Colonial Rule in Peru

Francisco Pizarro and the Incas

19th Century Print of a Soldier Grasps Atahalpa, King of the Incas

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In 1533 Francisco Pizarro, a Spanish conquistador, colonized Peru in order to gain power and westernize the country, changing the dynamics of the land completely. Peru was left decimated, as the Spanish brought diseases with them, killing over 90% of the Inca population.

Who Were the Incas?

The Incas arrived in 1200 CE, an Indigenous group of hunters and gatherers, consisting of Ayllus, a group of families controlled by a Chief, called "Curaca." Most Incas did not live in cities since they were mostly used for government purposes, visiting on business, or for religious festivals. Peru contained mines that produced luxuries like gold and silver, making for quite a prosperous economy. The Inca also had one of the most powerful armies at this time, using numerous weapons and recruiting every male capable of military service.

The Spanish conquered Peru, with the aim to westernize the country, changing the dynamics of the land completely, similar to the intentions of the other colonial powers during the era of exploration and colonization. In 1527, another Spanish explorer commanding a Spanish ship saw a raft with 20 Incas on board. He was amazed to discover that the raft was transporting numerous luxuries, including gold and silver. He trained three of the Incas as interpreters, which helped lay the groundwork for Pizarro's expedition in 1529.

The Spanish Quest

The Spanish were eager to explore, allured by the prospect of a rich country. For some, like Pizarro and his brothers, it enabled them to escape from the impoverished community of Extremadura in Western Spain. Having already conquered the Aztec Kingdom in Mexico in 1521, the Spanish also wished to gain prestige and power in Europe.

In 1533, Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru during his third expedition after executing the last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa. He had been aided by a civil war occurring between two Incan brothers, sons of a Sapa Inca. Pizarro was assassinated in 1541 when "Almagro" was made new Peruvian Governor. On July 28, 1821, Peru became independent from colonial rule, after an Argentinian soldier, called San Martin, conquered the Spanish in Peru.

Spanish colonization led to Spanish becoming the main language in Peru. The Spanish altered the country's demographics and left their mark. The Spanish "coat of arms" from King Charles 1 in 1537, for example, remains a national symbol for Peru.

At What Price? 

The Spanish brought diseases with them such as malaria, measles, and smallpox, which killed many of the Incas, including the Inca Emperor. More Incas died from diseases than on the battlefield. Overall, Peru saw a 93% population decrease as a result of Spanish colonization.

Peru's education system now includes the whole population, regardless of class. During colonial rule, education was only for the ruling class. This more inclusive approach to education benefited Peru greatly, which now has a 94.4% literacy rate as of 2018 data. This is a major improvement, as most of the Incas were illiterate during Spanish rule.

Overall, the Spanish succeeded in their aim to completely change Peru's demographics. They forced many Incas into practicing Catholicism and instituted Spanish as the primary spoken language, both of which remain prominent today. The Spanish even gave Peru its name, which comes from a misinterpretation of an Indigenous word for "river."

View Article Sources
  1. Cook, Noble David. Demographic Collapse, Indian Peru, 1520-1620. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

  2. Peru.” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.