In the 16th century, the Spaniards arrived in the Andean region of South America and over the course of only a few decades, succeeded in toppling the Inca empire, which had spanned most of the Andean region and surrounding lowlands from the south of modern-day Colombia to the north of Chile and Argentina. This article examines how the Conquistadors accomplished this task and describes the events of the twilight years of the Inca empire.
By the 16th century, the Inca empire had seen many years of strong leadership. Huayna Capac, the Inca in power when Europeans began to arrive in South America, was respected and admired throughout the empire.
Both Huayna Capac and his designated heir died, most likely of smallpox. The ensuing war of succession between the Panakas (royal lines) weakened the Inca leadership and contributed to its speedy downfall. At the centre of the conflict were the two main contenders, Huascar and Atahualpa, who were both sons of Huayna Capac.
Huascar may have been named the new emperor, though no records remain to confirm that he was indeed the intended heir. Regarded as ugly, bad-mannered and half-mad, Huascar was known for his cruelty and came close to murdering his sister and mother. Nonetheless, he was well-liked in the southern regions of the empire. Atahualpa, on the other hand, was chosen to govern the northern territory known as the Kingdom of Quito, which was located in modern-day Ecuador and southern Colombia.
After a few years of relative peace, war broke out between the two brothers. It is estimated that 100,000 people were killed in this bloodthirsty dispute known as the War of the Two Brothers. After many struggles, Atahualpa finally defeated Huascar. Atahualpa himself became teetered towards insanity and treated the losers terribly. Many had stones dropped on their backs to cripple them, fetuses were ripped from wombs and bodies were stuck on spikes for display, and nearly 1,500 members of the royal family were cut up in front of Huascar, including his own children.
After sending Huascar to prison, Atahualpa took the throne. He paid a terrible price for his cruelty, as it had contributed to the weakening of the empire. It was at this critical moment that "strange bearded men" arrived on the coast of present-day Peru. These men turned out to be Conquistadors from Spain. They were led by Francisco Pizarro.
After his victory over his brother, Atahualpa began his southward march from Quito to claim the Inca throne in Cusco. Atahualpa had been hearing tales of white men approaching his territory. Some accounts say that Atahualpa sent messengers with presents to Pizarro and his men to incite them to leave, and others contend that it was Pizarro who sent a messenger to Atahualpa requesting a meeting. Most accounts agree, however, that Atahualpa met with Pizarro voluntarily.
Atahualpa and his forces confronted the Spaniards at Cajamarca. Rather than meeting with Atahualpa himself, Pizarro sent an emissary in the form of a friar named Vicente de Valverde, accompanied by an interpreter. Friar Valverde spoke with Atahualpa about Spanish presence in his lands. He also introduced Atahualpa to the precepts of the Catholic religion. In doing so, he offered Atahualpa a Bible in the expectation that he and his men would immediately convert Christianity or be considered an enemy of the Church and of Spain by the Spanish Crown.
Atahualpa’s refusal to convert led to a bloody battle that resulted in the Inca’s capture by the Spanish on November 16, 1532. The fact that a tiny band of Spanish were able to overcome the vast Inca armies at Cajamarca is directly attributable to the Spanish horses and cannons. Once they had Atahualpa, the Spanish, although greatly outnumbered, were able to convince Atahualpa's generals to back down by threatening to kill their captured king. In exchange for his release, Atahualpa offered to fill a large room with gold and promised the Spanish twice that amount in silver. These overtures were futile because Pizarro had no intention of releasing the Inca; he needed his influence over the native people to maintain order.
Atahualpa feared that if Huascar came into contact with the Spanish, he would be so useful to them that Pizarro would no longer need Atahualpa and have him killed. To avoid this, Atahualpa ordered Huascar's execution, which took place not far from Cajamarca.
In the end, this tactic was futile. Months passed, and as it became clear to Atahualpa that the Spanish did not intend to free him, he began to call on his generals to launch an attack on the Spanish. Still outnumbered and fearing an imminent attack from the Inca general Rumiñahui, the Spanish began to see Atahualpa as too much of a liability. He was charged with 12 crimes, the most grave being attempting to revolt against the Spanish, practicing idolatry and murdering Huascar. He was found guilty of all 12 charges and on August 29, 1533, he was garrotted and his body partially burned.
Rebellion and reconquest
The situation went quickly downhill. As things began to fall apart, many parts of the Inca Empire revolted, some of them joining with the Spanish against their own rulers.
After Atahualpa's execution, Pizarro installed Atahualpa's brother Tupac Huallpa as puppet Inca, but he soon died unexpectedly. It was then Manco Inca Yupanqui's turn. He began his rule as an ally of the Spanish and was respected in the southern regions of the empire, but there was still much unrest in the north near Quito where Atahualpa’s generals were amassing troops. Atahulapa's death meant that there was no hostage left to deter the these northern armies from attacking the invaders. Led by Atahualpa’s generals Rumiñahui, Zope-Zupahua and Quisquis , the native armies inflicted considerable damage on the Spanish. In then end, however, the Spanish succeeded in capturing Quito, effectively ending any organized rebellion in the north of the empire.
Manco Inca initially had good relations with Francisco Pizarro and several other Spanish conquistadors. However, in 1535 he was left in Cusco under the control of Pizarro’s cousins Juan and Gonzalo, who so mistreated Manco Inca that he ultimately rebelled. Under the pretense of performing religious ceremonies in the nearby Yucay valley, Manco was able to escape Cusco.
Diego de Almagro, originally one of Francisco Pizarro's party, returned from his exploration of Chile, disappointed that he had not found wealth similar to that of Peru. King Charles V of Spain had awarded the city of Cusco to Pizarro, but Almagro attempted to claim the city nonetheless. Manco Inca hoped to use the disagreement between Almagro and Pizarro to his advantage and organized the recapture of Cusco in 1536. However, Inca revolts such as these were small-scale and short-lived, and the Incas leadership did not have the full support of all its subject peoples. Spanish reinforcements arrived and took the city once again.
After the Spanish regained control of Cusco, Manco Inca and his armies retreated to the fortress at Ollantaytambo. When it became clear that they were outnumbered and defeat was imminent, they retreated further to the mountainous region of Vilcabamba, where the Manco Inca continued to hold some power for several more decades. His son, Túpac Amaru, was the last Inca. He was murdered by the Spanish in 1572.
The Spaniards destroyed almost every Inca building in Cusco, built a Spanish city over the old foundations, and proceeded to colonize and exploit the former empire.
In total, the conquest took about forty years to complete. Many Inca attempts to regain the empire had occurred, but none had been successful.
- For a discussion of Inca civilization, see Inca Empire.
- Conquest of the Incas, John Hemming, 1970.