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Conquest of Peru (revised)

© 2001 Donald J. Mabry

    Francisco Pizarro first came to the New World with the Ojeda expedition and then joined Balboa in Panama in 1519. Pizarro was over 50 when he got to Peru. Born in Estremadura in the 1470s, he was the bastard child of a poor gentlemen. He spent time as an illiterate swineherd and then became a soldier. He went to Cuba as a soldier; made his way to Panama; and joined the Balboa expedition to the Pacific. He had persistence and courage.

    He became one of the old Indies hands, many of whom were constantly forming and re-forming partnerships to explore and conquer. His partners were  Hernando de Luque, a priest,  who handed the finances, Diego de Almagro, who was illiterate, uncouth, energetic and extroverted, and Pedrarias. They made a pact in 1522 amidst rumors of a Peruvian empire. Pizarro and Almagro explored down the west coast of South America until Ecuador but found nothing they considered worth having. 

    On his second expedition to the south ( 1524-28), they found artifacts that showed evidence of  higher cultures. At Guayaquil, Pizarro refused the order to return to Panama. He drew a line in the sand and asked for volunteers to continue. Only thirteen did. For eight months they explored until they were found by a ship sent to bring them home. Pizarro persuaded the captain to explore for a few more days. They found  a small boat carrying four beautifully dressed Amerinds from Túmbez. With that, Pizarro was able to persuade the group to continue. They found even more evidence of wealth. They took some Amerinds on board and headed back to Panama. The governor wouldn't listen so Pizarro went to Spain to plea with the king to allow them to proceed. He was to represent all the partners, or so they thought.

    Pizarro returned from Spain with a royal grant after presenting with treasure he had brought from northern Peru. He was given the titles of Captain-General, Adelantado, and Governor/Alguacil Mayor of Peru for life with his salary to be taken from his conquests. His partners got much less. Almagro, for example, was only made governor of Túmbez. They were angry, Almagro especially so. Almagro's anger played an important role in the early history of Spanish Peru.

    With four brothers and a cousin, he returned to Panama in 1530 and assembled a small expedition. By 1531, the 166 men and about twenty-five horses headed south, stopping at Túmbez. After subduing the local population, he learned of the civil war for the title of Inca and that Atahualpa was defeating his brother Huascar. He also received reinforcements, led by Hernando de Soto, from Nicaragua. Pizarro founded a town, which then granted him more authority. In November 1532, Pizarro led his small band south to Cajamarca, where Atahualpa and his army of 40,000 were encamped.

    The mighty Atahualpa did not realize how very dangerous the Spaniards were; his religion no doubt conditioned him to believe that everyone was inferior except his immediate family. Besides, Pizarro had been sending friendly messages saying how he and his men were coming to visit the great Atahualpa. He understood that his only hope was to capture Atahualpa. He stationed soldiers around the plaza and he invited Atahualpa to dine. A priest stepped forward with a Bible and asked the Inca to swear allegiance to the true faith, Christianity. Atahualpa drew back, accidentally knocking the book to the ground. The Spanish soldiers then seized him. The royal guards were slaughtered.

    Atahualpa tried to ransom himself with gold. The Amerinds had learned that the Spanish had the disease of gold lust. His people scoured the empire to find enough goal to fill a room. Meanwhile, the Spanish were looting as much as they could. When the Inca's followers had fulfilled Pizarro's ransom demands, Pizarro had him executed by strangulation. Faced with being burned at the stake, Atahualpa had converted to Christianity to avoid that fate.

    Pizarro, reinforced by additional men, set out for Cuzco, the capital, in November 1533. They fought, captured hostages, tortured when necessary to gain more information, had sex with women (by consent or by force), and took what they wanted. He founded Lima in 1535. In 1536-37, Manoc Capac, a puppet Inca, tried to overthrow Pizarro but failed. This was the last serious threat to the Spaniards.

Why was the Pizarro expedition successful?

Historians disagree, of course, but certainly the following factors were important:

  1. The fierceness and determination of the Spaniards. They were very egotistical and much more individualistic than the Indians. They were most reluctant to "give up the ghost." As invaders in hostile country, the Spanish could not afford to lose or quit.
  2. The Spaniards had better military tactics and weapons. The technology of Spanish weapons was vastly superior. The horse was an important weapon. In this instance, the horse was much like a tank, difficult for infantry to counter. 
  3. The Inca could not conceive that a relatively small band of inferior beings could be such a threat.
  4. The Spanish had millions of allies in the form of deadly microbes to which the natives had little resistance. Long before Pizarro entered Peru, fatal contagious diseases, brought from Spain, had been killing the natives. It was a much weakened and somewhat confused population that the Spaniards conquered. Once Pizarro and his men arrived in Peru, disease spread even faster.
  5. The civil war between Huascar and Atahualpa preoccupied the Indian elite. The Spaniards immediately exploited these divisions even before they reached Cajamarca.
  6. The Indians were confused as to who and what the Spanish were.
  7. Capturing Atahualpa was a brilliant move, for it not only gave the Spaniards safety but allowed them months to gather intelligence. Killing him threw the entire Indian command structure into chaos.

        The king of Spain knew knew what was going on; he had auditors everywhere.

    The Spanish founded Lima on the coast in order to have easy communication with Spain. If worse came to worse, they could flee the highlands and use Lima as a redoubt. Lima became the very Spanish city whose upper class lorded it over the highland population.

    Quito most recently added to the Inca empire and, therefore, was easier to conquer. Pedro de Alvarado came from Guatemala with an expedition but was bought off. Almagro, in 1535-37, mounted an expedition to Chile and found two things: it was hard to get to and the Aracanian Indians fiercely resisted. He came back to Peru, determined to get his fair share. Pedro de Valdivia, commissioned by Pizarro, began the conquest of Chile in 1540.

    As they conquered, the Spanish created town governments to give themselves authority and tried to replicate Spanish life as much as they could. They used 16th century town planning with a central square and a rectilinear layout. Sited a church and a cemetery. Had a cabildo hall for town government. Granted town lands based on rank. The towns immediately began functions such as roads and Indian control.

Political Situation in Peru in Early Times

    In 1541, Almagro seized Cuzco, the  Inca capital, claiming that it was his and civil war ensued between the Almagrists and Pizarrists. Almagro's faction lost the final battle in 1538. The Indians must have loved seeing the Spanish fighting each other! The Pizarrists executed Almagro and Pizarro confiscated the loser's property and Indians and gave them to his own followers. Pizarro assassinated in 1541 by Diego de Almagro the Younger and other "Men of Chile." Naturally, another civil was occurred in 1541-1542. The Crown had sent an envoy, Vaca de Castro, to investigate; when he reached south of Popayán, he was met by Sebastián de Belacázar, a lieutenant of Pizarro, who proclaimed loyalty to the Crown. The now royal force defeated Almagro's army in September 1542. Almagro the Younger was executed. Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of the conquistador, was initially bought off but events prompted him to rise up against royal authority. Gonzalo wreaked havoc, even going to Panama and executing officials, before he was finally defeated and executed in 1549. 

    The crown sent Antonio Mendoza as a viceroy and, although he died within a year and the audiencia ruled, the Crown had established its authority. Viceroy Francisco de Toledo served in Peru from 1569-81. Toledo was one  of the great administrators of human times. He found an almost impossible situation in Peru and made it possible. He spent whole five years on a visit and had a rough time of it. But he helped solidify royal rule. The Spanish crown was clever in the way they handled colonists. They yielded to some demands in order to get obedience and, over time, took back what it had yielded.


©    2001 Donald J. Mabry

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