History of Peru

THE SPANISH CONQUEST, 1532-72

Pizarro and the Conquistadors

While the Inca empire flourished, Spain was beginning to rise to prominence in the Western world. The political union of the several independent realms in the Iberian Peninsula and the final expulsion of the Moors after 700 years of intermittent warfare had instilled in Spaniards a sense of destiny and a militant religious zeal. The encounter with the New World by Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) in 1492 offered an outlet for the material, military, and religious ambitions of the newly united nation.

Francisco Pizarro, a hollow-cheeked, thinly beared Extremaduran of modest hidalgo (lesser nobility) birth, was not only typical of the arriviste Spanish conquistadors who came to America, but also one of the most spectacularly successful. Having participated in the indigenous wars and slave raids on Hispañiola, Spain's first outpost in the New World, the tough, shrewd, and audacious Spaniard was with Vasco Nuñez de Balboa when he first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean in 1513 and was a leader in the conquest of Nicaragua (1522). He later found his way to Panama, where he became a wealthy encomendero and leading citizen. Beginning in 1524, Pizarro proceeded to mount several expeditions, financed mainly from his own capital, from Panama south along the west coast of South America.

After several failures, Pizarro arrived in northern Peru late in 1531 with a small force of about 180 men and 30 horses. The conquistadors were excited by tales of the Incas' great wealth and bent on repeating the pattern of conquest and plunder that was becoming practically routine elsewhere in the New World. The Incas never seemed to appreciate the threat they faced. To them, of course, the Spaniards seemed the exotics. "To our Indian eyes," wrote Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, the author of Nueva crónica y buen gobierno (New Chronicle and Good Government), "the Spaniards looked as if they were shrouded like corpses. Their faces were covered with wool, leaving only the eyes visible, and the caps which they wore resembled little red pots on top of their heads."

On November 15, 1532, Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca, the Inca's summer residence located in the Andean highlands of northern Peru, and insisted on an audience with Atahualpa. Guamán Poma says the Spaniards demanded that the Inca renounce his gods and accept a treaty with Spain. He refused. "The Spaniards began to fire their muskets and charged upon the Indians, killing them like ants. At the sound of the explosions and the jingle of bells on the horses' harnesses, the shock of arms and the whole amazing novelty of their attackers' appearance, the Indians were terrorstricken . They were desperate to escape from being trampled by the horses, and in their headlong flight a lot of them were crushed to death." Guamán Poma adds that countless "Indians" but only five Spaniards were killed, "and these few casualties were not caused by the Indians, who had at no time dared to attack the formidable strangers." According to other accounts, the only Spanish casualty was Pizarro, who received a hand wound while trying to protect Atahualpa.

Pizarro's overwhelming victory at Cajamarca in which he not only captured Atahualpa, but devastated the Inca's army, estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 warriors, dealt a paralyzing and demoralizing blow to the empire, already weakened by civil war. The superior military technology of the Spaniards--cavalry, cannon, and above all Toledo steel--had proved unbeatable against a force, however large, armed only with stone-age battle axes, slings, and cotton-padded armor. Atahualpa's capture not only deprived the empire of leadership at a crucial moment, but the hopes of his recently defeated opponents, the supporters of Huáscar, were revived by the prospect of an alliance with a powerful new Andean power contender, the Spaniards.

Atahualpa now sought to gain his freedom by offering the Spaniards a treasure in gold and silver. Over the next few months, a fabulous cache of Incan treasure--some eleven tons of gold objects alone--was delivered to Cajamarca from all corners of the empire. Pizarro distributed the loot to his "men of Cajamarca," creating instant "millionaires," but also slighting Diego de Almagro, his partner who arrived later with reinforcements. This sowed the seeds for a bitter factional dispute that soon would throw Peru into a bloody civil war and cost both men their lives. Once enriched by the Incas' gold, Pizarro, seeing no further use for Atahualpa, reneged on his agreement and executed the Inca--by garroting rather than hanging--after Atahualpa agreed to be baptized as a Christian.

Consolidation of Control

With Atahualpa dead, the Spaniards proceeded to march on Cusco. On the way, they dealt another decisive blow, aided by native American allies from the pro-Huáscar faction, to the still formidable remnants of Atahualpa's army. Then on November 15, 1533, exactly a year after arriving at Cajamarca, Pizarro, reinforced with an army of 5,000 native American auxiliaries, captured the imperial city and placed Manco Cápac II, kin of Huáscar and his faction, on the Inca throne as a Spanish puppet.

Further consolidation of Spanish power in Peru, however, was slowed during the next few years by both indigenous resistance and internal divisions among the victorious Spaniards. The native population, even those who had allied initially with the invaders against the Incas, had second thoughts about the arrival of the newcomers. They originally believed that the Spaniards simply represented one more in a long line of Andean power-contenders with whom to ally or accommodate. The continuing violent and rapacious behavior of many Spaniards, however, as well as the harsh overall effects of the new colonial order, caused many to alter this assessment. This change led Manco Cápac II to balk at his subservient role as a Spanish puppet and to rise in rebellion in 1536. Ultimately unable to defeat the Spaniards, Manco retreated to Vilcabamba in the remote Andean interior where he established an independent Inca kingdom, replete with a miniature royal court, that held out until 1572.

Native American resistance took another form during the 1560s with the millenarian religious revival in Huamanga known as Taki Onqoy (literally "dancing sickness"), which preached the total rejection of Spanish religion and customs. Converts to the sect expressed their conversion and spiritual rebirth by a sudden seizure in which they would shake and dance uncontrollably, often falling and writhing on the ground. The leaders of Taki Onqoy claimed that they were messengers from the native gods and preached that a pan-Andean alliance of native gods would destroy the Christians by unleashing disease and other calamities against them. An adherent to the sect declared at an official inquiry in 1564 that "the world has turned about, and this time God and the Spaniards [will be] defeated and all the Spaniards killed and their cities drowned; and the sea will rise and overwhelm them, so that there will remain no memory of them."

To further complicate matters for the conquerors, a fierce dispute broke out among the followers of Pizarro and those of Diego de Almagro. Having fallen out over the original division of spoils at Cajamarca, Almagro and his followers challenged Pizarro's control of Cusco after returning from an abortive conquest expedition to Chile in 1537. Captured by Pizarro's forces at the Battle of Salinas in 1538, Almagro was executed, but his supporters, who continued to plot under his son, Diego, gained a measure of revenge by assassinating Pizarro in 1541.

As the civil turmoil continued, the Spanish crown intervened to try to bring the dispute to an end, but in the process touched off a dangerous revolt among the colonists by decreeing the end of the encomienda system in 1542. The encomienda was a much abused prerogative to extract labor and tribute from the indigenous peoples in return for the responsibility to protect and Christianize them. It had originally been granted as a reward to the conquistadors and their families during the conquest and ensuing colonization, and was regarded as sacrosanct by the grantees, or encomenderos, who numbered about 500 out of a total Spanish population of 2,000 in 1536. However, to the crown it raised the specter of a potentially privileged, neofeudal elite emerging in the Andes to challenge crown authority.

The crown's efforts to enforce the New Laws (Nuevos Leyes) of 1542 alienated the colonists, who rallied around the figure of Gonzalo Pizarro, the late Francisco's brother. Gonzalo managed to kill the intemperate Viceroy Don Blasco Núñez de la Vela, who, on his arrival, had foolishly tried to enforce the New Laws. In 1544 Pizarro assumed de facto authority over Peru. His arbitrary and brutal rule, however, caused opposition among the colonists, so that when another royal representative, Pedro de la Gasca, arrived in Peru to restore crown authority, he succeeded in organizing a pro-royalist force that defeated and executed Pizarro in 1548. With Gonzalo's death, the crown finally succeeded, despite subsequent intermittent revolts, in ending the civil war and exerting crown control over Spanish Peru.

It would take another two decades, however, to finally quell native American resistance. Sensing the danger of the Taki Onqoy heresy, the Spanish authorities moved quickly and energetically, through a church-sponsored anti-idolatry campaign, to suppress it before it had a chance to spread. Its leaders were seized, beaten, fined, or expelled from their communities. At the same time, a new campaign was mounted against the last Inca holdout at Vilcabamba, which was finally captured in 1572. With it, the last reigning Inca, Túpac Amaru, was tried and beheaded by the Spaniards in a public ceremony in Cusco, thereby putting an end to the events of the conquest that had begun so dramatically four decades earlier at Cajamarca.

Peru History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress