Francisco Pizarro and the capture of the Inca Atahualpa

Francisco Pizarro and the capture of the Inca Atahualpa

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On November 16, 1532, the Inca emperor Atahualpa was captured in the midst of his retinue by a small group of Spaniards led by Francisco Pizarro. This daring attack, coupled with a terrible massacre, would spell the end of the Inca Empire and begin its conquest by the Spaniards. Yet there was nothing to suggest that a handful of Spanish adventurers would, in a single day, deal a fatal blow to the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.

Francisco Pizarro in search of Peru

Castilian emigrated to the Americas in 1502, Francisco Pizarro settled in Panama in 1513. It was there that he heard for the first time, following the exploration trip of his compatriot Pascual de Andagoya, of a fabulous country which would be full of gold: the Peru. Encouraged by the incredible achievement ofHernan Cortes, who with a handful of conquistadors manages to subdue the Aztec Empire, he decides to team up with two other men, the priest Hernando de Luque, and the military Diego de Almagro, to set off to conquer this legendary Peru.

Their first expedition, in 1524-25, was a fiasco: their damaged ship, the object of deprivation and hostility from the tribes that inhabit the present day. Ecuador, the Spaniards give up. But in 1526-28, a second expedition bore fruit: Pizarro and his companions established contact with a population recently submitted by the Incas and above all, they find gold, silver and precious stones: Peru does exist. Anxious to ensure the best part of the conquest to come, he returned to Spain and succeeded in getting himself appointed, in advance, governor of "New Castile" by Charles Quint. He returned to Panama in 1530, taking with him several of his brothers.

Francisco Pizarro's third expedition finally set sail in December 1530. The following spring it reached the island of Puna, whose inhabitants are waging a merciless war against the Incas on the continent. Initially the cohabitation went smoothly, but a misunderstanding caused by the translators of Pizarro triggered an armed conflict in April 1531: despite being less than 200, the Spaniards inflicted a scathing defeat on the natives, thanks to the combination pikes / arquebuses infantry, and their cavalry. Impressed by this success, which gave the conquistadors an aura of almost supernatural invincibility, the Incas greet the Spaniards with deference, while Pizarro and his family, without encountering resistance, plunge into the interior.

Meet Atahualpa

At the same time, the Inca Emperor Atahualpa is Cajamarca with an army of 80,000 men, where he has just learned of the defeat and capture of his half-brother Huascar, his rival in a civil war for imperial succession that has lasted since 1527. He is informed almost simultaneously of the arrival of these Spaniards in exotic weapons and garb, from whom his people are respectfully kept out. But the son of the sun is not fooled: his spies soon teach him that newcomers are not of divine essence. The emperor sees it as a unique opportunity to strengthen his power, still tenuous at the end of the civil war: he will capture the Spaniards to incorporate them into his own army and benefit from their military know-how - or have them put to death if They refuse.

With this in mind, and believing that he had nothing to fear from the handful of conquistadors given the presence of his army, he sent a messenger to Pizarro inviting him to come and meet him in Cajamarca. After an exhausting march, the 168 Spaniards, taking with them 62 horses, 12 arquebuses and 4 cannons, arrived in the city, which its inhabitants almost deserted during the civil war on November 15, 1532. They were immediately confronted with a thorny dilemma. In fact, to attack the Inca army head-on, which is encamped on the heights above the city, would be suicidal. Retreating could not be envisaged: the many fortresses that the Spaniards crossed on the way would have quickly blocked their way in these mountainous regions. Finally, remaining passive in contact with the Incas would only help dispel the aura of mystery that the conquistadors still imagine they have.

Pizarro, who well understood the divine status of the sovereign and the centralized nature of his empire, decides to act, with astonishing nerve: he will capture Atahualpa in the middle of his own soldiers, by setting a trap for him. The Spanish leader therefore invited the emperor to come and meet him the next day inside Cajamarca. Sure of his strength, Atahualpa accepts. The smallness of the place will force him to bring with him only the few thousand soldiers and courtiers who constitute his immediate retinue. As a sign of good will, he further specifies that his people will not bring their weapons.

The "battle" of Cajamarca

The November 16, 1532, while Atahualpa and his retinue enter the city, the Spaniards remain hidden in the buildings surrounding the central plaza. Alone, the Dominican monk Vincente de Valverde walks to meet the sovereign, a Bible in his hand. The rest is not known with precision, no other Spaniard having heard the conversation between the two men: the later accounts of the chroniclers (notably those of Pedro Cieza de Leon and Garcilaso de la Vega) contradict each other on its content. According to some, the monk first invited Atahualpa to get off his palanquin to come and feast inside one of the houses, which the Inca refused. For others, he would have simply summoned him to accept Jesus Christ for god and Charles V for overlord.

The outcome of the meeting also differs depending on the source. There seems to have been a altercation between Atahualpa and Valverde, about the bible that the latter handed to the sovereign. Atahualpa, not knowing what to do with the book - an object totally unknown to his people - would then have impatiently struck the monk who wanted to help open it; after which the emperor, unimpressed by the work, would simply have thrown him to the ground. It is then unknown whether Valverde would have taken the opportunity to urge his companions to attack, or if he would simply have returned to report the incident to Pizarro, who then ordered the assault.

One thing is certain: the violence, then, is unleashed. The Spaniards rush to attack, with their steel swords, metal armor and crossbows. The Incas, who are for the luckiest among them protected only by leather armor, and without weapons, moreover discover for the first time arquebuses, cannons and horses, which mow, topple and trample their tight ranks with a terrifying efficiency. The “battle” turns into a bloodbath.

The capture of Atahualpa

However, the Spaniards fail to seize Atahualpa, still out of reach on his palanquin. They then began to methodically cut off the arms of the porters but, as some of them would later report to Pedro Cieza de Léon, they saw with amazement the wounded getting up to carry the sovereign's litter with their other arm.

Eventually, the emperor's last defenders are slain and Atahualpa captured, while the Spanish horsemen pursue the fugitives through the streets of the city, possibly killing several hundred, if not thousands. On the Spanish side, there are probably only a few casualties including Pizarro himself, lightly hit in the hand while parrying the blow with a blade that one of his men, in the heat of the moment, intended Atahualpa.

The conquest of the Inca Empire by Pizarro

Living, the Emperor-God of the Incas was indeed the most powerful currency that Francisco Pizarro could dream of. The conquistador had at the same time beheaded the empire. A real puppet in the hands of the Spaniards, Atahualpa had to order, under threat, his armies to withdraw. He offered to pay a ransom for his own freedom: the gold equivalent of the volume of the room he was imprisoned in, and double the amount of silver. Pizarro agreed to it, but did not intend to keep his word. After the ransom was paid, when it became clear that Atahualpa's generals no longer obeyed him, Pizarro had him put to death. Having agreed to be baptized so as not to die burnt alive (in the Inca religion, the soul of a dead person cannot reach beyond if his body is burned), Atahualpa was garrotted August 29, 1533.

Pizarro, for his part, continued the conquest of Peru, entering Cuzco, the Inca capital, on December 20, 1533. The story, however, was not over: the 17-year-old puppet he had placed on the throne, Manco Capac II, would soon join the renegade generals who were continuing the fight against the Spaniards in the mountains. In addition, Pizarro would stir up the jealousy of his comrades in arms against him, and infighting would soon tear the conquistadors apart. Pizarro succeeded in executing his most dangerous rival, his former associate Diego de Almagro, in 1538; but he was going to perish in his turn, murdered by supporters of Almagro's son on June 26, 1541. Almagro was finally defeated and put to death the following year. It was not until 1572 that the last vestige of the Inca Empire was defeated with the execution of the last emperor, Tupac Amaru.


Francisco Pizzaro: The Conquistador of the Extreme, by Bernard Lavallé. Payot, 2004.

- Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, by Alexandre Gomez-Urbina. MA Editions, 2019.

- From William H. Prescott, History of the conquest of Peru, volume 2: The fall of the Inca Empire. Pygmalion, 1997.