South America: Chapter V

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Conquest of Peru


The story of Pizarro and the Incas has been told many hundreds of times, yet owing to the sheer audacity of which its elements are composed it would seem to retain its interest almost unimpaired.

That a mere handful of men should have banded themselves together to conquer a nation which counted its subjects by the hundred thousand, and which could claim a civilization that included great armies, remains almost beyond belief.

The Incas themselves, moreover, were a conquering race, and their troops had marched to the north and to the south in their thousands, conquering nations less important than their own, and thus adding to the extent of the one formidable Empire of the Southern Continent.


Yet the downfall of these armies in this victorious State was achieved by less than two hundred European soldiers, led by the two fearless adventurers, Francisco Pizarro and Diego Almagro.
These, accompanied by Hernando Luques, had begun to explore the neighbourhood of Panama in 1524.

Every member of the force, it may be taken for granted, had a keen nose for gold, and it was not long before they came across some treasure of the kind which determined the leaders to possess themselves the country where the metal was to be found.


At this period the number of men commanded by Pizarro and Almagro was fewer even than the band with which they entered Peru.
When it came to the knowledge of the Spaniards that the country of their desire was in reality so formidable an Empire, Pizarro sailed to Spain in search of reinforcements, and returned accompanied by his brothers and by a force of 180 men.


It was on Pizarro's arrival in America that the first serious breach occurred between Almagro and himself.
This was brought about by the arrangements which Pizarro had concluded in Spain, and in which Almagro considered, doubtless rightfully, he had not been fairly dealt with by his partner.

After a while a truce was patched up between the pair, and in 1531 an expedition, carried in three small vessels, set sail for the South.
The troops were landed on the Peruvian coast, and they marched inland, defeating such small forces as endeavoured to oppose their progress. The valour and greed of the little army were every day becoming more deeply stirred by the trophies of gold and silver which they captured as they went.
Fate was fighting strongly in favour of these desperate Spaniards. No circumstances could have been better adapted to successful invasion than those which obtained when Pizarro and Almagro entered the country, although these adventurous spirits knew nothing of this at the time.


The land was divided against itself, for the first time in the comparatively short Inca history. Atahualpa and Huasca, the two sons of the recently dead Inca, Huana Capac, were engaged in a fierce struggle for the throne.

This in itself was something of a shock to the devout subjects of the Inca race, looking as they did upon the Imperial Children of the Sun as superhuman beings.
It was thus a war of demigods waged by doubting and diffident mortals.

The arrival of the Spaniards increased, of course, the drama of the situation.
At the period of their advent Huasca was obtaining the worst of the struggle, and, seeing the possibility of salvation in the arrival of the newcomers, he sent to these beseeching their help.


It can be imagined with what avidity Pizarro seized upon this pretext to enter into the domestic affairs of the nation.
Atahualpa unconsciously helped to play the fate of the unfortunate Inca race still further into the hands of the Spaniards.

Learning of the warlike might of the white man, he also sent an embassy of friendship to Pizarro, and a little later, in 1532, he started out in order to effect his first meeting with the strangers.
This took place at Caxamalca.


Defeat of the Incas outside Cuzco
Defeat of the Incas outside Cuzco. From a seventeenth-century engraving.

In an evil moment for himself Atahualpa had determined to do his utmost to impress these foreigners from overseas with the evidence of his wealth and power.
His body was covered with golden plates, armour, and decorations which shone with a strange brilliance as they flashed back the rays of the sun from its worshipper.

He was attended, moreover, by a chosen company of nobles, whose adornments, although by comparison less splendid, were sufficient to cause the Spaniards' eyes to start from their heads with wonder and freshly-awakened lust.

Had the Inca come as a humble suppliant, the fate of the nation might have been postponed, if not altogether altered.
The appearance of these resplendent beings signalled its instant doom.
As Atahualpa was borne on his litter of state towards where Pizarro stood expectant in front of his soldiers, a priest strode forward, and, approaching him, urged him heatedly to embrace the religion of the Cross.


It is certain that the Inca understood nothing whatever of what was going on.
What might have been his state of mind when he was handed the breviary is unknown; in any case he flung it to the ground.
This was the signal for the attack on the part of the Spaniards.

Drawing their swords, they flung themselves furiously upon the altogether unprepared Indians, slaying thousands of their numbers.
Pizarro himself, hacking and striking as he went, fought his way to the Inca's litter of state, and it was his own hand which dragged the unfortunate ruler from his golden chair.

The next moment he was guarding his captive fiercely from the chance blows which were rained upon the dusky monarch by the Spaniards who went charging by.
He knew well enough the value of the Inca alive and captive in his hands.
It was for this reason alone that he warded off the blows which his men would have dealt the fallen Child of the Sun.


Peruvian casse tete
A Peruvian Casse-Tete an a Pipe of Peace.

The main onslaught had now died away.
The field of the massacre was covered with the bodies of the dead and dying Peruvians; the rest had fled.
Pizarro lost no time in improving the occasion from a financial point of view.

A gallant knight, Fernando de Soto, was sent to the marvellous city of Cuzco - authorized both by the Inca and Pizarro - to despoil the temples of their treasures.
Thus enormous hoards of gold and silver were obtained from the sacred buildings and from Atahualpa's loyal subjects as his ransom.

Even here Pizarro showed his want of good faith, for when the treasure demanded had been given up and amassed, he still retained the person of the Inca.
Matters of policy and personal dislike soon sealed the fate of this latter.

In 1533 he was tried for his life.
After a parodied performance of justice he was executed, although Fernando de Soto and a number of other Spaniards protested vigorously against the act.


From a purely political point of view it is likely enough that the crime was profitable; in any case it sent a shock throughout the bounds of the Inca Empire from which its dusky inhabitants never afterwards fully recovered.
There was now no powerful claimant to the Inca throne. The wrongs suffered by the race at the hands of the Spaniards need not cover the fact that the Indians themselves frequently proved capable of tyrannical and sanguinary acts.
Thus on the news of Atahualpa's capture his enraged adherents had slain Huasca, who by that time had become a prisoner in their hands.

Pizarro now determined to take an active share in the government of the country.
Placing a son of Atahualpa's on the throne, and having received reinforcements of men and arms, he marched throughout the Province at the head of 500 men, carrying with him the puppet King upon whom he placed great hopes. The latter disappointed these, since he died in the course of the expedition.
In some respects this was doubly unfortunate for Pizarro, as there now remained one clear claimant to the throne of the Children of the Sun - Manco Capac, the brother of Huasca.


Manco Capac was by no means prepared to yield tamely to the situation.
For a considerable time very little was effected on either side.
The Incas were slowly recovering from the shocks and tribulations which they had undergone; the Spaniards, on the other hand, found their attention occupied by the unexpected arrival of a Spanish expedition commanded by Pedro de Alvarado.

This leader had performed his part in the conquest of Mexico, and had now hastened to the South in order to ascertain what chances of enrichment were to be met with in the land, the reputation of which was now spreading itself abroad.
For a while it looked very much as if open warfare would result between the rival parties.
In the end, however, Pizarro consented to buy the departure of Alvarado, and this leader retired heavy in pocket.

On the whole his visit had not proved unprofitable to the astute Pizarro, since many of Alvarado's men had remained in Peru to throw in their lot with him.
Pizarro and Almagro were now left in occupation of the Inca Empire.
It was inevitable that jealousy should arise between the pair, and it was not long before the situation grew strained.


Pizarro, true to his own interests, had insisted on returning to Spain in order to give an account of the doings in Peru.
Needless to say, he employed the opportunity to obtain the royal sanction to advance still further his official position - somewhat at the expense of Almagro, of course.
Almost directly after his return he founded the city of Lima, intending this to supersede Cuzco as the future capital of the country.

All this while the breach between Pizarro and Almagro had widened.
In 1535 the latter, realizing that even the Empire of the Incas was not sufficiently large to hold the pair of Spanish leaders, determined to make for the South.


The expedition was a tragic one.
Almagro, though his spirit was undaunted, was now aged in years, and the barren country of the Atacama Desert and the attacks of the hostile Indians rendered the enterprise a failure from a monetary point of view.
Almagro had invested all his fortune in this, and his affairs now became desperate.


Pizarro and Atahualpa
Francisco Pizarro and Atahualpa. From a seventeenth-century engraving.

In the meantime the crafty Pizarro had been permitted to enjoy very little peace and tranquillity in Peru.
Manco Capac had bided his time, and his Indian subjects, fervently loyal to the sacred dynasty, had crowded about him in their thousands.

The Peruvians now assumed the aggressive.
Thousands of Inca troops scoured the country, and, falling on remote and unprepared bands of Spaniards, obtained some modicum of revenge in slaughtering all they found.

Encouraged by such minor successes, the Inca army advanced against the main bodies of the Spaniards.
Some historians place the numbers of the native troops at no fewer than 200,000.


With astonishing suddenness the situation became altered.
Pizarro found himself besieged in Lima, while his brothers, shut up in Cuzco, experienced an equal difficulty in beating off the attacks of the serried native ranks.

Had the Spanish army in Peru been left to its own devices, there is no doubt but that their doom would have been sealed.
The irony of fate, however, chose this very moment for the return of Almagro.

Marching up with his grim and travel-worn band, he found himself before Cuzco, surveying the beleaguered Spaniards and the investing Incas.

Manco Capac had gleaned something of the disputes between the European leaders.
He made advances to Almagro, and did all he could to win him to his side; but Almagro, little cause though he had to love Pizarro, proved himself stanch.


He was in consequence attacked by the Inca troops, but these he repulsed with heavy losses, and then entered Cuzco in triumph.
Manco Capac himself escaped, and retired to the other side of the Andes.


Temple du Soleil. Cuzco
The Temple of the Sun, Cuzco. From "Histoire des Yncas," Amsterdam, 1737.

Almagro was destined to receive small thanks for his intervention.
The aged conquistador laid claim to the city as part of his own dominions, and this woke into fresh activity the warfare between himself and Francisco Pizarro.

Almagro, defeated, lost his head, a white and seventy-year-old head though it was.
His fate by no means ended the tragedies in Peru.

The current of sinister events was running here in a strangely full flood.
It was only three years afterwards that Pizarro himself was murdered by his enemies, the adherents of Almagro's son, whom they wished to see elevated to the Governorship of the country, an event which actually occurred, although it proved of very short duration.


Indian huts on the river Chipurana
Indian Huts on the River Chipurana.

By the time this had come about, the power of the Incas had been broken for good and all, so far as practical purposes were concerned.
Driven from their temples and strongholds, certain sections of the race survived, although among them were remarkably few of the noble families who had formed the salt of the land.

Great numbers of the rank and file of the race met with the fate which was at that time so universal throughout the country, or rather in its metal-bearing lands.
They were sent to the mines, and, worked and flogged to death, their numbers diminished with a ghastly rapidity.

Some sections, more fortunate, were at a rather later age set to agriculture, and, forced to somewhat more congenial tasks than the first workers, they continued to serve the Spaniards.



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