The last days of the Incas

The Inca Empire was awash with gold, and the Spanish knew it. Writing for BBC History Revealed, Nige Tassell recounts how greed and God signalled its death knell

Panorama of Machu Picchu

Huayna Cápac had never known a fever like it. Nor had his people, many of whom were suffering just as badly. He didn’t have long to contemplate his condition, though. He died swiftly. The disease – almost certainly smallpox, brought to South America by European voyagers – wasn’t discriminatory. It struck all levels of society.

Until his death around 1528, Huayna Cápac had been the 11th supreme ruler, the Sapa Inca, of the Inca Empire, a civilisation described by historian Jago Cooper as “the greatest pre-Colombian empire in the Americas – a land of desert temples, of palaces in the clouds, of cities hidden deep in the forests”.

Stretching along, and inland from, the Pacific coast of South America, at its height the empire included at least parts of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The Incas were a resourceful people.

Huayna Cápac had never known a fever like it. Nor had his people, many of whom were suffering just as badly. He didn’t have long to contemplate his condition, though. He died swiftly. The disease – almost certainly smallpox, brought to South America by European voyagers – wasn’t discriminatory. It struck all levels of society.

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Until his death around 1528, Huayna Cápac had been the 11th supreme ruler, the Sapa Inca, of the Inca Empire, a civilisation described by historian Jago Cooper as “the greatest pre-Colombian empire in the Americas – a land of desert temples, of palaces in the clouds, of cities hidden deep in the forests”.

Stretching along, and inland from, the Pacific coast of South America, at its height the empire included at least parts of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The Incas were a resourceful people.

To help bind this empire and its population together, they created a vast road network totalling 40,000 kilometres. These roads transformed the concept of food distribution; furthermore, the food being distributed had benefitted greatly from the adoption of some revolutionary agricultural methods. And this deep connection to agriculture was one of the tenets of their worship of Inti, the Sun God – the deity who guided much of Inca life.

Only a century before Huayna Cápac’s death, the Incas had been an inconsequential mountain tribe in possession of a limited amount of land. Over the intervening years, the empire had expanded rather rapidly, particularly under the rule of both his father and grandfather. To a large extent, the expansion hadn’t been achieved through military might. Instead, Huayna Cápac sought to assimilate the region’s various tribes. Cooperation and diplomacy were his main tools. And he was rather successful in deploying them too, earning the devout respect of much of the Inca population.

There had been many losses in the north of the empire, though, as the Sapa Inca tried to extend his lands still further. For 17 long years, Ecuadorian natives had fought against these incursions, stretching Inca resources and manpower to the limit. It was perhaps a sign that the empire was getting too great to handle.

Inca royal Atahualpa
Some Inca accounts say that Huåsar was crowned, but Atahualpa (above) didn’t attend – leading the new Sapa Inca to declare war on his half-brother. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Anarchy reigns

Huayna Cápac’s death left a power vacuum. Primogeniture was not the established process; the firstborn didn’t automatically ascend to the top job. The only conditions for succession were that the new leader be of royal blood and fit to rule. The previous ruler usually named his successor, or the position was filled by the most capable offspring, not necessarily the oldest.

This system almost invariably led to full-on power struggles, and this is what occurred after Huayna Cápac’s demise. The constitutional crisis was only compounded by the fact that the empire had grown so large that finding a single figure that the whole and varied population could faithfully support wasnow difficult to the point of impossible. As a result, some commentators believe that, on his deathbed, Huayna Cápac effectively split the empire in half by naming two successors.

Power wasn’t to be shared, though. The struggle to be the next ruler of the entire empire led to a vicious civil war contested by two of Huayna Cápac’s sons, half-brothers Huáscar and Atahualpa. Huáscar had the support of much of the empire, including the nobles in the capital, Cuzco. Atahualpa, however, had on his side the substantial and experienced armies that he and his father had been fighting alongside in the north.

That military experience would tell. After three long years of battles along the spine of the Andes, Atahualpa was gaining the upper hand. Huáscar’s militia had tried to invade Quito, but were forced south back to the capital. When Atahualpa’s soldiers massacred thousands of Huáscar’s faithful supporters in Cuzco, the result seemed a formality. By 1532, the younger halfbrother was seen as the undoubted successor. But he had little time to bask in the sunlight of his victory.

Foreign influence

Huayna Cápac had still been alive when Spanish feet first touched Inca soil. Around 1527, notable conquistadors Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro had landed at the Peruvian town of Tumbes. He had been informed about their presence, but was destined never to meet a European. He encountered the smallpox epidemic before he encountered the Spaniards.

The Spanish had been in full expansion mode for several decades. Since Christopher Columbus had established a settlement for the Spanish crown on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, a legion of conquistadors began a land grab in the Americas. Particularly successful was the overthrow of the Aztecs in Mexico by Hernán Cortés. The nature of that civilisation’s removal would offer inspiration to Pizarro as he ventured further south.

In 1532, he made his third voyage to South America, this time emboldened by the licence issued by the queen of Spain to conquer Peru in the name of his homeland. His timing – landing very shortly after Atahualpa’s victory over Huáscar – was accidental but immaculate. Had he arrived a year earlier, hopes of overpowering the everpopular Huayna Cápac would have been slim. Had he landed a year later, the new regime under Atahualpa would have had time to make progress in unifying the disparate empire. As it was, Pizarro and his men encountered a land in disarray.

Pizarro’s men numbered only in the region of 170 soldiers, a modest force with which to undermine and conquer a huge, sprawling empire. Aside from their diminutive number, outwardly they didn’t look the most dynamic army either, appearing battle-weary after campaigns in the Caribbean. But these were among Spain’s foremost soldiers a unit under the command of one of its sharpest minds.

The effects of the bitter civil war were conspicuous. One of Pizarro’s generals, Hernando de Soto, reported the town of Cajas to be “in considerable ruins from the fighting that Atahualpa had waged. In the hills were the bodies of many Indians hanging from trees because they had not agreed to surrender”.

As well as being a formidable military commander, Pizarro also possessed a key political brain. He understood howa divided population could be taken advantage of. His compatriot Cortés had manipulated rival groups in Mexico a dozen years earlier. Pizarro firmly believed that history could repeat itself here in the Andes.

Conquest of Peru by Francisco Pizarro
Conquistador Francisco Pizarro (at the fore) commanded two failed expeditions before his triumph over the Incas in 1532. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Culture clash

At first, Atahualpa regarded the presence of these 170 strangers with mild curiosity at best. Such a small force couldn’t be regarded as a remotely serious threat. He did, though, send an envoy to investigate and observe these mysterious interlopers. This envoy, an Inca noble, spent two days among the Spaniards, examining their horses and their swords, and confirming the size of this ragged band.

His report didn’t unduly worry Atahualpa, who allowed the Spaniards to head away from the coast and into the mountains. Not everyone in Atahualpa’s camp was in agreement with this policy. During lengthy discussions about it at council, some members expressed a preference to attack the invaders at once, to neutralise the threat straight away. Instead, they were permitted to head towards the town of Cajamarca, where they might be later seized.

Unbeknownst to Atahualpa – who, until then, believed himself to be the ruler of the known world – these strangers represented the vanguard of the Spanish empire. They were deeply experienced soldiers scything their way through the metaphorical undergrowth to clear a path for control and colonisation, as well as grabbing as much gold for the Spanish crown as possible.

By Friday 15 November 1532, Pizarro and his men descended into the town of Cajamarca. They made the main square their base, settling in a series of barns, or kallankas, around the perimeter. These kallankas were long buildings with multiple doors that led onto the square, and usually housed visitors who’d come to Cajamarca for ceremonies or festivals. They were also used for sheltering soldiers. Pizarro was merely upholding the tradition.

Master builders

The Incas continue to be revered for their buildings. A popular method of construction was that of ‘pillow-faced’ architecture, where sanded and shaped stones would interlock without need for mortar. This technique was often adopted for temples and palaces – structures that were to last for centuries, if not in perpetuity. The royal estate of Machu Picchu boasts arguably the finest examples of the method, the durability of which was required in such a seismically sensitive landscape.

These earthquake-proof buildings were built to last. Innovative Inca engineering was also demonstrated with the construction of a 40,000km road network. Based on a north-south main road off which other roads branched, it attempted to link up this long, stretched-out empire.

Camp intrigues

Pizarro sent de Soto and around 15 horsemen to visit Atahualpa, whose camp was now comparatively nearby. His instruction was to invite the Sapa Inca to visit Pizarro down in the town. When the cautious de Soto rode into the camp, his passage was silently observed by the massed ranks of the Inca army. When he reached Atahualpa, surrounded by all his women and many chiefs, the invitation fell on deaf ears. There was no reaction. It was only when another of Pizarro’s generals – his brother Hernando – stepped forward that Atahualpa engaged with the Spanish party.

He invited them to dismount their horses and dine with him. They declined. He offered a drink instead. They feared being poisoned, but Atahualpa imbibed too, while assuring them that he would travel to Cajamarca the following day to meet with Pizarro.

If de Soto had been nervous when visiting Atahualpa’s camp, the entire brigade was jittering that night. Sleep came fitfully, if at all. One of the conquistadors, Cristóbal de Mena, later reported that “there was no distinction between great and small, or between foot-soldiers and horsemen. Everyone performed sentry rounds fully armed that night. So also did the good old Governor, who went about encouraging the men. On that day, all were knights.”

The nerves were understandable. This was a sticky situation. “The Spaniards now realised, for the first time, the sophistication of the empire they had penetrated,” wrote Inca historian John Hemming. “They found themselves isolated from the sea by days of marching over difficult mountains. They were in the midst of a victorious army in full battle order, which Soto and Hernando Pizarro estimated at 40,000 effectives.” The two generals had been economical with the truth; they actually believed the Inca army to be double that size. “They had no reason to hope for a friendly reception of any long duration.”

Beheading the empire

The Spaniards might have been edgy and possibly desperate, but they did have plans, tactics that had previously enjoyed success during Spain’s incursions in the Caribbean. One option was simply to attack the Incas from the off, to not wait for any provocation. Another option involved kidnapping Atahualpa; imprisoning the head of state had proved an effective exercise in Mexico.

The next morning, Atahualpa was in no rush to make his audience with the Spanish. It was a comparatively short distance to the town from the plain on which he was camped, but no move was made before lunchtime. By late afternoon, with the Sun low in the sky, he was still half a mile from the square and chose to make camp instead. The Spaniards grew even more anxious. Fearing an attack under cover of darkness, Pizarro despatched a messenger to urge Atahualpa to attend, issuing a promise that no harm would come to him. He agreed.

Leaving most of his armed soldiers on the plain, Atahualpa, dressed in his finery, was carried into Cajamarca, accompanied by around 5,000 men, who were largely unarmed, save for small battleaxes and slings. Arriving in the square, not a Spaniard was to be seen. The first to break cover was Friar Vincente de Valverde. Aided by a translator, he began to tell Atahualpa about how he’d been sent to introduce his religion to the Sapa Inca. What Valverde was actually doing was delivering the Requerimiento, a declaration required by Spain’s Royal Council before any conflict involving bloodshed.

The nature of time

In the Western world, time is a linear concept, where the past, the present and the future exist one after the other. We live in the present, while the past can’t be revisited and the future has yet to reveal itself. The Incas treated time much differently, seeing all three as occurring simultaneously, running in parallel.

Rather than occupying a line, the Incas saw the three realms – or pacha – stacked on top of each other. The hanan pacha was the upper realm, which represented the heavens and the future. The kay pacha was the physical world currently occupied, one that could be impacted by what was above or below it. At the bottom was the ukhupacha, representing the inner world – what had already been experienced internally. In direct contrast to the Western perception of time, the hanan pacha and the ukhupacha – the future and the past – were able to impact on and affect what was happening in the present.

When Atahualpa examined a Bible that Valverde had handed him and then threw it to the ground, the priest ran back towards the particular kallanka where Pizarro was waiting. “Come out! Come out, Christians!” he yelled. “Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God.”

On Pizarro’s signal, the doors to all the kallankas were thrust open and the square fired on by cannon. Sixty or so Spanish soldiers charged on horseback at the defenceless Incas, many of whom fled on their heels. It took just two hours for the Governor’s small brigade to vanquish Atahualpa’s men. Atahualpa himself later admitted he lost 7,000 soldiers that afternoon. Not a single Spaniard died.

Atahualpa was able to make this admission because Pizarro had spared him his life, following through with the kidnap plan. He was hustled away to the Temple of the Sun on the town’s outskirts, whereupon he was dressed in local clothing and, remarkably, had a bed made up for him in Pizarro’s own quarters.

Atahualpa was shell-shocked by the experience. The intelligence he had received – that the Spanish were illprepared and far from studious in their ways – hadn’t been correct. As John Hemming observed, Atahualpa “could not conceive that, with the odds so completely in his favour, the Spaniards would be the first to attack. Nor could he imagine that an attack would come without warning or provocation, before he had even held his meeting with Governor Pizarro.”

He wasn’t the only surprised individual that evening. The Spanish were equally gobsmacked that their half-baked, potentially fatal plan had worked

The Spanish Conquest

Prior to Francisco Pizarro’s successful removal of Atahualpa in 1532, the Spanish had already made substantial territorial gains in the Americas. Sailing under the flag of Spain, the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus had, in the late 15th century, founded a settlement in present-day Haiti, while the first permanent Spanish settlement on mainland South America was established in 1515 in what is now Venezuela.

Between 1519 and 1521, Hernán Cortés led the conquest of the Aztec empire. The swift control that Cortés exerted over Mexico would, in many ways, act as the blueprint for the overthrow of the Incas. Following Cortés’s efficient removal of the Aztecs from power, one of his most trusted men, Pedro de Alvarado, subsequently led the conquest of much of Central America, including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This he achieved by means that were often brutal.

A few years after Atahualpa’s death and the securing of Inca lands for the Spanish empire, the conquest moved into the territory north of the Andes, into present-day Colombia and Venezuela. There was also a push to colonise down to the southern tip of the continent, in the process assimilating the lands that now constitute Argentina and Paraguay.

Brave new world

Despite his captivity, Atahualpa remained sharp of mind. The following day, the Spaniards raided his camp, where his soldiers meekly surrendered on his say-so. The conquistadors returned to Cajamarca with plentiful treasure and Atahualpa noted how this appeared to be their primary focus. He could see an escape route and made them an offer: he would give them a room filled with gold, and two more with silver, in return for his life.

It was an attractive ransom, but one that would take a few months to fulfil, for the precious metals to be gathered from across the empire, including being liberated from places of worship.

During this time of captivity, Atahualpa remained Sapa Inca, but the orders he issued to his people were made in the context of being held hostage. One bad order and his life was over. The Spaniards were effectively becoming legitimised in the eyes of the Inca people via their incarcerated leader. Pizarro’s decision to take Atahualpa alive was thoroughly vindicated.

Atahualpa was looking forward to enjoying his empire once the ransom was met, his release confirmed, and these gold-diggers had left his lands. He even secretly ordered the killing of the captive Huáscar by one of his halfbrother’s escorts to ensure his future rule be as smooth as possible. But the Spanish double-crossed him again.

Pizarro was concerned that, were Atahualpa to be released, there was no guarantee that he and his men would get out alive. After all, there were many mountains between Cajamarca and the Pacific Ocean to negotiate. So the decision was made to execute Atahualpa.

After the most perfunctory of trials (one of the charges was the murder of Huáscar), he was found guilty and condemned to be burned at the stake. Accepting his fate, Atahualpa made one last deal. As the Inca belief was that the next life could only be reached if the body was intact, he proposed converting to Christianity in return for not being burned alive. He was garrotted instead, but not before Valverde had baptised him.

Moments before his execution, Atahualpa was given the Christian name of Francisco, the same as that of his great adversary, Pizarro – the man who ended Inca rule and changed the destiny of South America forever.

After Atahualpa

Following Atahualpa’s trial and execution in late July of 1533, the Spanish installed another son of Huayna Cápac, Manco Inca Yupanqui, as Sapa Inca. Initially, he was something of a puppet, acquiescing to the conquistadors’ motives and methods. When Diego de Almagro, the Spaniard who had accompanied Francisco Pizarro on his first visit to South America, tried to claim Cuzco for himself, Manco seized the chance to advance the Inca cause by taking advantage of the in-fighting among the conquistadors. He captured Cuzco in 1536, before the Spanish regrouped and re-exerted their control of the city.

Retreating to the mountains, Manco set up a small Inca state, which he and his successors ruled for more than three decades. When Manco’s son Túpac Amaru was executed by the Spanish in 1572, the final Inca stronghold was extinguished.

That the Spanish had been able to conquer the vast and sophisticated Inca Empire was partly due to the smallpox epidemic that spread viciously across the domain. The irony was that one of the Incas’ lasting achievements – the extensive road network, much of which still exists – provided the conditions for the easy transportation of the disease.

The Spanish also had a definite military advantage, which saw them make rapid advances across the entire Inca Empire. Not only was their weaponry more sophisticated and more brutal, but their use of horses overwhelmed the native population. The historian Jago Cooper has referred to the animals as “the tanks of the Conquest”.

Nige Tassel writes about sport and popular culture as both a journalist and author.

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This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed