The Capture of Inca Atahualpa

Atahualpa. Image from the Brooklyn Museum

On November 16, 1532, Atahualpa, lord of the Inca Empire, was attacked and captured by Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro. Once he was captured, the Spanish forced him to pay a mind-boggling ransom amounting to tons of gold and silver. Although Atahualpa produced the ransom, the Spanish executed him anyway.

Atahualpa and the Inca Empire in 1532:

Atahualpa was the reigning Inca (a word similar in meaning to King or Emperor) of the Inca Empire, which stretched from present-day Colombia into parts of Chile.

Atahualpa's father, Huayna Capac, had died sometime around 1527: his heir apparent died around the same time, throwing the Empire into chaos. Two of Huayna Capac's many sons began to fight over the Empire: Atahualpa had the support of Quito and the northern part of the Empire and Huáscar had the support of Cuzco and the southern part of the Empire. More importantly, Atahualpa had the allegiance of three great generals: Chulcuchima, Rumiñahui and Quisquis. In early 1532 Huáscar was defeated and captured and Atahualpa was lord of the Andes.

Pizarro and the Spanish:

Francisco Pizarro was a seasoned soldier and conquistador who had played a large role in the conquest and exploration of Panama. He was already a wealthy man in the New World, but he believed that there was a rich native kingdom somewhere in South America just waiting to be plundered. He organized three expeditions along the Pacific coast of South America between 1525 and 1530.

On his second expedition, he met with representatives of the Inca Empire. On the third journey, he followed tales of great wealth inland, eventually making his way to the town of Cajamarca in November of 1532. He had about 160 men with him, as well as horses, arms and four small cannons.

The Meeting in Cajamarca:

Atahualpa happened to be in Cajamarca, where he was waiting for the captive Huáscar to be brought to him.

He heard rumors of this strange group of 160 foreigners making their way inland (looting and pillaging as they went) but he certainly felt secure, as he was surrounded by several thousand veteran warriors. When the Spanish arrived in Cajamarca on November 15, 1532, Atahualpa agreed to meet with them the next day. Meanwhile, the Spanish had seen for themselves the riches of the Inca Empire and with a desperation born of greed, they decided to try and capture the Emperor. The same strategy had worked for Hernán Cortés some years before in Mexico.

The Battle of Cajamarca:

Pizarro had occupied a town square in Cajamarca. He placed his cannons on a rooftop and hid his horsemen and footsoldiers in buildings around the square. Atahualpa made them wait on the sixteenth, taking his time to arrive for the royal audience. He eventually showed up in the late afternoon, carried on a litter and surrounded by many important Inca noblemen. When Atahualpa showed up, Pizarro sent Father Vicente de Valverde out to meet with him. Valverde spoke to the Inca through an interpreter and showed him a breviary. After leafing through it, Atahualpa disdainfully threw the book on the ground. Valverde, supposedly angry at this sacrilege, called on the Spanish to attack.

Instantly the square was packed with horsemen and footmen, slaughtering natives and fighting their way to the royal litter.

The Massacre at Cajamarca:

The Inca soldiers and noblemen were taken completely by surprise. The Spanish had several military advantages which were unknown in the Andes. The natives had never seen horses before and were unprepared to resist mounted foes. The Spanish armor made them nearly invulnerable to native weapons and steel swords hacked easily through native armor. The cannon and muskets, fired from the rooftops, rained thunder and death down into the square. The Spanish fought for two hours, massacring thousands of natives, including many important members of the Inca nobility. Horsemen rode down fleeing natives in the fields around Cajamarca. No Spaniard was killed in the attack and Emperor Atahualpa was captured.

Atahualpa's Ransom:

Once the captive Atahualpa was made to understand his situation, he agreed to a ransom in exchange for his freedom. He offered to fill a large room once with gold and twice over with silver and the Spanish quickly agreed. Soon great treasures were being brought from all over the Empire, and greedy Spaniards broke them into pieces so that the room would fill more slowly. On July 26, 1533, however, the Spanish became frightened at rumors that Inca General Rumiñahui was in the vicinity and they executed Atahualpa, supposedly for treason in stirring up rebellion against the Spaniards. Atahualpa’s ransom was a great fortune: it added up to some 13,000 pounds of gold and twice that much silver. Sadly, much of the treasure was in the form of priceless works of art which were melted down.

Aftermath of the Capture of Atahualpa:

The Spanish caught a lucky break when they captured Atahualpa. First of all, he was in Cajamarca, which is relatively close to the coast: had he been in Cuzco or Quito the Spanish would have had a harder time getting there and the Inca may have struck first at these insolent invaders. The natives of the Inca Empire believed that their royal family was semi-divine and they would not lift a hand against the Spanish while Atahualpa was their prisoner. The several months that they held Atahualpa allowed the Spanish to send for reinforcements and come to understand the complex politics of the empire.

Once Atahualpa was killed, the Spanish swiftly crowned a puppet Emperor in his place, allowing them to maintain their hold on power. They also marched first on Cuzco and then on Quito, eventually securing the empire. By the time one of their puppet rulers, Manco Inca (Atahualpa's brother) realized that the Spanish had come as conquerors and started a rebellion it was too late.

There were some repercussions on the Spanish side. After the conquest of Peru was complete, some Spanish reformers - most notably Bartolomé de las Casas - began asking disturbing questions about the attack.

After all, it was an unprovoked attack on a legitimate monarch and resulted in the massacre of thousands of innocents. The Spanish eventually rationalized the attack on the grounds that Atahualpa was younger than his brother Huáscar, which made him a usurper. It should be noted, however, that the Inca did not necessarily believe that the eldest brother should succeed his father in such matters.

As for the natives, the capture of Atahualpa was the first step in the near-total destruction of their homes and culture. With Atahualpa neutralized (and Huáscar murdered on his brother's orders) there was no one to rally resistance to the unwanted invaders. Once Atahualpa was gone, the Spanish were able to play off traditional rivalries and bitterness to keep the natives from uniting against them.