The Battle of Cajamarca: an End to an Empire in South America

Category: Empire, Peru
Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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The Battle of Cajamarca: an end to an Empire in South America New World: Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475 - June 26, 1541) seized Incan emperor Atahualpa (pictured; c. 1502 - August 29, 1533) after victory at Cajamarca, Peru. Pizarro had just 168 men and Atahualpa had 80,000 battle-hardened soldiers who had recently defeated an indigenous enemy. However, the Spaniards had iron swords, guns, horses and armour, which the Incas did not. The result: one of history's most incredible battles, and it was all over in one afternoon.

Atahualpa (or Atahuallpa; Atabalipa) (ah'-ta-oo-al'-pa), was the13th and final emperor of the Incan Empire. He was a younger son of the Incan ruler Huayna Capac and an Ecuadorian princess of the Quito; although not the legitimate heir, he seems to have been the favourite. When Huayna Capac died (c. 1527), the kingdom was divided between Atahualpa, who ruled the northern part of the empire from Quito, and his half-brother Huascar, the legitimate heir, who ruled from Cuzco, the traditional Inca capital.

Contemporary chroniclers depicted Atahualpa as courageous, ambitious, and very popular with the army. In 1532 he was celebrating his victory in a devastating war of accession with his elder half-brother. He had been embroiled in war with Huascar for control of the whole Incan Empire. The war ravaged Inca cities, wreaked havoc on the economy, and decimated the population. Early in 1532, near Cuzco, while Pizarro was making his way to Atahualpa's heartland, the army of the Incan lord had defeated Huascar's army in what was probably the greatest of any Incan military engagement to date.

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Atahualpa treacherously captured his half-brother and his family and later had them executed, while Atahualpa was himself a prisoner – of Pizarro. (As Huascar had been something of an ally to the Spanish, his half-brother's actions were later cited as a cause of the treatment Pizarro meted out to Atahualpa. ) In November, while the newly victorious Atahualpa and his battle-hardened army of 80,000 were relaxing with the hot springs in the town of Cajamarca, before their planned triumphal entry into Cuzco, Francisco Pizarro entered the city with a force of 168. Atahualpa got wind of the incursion.

History was about to change in a most dramatic way. On November 15, as the Spanish band moved close to Cajamarca, they tortured a few natives and discovered that Atahualpa was waiting for them at Cajamarca. Bravely, 'Governor' Pizarro’s 'army' moved towards the Incan town, and saw a beautiful place filled with so many tents that the soldiers were filled with fear. Hernando Pizarro, the leader’s brother, estimated the number of Incan soldiers at 40,000, but an eyewitness wrote that he gave this estimate in order to calm his comrades: there were in fact more than 80,000.

Meanwhile, most of Pizarro’s men were hidden around the main courtyard of Cajamarca. Atahualpa ambushed Invited by the Spaniard to attend a feast in his honour, the Inca chief accepted. The next day, he arrived at the appointed meeting place with several thousand unarmed retainers; Pizarro, prompted by the example of Hernan Cortes and Moctezuma in Mexico, had prepared an ambush. The next day at around noon, Atahualpa appeared in the town centre, carried on a litter, or palanquin, borne by 80 Incan noblemen in rich blue livery, and with a retinue of 2,000 Indians sweeping the road before him.

An eyewitness wrote “Then came a number of men with armour, large metal plates, and crowns of gold and silver which they bore, that it was a marvel to observe how the sun glinted on it. " Atahualpa was also surrounded by his warriors, many thousands of them. One of the Spaniards who was present wrote: “Atahualpa himself was very richly dressed, with his crown on his head and a collar of large emeralds around his neck. He sat on a small stool with a rich saddle cushion resting on his litter. The litter was lined with parrot feathers of many colours and decorated with plates of gold and silver … Governor Pizarro now sent Friar Vicente de Valverde to go to speak to Atahualpa, and to require Atahualpa in the name of God and of the King of Spain that Atahualpa subject himself to the law of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the service of His Majesty the King of Spain. [The priest advanced] with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other hand, and going among the Indian troops up to the place where Atahualpa was … “Atahualpa asked for the Book, that he might look at it, and the Friar gave it to him closed.

Atahualpa did not know how to open the Book, and the Friar was extending his arm to do so, when Atahualpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that the Book should be opened. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper he threw it away from him five or six paces, his face a deep crimson. “The Friar returned to Pizarro, shouting, ‘Come out! Come out, Christians! Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God …. Why remain polite and servile towards this over-proud dog when the plains are full of Indians? March out against him, for I absolve you! ’”

It has been reported that Atahualpa asked Friar Vicente on what authority he acted, and the friar told him it derived from the book he was holding. The Incan emperor then commanded: "Give me the book so that it can speak to me. " Atahualpa, holding the book next to his ear, tried to listen to its pages. Finally he asked: "Why doesn't the book say anything to me? " and defiantly and disdainfully threw it to the ground. On the friar's command (rather than Pizarro's), the Spanish soldiers emerged from the porticoes around the square and fired into the crowds of unarmed warriors and citizens. Seven thousand slain

Just several hours of bloody battle ensued, with the conquistadors having the technological advantage. By evening, Pizarro and his men had killed 7,000 Indians yet lost not one of their own merry men. Later, Pizarro said to Atahualpa through an interpreter: “When you have seen the errors in which you live, you will understand the good that we have done you by coming to your land … Our Lord permitted that your pride should be brought low and that no Indian should be able to offend a Christian. ” During the melee, Pizarro had personally grabbed Atahualpa from his litter, calling out the Spanish war cry (“Santiago! , or “St James! ”) as he did so, and took Atahualpa prisoner. Soon, Atahualpa recognised that a huge ransom was his only chance of freedom, so he promised a huge hoard of gold to the Spaniards, which the Incan king’s subjects duly paid. The ransom, the largest ever made, was staggering – when melted down, it consisted of sufficient gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide to a height of more than 8 feet! What artistic treasures were lost, we shall never know. We note here that the Incas made even the soldiers rich, not just Pizarro and the King of Spain (who took 20 per cent of the booty).

The conquistadors each received a share appropriate to his rank: horseman received 40 kilograms of gold and 81 kg of silver, while foot-soldiers received half that amount. After the full amount had been delivered, Pizarro reneged on his promise and on August 29, 1533, the conquistador ordered Atahualpa burned to death. However, when Atahualpa was brought to the stake, Father de Valverde offered him the choice of being burned alive or being killed by the more merciful garrot if he would convert to Christianity.

Although throughout his captivity Atahualpa had resisted conversion, he agreed to it and so died that day by strangulation. Cajamarca was not the only occasion in 1532 on which Western technology was able to trounce Incan technology – for technology such as guns and steel swords, rather than fighting skills and valour were what won the day. Jared Diamond, from whose excellent, Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel, (Vintage, 1998), the above quotations come, writes: “During Pizarro’s march from Cajamarca to the Inca capital of Cuzco after

Atahualpa’s death, there were four such battles: at Jauja, Vilcashuaman, Vilcaconga, and Cuzco. Those four battles involved a mere 80, 30, 110, and 40 Spanish horsemen, respectively, in each case ranged against thousands or tens of thousands of Indians. ” Footnote On January 18, 1535, as Pizarro thought the Inca capital of Cuzco was too far up in the mountains and far from the sea to serve as the Spanish capital of Peru, he founded the city of Lima, still the capital of that nation.

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The Battle of Cajamarca: an End to an Empire in South America. (2017, Dec 27). Retrieved from

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