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 bought 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 as these were used for government purposes, only visiting on business or for religious festivals as they were extremely religious. The Inca's economy can be considered prosperous as Peru contained mines producing luxuries like gold and silver and they 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, was amazed to discover numerous luxuries, including gold and silver. He trained three of the Incas as interpreters as he wished to report his findings, this led to 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. The Spanish additionally wished to gain prestige and power in Europe, previously conquering the Aztec Kingdom, Mexico in 1521 and started to conquer Central America in 1524.

During his third expedition to Peru, Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru in 1533 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 28th July 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, for example, the Spanish 'coat of arms' still remains a symbol for Peru after being given it by Spanish King Charles 1 in 1537.

At What Price? 

The Spanish brought diseases with them, killing numerous Incas including the Inca Emperor. The Incas caught malaria, measles, and smallpox as they had no natural immunity. N. D. Cook (1981) showed Peru encountered a 93% population decrease as a result of Spanish colonization. However, Incas did pass syphilis onto the Spanish in return. The diseases killed vast amounts of the Inca population; more Incas dyed from diseases than on the battlefield.

The Spanish also accomplished their aim to spread Catholicism in Peru, with about four-fifths of the population of Peru today as Roman Catholic. Peru's education system now includes the whole population, differing from focusing on the ruling class during colonial rule. This benefited Peru greatly, now having a 90% literacy rate, contrasting to the illiterate and poor Incas during Spanish rule, therefore not capable of advancing as a country.

Overall, the Spanish succeeded in their aim to change Peru's demographics completely. They forced the Catholic religion on Incas, remaining the same today and keeping Spanish as the main language. They killed vast amounts of the Inca population due to diseases from Europe, destroying the Inca population and used racial tension to create a hierarchy system with the Incas at the bottom. The Spanish also influenced Peru greatly as they gave it its name, originating from a misunderstanding of the Indian name of "river."