About the Ransom of Atahualpa

The Capture of of Atahualpa
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On November 16, 1532, Atahualpa, Lord of the Inca Empire, agreed to meet with a handful of bedraggled foreigners who had intruded upon his realm. These foreigners were some 160 Spanish conquistadors under the command of Francisco Pizarro and they treacherously attacked and captured the young Inca Emperor. Atahualpa offered to bring his captors a fortune in ransom and he did so: the amount of treasure was staggering. The Spanish, nervous about reports of Inca generals in the area, executed Atahualpa anyway in 1533.

Atahualpa and Pizarro

Francisco Pizarro and his band of Spaniards had been exploring the western coast of South America for two years: they were following reports of a powerful, wealthy empire high in the frosty Andes Mountains. They moved inland and made their way to the town of Cajamarca in November of 1532. They were fortunate: Atahualpa, Emperor of the Inca was there. He had just defeated his brother Huáscar in a civil war over who would rule the kingdom. When a band of 160 foreigners showed up on his doorstep, Atahualpa was not afraid: he was surrounded by an army of thousands of men, most of them war veterans, who were fiercely loyal to him.

The Battle of Cajamarca

The Spanish conquistadors were aware of Atahualpa's massive army - just as they were aware of the massive quantities of gold and silver carried by Atahualpa and the Inca nobles. In Mexico, Hernán Cortes had found riches by capturing Aztec Emperor Montezuma: Pizarro decided to try the same tactic. He hid his cavalrymen and artillerymen around the square in Cajamarca. Pizarro sent Father Vicente de Valverde to meet the Inca: the friar showed the Inca a breviary. The Inca glanced through it and, unimpressed, threw it down. The Spanish used this supposed sacrilege as an excuse to attack. Suddenly the square was filled with heavily armed Spaniards on foot and horseback, massacring native nobility and warriors to the thunder of cannon fire.

Atahualpa Captive

Atahualpa was captured and thousands of his men were murdered. Among the dead were civilians, soldiers and important members of the Inca aristocracy. The Spanish, practically invulnerable in their heavy steel armor, did not suffer a single casualty. The horsemen proved particularly effective, running down terrified natives as they fled the carnage. Atahualpa was placed under heavy guard in the Temple of the Sun, where he finally met Pizarro. The Emperor was allowed to speak with some of his subjects, but every word was translated for the Spanish by a native interpreter.

Atahualpa’s Ransom

It didn’t take long for Atahualpa to realize that the Spanish were there for gold and silver: the Spanish had wasted no time in looting corpses and the temples of Cajamarca. Atahualpa was made to understand that he would be freed if he paid enough. He offered to fill a room with gold and then twice over with silver. The room was 22 feet long by 17 feet wide (6.7 meters by 5.17 meters) and the Emperor offered to fill it to a height of about 8 feet (2.45m). The Spanish were stunned and quickly accepted the offer, even instructing a notary to make it official. Atahualpa sent out word to bring gold and silver to Cajamarca and before long, native porters were bringing a fortune to the town from all corners of the empire and laying it at the feet of the invaders.

The Empire in Turmoil

Meanwhile, the Inca Empire was thrown into turmoil by the capture of their Emperor. To the Inca, the Emperor was semi-divine and no one dared risk an attack to rescue him. Atahualpa had recently defeated his brother, Huáscar, in a civil war over the throne. Huascar was alive but captive: Atahualpa feared he would escape and rise again because Atahualpa was a prisoner, so he ordered Huascar's death. Atahualpa had three massive armies in the field under his top generals: Quisquis, Chalcuchima and Rumiñahui. These generals were aware that Atahualpa had been captured and decided against an attack. Chalcuchima was eventually tricked and captured by Hernando Pizarro, whereas the other two generals would fight against the Spanish in the months that followed.

The Death of Atahualpa

In early 1533, rumors began flying around the Spanish camp about Rumiñahui, greatest of the Inca generals. None of the Spaniards knew exactly where Rumiñahui was and they greatly feared the massive army he led. According to the rumors, Rumiñahui had decided to free the Inca and was moving into position to attack. Pizarro sent out riders in every direction. These men found no sign of a large army, but still the rumors persisted. Panicked, the Spanish decided that Atahualpa had become a liability. They hastily tried him for treason – for allegedly telling Rumiñahui to rebel – and found him guilty. Atahualpa, last free Emperor of the Inca, was executed by garrote on July 26, 1533.

The Inca’s Treasure

Atahualpa had kept his promise and filled the room with gold and silver. The treasure brought to Cajamarca was staggering. Priceless works of art in gold, silver and ceramic were brought, along with tons of precious metals in jewelry and temple decorations. Greedy Spaniards smashed priceless objects to pieces so that the room would fill up more slowly. All of this treasure was melted down, forged into 22 karat gold and counted. Atahualpa’s ransom added up to over 13,000 pounds of gold and twice that much silver. After the “royal fifth” was taken out (the King of Spain imposed a 20% tax on conquest loot), this treasure was divided up among the original 160 men according to a complicated arrangement involving footmen, horsemen and officers. The lowliest of the soldiers received 45 pounds of gold and 90 pounds of silver: at today’s rate the gold alone is worth over a half million dollars. Francisco Pizarro received roughly 14 times the amount of a common soldier, plus substantial “gifts” such as Atahualpa’s throne, which was made of 15 karat gold and weighed 183 pounds.

The Lost Gold of Atahualpa

Legend has it that the Spanish conquistadors did not get their greedy hands on all of Atahualpa’s ransom. Some people believe, based on somewhat sketchy historical documents, that a group of natives was on its way to Cajamarca with a load of Inca gold and silver for Atahualpa’s ransom when they received word that the Emperor had been murdered. The Inca general in charge of transporting the treasure decided to hide it and left it in an unmarked cave in the mountains. Supposedly it was found 50 years later by a Spaniard named Valverde, but then was lost again until an adventurer named Barth Blake found it in 1886: he later died suspiciously. No one has seen it since. Is there a lost Inca treasure in the Andes, the final installment of Atahualpa’s Ransom?



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

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Minster, Christopher. "About the Ransom of Atahualpa." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-ransom-of-atahualpa-2136547. Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 27). About the Ransom of Atahualpa. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ransom-of-atahualpa-2136547 Minster, Christopher. "About the Ransom of Atahualpa." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ransom-of-atahualpa-2136547 (accessed May 29, 2023).