Biography of Gonzalo Pizarro

The Capture of Gonzalo Pizarro. Artist Unknown

Biography of Gonzalo Pizarro:

Gonzalo Pizarro (1513-1548) was a Spanish conquistador who was one of his brother Francisco’s main lieutenants during the conquest of the Inca Empire. Gonzalo was cruel and ruthless, but undeniably a very effective soldier. After the conquest, he fought alongside his brothers and their supporters during the civil wars that broke out among the conquistadors. Later, he led the resistance in Peru to the “New Laws” of 1542, taking up arms against an official Spanish Viceroy: this earned him a royal execution in 1548.

The Pizarro Brothers go to Panama:

Francisco Pizarro was an early leader in the conquest of the New World. By 1525 or so he had participated in numerous campaigns against natives and was a leading citizen of Panama. He hungered for more success, however, and became determined to lead an expedition into western South America, where he suspected there was a large, wealthy civilization like the one so recently plundered in Mexico. In 1528 he returned to Spain, where he acquired a royal commission to explore and conquer. He also recruited men for his expedition, among them his brothers Hernando, Gonzalo, Juan and half-brother Francisco Martín de Alcántara. Gonzalo was the youngest: he was born sometime around 1513. They returned to Panama in 1530 and headed south along the Pacific once the expedition was ready to go.

The Conquest of the Inca:

In 1533, the Pizarro expedition had the good fortune to capture the Inca Emperor Atahualpa after treacherously ambushing him and his army.

The captive Inca promised a fortune in ransom, and soon porters from all over the Inca Empire came, bearing gold and silver by the ton. Francisco Pizarro only trusted his brothers, so Gonzalo came to a position of importance. In August of 1533, the Spanish executed Atahualpa, fearing an imminent attack.

Then the conquistadors marched on Cuzco and completed their conquest of the Empire. Along the way, Gonzalo distinguished himself in battle against troops led by Inca General Quisquis.

Gonzalo and Manco:

The natives needed a leader, so Francisco Pizarro installed Manco, brother of the murdered Atahualpa, as Inca. Manco was merely a puppet of the Spanish, and although he was allowed to perform traditional rites and ceremonies, the Spanish treated him very badly, in part because they believed that he knew the whereabouts of hidden gold. The worst of Manco’s tormentors was Gonzalo Pizarro. At the end of 1535, Francisco Pizarro went to the coast, leaving his brothers Gonzalo and Juan in charge in Cuzco. The Spanish were taking high-ranking Inca women as concubines: Gonzalo set his sights on Cura Ocllo, the wife (and sister) of Manco. He demanded her, even when it created a great scandal among what was left of Inca high society. Manco fooled Gonzalo for a while with another woman dressed as Cura Ocllo, but the ruse did not last long and Gonzalo got to keep his princess.

Manco's Rebellion:

These abuses and many others finally incited Manco to rebel against his captors. He tried to slip away in the night, but was captured: Gonzalo ordered him put into chains.

Manco finally escaped in April of 1536: he duped the Spanish by running off after saying he needed to perform a religious ceremony. The rebellion bloomed, and thousands of native warriors surrounded the Spanish in Cuzco. The surrounded Spaniards made a desperate gamble: they decided to attack the nearby fortress of Sachsaywaman: if they captured it, they would be in a much more defensible position. Gonzalo led the attack, which eventually succeeded. Once the siege broke, Gonzalo was one of the men charged with mopping up what was left of Manco’s rebellion. A cruel man, Gonzalo at one point ordered the right hands cut off of 200 prisoners of war.

The Conquistador Civil Wars:

Right about this time, the Diego de Almagro expedition returned from a disastrous trip to Chile. Almagro had been Francisco Pizarro's original partner, but uneven distribution of loot had turned him against the Pizarros.

Almagro was pacified when allowed to go south to Chile to look for wealth, but the loot was disappointing and the natives tough. Almagro returned in 1537, ready to fight for his share of the loot from the Inca Empire. He captured Cuzco (and with it Hernando and Gonzalo) on April 18, 1537. Gonzalo escaped and Hernando was eventually released as part of a peace negotiation. Hernando and Gonzalo then led an army against Almagro and defeated him on April 26, 1538.

March on Manco:

With Almagro out of the way, the Pizarros turned their attention to Manco Inca, who was holed up in the defensible region of Vilcabamba. In 1539 Gonzalo was given command of about 300 Spanish conquistadors – a very large force at the time. He marched on Vilcabamba, assisted by Paullu, the new puppet Inca installed by the Spanish after Manco rebelled. Pizarro and his men managed to root out the Inca and take Vilcabamba, but Manco escaped. They captured Cura Ocllo, who had escaped from Gonzalo some time earlier to join her husband: she was later murdered and sent back to Manco, although Gonzalo had nothing to do with it.

The Amazon Expedition:

Once Almagro was dead and Manco Inca on the run, Francisco Pizarro appointed Gonzalo Governor of Quito, which had been taken in 1534 by Sebastián de Benalcázar. Gonzalo went to Quito and soon heard rumors of a rich native kingdom to the east: some called it El Dorado. Gonzalo arranged an expedition: among those he recruited was Francisco de Orellana, a veteran of the conquest of the Inca and a dependable supporter of the Pizarro brothers. They left in February of 1541: a well-equipped expedition of 270 Spaniards and countless native porters. They headed down the eastern slopes of the Andes from lofty Quito and soon found themselves in the swampy jungles of the Amazon Basin. Pizarro and Orellana became separated: Pizarro returned to Quito, while Orellana discovered the Amazon River, which he and about 50 Spaniards followed to the Atlantic Ocean. Gonzalo was furious about being "abandoned and betrayed" by Orellana, but little ever came of it.

The New Laws:

In June of 1541, Francisco Pizarro and Francisco Martín de Alcántara were murdered in Lima by supporters of Diego de Almagro the younger. This essentially left Gonzalo as the last of the Pizarro brothers: Juan had died in battle and Hernando was in prison in Spain for ordering the execution of Diego de Almagro the elder (Hernando, in fact, would never return to the Americas). Prompted by reports of abuses, the King of Spain approved the "New Laws" of 1542 which provided protection for the natives and severely curtailed the privileges of the Spanish. The most contentious part of the New Laws was the ending of the encomienda system, which had given vast tracts of lands and thousands of natives to those who had participated in the conquest.

Legacy of Gonzalo Pizarro:

The King sent a Viceroy, Blasco Núñez Vela, in 1544 with orders to enforce the New Laws. The Spaniards who had conquered the region were beside themselves with fury at the provisions of the New Laws, which they felt deprived them of the fruits of their efforts. Núñez Vela made his way to Quito, letting it be known that he intended to enforce the New Laws with vigor. Gonzalo Pizarro declared that he would not stand for it: hundreds of irate conquistadors flocked to his side as he marched north from Lima. Pizarro and Núñez Vela met at the Battle of Añaquito on January 18, 1546: Núñez Vela was killed in battle.

Gonzalo Pizarro was now master of Peru. His reign was a bloody one, however: he executed 340 Spaniards in about two years: these were men he suspected of opposing him. Many of his supporters urged him to declare himself King of Peru and marry an Inca princess, but Gonzalo preferred not to antagonize the Spanish crown. Instead, he claimed that he and his men had been justified in rising up against the hated New Laws. Meanwhile, a new Spanish official, Pedro de la Gasca, had arrived in Peru and was gathering an army of those loyal to Spain: his ranks were swelled by those who felt Pizarro had been too harsh as ruler. Pizarro defeated them at the battle of Huarina in October of 1547, but did not destroy the royalist army. They fought again on April 9, 1548 at the Battle of Jaquijahuana: Pizarro was captured in battle and executed the following day.

The Pizarro brothers were ruthless, cruel individuals who attacked a society that had done them no harm for no other purpose than to enrich themselves: the genocide that followed boggles the mind. They attacked defenseless settlements and slaughtered enemy soldiers and non-combatants alike. The king's ransom that was handed to them was not enough for their greedy souls: they ripped off their old partner, Diego de Almagro, kicking off a dreadful civil war that claimed thousands more lives.

In many ways, Gonzalo was the worst of the lot. Francisco Martín de Alcántara and Juan Pizarro died young and Hernando Pizarro spent 20 years of the prime of his life in a Spanish prison. As for Francisco, he was a deliberate, clever man who was not nearly as reckless as Gonzalo: Francisco never committed atrocities that did not serve some purpose and was not known for killing without cause. Gonzalo's rebellion proves his low character: the King of Spain had decreed that the Spaniards in Peru could not arbitrarily enslave the native population: Gonzalo and his followers went to war for almost three years because he disagreed.

The best defense that you can make for Gonzalo is that he was a product of his time: Spain had a long history of rewarding those who served well in battle. Even if you take that into account, however, it's difficult to excuse Gonzalo for his actions. It's no accident that there is very little in Peru that is named after him.

That's not to say that he was not important, however. Francisco could never have pulled off his stunning conquest of the Inca and kept his hold on power for nearly ten years in Peru without his brothers, who were the only men he really trusted. Gonzalo was the youngest and the most reckless, but he served his brother well. Later, he was essentially ruler of all Peru for the period of 1546-1548.


Burkholder, Mark and Lyman L. Johnson. Colonial Latin America. Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Inca London: Pan Books, 2004 (original 1970).

Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.