The early life of Francisco Pizarro is shrouded in myth and mystery. What is known of this illegitimate, illiterate swineherd and future conqueror of the Inca Empire?
For a man who was to conquer an empire, little is known about the early life of Francisco Pizarro. As with the Spanish conquest of the New World itself, historical fact often gives way to literary assumptions and romanticized ideals, notions which become embedded in popular belief.
Whether regarded as a fine leader and a conquering hero, or as a fortune seeker turned murderous villain, the accomplishments of Francisco Pizarro in the New World are none-the-less remarkable. Could this man, so often labeled as an illegitimate, illiterate swineherd, have come from such simple beginnings to overthrow the mighty Inca Empire? Or have the few known facts of his early life been too neatly packaged as part of a greater story?
The Birth of Francisco Pizarro
The birth of Francisco Pizarro is variously recorded as having occurred between 1471 and 1476. No record of birth exists for Pizarro, despite such records having been commonplace at the time. As the illegitimate son of an infantry captain and a commoner woman of little material wealth, it seems that the registry of Pizarro’s birth was overlooked. What is known is that he was born in Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain.
His father, Captain Gonzalo Pizarro, was a veteran of the Italian campaigns and, by all accounts, something of a womanizer. As historian Rafael Varón Gabai relates, “Captain Gonzalo Pizarro’s will shows that he fathered many children with different women, many of whom he acknowledged – perhaps all of them, save for the conqueror of Peru”. Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco’s mother, Francisca González, never married, and it would appear that the child was largely neglected.
More romanticized, and totally unsubstantiated, versions of Pizarro’s birth have also been put forward. One commonly repeated myth has the infant Pizarro left on the steps of a church, abandoned by his parents. Elaborations upon this theme echo the Romulus and Remus myth, with Pizarro feeding on the milk of a sow to survive.
The Upbringing and Education of Francisco Pizarro
Francisco Pizarro received no formal education and remained illiterate certainly until his later life. His inability to read and write would seem to support the notion of his neglected childhood.
Legend has it that Pizarro spent his formative years as a swineherd, raising pigs on the land most probably owned by his father. Again, this is an often quoted part of his early life – the transition from swineherd to conqueror making the Conquistador’s tale all the more dramatic. As Varón Gabai relates (despite what he sees as the “general irrelevance of the fact”), “it would not be strange if Pizarro indeed pastured pigs, given the animals’ abundance in the area”.
The Young Francisco Pizarro and the Making of a Conquistador
In 1492, when Columbus set sight upon the Americas, Pizarro would have been in his late teens or early twenties. Historical accounts draw a blank upon the activities of Pizarro from this time until his emergence in the New World.
Historian Arthur Helps, in his 1869 account of the life of Pizarro, claims, “There is little doubt that he served, as a mere lad, with his father in the Italian wars”. Helps offers no supporting evidence for this statement, but it would seem reasonable to assume that Francisco Pizarro did indeed experience combat and warfare during his life prior to the New World.
A tough upbringing, combined with at least a modicum of battlefield experience, would serve in part to sketch the character of a young man who would become a conqueror. Pizarro, it would appear, also had a sufficient lack of familial or material ties at home to hold him back from crossing a vast ocean to seek his fortune in a distant and unknown land.
Francisco Pizarro in the New World
Indeed, many of Pizarro’s closest family members went to the New World as Conquistadors themselves, including his brother, uncle and his second cousin, Hernán Cortés himself.
It is an unfortunate act of history that little is known of the young Francisco Pizarro. According to Varón Gabai, Pizarro set sail for the Indies in 1501, already in his thirties. He then appears in Hispaniola around 1509, where his reputation begins to rise under the command of Alonso de Ojeda and later as part of the Balboa expedition and the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. By the age of forty, Francisco Pizarro had firmly entered the pages of history.
For a snapshot of global events at the time of Pizarro’s arrival in the New World, have a look at The Incas and World History Circa 1500.
To compare the militaristic capabilities of the Conquistador and Inca armies, have a look at Spanish Conquistador Weapons and Inca Weapons and Warriors.