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Atahualpa is captured by Pizarro at Cajamarca

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A month ago we looked at how Atahualpa eventually triumphed over his brother Huascar in the divisive and brutal Inca Civil War. And even more recently we delved a little into the background and early life of Francisco Pizarro. Now the time has come for two of the most important figures in South American history to meet.

Some sources would suggest that Atuahalpa and Pizarro’s encounter at Cajamarca was entirely coincidental, but the truth is that even in 1532 news travelled (relatively) quickly. A network of envoys and messengers meant that the meeting took neither man by surprise. Atahualpa and his army were resting up after their decisive victory over Huascar at the battle of Quipaipan. When Pizzaro arrived on Friday November 15, the town of Cajamarca was utterly deserted (Atahualpa had made camp at some nearby hot springs) so he and his 160 men – very conveniently, given Pizarro’s evil plan – moved into the buildings surrounding the central plaza.

The route taken by Pizarro (in red) during his conquest of Peru

A message was sent to Atahualpa, inviting the Inca to dine with Pizarro the following day. Atahualpa, buoyed by his triumph over Huascar and the fact that his army outnumbered the Spaniards by at least 150 to 1, not only accepted the invitation but arrived in the plaza unarmed and with only a fraction of his army in tow.

The Inca was greeted by Father Vicente de Valverde who – at great length – tried to impress upon Atahualpa that as a subject of the King of Spain who was a representative of God himself, Pizarro would be laying claim to the Inca kingdom. Atahualpa, not much impressed, asked where this authority came from and received as a response a copy of Valverde’s bible. Atahualpa – as any great emperor in his right mind would have done – tossed the book to the ground and scoffed at the friar, and…

Pizarro saw that the hour had come. He waved a white scarf in the air, the appointed signal. The fatal gun was fired from the fortress. Then springing into the square, the Spanish captain and his followers shouted the old war-cry of "St. Jago and at them!" It was answered by the battle-cry of every Spaniard in the city, as, rushing from the avenues of the great halls in which they were concealed, they poured into the plaza, horse and foot, each in his own dark column, and threw themselves into the midst of the Indian crowd. The latter, taken by surprise, stunned by the report of artillery and muskets, the echoes of which reverberated like thunder from the surrounding buildings, and blinded by the smoke which rolled in sulphurous volumes along the square, were seized with a panic. They knew not whither to fly for refuge from the coming ruin. Nobles and commoners--all were trampled down under the fierce charge of the cavalry, who dealt their blows right and left, without sparing; while their swords, flashing through the thick gloom, carried dismay into the hearts of the wretched natives, who now, for the first time, saw the horse and his rider in all their terrors. They made no resistance--as, indeed, they had no weapons with which to make it. Every avenue to escape was closed, for the entrance to the square was choked up with the dead bodies of men who had perished.

Extract from The History of the Conquest of Peru (1847) by William H Prescott

The capture of Atahualpa.

The Incas had never seen horses or guns before and they were taken by surprise. The massacre lasted two hours, during which thousands of Incas (somewhere between two- and ten-thousand) were killed and not a single Spaniard was even seriously injured.

But Pizarro was too clever to kill Atahualpa himself (“Let no one who values his life, strike at the Inca.") as he had seen the amazing gold, silver and jewels the Incas possessed and he knew that they would do anything to buy their leader’s freedom. Once Atahualpa realized his predicament, he offered to fill a large room once with gold and twice over with silver and Pizarro gleefully agreed. The Incas followed through on their promise (A task that was made even more difficult by the fact that the Spanish deliberately broke many of the ornaments and jewelry to ensure that the room filled more slowly.) but Pizarro did not keep his word. On July 26 1533, Atahualpa was executed; ostensibly on charges of treason, but more likely because Pizarro was scared by the arrival of the Inca General Rumiñahui in the vicinity.

The execution of Atahualpa.

Strictly speaking, the Inca Empire survived a few more decades, but the puppet Incas supported by the Spanish were just that. Atahualpa’s death marked the end of the most glorious epoch in Peruvian history.

* Credit for most of the information in this blog must go to William H Prescott’s The History of the Conquest of Peru (which is available as a free Kindle book and is a riveting, albeit dated, read) and to this succinct, but extremely thorough and well-researched blog post.

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