The Conquest of a New World

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As the Spaniards hacked their way through the South American jungle, they must have felt that they were in one of Dante’s circles of hell. They were trapped, strangers in a strange land, with little hope of rescue and the strong possibility that disease, starvation, the weather, the locals or any of a thousand other things would kill them. Their leader, the fifty-year-old Francisco Pizarro, had urged them to leave their homes for dreams of gold, but the jungle had yet to yield a scrap of the metal. Then, in August 1527, it seemed that salvation had appeared; a Spanish ship appeared on the horizon, landed on the coast and promised to transport the would-be-conquistadors to safety. But Pizarro had no interest in safety. Famously, he turned to his companions, drew a line in the sand and offered them a stark choice. On one side of that line, he declared, they would find certain security, and with it the guarantee of impoverished ignominy. On the other side lay sweat, danger and possibly death, but also the prospect of wealth, women and glory. Only thirteen were willing to take that gamble, but they were all Pizzaro needed to begin the conquest of an empire that thought it ruled the world.

The campaigns of Cortés had provoked a second wave of fascination in the New World. The rugged and impoverished lands of Castile naturally produced fierce warriors and desperadoes, and before long, companies of these men began heading to the New World, with dreams of finding, conquering and plundering local kingdoms. Pizarro himself had already led an expedition to the Americas, but that journey had been a miserable failure. For a long time, his second attempt had seemed to be going the same way as his first; he had discovered only the vaguest traces of a settled society, and certainly nothing on the scale of the Aztec Empire.

The situation had grown so dire that Pizarro had been forced to send his lieutenant, Diego de Almagro, back to Panama to gain supplies. Then, however, the conquistadors had struck a form of gold; they had stumbled upon a raft of traders sailing to do business with a mysterious empire of mountain folk. Pizarro promptly took three of these merchants as his honoured captives, knowing that he would eventually need interpreters who spoke Quechua, the language of this shadowy kingdom. With this slight ember of hope, the Spaniards had stuck it out in the jungle, waiting for Almagro’s return, when the rescue ship appeared.

Once Pizzaro and his thirteen companions had resolved to remain, their former companions sailed off into the distance, leaving the fourteen men to continue their expedition. For seven months, they endured hell on Earth. Then, in March 1528, just as it seemed Pizzaro and his companions were destind to die futile deaths in an unknown land, Almagro’s reinforcements finally appeared. At last able to proceed on their journey, the newly strengthened troupe of conquistadors were led by the captured merchants to a coastal town called Tumbes.

It was in this small city that the Spanish first met the Inca, and they were immediately impressed. Society was clearly ordered, a strange set of gods were worshipped and a complex irrigation system dominated the landscape. In turn, the local Inca were intrigued by the pale Spaniards and their African servants, and told them tales of their histroy, their great Emperors and their mighty capital, Cuzco, which lay a thousand miles away by road. An enraptured Pizarro immediately returned to Spain, to prepare for his third and greatest expedition. By April 1532, he had returned to Tumbes with the backing of Charles V, substantial supplies and a new army, between one hundred and sixty and one hundred and one hundred and eighty strong. Yet Tumbes had since been reduced to deserted ruins. By turns perplexed and unnerved by this development, the conquistadors began following the great road south, hoping to discover what had transpired.

As Pizarro and his men advanced through the Peruvian jungle, they could not have comprehended the forces that marched alongside them. For the Inca state had never been as vulnerable as it was then. Smallpox had ripped through the Andean civilisation and killed the much loved Sapa Inca (Emperor), Huayna Inca. Caught off balance, the Peruvians had fallen into a civil war, as two of Huayna’s sons battled to succeed their father. Carnage ripped through the Andes, and Tumbes was just one of the many cities that were destroyed by an army of one brother’s followers. The longer the war was waged, the greater the damage dealt and the weaker the Peruvians became. After a bitter and bloody fight, one of the brothers, Atahualpha, had gained the upper hand and driven his rival Huascar into hiding. 

As the now unchallenged master of the Inca Empire, Atahualpa ruled over around five million subjects, whose cities sprawled across most of South America’s Pacific coastline. This was an extremely mountainous region, and villages were often built in jungles or forests thousands of feet above sea level. Accordingly, Peru was a hidden land; none of the Inca’s Meso-American or South American contemporaries had any real knowledge of the empire of llamas, mountains and silver, or vice versa. Accordingly, it was extremely perplexing for Atahualpa when these bizarre men (for the Inca knew almost from the start that the conquistadors were only mortals) appeared on the edge of the world as he knew it. Too curious to be cautious, the intrigued Emperor journeyed out to see the foreigners with his own eyes. 

The fateful meeting occurred at the city of Cajamarca. Atahualpa arrived with his army, and planned to use his thousands of warriors to capture, castrate and enslave the curious newcomers. But for some strange reason – complacency, curiosity or any other motive – the Inca agreed to meet with the Spaniards himself. It was a fatal error. Atahualpa was greeted in a street either by Pizarro or by the conquistadors’ friar (the sources differ), who requested that the Inca submit to the authority of Charles V and convert to Christianity. Famously, Atahualpa asked where the Christians gained their knowledge from, at which point the Spaniard handed him a Bible, telling him that the book “will speak to you”. Yet the Inca had no conception of writing, and so Atahualpa flicked through the Bible’s pages, shook the volume next to his ear and threw it to the ground in disgusted disappointment.

Now armed with a pretext, Pizarro ordered an attack. The Spaniards immediately appeared, firing arquebuses through the windows of the nearby houses that they had been hiding in. The Inca army, equipped as it was with the weapons of the Stone Age, was no much for gunpowder, steel swords and horsemen. Panicked, the Inca fled, and some some two thousand were cut down from behind. In the confusion, the conquistadors captured the greatest prize of all, the Sapa Inca himself. 

The imprisoned emperor now attempted to pay Pizarro off. Atahualpa summoned the conquistadors to his cell and promised that if they released him, he would give them so much gold that the treasure would fill the prison room to its top. Francisco could not believe his good fortune. The conquistadors agreed to his terms, and the Sapa Inca ordered all his subjects to allow the Spanish to take whatever gold or silver they pleased. With little short of a license to print money, the Europeans began the great looting; temples were sacked, palaces were plundered and family treasures were confiscated in a systematic looting of the empire. For the Inca, gold was used for religious ornaments and decorations, and the people were baffled by the Europeans’ obsession. Before long, the Spaniards had collected the ransom, and Atahualpa asked to be released. 

He was naive if he believed he could satisfy the greed of the conquistadors, men who one Inca observed would not have been content had all the snow on the Andes transmuted into gold. Atahualpa was put on trial, hauled before the Pizarro brothers and condemned to be burnt at the stake. For the Inca, who believed that a dead man’s soul could only enter the afterlife if his corpse was preserved, this was a terrifying fate. In a desperate attempt to avoid an eternity in limbo, Atahualpa publicly converted to Christianity. Accordingly, he was spared being burned, and was instead strangled by the Pizarro brothers.

The conquistadors now decided to place a puppet on the Inca throne. They selected Manco, another of Atahualpa’s brothers. The Spaniards marched into the capital of Cuzco as rulers and, with the consent of Manco, continued their plundering; any gold which had initially escaped their gaze was now stolen, and Pizarro’s men could boast that they were now wealthier even than Cortés’ conquistadors. The Pizarro brothers established themselves as the real royal family of Peru, and began revelling in their power. Francisco eventually left to found a new city, Lima, leaving his brothers in control of Cuzco. At the same time, Almagro – Pizarro’s increasingly envious lieutenant – made an expedition to conquer neighbouring Chile.

Most of the conquistadors, however, were content to plunder Peru. Unsurprisingly, the Inca soon began resenting their supposed Spanish friends. Realising he was an accomplice to the exploitation of his people, Manco Inca attempted to stage an escape from Cuzco, but was swiftly hauled back to the capital. Relations now completely broke down. The conquistadors began openly humiliating their puppet emperor; one of the Pizarro brothers began raping his wife, a fate shared by many of the Inca noblewomen.

Away from prying Spanish eyes, Manco summoned the most powerful of the remaining Inca lords and told them that they now faced a choice: they could either prostrate themselves before masters who would never leave, never be contented and never stop taking from them, or they could rise up in revolt. Orders were sent out across the Andes, telling loyal Inca to simultaneously attack the thinly spread conquistadors on a particular day at a particular time; their hope was that the element of surprise would compensate for the technological gap. Shortly before Easter, Manco slipped out of Cuzco. The complacent conquistadors, intoxicated with their own success, didn’t take note. 

Then, in early May, Cuzco was besieged – Manco had returned with a secretly assembled army of thousands of Inca soldiers. This was not an effort to liberate the city; the Sapa Inca was perfectly willing to torch his capital if it meant killing the Spanish invaders. One hundred and seventy conquistadors and their native allies fought a desperate door-to-door defence of the city as they slowly gave ground in the face of wave after wave of Inca attacks. The fighting was fierce, as both sides knew the other was not in a merciful mood. Cuzco had become a Spanish Stalingrad.

Francisco himself was still in Lima when the Great Revolt began. He attempted to send relief forces, but all of these were ambushed en route, and before long he too was under siege. Pizarro’s three brothers were also outside of Cuzco, but they were close enough to the capital to offer more useful help. The key point of the siege was the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, a citadel on the outskirts of Cuzco that effectively controlled entry into the city. The Pizarro brothers led whatever forces they could gather for an attack on the fort, hoping to dam the river of Inca warriors that threatened to flood the capital. Despite a heroic defence, the Spanish were able to capture the citadel and relieved Cuzco in May, at the cost of one of the Pizarro brothers’ life. The next month, Almagro, who had swiftly marched back from Chile when he had heard of the uprising, made contact with Francisco and lifted the siege of Lima. The Great Revolt had failed.

The Spanish now wanted revenge. Hernando Pizarro led seventy conquistadors and a few thousand native allies in pursuit of Manco. The Emperor retreated to the Sacred Valley, the Inca Empire’s holy of holies, and dug in. Ten thousand feet above sea level, in the mountains not far from Machu Pichu, Manco erected a colossal fortress known as Ollantaytambo. During the Great Revolt, the Sapa Inca had captured a number of guns, horses and conquistadors, who were forced to reveal the secrets of gunpowder to the Inca. When the unsuspecting Hernando met Manco in battle, he was outmanoeuvred, crushed and forced into a humiliating retreat back to Cuzco.

It was a dramatic last stand, but Manco could read the writing on the wall. A series of semi-apocalyptic events had brought the Inca to their knees – in rapid succession, the Peruvians had suffered a plague, a civil war and what was in effect an alien invasion. Meanwhile, the conquistadors were only growing in strength; the Pizarro brothers had been sending portions of their ill-gotten gains back to Spain, where the crates of stolen silver had caught the popular imagination and inspired thousands of Iberians to make the trek to Peru. There were simply too many Spaniards, with too many guns and too much armour for driving the invaders back into the sea to be a real possibility. Instead, Manco retreated into the Andes, from where he would wage a guerilla campaign against the invaders.

Now lacking an external enemy to fight, the conquistadors immediately began quarrelling with each other. The constant jostling for power, plunder and position quickly turned violent; within two years of Manco’s retreat, Francisco executed Almagro, the man who had saved him during the Great Inca Rebellion. In a tale featuring all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy, Almagro’s son eventually avenged his father when he assassinated Francisco at Lima. Pizarro’s great rival, Manco, would outlive him, but he would also fall to Spanish steel. After years of mocking the conquistadors’ attempts to capture him, he was eventually ambushed and cut down by a band of Spaniards, who rejoiced at the death of their old enemy.

Despite the fact that its sites had been sacked, its armies defeated and its riches plundered, the Inca Empire stubbornly refused to depart from the Andean psyche. Before he abandoned his fortress at Ollantaytambo, Manco had delivered an impassioned speech, in which he told his countrymen that the Spanish would force them to change their language, surrender their treasures and convert to Christianity, and that the Inca would have to obey them. But he also told them that, in their hearts, they should always remember the ancient ways. Manco’s subjects seem to have obeyed his final order; as late as 1780, one of Manco’s descendants would lead an Inca uprising against the colonists. 

The Spanish Empire would endure a very different fate. The wealth of the New World gave Spain unrivalled power for a short period, during which Charles V was able to bribe his way into controlling the Holy Roman Empire. Spain was the first power, it was said, on which the Sun never set. But the Spanish Empire had a long twilight indeed; in a bizarrely fitting way, the sudden influx of gold plundered from the New World led to crippling hyperinflation, which devastated the Spanish economy. Financial ruin, coupled with a string of weak rulers, monarchical vanity projects and embarrassing military defeats, broke the back of the once invincible Iberians. Before too long, Spain became the sick man of Europe, an empire in perpetual decline.

Stirling, S., 2005. Pizarro: Conqueror of the Inca. The History Press

Strathern, P., 2019. Rise and Fall: A History of the World in Ten Empires. Hodder & Stoughton

Wood, M., 2003. Conquistadors. Random House