Biography of Francisco Pizarro

Conquistador of the Inca Empire

statue of Francisco Pizarro
© Santiago Urquijo Moment/Open/Getty Images

Francisco Pizarro (1471 - 1541) was a Spanish explorer and conquistador. With a small force of Spaniards, he was able to capture Atahualpa, Emperor of the mighty Inca Empire, in 1532. Eventually he led his men to victory over the Inca, collecting mind-boggling quantities of gold and silver along the way. Once the Inca Empire was defeated, the conquistadors took to warring among themselves over the spoils, Pizarro included, and he was killed in Lima in 1541 by forces loyal to the son of a former rival.

Early Life

Francisco was the illegitimate son of Gonzalo Pizarro Rodríguez de Aguilar, an Extremaduran nobleman who had fought with distinction in wars in Italy. There is some confusion as to Francisco's date of birth: it is listed as early as 1471 or as late as 1478. As a young man, he lived with his mother (a maid in the Pizarro household) and tended animals in the fields. As a bastard, Pizarro could expect little in the way of inheritance and decided to become a soldier. It is likely that he followed in his father's footsteps to the battlefields of Italy for a time before hearing of the riches of the Americas. He first went to the New World in 1502 as part of a colonization expedition led by Nicolás de Ovando.

San Sebastián de Uraba and the Darién

In 1508, Pizarro joined the Alonso de Hojeda expedition to the mainland. They fought the natives and created a settlement called San Sebastián de Urabá. Beset by angry natives and low on supplies, Hojeda set out for Santo Domingo in early 1510 for reinforcements and supplies. When Hojeda did not return after fifty days, Pizarro set out with the surviving settlers to return to Santo Domingo. Along the way, they joined an expedition to settle the Darién region: Pizarro served as second-in-command to Vasco Nuñez de Balboa.

First South American Expeditions

In Panama, Pizarro established a partnership with fellow conquistador Diego de Almagro. News of Hernán Cortés' audacious (and lucrative) conquest of the Aztec Empire fueled the burning desire for gold among all of the Spanish in the New World, including Pizarro and Almagro. They made two expeditions in 1524-1526 along the western coast of South America: harsh conditions and native attacks drove them back both times. On the second trip they visited the mainland and the Inca city of Tumbes, where they saw llamas and local chieftains with silver and gold. These men told of a great ruler in the mountains, and Pizarro became more convinced than ever that there was another rich Empire like the Aztecs to be looted.

Third Expedition

Pizarro went personally to Spain to make his case to the King that he should be allowed a third chance. King Charles, impressed with this eloquent veteran, agreed and awarded Pizarro the governorship of lands he acquired. Pizarro brought his four brothers back with him to Panama: Gonzalo, Hernando and Juan Pizarro and Francisco Martín de Alcántara. In 1530, Pizarro and Almagro returned to the western shores of South America. On his third expedition, Pizarro had about 160 men and 37 horses. They landed on what is now the coast of Ecuador near Guayaquil. By 1532 they made it back to Tumbes: it was in ruins, having been destroyed in the Inca Civil War.

The Inca Civil War

While Pizarro was in Spain, Huayna Capac, Emperor of the Inca, had died, possibly of smallpox. Two of Huayna Capac's sons began fighting over the Empire: Huáscar, the elder of the two, controlled the capital of Cuzco. Atahualpa, the younger brother, controlled the northern city of Quito, but more importantly had the support of three major Inca Generals: Quisquis, Rumiñahui and Chalcuchima. A bloody civil war raged across the Empire as Huáscar and Atahualpa's supporters fought. Sometime in mid-1532, General Quisquis routed Huáscar's forces outside of Cuzco and took Huáscar prisoner. The war was over, but the Inca Empire was in ruins just as a far greater threat approached: Pizarro and his soldiers.

Capture of Atahualpa

In November of 1532, Pizarro and his men headed inland, where another extremely lucky break was awaiting them. The nearest Inca city of any size to the conquistadors was Cajamarca, and Emperor Atahualpa happened to be there. Atahualpa was savoring his victory over Huáscar: his brother was being brought to Cajamarca in chains. The Spanish arrived to Cajamarca unopposed: Atahualpa evidently did not consider them a threat. On November 16, 1532, Atahualpa agreed to meet with the Spanish: the Spanish treacherously attacked the Inca, capturing him and murdering thousands of his soldiers and followers.

A King's Ransom

Pizarro and Atahualpa soon made a deal: Atahualpa would go free if he could pay a ransom. The Inca selected a large hut in Cajamarca and offered to fill it half full with golden objects, and then fill the room twice with silver objects. The Spanish quickly agreed. Soon the treasures of the Inca Empire began flooding into Cajamarca. The people were restless, but none of Atahualpa's generals dared attack the intruders. Hearing rumors that the Inca generals were planning an attack, the Spanish executed Atahualpa on July 26, 1533.

Consolidation of Power

Pizarro appointed a puppet Inca, Tupac Huallpa, and marched on Cuzco, the heart of the Empire. They fought four battles along the way, defeating the native warriors every time. Cuzco itself did not put up a fight: Atahualpa had recently been an enemy, so many of the people there viewed the Spanish as liberators. Tupac Huallpa sickened and died: he was replaced by Manco Inca, a half-brother to Atahualpa and Huáscar. The city of Quito was conquered by Pizarro agent Sebastián de Benalcázar in 1534 and, apart from isolated areas of resistance, Peru belonged to the Pizarro brothers.

Falling-out with Almagro

Pizarro's partnership with Diego de Almagro had been strained for some time. When Pizarro had gone to Spain in 1528 to secure royal charters for their expedition, he had acquired for himself the governorship of all lands conquered and a royal title: Almagro only got a title and the governorship of the small town of Tumbez. Almagro was furious and nearly refused to participate in their third joint expedition: only the promise of the governorship of as-yet undiscovered lands made him come around. Almagro never quite shook the suspicion (probably correct) that the Pizarro brothers were trying to cheat him out of his fair share of the loot.

In 1535, after the Inca Empire was conquered, the crown ruled that the northern half belonged to Pizarro and the southern half to Almagro: however, vague wording allowed both conquistadors to argue that the rich city of Cuzco belonged to them. Factions loyal to both men nearly came to blows: Pizarro and Almagro met and decided that Almagro would lead an expedition to the south (into present-day Chile). It was hoped that he would find great wealth there and drop his claim to Peru.

Inca Revolts

Between 1535 and 1537 the Pizarro brothers had their hands full. Manco Inca, the puppet ruler, escaped and went into open rebellion, raising a massive army and laying siege to Cuzco. Francisco Pizarro was in the newly-founded city of Lima most of the time, trying to send reinforcements to his brothers and fellow conquistadors in Cuzco and organizing shipments of wealth to Spain (he was always conscientious about setting aside the "royal fifth," a 20% tax collected by the crown on all treasure collected). In Lima, Pizarro had to fend off a ferocious attack led by Inca General Quizo Yupanqui in August of 1536.

Cuzco, under siege by Manco Inca in early 1537, was rescued by the return of Diego de Almagro from Peru with what was left of his expedition. He lifted the siege and drove off Manco, only to take the city for himself, capturing Gonzalo and Hernando Pizarro in the process. In Chile, the Almagro expedition had found only harsh conditions and ferocious natives: he had come back to claim his share of Peru. Almagro had the support of many Spaniards, primarily those who had come to Peru too late to share in the spoils: they hoped that if the Pizarros were overthrown that Almagro would reward them with lands and gold.

Gonzalo Pizarro escaped and Hernando was released by Almagro as part of the peace negotiations: with his brothers behind him, Francisco decided to do away with his old partner once and for all. He sent Hernando into the highlands with an army of conquistadors: they met Almagro and his supporters on April 26, 1538 at the Battle of Salinas. Hernando was victorious: Diego de Almagro was captured, tried and executed on July 8, 1538. Almagro's execution was shocking to the Spaniards in Peru, as he had been raised to nobleman status by the king some years before.

Death of Francisco Pizarro and the Second Almagrist Civil War

For the next three years, Francisco mainly remained in Lima, administrating his empire. Although Diego de Almagro had been defeated, there was still much resentment among late-coming conquistadors against the Pizarro brothers and the original conquistadors, who had left slim pickings after the fall of the Inca Empire. These men rallied around Diego de Almagro the younger, son of Diego de Almagro and a woman from Panama. On June 26, 1541, supporters of the younger Diego de Almagro, led by Juan de Herrada, entered Francisco Pizarro's home in Lima and assassinated him and his half-brother Francisco Martín de Alcántara. The old conquistador put up a good fight, taking down one of his attackers with him.

With Pizarro dead, the Almagrists seized Lima and held it for almost a year before an alliance of Pizarrists (led by Gonzalo Pizarro) and royalists put it down. The Almagrists were defeated at the Battle of Chupas on September 16, 1542: Diego de Almagro the younger was captured and executed shortly thereafter.

Legacy of Francisco Pizarro

Although it's easy to despise the cruelty and violence of the conquest of Peru - it was essentially outright theft, mayhem, murder and rape on a massive scale - it is hard not to respect the sheer nerve of Francisco Pizarro. With only 160 men and a handful of horses, he brought down one of the largest civilizations in the world. His brazen capture of Atahualpa and decision to back the Cuzco faction in the simmering Inca civil war gave the Spaniards enough time to gain a foothold in Peru that they would never lose. By the time Manco Inca realized that the Spanish would not settle for anything less than complete usurpation of his empire, it was too late.

As far as the conquistadors go, Francisco Pizarro was not the worst of the lot (which isn't necessarily saying much). Other conquistadors, such as Pedro de Alvarado and his own brother Gonzalo Pizarro, were much crueller in their dealings with the native population. Francisco could be cruel and violent, but in general his acts of violence served some sort of purpose and he tended to think his actions through much more than others did. He realized that wantonly murdering the native population was not a sound plan in the long run so he did not practice it.

Francisco Pizarro had four children with two Inca Princesses: two died very young and his son Francisco died at about age 18. His surviving daughter, Francisca, married his brother Hernando in 1552: Hernando was by then the last of the Pizarro brothers and he wished to keep all the fortune in the family.

Pizarro, like Hernán Cortés in Mexico, is honoured sort of halfheartedly in Peru. There is a statue of him in Lima and some streets and businesses named after him, but most Peruvians are ambivalent about him at best. They all know who he was and what he did, but most present-day Peruvians do not find him much worthy of admiration.


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Patterson, Thomas C. The Inca Empire: The Formation and Disintegration of a Pre-Capitalist State.New York: Berg Publishers, 1991.