To imagine oneself living in the world of the Inca, one would have to travel back 500 years into a magnificent society made up of more than 10 million subjects. Cuzco, which emerged as the richest city in the New World, was the center of Inca life, the home of its leaders. “The riches that were gathered in the city of Cuzco alone, as capital and court of the Empire, were incredible,” says an early account of Inca culture written 300 years ago by Jesuit priest Father Bernabe Cobo, “for therein were many palaces of dead kings with all the treasure that each amassed in life; and he who began to reign did not touch the estate and wealth of his predecessor but …. built a new palace and acquired for himself silver and gold and all the rest.”
Francisco Pizarro was born in 1474 in Trujillo, Spain, as the illegitimate and poorly-educated son of a minor noble. In 1502 he arrived in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola where he later joined the expedition to settle Panama in 1519. Here he led a fairly prosperous life. In 1522 sailors brought rumours of the existence of a rich and powerful indigenous empire to the south of Panama. Pizarro and his two partners organised three private expeditions in the conquistador tradition. The first expedition brought no tangible gain. The second expedition led Pizarro to a northern outpost of the Inca Empire, Tumbez, where he acquired three Inca youths that he planned to train as interpreters. For the third expedition Pizarro secured a contract, a capitulacione, from the Spanish Crown that named him the Governor of Peru, and ennobled thirteen members of his company. In late 1530, Pizarro sailed from Panama to Tumbez with 180 men.
Once in Tumbez it was evident to Pizarro that the Incas were engaged in a civil war and that they were suffering from the first smallpox epidemic to reach the region. The smallpox epidemic claimed the life of the powerful Inca Emperor, Huayna Capac, and his heir apparent. The resulting power vacuum caused a political crisis within the empire. Two of the emperor’s sons laid claim to the throne: Huáscar was selected by the court elite to rule from Cuzco, the traditional Inca capital, and Atahualpa had control of his father’s professional army and the newly conquered regions of Ecuador and Columbia. The two half brothers were soon embroiled in a civil war that ravaged Inca cities, wreaked havoc on the economy, and decimated the population. Early in 1532, Atahualpa’s army defeated Huáscar’s army and captured and executed its leader.
The arrival of Pizarro was at first viewed as little more than a curiosity by the Incas, who did not recognise the danger posed by Spanish steel weaponry and horse cavalry. Pizarro and his men set a trap and successfully captured Atahualpa who assumed that the Spanish simply intended to raid the empire. He thus offered them a ransom of 13,420 pounds of gold and 26,000 pounds of silver in exchange for his release. Pizarro accepted and promised to release Atahualpa. However, when the ransom was delivered, Pizarro’s partners suggested that Atahualpa be executed, fearing that the Inca leader could still rally the support of his demoralised armies. Eventually Pizarro was convinced of Atahualpa’s threat to their position and had him executed in August 1533. Pizarro next set his sights on the looting of Cuzco, the Inca capital.
Pizarro appointed Huáscar’s brother, Manco Capac, as nominal ruler of the Inca Empire. He then marched to Cuzco where, with the help of Huáscar’s surviving supporters, he met and defeated what remained of Atahualpa’s forces. In 1535, having consolidated his control, Pizarro established a new capital city now known as Lima. Capac was allowed to rule in Cuzco as a puppet monarch but Spanish abuses forced him to lead an unsuccessful revolt. Pizarro also had to confront the internal divisions of his own partnerships. His chief ally, Almagro, now turned into his chief rival. Almagro and his supporters would eventually lose a pitched battle on the plains near Cuzco. Pizarro’s brother would then order the execution of the defeated Almagro whose family then took revenge by assassinating Pizarro in 1541. Finally King Charles I stepped in and appointed Christobal Vaca de Castro as Governor of Peru, who, with the aid of the Pizarro loyalists, ended the political crisis.