The Conquest of Peru

The Spaniards were technologically superior. They had firearms, swords, horses, and dogs trained for warfare. Yet they were only a small number of men before an empire.

At the time of discovery, the kingdom of Peru stretched from southern Colombia all the way to Chile and even the western regions of Argentina and Bolivia. It contained advanced forms of agriculture and irrigation, modern architecture, urban planning and administration, and a formalized military. The Spaniards, on the other hand, were an impoverished lot of men, volunteers from the civilian population, hired on dreams of gold.

The Conquerer of Peru

History has named Francisco Pizarro the “Conquerer of Peru.” The exact date unknown, his birth is estimated around 1471 in Trujillo, Spain. He was the illegitimate child of Gonzalo Pizarro, a colonel of infantry, and Francisca Gonzales, a woman of humble origins. Poor and illiterate, Pizarro worked as a swineherd. Yet he also grew up inspired by talk of the adventures and wealth to be discovered in the New World.
The Inca Empire and Expansionism

The Incas were themselves conquerors whose empire expanded over the generations of royal leaders. In the fifteenth century, the modern Inca state was established and began its policy of conquer and expansion, from Pachacútec Inca Yupanqui, who successfully waged war against rebellious curacas (village lords) to consolidate power and establish the Inca capital of Cuzco. With succeeding generations, a military power and army was formalized in the desire to continue state-driven expansionism.

Civil War Between Atahualpa and Huascar

In 1526, Pizarro sailed from Panama to undertake his second expedition to find the much rumoured “kingdom to the south.” Passing Atacames, Túmbez, and sailing as far as Santa, on the coast of Peru, he discovered the Inca empire. After receiving permission and financing from the Queen of Spain to conquer this newfound territory, he returned to Túmbez in 1532, stepping into a fratricidal war between brothers Atahualpa and Huascar, whose father, Huayna Capac, upon his deathbed, had divided his kingdom into two: the northern kingdom of Quito would belong to Atahualpa and the rest was bestowed to Huascar. Peace endured for only a few years and ended in a fierce battle on the outskirts of Cuzco were Huascar was captured (and later executed upon Atahualpa’s order).

Ambush in Cajamarca

From Túmbez, Pizarro ventured into the interior with a small army. Having learned that Atahualpa had set up camp outside of Cajamarca, the Spaniards trekked in its direction and installed themselves in the town. Pizarro sent an invitation to the Inca to dine with him. Seated on a litter, an unarmed Atahualpa entered the plaza where Pizarro’s troops had set up an ambush. Fray Valverde, Pizarro’s chaplain approached the Inca with a crucifix and breviary, and a sermon with the intention of subjecting Atahualpa and his kingdom to the supreme and righteous rule of his Pope and his King.

Atahualpa threw Valverde’s book to the ground and rejected any submission of his rule; instead demanding that the Spaniards explain why they were in his land. An attack immediately followed, ending in a massacre of natives and the capture of Atahualpa, confined to a house under heavy guard. To gain his freedom, Atahualpa offered a ransom, a room filled with gold, but he was eventually tried and found guilty of treason and fratricide, and executed on August 29, 1533.

Pizarro effectively eliminated Inca reign. Atahualpa had killed his own brother; Pizarro executed Atahualpa. Though other Incas were later crowned as King, these rulers were puppets in Spanish hands. The conquistadores then began to appropriate and plunder, and take control of the Inca capital of Cuzco, from its temples to its nobility.

Thousands of natives, however, still formed the backbone of the Inca military.

The Fall of the Incas

The Inca empire suppressed a multitude of ethnic tribes, many of which felt contempt toward the invaders and their centralized state system. These ethnicities lost their freedoms, prime agricultural lands, and even populations due to the formation of the mitimae, an arsenal of persons designated to the duties of the state, whether military, administrative, or economic. No national identity or unity existed and so the arrival of the Spaniards was seen as the opportunity to regain what had been lost. As stated on the website The Incas: “It was not a handful of Spanish who broke the Inca, but the Andean people themselves.”


Though Spanish cruelty plagued the conquest, historian Noble David Cook writes that “Amerindians died wherever Europeans trod.” Huayna Cupac, father of Atahualpa, died of a disease described as bearing “pustules.” The Americas had illnesses of its own, bacterial infections and nutritional deficiencies, such as dysentery and goiter, but pandemics of viral infections arrived with the conquest. Illnesses such as smallpox, measles, malaria, and the common cold, swept across the New World, obliterating populations without any natural immunity to these Old World illnesses. Some scholars claim that the ratio of depopulation, from pre-conquest population to approximately 1650, was twenty to one, and maybe even higher.

Conquest and a New Capital

The conquistadores were technologically superior, but they were only a few. Fratricidal war, ethnic divisions, and disease were the prime enemies of the Inca, leading to the empire’s collapse and Spanish conquest. Not long thereafter Pizarro declared the site for his new capital. In January 1535, Pizarro and his troops founded the City of the Kings or Lima, the centre of what would be the Viceroyalty of Peru.

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