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  • James Houser

November 16, 1532 - The Battle of Cajamarca & the Spanish Conquest of the Inca

Updated: May 21, 2021

November 16, 1532. There are no rules when God, gold and glory are all on the line. Francisco Pizarro’s tiny band of conquistadors have made their way into the heart of the Inca Empire and are confronted by the powerful army of Sapa Inca Atahualpa. There’s no way 166 men could beat this vast force, even with their guns and horses…well, unless they pull some dirty tricks. The Incas are in for a shock, because no one expects the Spanish acquisition.

Starting from Columbus’s voyages in 1492, a new brand of adventurer began to emerge from the Spanish and Portuguese travels to the New World, Africa, and Asia. These figures were ruthless, daring, overconfident, ingenious, and above all had a touch of the amoral psychopath about them. Their shining example would be Hernan Cortes, the Spanish soldier who led a small band of soldiers to conquer the Aztec Empire in Mexico by 1521. Cortes allied with local anti-Aztec tribes, reneged on peace deals, backstabbed rival Spaniards, operated far outside the bounds of Spanish civil or Christian moral law, and murdered and plundered as he pleased – and it paid off. In one of the most famous and lopsided military campaigns of history, he overthrew a staggeringly rich and powerful empire. Hernan Cortes defined the idea of the “Conquistador,” and persuaded dozens of other enterprising men to do the same.

Granted, we hear about the successful ones. Contrary to some myths, the Spanish conquerors of the New World faced enormous challenges – disease, starvation, weather, and shipwrecks were among the numerous obstacles they faced just to travel throughout the Americas, and that was before the Indians found them. Many an ambitious conquistador trying to imitate Cortes found himself impaled on spears, riddled with arrows, or even brained to death by a sling. On top of that, even if you were successful in conquering part of the Native population, there were still a bunch of them around and they weren’t usually happy with you. Oh, and those guys you partnered up with on your expedition? Well, I bet some of them are just as ambitious as you are – and now that you’ve conquered some crazy place deep in the wilds of Central or South America, they might decide that YOU are now their major obstacle to fortune and glory. It turned out for many conquistadors, even successful ones, that they faced greater danger from their scheming Spanish brethren than they did from the Indians.

All things considered, “conquistador” was a high-risk, high-reward career choice. But the rewards could be staggering, and this drew men in. Many of the conquistadors were veterans of Spain’s many conflicts in Europe, including the Italian Wars and the horde of miniature struggles along the coast of North Africa, but the pay for professional soldiers in Europe could never compare with the famous riches of the New World. Rumors of Seven Cities of Gold somewhere in the American continents sparked many difficult expeditions, some of which reached deep into the modern United States, South America, and the dense jungles of Central America. One of these expeditions, led by Vasco Nunez de Balboa, found a treasure ultimately worth more in the long term than gold. In 1513, Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and became the first known white man to lay eyes on the Pacific Ocean. The place where he crossed would later be spanned by the Panama Canal, but Balboa never benefited from his victory. He was outmaneuvered and executed by the new Governor of Panama and rival conquistador, Pedrarias d’Avila, in 1519. (See what I’m talking about here?) One of his lieutenants, though, had been a young, budding explorer named Francisco Pizarro.

It was during Balboa’s expedition that Pizarro first began to hear of a land to the south containing immense wealth and power. Pizarro immediately began to imagine his face on the paintings in the place of Cortes – the wealthy and glorified conqueror of a great Indian people, honored as something like a king in a subjugated land. Along with d’Avila and a handful of other men, Pizarro began to organize expeditions down the west coast of South America in the new ocean that Balboa had discovered. Pizarro and his partners continued their expeditions throughout the 1520s, but they frequently came up dry, suffering disease and starvation, always chasing but never tracking down this fabled empire with its great stores of gold. Their schemes fell apart as d’Avila, frustrated, began to turn his attention north to the more easily accessible Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Pizarro, though, still believed that he could reach and overcome this mysterious realm. He returned to Spain to recruit more backers, only managing to find a few mangy mercenaries. With his four brothers also in tow, Pizarro returned to Panama in December 1531. Pizarro’s expedition had 168 men and thirty horses. Most of the men were armed with steel armor and swords, and many among them had firearms – this being the age where that was becoming a thing now. Pizarro had even managed to obtain a few small cannon for his tiny expedition.

The Spanish set out down the west coast of South America and landed on the coast of modern Peru in early spring of 1532. Their landing spot was near a ruined city called Tumbes, and it was a place where Pizarro had landed before, but five years later something was different. Whereas the natives had been ignorant of this empire before, now they knew all about it – and brought news of recent events. The great empire of gold had been ravaged by disease, civil war, and the death of its king. Pizarro finally had a name to put to this great empire of gold: the Inca.

The Inca Empire was a thriving community, one of the most powerful states in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of the Europeans. Starting out from the small city-state of Cuzco, the empire had grown rapidly throughout the late 1400s, and by the 1530s it was coming to dominate most of modern Ecuador and Peru. It had a bureaucracy and government to rival any European nation, with a system of state roads and a postal service that would have been impressive in colonial America, just to give an example. The Inca had a truly magnificent culture and civilization, and their powerful rulers – the Sapa Inca – were able to raise vast armies for their military expeditions. Though these armies were poorly armed by European standards, usually with obsidian swords, short-range bows, and cloth armor, the fact that the Sapa Incas could put 80,000 men in the field for some of their campaigns was beyond the capacity of most European states at the time.

The Inca Empire had reached its greatest extent under the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac, who at the time of Pizarro’s earlier expeditions had been making inroads into Ecuador and had captured Quito. But the Spaniards had, unknowingly, sent their most deadly weapon ahead of them. Pizarro’s early encounters with the natives along the coast had unleashed the epidemic of smallpox onto the west coast of South America. While smallpox was no joke in any civilization at any time, it particularly devastated any Indian population it touched since they had no exposure or inbuilt immunity to the disease.

The real secret of the Spanish, and later the broader European conquest of the Americas was never technology, or culture, or God, or some sort of racial superiority. (There are still people who claim that last one.) The technology and culture certainly helped, of course; there’s no denying that man-for-man a guy with a steel cuirass and musket is going to have an easier time than his Inca counterpart. But in almost every situation where the Spanish achieved their great conquests in the 1500s, their real secret was disease. This was not INTENTIONAL, don’t get me wrong, we’re still in the age when people believed that non-specific “miasmas” caused disease and didn’t understand germ theory. The Spanish didn’t intentionally give the Indians smallpox. But smallpox passed on nevertheless, and it had devastating consequences. Almost every Indian civilization was fatally weakened by disease in the years before its overthrow by the Spanish.

No civilization was more immediately and viscerally affected than the Incas. Huayna Capac’s string of conquests had been cut abruptly short when he had died of the new diseases sometime around 1524. One ruler dying isn’t such a big deal, but so many of the Inca royal family were cut down by the new diseases in the next few years that the problem of succession became entangled. The Inca population was body-slammed as well, possibly suffering as many as 50% losses in the first decade after the Spanish diseases made contact. By 1529, not only was the society on the verge of collapse from inside, but the two ranking sons of Huayna Capac – his legitimate son Huascar and the illegitimate son Atahualpa – were coming to blows over the throne. Neither of these men should have ascended to the throne in normal circumstances, but Capac and his chosen successors had all died from the new plagues.

The Inca Civil War lasted from 1529 to 1532, and did just as much to sap the Incas’ power and prestige as the disease had. The newly conquered tribes of the Andes Mountains saw an opportunity to escape from the Incas’ grasp, causing more and more instability. By 1532 Atahualpa had begun to gain the upper hand, and late in the year the bulk of his armies were busy besieging Huascar’s forces in Cuzco. This Civil War was a direct result of the plague, since it was caused by the sudden winnowing of the Inca royal family. And it was at this moment – with a population suffering from disease, a terrible civil war, and a fracturing empire – that Francisco Pizarro and his tiny band of Spaniards arrived on the coast of Peru, intent on conquering the Inca Empire.

It’s hard to overstate how unlikely this was. Had Pizarro arrived even a year later, it’s likely that he would have faced a united, much more dangerous Inca Empire; had he arrived a couple of years earlier, he might have faced Huayna Capac himself and an army that had not yet been touched by disease and demoralized by civil war. In any of these cases, the odds against Pizarro go from bad to nonexistent. The Incas were no slouches, as the Spanish were soon to learn, and by any measure were far tougher to overcome than the Aztecs had begun. It is one of the great, terrible coincidences of history that Francisco Pizarro found himself in a position to conquer the Inca Empire at exactly its weakest point, at the right place at the right time – totally by accident.

Because as Atahualpa’s armies under his great general Quizquiz were besieging Cuzco, Atahualpa himself was still in the north with a reserve force. Soon the Sapa Inca received word of Pizarro’s landing, and stationed his army near Cajamarca 250 miles from Pizarro’s camp. He was wary of the newcomers, since he had gotten word of their probing expeditions early on, but decided he would at least need to hear them out – though he would take no chances. As Pizarro’s tiny army advanced deep into the Inca Empire, Atahualpa sent at least two messengers bearing gifts and greetings. Since some of these gifts were gold, Pizarro’s thirst was only whetted. He pushed his men on for the next few months, until on November 15, 1532, they crossed a mountain pass and looked down on the deserted city of Cajamarca.

Cajamarca itself was deserted, but the hills around it were not. Atahualpa had a large force of nearly 80,000 battle-tested soldiers assembled in the hills around the city, and had evacuated Cajamarca’s 2,000 residents to prepare for the Spanish arrival. The planning was simple: he had lured Pizarro deep into the heart of his empire, surrounded the city, and waited for Pizarro to come down from the pass. He would talk with these new arrivals – and if things went badly, he was in a position to deal with them immediately. Atahualpa did not understand who he was dealing with, but to be fair how could he?

Pizarro’s men arrived in the town and made camp, aware that the hills around them were covered with tents and swarming with Inca soldiers. Pizarro sent one of his subordinates, Hernando de Soto, with forty armored men on horseback to bear his greetings to the Sapa Inca. Undoubtedly Pizarro hoped to intimidate the Inca with these strange animals, but Atahualpa had been forewarned of the presence of horses in the Spanish host. Unlike many legends about the Mesoamerican cultures, the Inca certainly did not believe the Spaniards to be deities of any kind. De Soto invited Atahualpa to negotiate with Pizarro in Cajamarca, but the Inca ruler demurred, since today was a day of fasting and tomorrow would be soon enough. This was obviously a power play – a way of showing just who was in charge here. Making someone wait on you just smacks of '80s corporate executive to me.

Pizarro gathered his officers to plan for Atahualpa’s visit. He had considered launching a surprise attack on the Inca forces, but knew that his 166 men would be swallowed up in the mass of 80,000 Inca warriors, no matter what their level of technology. Those are odds of worse than 400 to 1, after all, and even armored men on horseback with guns will eventually get tired and be brought down. Instead, Pizarro took inspiration from Cortes, who had seized the Emperor Montezuma and used him as a puppet ruler in the early days of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. Pizarro planned to do the same, knowing how risky this all was: he and his little band were thousands of miles away from any help, deep in hostile territory, surrounded by tens of thousands of hostile warriors. It would have to be a successful coup, or his conquistador career would meet a quick, bloody end.

On November 16, 1532, Atahualpa approached the city of Cajamarca at midday, accompanied by a procession of around 7,000 attendants. Since this was a formal diplomatic meeting, the Incas were mostly unarmored and very lightly armed. The axes that most of the warriors carried weren’t even functional, but ceremonial pieces instead, suitable for court ceremony. As Atahualpa approached, being borne aloft on a litter much like Xerxes in his famous depiction, he saw no sign of activity in Cajamarca. The procession halted; the Inca ruler might have smelled danger. He sent a messenger to inform Pizarro that he had changed his mind and would visit tomorrow.

Pizarro probably realized that his plan had to work today or it would never work at all, so he sent a reply saying that food and drink had been gathered for the Inca ruler and it would be insulting not to accept it. Whatever else he said to provoke Atahualpa is lost to history, but the Sapa Inca failed to listen to his instincts (which were probably clashing cymbals toy monkey-style at this point) and continued into the town. Why did Atahualpa continue with his lightly armed force into the heart of the town, even when his better sense argued against it? It was Inca custom, apparently, to meet personally and unarmed before a battle, and the Sapa Inca was simply following his people’s tradition.

As the procession advanced into Cajamarca, a Catholic priest named Father Valverde approached Atahualpa’s litter. Bemused, the Inca ruler listened to Valverde’s demands that he accept the rule of King Charles V and the faith of the Catholic Church. As the translator reluctantly passed the Spanish words along to Atahualpa, the Inca went from confused to angry, since it was clear that this pale man was ordering him to submit to some other distant ruler and a strange god. Atahualpa took the Bible that Valverde was holding, flipping through its pages uncomprehendingly, and cast it onto the ground in contempt. Who was this man who demanded that he give up the throne he had fought a war for, and his own gods who had brought him the victory?

As Valverde scampered away, though, Pizarro gave the signal. From a concealed position, his four cannon launched a sudden barrage directly into the masses of Incan dignitaries. As the unexpected cataclysm tore into the terrified Incas, three columns of mounted armsmen galloped from behind the nearby buildings. In less than a minute, the Incas – who had never experienced artillery barrage or a cavalry charge – discovered both at almost the same time. Lances and swords cut down the fleeing, mostly unarmed dignitaries, as the cannon’s bellow and roar was joined by the crack of muskets being fired from nearby rooftops. Finally, a tightly packed mass of foot soldiers emerged from where they had been concealed in the houses, Pizarro at their head.

Pizarro had to fight his way to Atahualpa’s litter, since he needed the Inca ruler alive. The Spanish soldiers severed hands and arms of Atahualpa’s attendants to force them to drop the litter, but the Sapa Inca’s servants tried to make a human wall and protect their beloved leader. The Spanish showed no qualms about hacking through man and woman both, until finally Pizarro was able to fight through and seize Atahualpa himself. Even then, he had to prevent another rampaging Spaniard from killing the valuable hostage, suffering a wound to his hand in the process. Pizarro was the only Spaniard even injured in the short, sharp affair.

Within only a few minutes, Pizarro’s men had butchered the Inca procession and had Atahualpa in custody. With most of their leaders dead, their emperor a captive, and the survivors streaming out of the city telling tales of cannons and mounted warriors the likes of which they had never seen, most of the army began to dissolve immediately. The sudden emergence of these new weapons was a cruel shock to the Inca warriors, who had no context (yet) to understand what was happening to them. It’s hard enough for soldiers who know what a cannon is to stand up to artillery fire, much less someone who learned about it five seconds ago.

The “Battle” of Cajamarca, as it would become known in Spanish annals, was more rightly a massacre: the ambush of a diplomatic procession that came in peace, even if not in friendship. The Incas had never stood a chance, and it’s hard to imagine any other unarmed band of older men and servants suddenly being attacked by cannon and cavalry behaving any differently. The upshot, though, was that Atahualpa was in custody, and the Spanish had suddenly emerged into the Inca world.

Atahualpa immediately began to plan his escape. He quickly figured out that the Spanish were here for gold, which must have been puzzling, since it was valuable but not – y’know – worth killing for in the Inca world. He promised to fill a large room with gold, and a smaller room twice again with silver, in order to pay his ransom, and Pizarro agreed to this proposal. As Atahualpa sent messengers across the empire to gather up this gold and silver, Pizarro was probably feeling pretty high and mighty. He had outdone Cortes! With only 166 men, he had conquered an empire twice as large, and just as wealthy!

And usually, the narrative of “Spanish conquest of the Incas” in schoolbooks tends to end here at Cajamarca – but the Spanish were not done yet, not by a long shot. The bulk of the Inca army was still in Cuzco, where Atahualpa’s general Quizquiz had captured his brother Huascar. The Inca Civil War was still alive, though, since Huascar offered Pizarro a much larger tribute if Pizarro supported his claim to the Inca throne. Atahualpa was one step ahead of Huascar, though, and ordered his generals to kill his treacherous brother.

This pissed Pizarro off, and as the months wore on he agonized over what to do with his prisoner. Finally, he concocted a sham trial, where Atahualpa was convicted of idolatry, polygamy, rebellion against his “sovereign” Charles V, and the murder of Huascar. All of this, of course, was par for the course in the Inca Empire – the gall of convicting someone of “rebellion” against a king he had never sworn to and never seen was pretty damning. But Pizarro didn’t give two figs, and Atahualpa was garroted to death in August 1533. His king’s ransom had bought him nine months of life.

Pizarro would spend the rest of his life subduing the Inca Empire, and the road ahead was difficult. The Incas did NOT give up, fighting multiple campaigns, including a year-long siege of Cuzco in 1536 and 1537 where the Spanish were nearly destroyed. But they held onto their conquests by hook and by crook, and Pizarro might have had his claim to be greater than Cortes…

…until a rival conquistador had him assassinated in 1541. Hey, hazards of the job. Reap what you sow. Live by the sword, die by the sword. You get the idea. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, at any rate.

The last Inca resistance, a vestigial empire way up in the Andes Mountains, lasted well into 1572, outlasting their would-be conquistador by over thirty years. Probably out of sheer spite from that treachery at Cajamarca.

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