A big day in history: Francisco Pizarro’s tiny Spanish army takes a mighty Incan leader hostage

Dominic Sandbrook nominates 16 November 1532 – the date that Francisco Pizarro's tiny Spanish army took a mighty Incan leader hostage – as a big day in history...

Francisco Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru John Everett Millais. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On the night of 15 November 1532, Francisco Pizarro’s troops slept badly. After months of marching from the Pacific coast, his tiny Spanish army was exhausted. Many were also terrified. There they were, in the centre of the Inca city of Cajamarca: just 168 of them in all, alone in a strange continent. Around them in the night glowed the campfires of an Inca army some tens of thousands strong, led by the native emperor, Atahualpa. Earlier that evening, Pizarro had sent emissaries to the Inca camp, inviting Atahaulpa to a meeting the next day. Atahaulpa had agreed. No doubt some of Pizarro’s men thought he was mad; that night, one chronicler wrote, some “wet themselves in their terror”.

Atahaulpa did not make his grand entrance into Cajamarca until the following afternoon. To the Spanish soldiers, many of whom were poor, illiterate peasants, it must have been an extraordinary spectacle. “First came a squadron of Indians dressed in a livery of different colours, like a chessboard,” recalled Pizarro’s secretary, Francisco de Xeres. “They advanced, removing the straws from the ground and sweeping the road. Next came three squadrons in different dresses, dancing and singing. Then came a number of men with armour, large metal plates, and crowns of gold and silver. Among them was Atahualpa in a litter lined with plumes of macaws’ feathers of many colours and adorned with plates of gold and silver.”

When the procession reached the central square, Atahualpa signalled a halt. Around them were concealed Pizarro’s men, this tiny band of European invaders in the heart of the Inca empire. On the far side of the square waited Pizarro himself, the bastard son of a colonel from Spain’s dusty western frontier. Staying where he was, Pizarro gestured to the Dominican friar Vincente de Valverde, who went up to Atahualpa with a Bible. “I am a priest of God,” said Valverde, “and I come to teach you. What I teach is what God says to us in this book.” But Atahaulpa was not having it, contemptuously throwing the book into the dust. That was the pretext Pizarro wanted.

Seeing what had happened, his secretary wrote, Pizarro “put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly; and, with only four men who were able to follow him, he came to the litter where Atahualpa was, and fearlessly seized him by the arm, crying out ‘Santiago!’” At the signal, his men sprang into action. “The guns were fired off, the trumpets were sounded, and the troops, both horse and foot, sallied forth,” de Xeres remembered. “On seeing the horses charge, many of the Indians who were in the open space fled, and such was the force with which they ran that they broke down part of the wall surrounding it, and many fell over each other. The horsemen rode them down, killing and wounding, and following in pursuit.”

It was one of the most extraordinary battles in history. Just 168 men, exhausted and footsore, had seen off tens of thousands. Atahualpa’s senior attendants lay dead in the dirt, while the emperor himself, seized by Pizarro during the melee, was now the Spaniards’ captive. Pizarro himself had sustained a slight cut to the hand; but “during the whole time”, de Xeres wrote, “no Indian raised his arms against a Spaniard”.

What happened next has become the most infamous incident during the conquest of the Americas. Hoping to save his life, Atahualpa told his captors that he could fill a large room with gold and silver. His people rallied to his call; steadily the piles of precious metal mounted. But Pizarro could not afford to let the Inca emperor live. After a show trial, Atahualpa reluctantly agreed to convert to Christianity. But the Spaniards killed him anyway, strangling him with a garrotte in the centre of Cajamarca.

It was years before the Spanish finally suppressed Inca resistance, but there is no doubt that Cajamarca had been the turning point. The richest empire in the Americas was brought to its knees. Thousands of women and children were enslaved, while massacre and disease had a devastating impact on the local population.

Meanwhile, vast quantities of gold flooded back to Spain. Today the great buildings in Trujillo’s Plaza Mayor stand as a monument to the ruthless courage of Francisco Pizarro – and to the slaughter that day in Cajamarca.

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Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review.