Battle of Cajamarca

Battle of Cajamarca

The Battle of Cajamarca on November 16, 1532, ended the Inca Empire and gave Spain control of Peru, then the wealthiest region of Latin America. Thanks to the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and the subsequent Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), Spain laid claim to most of the Americas. Over the next few decades expeditions led by conquistadores solidified Spanish control over much of Mesoamerica. Francisco Pizarro, leader of the expedition to Peru, was among soldiers in the expedition of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa to Panama in the 1520s.

Inspired by the success of Hernán Cortés against the Aztecs in Mexico and stories of fabulous wealth to the south of Panama, Pizarro joined with Diego de Almagro, Fernando Luque (vicar of Panama), and Pedrarias Dávila (governor of Panama). The four men entered into a contract with ship captain Bartolomé Ruiz to explore the Pacific coast of South America. During 1524–1528 they learned of an interior empire, reputed to possess vast amounts of gold.

His colleagues were unwilling to invest in a further venture, however, so Pizarro returned to Spain and put together a small expeditionary force that included his four brothers. The expedition arrived in Panama in December 1531. Consisting of 180 men and 30 horses, this force sailed down the west coast of South America, landing at Tumbes on the Peruvian coast in the spring of 1532. Here they were joined by 100 men and 50 horses under Hernando de Soto. Pizarro established the coastal settlement of San Miguel as his base.

Beyond the high Andes mountains to the east of San Miguel lay the Inca Empire, extending some 2,700 miles from present-day Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. The Inca, revered as both king and god, ruled this vast empire from the capital city of Cuzco. The Inca religion was based on worship of the sun.

The difficulties facing Pizarro and his small force were staggering, but the men began their expedition at a fortuitous time. A succession struggle had followed the death in 1527 of the great Inca Huayna Capac, who had conquered Ecuador. War broke out between his son and legitimate heir Huascar and Atahualpa, another son by a concubine. After a long civil war, Atahualpa triumphed in the spring of 1532. According to Spanish sources, Atahualpa was a bloodthirsty tyrant who ordered the execution of all of his father’s reported 200 sons he could locate. Surprisingly, he spared Huascar but imprisoned him at Cuzco. Atahualpa also reportedly ordered the deaths of all members of Huascar’s family he could find so that there would be no rival to the throne.

Pizarro’s force departed San Miguel in September 1532 and began the ascent of the Andes. Atahualpa was aware of its progress and sent several deputations bearing gifts of welcome. Some of these presents were in gold, which only heightened Pizarro’s hopes. On November 15 Pizarro’s men descended a pass that overlooked the Inca city of Cajamarca. The Spanish found the city deserted but were impressed with its massive stone buildings that included several forts. Atahualpa was camped with some 6,000 warriors and royal attendants (some sources give a figure as great as 30,000–40,000 warriors) in tents near Cajamarca as Pizarro and his men occupied the city.

Pizarro sent some 45 horsemen under his brother Hernando and de Soto to ride into the Inca camp and meet with Atahualpa. Horses were unknown to the Incas and may have induced them to believe (as the Aztecs had) that the men mounted on them were emissaries from the gods. If that was the case, Athaualpa revealed no anxiety.

The Spanish emissaries invited Atahualpa to meet with Pizarro in Cajamarca. Atahualpa informed the Spaniards through an aide that they were then fasting but would visit the next day. Pizarro planned to make himself master of the situation by duplicating Cortés’ tactic of seizing the ruler. Pizarro’s men were concerned, however, for they were cut off from additional support. With only some 100 infantry and 67 cavalry, they were outnumbered at least 35 to 1.

Pizarro deployed his men in the large halls fronting the central square of the city. Not until the afternoon of November 16 did Atahualpa appear, borne on palanquin with 6,000 warriors and attendants (some sources say 10,000) marching the four miles from their camp to the city. With the Spanish in hiding and Cajamarca apparently deserted, Atahualpa and the procession halted about a half mile from the city; the Inca sent word to Pizarro that he would not visit that day. Knowing that the wait would severely test his men, Pizarro sent word that food and entertainments had been prepared. Perhaps other inducements were offered as well, but in any case the procession began again, passing between rows of warriors lining the road on either side.

On Atahualpa’s arrival in the plaza of Cajamarca he was met by Father Vicente de Valverde, a Catholic priest who began telling the Inca about Christ and Spanish king Charles V. Growing impatient and realizing that the Dominican was asking him to concede both his divinity and authority, Atahualpa took the Bible from Valverde, opened it to look inside, and then threw it to the ground. Valverde snatched up the Bible and ran from the plaza.

As soon as Valverde was clear, Pizarro signaled to open fire on the square with two small cannon placed in a nearby fort. At the same time, Spanish cavalry issued from the buildings flanking the square. The Incas had come as emissaries and either were not armed or were armed only with slings and javelins under their clothing and therefore could not resist the Spaniards’ heavy cavalry, firearms, and swords. The Incas were cut down to a man. Atahualpa was the only Inca taken alive. According to most sources Pizarro, mistakenly cut by one of his own men, was the only Spanish casualty. (Some sources state that five Spaniards were killed.) Surprisingly, the thousands of warriors outside the city made no effort to come to the rescue of the Inca.

Atahualpa’s army instead began to melt away, especially those men impressed into it from the newly conquered territories. Atahualpa bargained with Pizarro for his release, offering to fill a room 17 by 22 feet and roughly 7 feet high with gold and to fill a second smaller room twice over with silver. Pizarro agreed, but at the same time he sent de Soto to Cuzco to meet with Huascar. On being informed of the Spanish victory at Cajamarca, Huascar said that he would treat with Pizarro and supply even more gold from his father’s secret storehouses. Pizarro informed Atahualpa of this, and the Inca sent word through an attendant for his generals in the capital to kill Huascar, which they did.

Although the gold and silver were delivered as promised, Pizarro refused to release Atahualpa and instead brought him to trial on charges of having ordered the murder of his brother. Convicted and sentenced to be burned at the stake as a heathen, Atahualpa converted to Christianity to be executed by strangulation. Control of the area passed to Pizarro, who managed to suppress several rebellions. In 1538 a royal governor from Spain arrived in Peru. The gold and silver were stripped from the native people and shipped back to Spain. The Spanish also sought to eradicate Inca culture in favor of that of Spain and Catholicism. Peru did not achieve independence from Spain until 1821.


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