Conquest of Peru

Conquest of Peru
Conquest of Peru

Following on the heels of the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean, conquest of Mexico, and conquest of Central America, the conquest of Peru was a long, complex, and bloody process marked by recurrent civil wars among factions of Spaniards and fierce Native resistance against Spanish efforts to subjugate them.

The conquest’s beginnings in 1532 with the first Spanish incursions into the Andean highlands are easier to mark than its ending, which is conventionally dated to 1572 with the destruction of the remnant Inca state of Vilcabamba and the execution of the last Inca, Tupac Amaru.

Some scholars maintain that the conquest was never fully completed, as Peru’s indigenous peoples resisted Spanish domination throughout the colonial period, sometimes in armed rebellion, more often in less violent and more subtle ways, including the retention of many cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Few would disagree that the conquest of Peru represents one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of the Americas.

In the early 1520s, with the conquest of Central America well under way and a launching-off point at Panama City on the Pacific side of the isthmus, the Spanish were poised to turn their attention to the Pacific coast of South America.

The first exploratory expedition was in 1522 under Pascual de Andagoya, who sailed 200 miles south along the Colombian coast in search of a people called the Viru or Biru, a name later corrupted to Perú. Further expeditions followed.

In November 1524, Francisco Pizarro, Diego de Almagro, and the priest Hernando de Luque sailed as far south as the Port of Hunger along the Colombian coast before turning back. A second Pizarro-Almagro expedition sailed two years later and discovered tantalizing hints of an advanced civilization in the interior. Pizarro returned to Spain to seek royal authority for an expedition of conquest.

His arrival coincided with Hernán Cortés’s return from his dazzling successes in Mexico, which whetted the appetite of the Crown and drew many adventurers to Pizarro’s side. On July 26, 1529, the queen granted Pizarro the authority he had sought, along with the title governor and captain-general of Peru.

Almagro was named commandant of Tumbez, a lesser title that sowed the seeds of future conflict between the two men. Pizarro and Almagro returned to Panama and launched their third expedition on December 27, 1530.

Conquistadors and the incas
Conquistadors and the incas

After a slow and cautious beginning, on November 8, 1532, Pizarro began his march into the Andean mountains. By this time, much of the Andean population had been ravaged by virulent European diseases, especially smallpox, that had spread overland from Central America and northern South America years before the Spanish set foot in the Andes.

By weakening the Inca Empire, these diseases proved to be one of the Spaniards’ most important allies. Pizarro’s turn into the mountains could not have been more propitiously timed.

The recent death of the Inca Huayna-Capac from an unknown disease had created crisis of dynastic succession and civil war among the Inca, leading his sons Huascar and Atahualpa to contend for supremacy. Huscar headed the Cuzco faction of the Inca royal family; Atahualpa, the Quito faction.

By stunning good fortune, Atahualpa’s 7,000-strong army was camped in the mountain valley of Cajamarca, near Pizarro’s line of march. Pizarro and his 150 men boldly marched straight into the valley.

After some initial friendly interactions with the Inca, Pizarro launched a surprise attack on November 16, 1532, and slaughtered the Inca’s entire force. As was the case throughout the Peruvian campaign, Inca weaponry proved no match for Spanish steel, armor, and horses.

The arquebus, the most sophisticated firearm in the Spanish arsenal, played little role in the conquest. Swords, pikes, and horses proved their most valuable weapons. Time after time, small numbers of Spaniards proved able to defeat vastly larger native armies.

With the Inca Atahualpa now his prisoner, Pizarro demanded a huge ransom of gold and precious objects for his release. Over the next eight months, trains of native porters carted massive amounts of treasure into Cajamarca.

Meanwhile, convinced that the Spaniards represented no threat to the empire, Atahualpa arranged for the murder of his brother Huascar, thus eliminating his brother’s claim to the Inca throne. Pizarro had no intention of honoring his part of the bargain. On July 26, 1533, after a month of melting down and distributing the loot among his men, he executed Atahualpa.

One of the signal events of the conquest, Atahualpa’s execution remained a key moment in divergent Spanish interpretations regarding the morality of the conquistadores’ actions. Almagro’s force of 150 men arrived soon after the division of spoils, of which they received a small share. The unequal distribution of loot generated lasting animosities between the Almagro and Pizarro factions.

By this time, Pizarro’s scouts had probed the vulnerabilities of the Inca capital in Cuzco. Recognizing the need for a puppet Inca to invest political legitimacy into the Spaniards’ anticipated domination of Peru, Pizarro arranged the crowning of Huascar’s younger brother, Tupac Huallpa, as Inca.

It was a pattern repeated numerous times in the coming years. Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro’s brother Hernando returned to Spain with the Crown’s requisite “royal fifth” of the treasure.

News of the events spread quickly throughout Spain and Europe. Recruiting drives for additional soldiers saw great success, while also planting the seeds of future conflict between Spaniards who had profited from the initial successes and fresh arrivals whose hunger for treasure would go unfulfilled.

Back in Peru in August 1533, Francisco Pizarro, Almagro, and their men began their march toward Cuzco, 750 miles south along the Inca road. En route, in October, the puppet Inca Tupac Huallpa died.

After numerous battles in which the vastly outnumbered Spanish roundly defeated their Inca attackers, Pizarro’s force of several hundred men entered Cuzco on November 15, 1533. Two days earlier the same day that Pizarro burned alive the leading Inca general Chalcuchima, a second puppet Inca presented himself—Manco Inca, son of Huayna-Capac.

In Cuzco on November 16, 1533, one year after executing Atahualpa, Pizarro appointed Manco Inca as Inca. In December, he was officially crowned. Presenting themselves as liberators, backers of the Cuzco faction in the civil war, the Spaniards quickly took over the city’s most important buildings and palaces.

From this point, divisions among and between Spaniards combined with a series of mass Indian uprisings against the invaders. Almagro, still stinging from the paltry share of treasure received in Cajamarca, was sent south into Chile in search of further riches. Pedro de Alvarado, fresh from his successes in Mexico and Central America, arrived in Ecuador in February 1534 and headed toward Quito.

Hoping to head off Alvarado’s unauthorized invasion, Pizarro’s captain Sebastián de Benalcázar marched on Quito, took the city, and defeated the remaining Inca armies in the north. With looted treasure he bought off Alvarado, who returned to Guatemala, though many of his men remained.

Soon after, in January 1535, Francisco Pizarro founded a new capital city on the coast, Ciudad de los Reyes, later known as Lima, a corruption of its indigenous name.

Meanwhile, disillusioned by the invaders’ avarice and violence, Manco Inca escaped from Cuzco and in early 1536 led a mass uprising against the Spanish, laying siege to Cuzco with some 100,000 troops. The siege faltered as the rainy season began and his army began drifting away.

Manco Inca retreated into the jungle fastnesses of Vilcacamba, where a rump Inca state resisted Spanish incursions until its final destruction in 1572. Soon after Manco Inca lifted the siege of Cuzco in early 1537, Almagro’s expedition returned from Chile, exhausted and empty-handed. Open civil war soon erupted between the Almagro and Pizarro factions.

Almagro was defeated in the Battle of Las Salinas near Cuzco in 1538, after which Hernándo Pizarro executed him, but the war raged on under Almagro’s son, also named Diego de Almagro. In 1541, the Almagrists killed Francisco Pizarro, while a year later Pizarro loyalists under the king’s newly appointed governor Cristóbal Vaca de Castro defeated and killed Almagro the younger.

That same year of 1542 the Crown issued its New Laws, designed to limit the abuses of the encomienda system and prevent the encomenderos from becoming an independent aristocracy beyond royal control. Bridling against these new restrictions on their authority, many encomenderos gravitated toward Gonzalo Pizarro, who violently opposed the New Laws.

After killing the king’s viceroy Blasco Núñez de la Vela in 1546, Gonzalo Pizarro effectively ruled Peru until royalist forces captured, tried, and executed him in 1549. The new viceroy, Pedro de la Gasca, effectively staunched further major challenges to royal authority.

Meanwhile, enormous deposits of silver were discovered in Potosí in 1545, which soon became one of colonial Peru’s main economic pillars. By this time, most Indians had acceded to Spanish authority, though numerous pockets of resistance endured through the 1550s and 1560s, most notably the rump state of Vilcabamba.

In 1572, the new viceroy Francisco de Toledo finally found and crushed Vilcabamba. On September 24 of that year, in the central square of Cuzco, Toledo oversaw the execution of the last Inca, Tupac Amaru.

His execution effectively ended this first phase of organized armed resistance against Spanish domination, though more covert forms of resistance continued for nearly 300 years, while a new round of rebellions, inspired by the first and led by Tupac Amaru II, erupted in the 1780s.

It is not known how many Indians died during the 40 years between the executions of the Incas Atahualpa and Tupac Amaru, though the most conservative estimates range from 3 to 5 million, from a preconquest population of around 7 to 9 million.

As elsewhere, the combination of warfare, atrocity, forced labor, enslavement, and disease caused a precipitous demographic decline, from which populations did not begin to recover until well into the 18th century. As the conquests of the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America that preceded it, the conquest of Peru represents one of the most horrifically violent and destructive episodes in the history of the world.