This week in history: Pizarro defeats the Inca at Cajamarca

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 13 2013 5:20 p.m. MST

On Nov. 16, 1532, the Spanish and Inca met at Cajamarca in modern Peru. More massacre than battle, the engagement allowed the Spanish to capture the Inca leader, Atahualpa, and begin their subjugation of the Inca empire.

Spain in the early 16th century was at the height of its power. Spain's monarch, Charles I, also ruled the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe as Emperor Charles V. Additionally, Charles ruled territories in Italy, the Low Countries, and elsewhere in Europe. No European monarch would rule as much territory in Europe again until Napoleon Bonaparte three centuries later.

In addition to territory and dynastic rule, Spain's power rested upon many props. It was considered a bastion of Catholicism as the Protestant Reformation was spreading throughout northern Europe. Spain's navy was second-to-none at the time, and its explorers had brought fame and prestige to the nation.

Christopher Columbus' 1492 discovery of the “New World” had opened many possibilities to Europeans looking to exploit the new lands. In 1518, Hernán Cortés invaded the Aztec empire in modern Mexico. Within a few years and with only a relative handful of men under his command, Cortés succeeded in conquering the Aztecs and vastly extending the domain of King Charles.

Cortés' adventure had captured the imagination of Spaniards who wanted to emulate his achievement. Francisco Pizarro was one such aspirant. A cousin of Cortés, Pizarro had worked for the Spanish administration in Panama as the Aztec empire fell, and had led expeditions to South America. He was aware of the power and potential wealth of the Inca empire in Peru, and believed he could topple it as easily as Cortés had the Aztecs.

In his book “The New Penguin History of the World,” historian J.M. Roberts wrote: “In 1531 Pizarro set out upon a similar conquest (to Cortés') of Peru. This was an even more remarkable achievement than the conquest of Mexico and, if possible, displayed even more dreadfully the rapacity and ruthlessness of the conquistadors.”

Circumstances within the Inca empire greatly aided Pizarro's desire. European arrival in the Americas had proved disastrous for the native populations. Diseases spread and killed Native Americans at an alarming rate. Huayna Capac ruled the Inca as Sapa Inca (which can be translated in many ways, including “Great Inca”) and most likely contracted smallpox in 1527. Capac was just one of many Inca who fell to an epidemic that claimed perhaps as many as 200,000 Inca. It also claimed the life of his oldest son and heir, Ninan Cuyochi.

The title should have devolved upon Capac's next oldest son, Huáscar, though Capac's younger son Atahualpa coveted the throne, and soon launched a major war against his brother to take it. This conflict ended with the April 1532 Battle of Quipaipan, in which Huáscar was defeated and Atahualpa was able to take the throne as Sapa Inca. It was on his way back from his victory at Quipaipan, at the head of his 80,000 troops, that Atahualpa stopped at Cajamarca for rest.

Commanding only 168 men, Pizarro approached the superior numbers of the Inca, who had been alerted to his presence. After torturing local natives to gain intelligence, Pizarro felt confident enough to advance on the city. Eventually, a messenger from Atahualpa arrived and asked to speak with Pirzarro.

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