How 200 Conquistadors Conquered an Empire of 10 Million

Battle of Cajamarca and the capture of Atahualpa
Battle of Cajamarca and the capture of Atahualpa

by Wendy Graham

August 29, 1533 — The Inca people named their empire "Land of the Four Quarters" or Tahuantinsuyu and in 1533 it was the largest in the world. It covered 2,500 miles and stretched from southern Colombia in the north to central Chile in the south. It rose between 1200 and 1300 AD in the valley of Cusco, an increase in temperatures allowing the Inca to inhabit ever higher altitudes and produce agricultural surpluses. The astonishing site of Machu Picchu is evidence of this. The empire successfully built a road network of 14,000 miles and 10 million people lived within its borders. So how did a mere 200 Spanish conquistadors capture its Emperor-god Atahualpa and conquer an entire empire?

In reality a number of factors brought down this powerful empire, so wealthy contemporaries remarked that its people walked on sandals lined with silver. Since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the Americas western diseases had steadily weakened native populations. The Inca empire had been especially struck by smallpox, which had reduced the population by an estimated two-thirds and claimed the life of Atahualpa's father the Emperor Huayna Capac.

After his father's death Atahualpa had waged a civil war against his half brother Huascar that lasted six years. A war he had only just won when he encountered Francisco Pizarro in 1532.

Pizarro and his small force of mercenaries were clearly inspired by the success of Hernán Cortés in Mexico. In a daring ambush on November 16, 1532, Pizarro and his men surprised Atahualpa and his lightly armed followers in the town square of the city of Cajamarca. In one hour they shot and killed 5,000 of his men, sparing only Atahualpa himself. Pizarro had realised Atahualpa was more valuable to him alive than dead. With Atahualpa captive his generals did not dare to attack and the Emperor then convinced his captors to ransom him for a room filled with gold and silver.

Once the treasure was gathered the Spanish refused to release Atahualpa and gave him the choice of being burnt alive, a pagan's death, or to convert to Christianity and have the kinder death of strangulation. Atahualpa chose the later and was garroted on August 29, 1533 and given a Christian burial. Various accounts have his remains later dug up, mummified and reburied. With Atahualpa's death the empire collapsed and the Spanish consolidated their power over the Inca by marching on the capitol, Cusco and installing their own puppet emperor.

A famous hoard of treasure that never made it in time for Atahualpa's ransom supposedly lies hidden to this day in the Andes. The city of Machu Picchu remained undiscovered by the Spanish and was eventually abandoned by the Inca. Its existence became widely known only when it was re-discovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.

Published: August 24, 2017

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