an ambush, and they waited until Atahualpa came into the city with a large delegation of men.

When the Incan emperor arrived, accompanied by a lot of pomp and circumstance, Pizarro sent out the company chaplain, a Dominican friar named Vicente de Valverde, to speak to Atahualpa.  Valverde used the opportunity to preach to the ruler, attempting to explain the theological underpinnings of the Catholic faith, the concept of the Trinity, and other religious ruminations, as well as suggesting that he was now a vassal of Spanish emperor Charles V.  Atahualpa instinctively understood that he was being asked to surrender his sovereignty, and according to Prescott, replied that he would “…be no man’s tributary.  I am greater than any prince upon earth.”  As he and Valverde argued, Pizarro saw his chance, and signaled his men.

The Spanish rushed the Incas.  They had blocked every exit for Atahualpa’s procession, so there was nowhere to escape, and then they opened fire.  The noise and smoke, as well as the surprise attack, caused a panic, and the Incas began to stampede in their efforts to get away.  Around the emperor, the fighting became hot and heavy as Atahualpa’s guard attempted to protect him, but they were quickly dispatched while not a single Spanish soldier was killed in the melee.  The entire battle lasted less than half an hour, and yet in such a short time span, the fate of the Incas was decided.

Atahualpa, taken captive, recognized the unrelenting greed of the Spanish.  He offered to fill a room for them with gold and jewels, in the hopes of sparing his life.  Over a period of time, Atahualpa kept his word, but the Spanish never gave him his freedom.  Fearing attack from Incan holdouts, they executed Atahualpa on the 29th of August, 1533, by garroting him to death.  He was the last Sapa Inca, or sovereign ruler, of the whole Incan empire.  He would be followed by a series of puppet rulers and then a neo-Incan state in the jungles of Peru, but never again would the Inca empire achieve the glory and independence that it had possessed.

*Prescott, William Hickling. History of the Conquest of Peru (Kindle Locations 3504-3508). . Kindle Edition.

About Nate

I'm a writer and speaker living in Edwardsville, Illinois. In addition to my blog, you can find my work at Washington University's online journal, The Common Reader, where I write about World War 1.
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