Francisco Pizarro (c. 1471 – 26 June 1541) was a Spanish Conquistador who led a small force of Spanish soldiers to conquer the Inca Empire. This improbably and spectacular military victory led to Spanish control over a considerable part of South America radically changing the destiny of these countries. Pizzaro was ruthless, ambitious and cruel in his conquest of the Inca’s but was very influential in bringing European culture and religion to the former Inca Empire.
Pizzaro was born in Trujillo, Spain around 1471. Little is known about his early life, but he was an illegitimate son of a Spanish soldier and household servant. He remained uneducated and illiterate throughout his life. Attracted by prospects of fame and wealth in the Americas, in 1502, he sailed to the Americas, to live on a Caribbean island Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.) In 1513, he sailed with Vasco Nunez de Balboa to an expedition to discover the Pacific Ocean.
From 1519 to 1523 he was appointed to be the mayor of Panama City, where the Spanish were establishing a presence. In Panama, Pizarro heard reports about the great riches of the Inca Empire (modern-day Peru). Inspired by Cortez’s exploits in Mexico, Pizzaro wanted to explore this relatively unknown land. He formed a partnership with a priest Hernando de Luque and a soldier Deigo de Almagro – Pizzaro promised to conquer these new lands and divide any wealth amongst them.
“Friends and comrades! On that side [the south] are toil, hunger, nakedness, the drenching storm, desertion, and death; on this side ease and pleasure. There lies Peru with its riches; here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian. For my part, I go to the south.
The Inca Empire was on the Pacific coast and not easily accessible to Spanish ships. However, Pizarro ambitious for adventure and wealth undertook missions to conquer the Incan Empire in 1524 and 1526. The first mission of 1524, failed due to a combination of bad weather, difficult terrain and hostility from the native populations. However, on the second mission, in 1526, he made some progress in discovering rich sources of natural resources. This motivated him to launch an expedition to the Inca Empire but, initially, he was blocked by the governor of Panama.
As a result, Pizzaro returned to Spain and appealed directly to the King of Spain. King Charles I and Queen Isabel agreed to fund Pizzaro and gave him license to claim the Inca Empire for Spain.
Pizarro took the opportunity to recruit his four half-brothers Hernando, Juan, and Gonzalo and Francisco Martín de Alcántara.
Armed with less than 200 men and 60 horses, Pizarro set out to conquer an empire of six million people and strong central, authoritarian control. Despite having a few primitive guns, the plan faced overwhelming odds but infused with the confidence and sense of self-righteousness of Spanish Conquistadors, the company of men landed in Peru in September of 1573. Pizzaro led his force inland into the Andes mountains to the town of Cajamarca where the Inca Emperor Atahualpa had also brought his army.
Pizzaro sent a request to Atahualpa to come and meet to negotiate a settlement. For unknown reasons, Atahualpa agreed to Pizzaro’s terms and came with only 5,000 mostly unarmed soldiers. It is likely Atahualpa was over-confident – such was the imbalance between the two sides. However, Pizarro had no intention of reaching a peaceful settlement. Seeing Atahualpa unarmed, he took the opportunity to order his army to slaughter Atahualpa’s soldiers. The Battle of Cajamarca was one-sided and over within an hour. Pizzaro only spared Emperor Atahualpa. With Atahualpa captured, the Incan resistance crumpled. In Incan society, all power emanated from the ruler, who claimed a divine right to rule. With Atahualpa in the hands of the Spanish, Pizzaro was able to walk right into the Incan capital Cuzco without a fight. It was an astonishing military victory, given the Incan army numbered close to 80,000 and had recently been successful in a civil war against Atahualpa’s brother.
King Atahualpa tried to bargain with Pizzaro for his release – offering a room full of gold. The ransom of gold netted Pizzaro at least 630 pounds of gold and 1,260 pounds of silver – over $8 million in today’s money.
But, Pizzaro arrested Atahualpa for various crimes and had him executed by garroting on 26 July 1533. This was a controversial decision amongst his own party, with Hernando de Soto and his own brother counselling against it. It also received a rebuke from Charles I, who was displeased with the execution of a king – even after he had paid his tribute.
In January of 1535, Pizarro found the city of Lima in the Rimac Valley. Later that year, rebel Incan troops besieged the city, but were defeated by the Spanish and their Indian allies. The Spanish position in Inca was strengthened – giving Spanish control to a new part of South America – including modern-day Peru, Chile, Bolivia.
Pizzaro’s greatest troubles came from in-fighting amongst his Spanish comrades. Diego de Almagro claimed that Pizzaro was hoarding the new wealth for himself and failing to share what he had agreed to many years ago. On 26 April 1538, at the Battle of Las Salinas, Almagro sought to confront Pizzaro. But, outnumbered, Almagro’s forces were defeated and Almagro later executed by Pizzaro.
In retaliation, Almagro’s son Diego de Almagro assassinated Pizzaro in Lima on 26 June 1941. It is said that as Pizzaro laying dying from multiple stab wounds, he painted a cross on the floor in his own blood and cried out for Jesus Christ.
Influence of Pizzaro
Like Cortez in Mexico, Pizzaro claimed a large part of South America for Spain. This caused an influx of Spanish and Catholic culture into South America. The polytheistic religion of the Inca’s passed away and was replaced by Catholicism. It also led to many centuries of European rule, with the privileged positions in society being reserved for those of European descent and the native population being limited to a form of serfdom.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Francisco Pizarro”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 20 June 2019.
The Land of the Incas and the City of the Sun: The Story of Francisco Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru
The Land of the Incas and the City of the Sun: The Story of Francisco Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru at Amazon
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