Francisco Pizarro was born three or four different times in the 1470’s — or, that is to say, there are conflicting accounts as to his precise year of birth.
What is not in dispute is that he was the illegitimate son of a Spanish royal infantry captain named Gonzalo Pizarro. Francisco Pizarro was also illiterate, which is typically a prelude to a resounding irrelevance in the annuls of history. What Francisco Pizarro did have was determination, ambition and a love of adventuring –or “pizzazz” in the modern vernacular — and he seems to have had connections as well. His second cousin was none other than Hernán Cortés, the model conquistador for the model destruction of empires. And on his first seafaring adventure, he sailed under the equally “none other than” Balboa.
Before Francisco Pizarro found his true calling of sailing and empire dismantling, he spent 15 years as a humble pig herder. In 1502 he decided to step out of the pig-muck limelight and move to the West Indies, where he was taken in by his uncle, who gave him non-pig career guidance.
On his first expedition with Balboa in 1509, Francisco Pizarro served as first mate. The mission was to explore what is now Panama, where Pizarro played an important part in founding Panama City as well as playing, for him, an important part in accumulating his own personal wealth.
Then in 1524 Pizarro received a command of his own. He was to investigate unconfirmed reports that to the south there lay a vast empire and an abundance of gold to be had. Evidence of both Incas and gold were found, after which the expedition returned with the music-to-the-ears news that the king of Spain was longing to hear. Consequently, more men and provisions were supplied, and two years later Francisco Pizarro, with a larger force, made a return trip by sea and went further inland than before.
This expedition, too, ran out of steam, and Pizarro returned to Panama to regroup. Then in 1532 he returned with a yet larger army, numbering almost 200 men and several dozen horses, and made his way toward the Inca capital, where Atahualpa, the Inca ruler, consented to meet him. The empire had been weakened by years of civil war between Atahualpa and his half-brother Huascar, but Atahualpa did not feel the conquistadors’ small force posed any sort of threat, since he had an army of 80,000 soldiers a stone’s throw away at his disposal. However, at the agreed-upon meeting point, a perplexed and dazed (“Eh? What’s going on? Unhand me!”) Atahualpa was captured and taken hostage while his unarmed imperial guards were brutally slaughtered. The ransom was set at a room full of gold and two of silver.
The ransom was then paid, which was the cue for the customary conquistador killing of the hostage. Atahualpa never stood a chance. The army was crippled without the leadership of the Inca ruler and actually retreated. The conquistadors succeeded in burning the Inca capital, after which the rest of the empire was slowly but surely plundered and subdued. Spanish reinforcements, armor, horses, swords, guns, European diseases and no-quarter-given tactics proved too much for the Incas.
The final steps in the conquest of the Inca Empire did not come about until after the death of Francisco Pizarro, who was himself killed in 1541 by a rival conquistador faction. However, his well-respected blueprint for slaughtering, burning, spreading small pox and pillaging gold would continue to be faithfully followed.