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Street art illustrating what the Spanish conquistadores did to the Inca during their conquest and the Battle of Cajamarca. Source: shantihesse / Adobe Stock.

The Battle of Cajamarca – The Conquest of the Spanish and the End of the Inca Empire

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The Battle of Cajamarca was a battle fought between the Spanish and Inca in 1532. The battle, which is sometimes considered to be an ambush or a skirmish, saw a small band of Spaniards led by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro capture Atahualpa, the Sapa Inca, i.e. the ruler of the Inca Empire.

Pizarro’s victory at the Battle of Cajamarca, which was won through sheer luck, had dire consequences for the history of Spain and the Americas. As a result of the battle, the Inca Empire, one of the most advanced civilizations in the Americas at that time, was destroyed.

For the Spanish, on the other hand, the battle led to the conquest of the Peru, which brought great wealth to their empire. This in turn contributed to Spain’s position as a superpower in Europe.

The Incas Leading up to the Battle of Cajamarca

Although the Battle of Cajamarca took place in 1532, events in the years preceding the battle contributed to this Inca defeat / Spanish victory. Not long before the arrival of Pizarro and his men, the Inca Empire was at the height of its power. During the 15th century, successive Sapa Incas pushed the borders of the empire to the north and south with military force.

By the time Huayna Capac (the father of Atahualpa) died, i.e. around 1527, the Inca Empire stretched from modern Ecuador in the north all the way down to present-day central Chile. The conquest of such a vast area of land meant that the Inca Empire was in command of a formidable army. Nevertheless, the Incas were not a purely militaristic society, as they possessed one of the most sophisticated civilizations in the Americas at the time.

In order to connect the distant parts of their empire, the Incas built a system of roads that traversed across a distance of about 25,000 miles (40,200 kilometers), roughly three times the diameter of the earth. The Incas also excelled in various crafts. Although the Incas produced many beautiful objects of gold and silver, which undoubtedly excited the Spanish conquistadors, it was their textiles that have been considered to be the pinnacle of Incan artistic expression.

The Incas produced many valuable objects including textiles. (Funakoshi~commonswiki / Public Domain)

The Incas produced many valuable objects including textiles. (Funakoshi~commonswiki / Public Domain)

The finest type of cloth is known as cumpi and was used exclusively by the empire’s elites. The Incas were also great builders and constructed stone structures without the use of mortar. It is said that the buildings were fitted so perfectly that even “an object as thin as a razor blade could not be inserted between the stones”.

In short, the Incan Empire was a highly-developed civilization on the eve of its destruction. In fact, even the Spanish who encountered the Incas were impressed by what they saw.

The Spanish Leading up to the Battle of Cajamarca

On the other hand, the Spanish had only recently completed the reconquest of their homeland from the Muslims. In 1492, a year before Huayna Capac’s ascension, Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, fell to the armies of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, thus marking the end of the Reconquista.

In the same year, Christopher Columbus embarked on the first of his four voyages to seek a western sea route to Asia. By accident, Columbus discovered the New World and claimed it for the Spanish Crown. In the decades that followed, the Spanish explored and colonized the islands of the Caribbean.

In 1510, Santa María la Antigua del Darién (in modern-today Panama) was founded by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. This was Spain’s (and Europe’s) first permanent settlement on the mainland.

Three years later, Balboa organized an expedition to search for a kingdom on the coast of the “other sea”, now known as the South Sea or Southern Pacific Ocean. Balboa first heard about this place when he was in the lands of Comagre, from a local cacique, i.e. tribal chief.

Balboa's travel route to the South Sea, 1513. (RokerHRO / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Balboa's travel route to the South Sea, 1513. (RokerHRO / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The story goes that Balboa and his men were received peacefully by Comagre and invited to attend a feast. Later on, the Spaniards were given some gold, but were unsatisfied with the meagre amount and began to squabble among themselves. The greed of the Spaniards angered Comagre’s eldest son, Panquiaco, who knocked over the scales used to weigh the gold and exclaimed “If you are so hungry for gold that you leave your lands to cause strife in those of others, I shall show you a province where you can quell this hunger”.

Panquiaco told Balboa and his men of a kingdom to the south so wealthy that its people ate and drank from gold plates and goblets. The chief’s son also warned the Spaniards that they would need at least a thousand men to defeat the tribes living inland and along the coast of the “other sea”.

Balboa’s expedition was a success. Having crossed the Panama Isthmus, Balboa saw the South Sea from the west coast of the New World and claimed it, along with all the lands adjoining it, for Spain.

Expeditions And Events Leading up to the Battle of Cajamarca

One of the participants of Balboa’s expedition to the South Sea was Francisco Pizarro, who was serving as a captain. Pizarro was born around 1475 in Trujillo, a town in western Spain. In 1502, Pizarro left the Old World for the island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic) with Nicolás de Ovando, the new governor of the Spanish colony.

In the years that followed, Pizarro participated in several expeditions. In 1508, for instance, Pizarro joined the expedition of Alonso de Ojeda to the mainland. The expedition, which consisted of 300 settlers, established a colony called San Sebastián de Urabá, in the area of modern-day Columbia. The colony, however, did not last, and Pizarro led the remaining settlers (only 100 were left in early 1510) back to Hispaniola.

The Spanish encountered the Aztec Empire in 1519 and completed its subjugation two years later. The lands of the Aztecs were annexed by the Spanish, who turned it into a colony called New Spain. In addition, the riches seized from the Aztecs fired the imagination of the rest of the Spanish in the New World, who dreamt that there were other civilizations in the region for them to conquer.

Aztec codex depicting the Spanish army, with Cortés and Malinche in front. (Racconish / Public Domain)

Aztec codex depicting the Spanish army, with Cortés and Malinche in front. (Racconish / Public Domain)

While Cortés was campaigning against the Aztecs, Pizarro was serving as mayor of Panama (present-day Panama City). Pizarro held this position from the settlement’s founding in 1519 to 1523 and managed to amass a small fortune.

In 1524, Pizarro formed a partnership with Diego de Almagro, a soldier, and Hernando de Luque, a priest. Later that year, Pizarro launched his first expedition down the Pacific coast of South America.

The expedition, however, was a failure, due to bad weather, lack of food, and encounters with hostile natives. Therefore, the conquistadors were forced to return to Panama not long after reaching the coast of Colombia.

In 1526, a second expedition was launched. Although this ended in failure as well, Pizarro managed to set foot in Peru. Moreover, he heard tales about the Incas and obtained some of their artifacts, which convinced him more than ever that there was another great empire in the New World waiting to be conquered.

When Pizarro returned to Panama in 1528, he found that the new governor was against the idea of further exploration and conquest. Therefore, he returned to Spain and sought the permission of the Spanish king, Charles V. The king agreed to Pizarro’s request, and in 1530, the conquistador, joined by his four brothers, returned to Panama.

Around the time of Pizarro’s second expedition, the old Sapa Inca, Huayna Capac, had died, possibly due to smallpox, a disease that was brought to the New World by the Spanish. Huayna Capac’s death plunged the Inca Empire into civil war, as his two sons, Atahualpa and Huascar fought for the throne.

By 1532, Atahualpa had triumphed over Huascar, who was captured after a battle at Quipaipan. Atahualpa was now headed south, to Cusco, the Incan capital, where he would claim his throne. On the way, he stopped near the city of Cajamarca in the Andes to rest and to celebrate his victory over Huascar.

In January 1531, Pizarro launched his third expedition, and by the following year, was marching towards the heart of the Inca Empire. Atahualpa had heard of the Spanish but decided to let them pass through his lands unhindered, as he considered them to be an insignificant force. At the time, the Spanish numbered less than 200 men.

Francisco Pizarro's route of exploration during the conquest of Peru (1531–1533). (ALE! / Public Domain)

Francisco Pizarro's route of exploration during the conquest of Peru (1531–1533). (ALE! / Public Domain)

On the other hand, Atahualpa had about 80,000 troops with him. Moreover, his confidence was greatly boosted following his victory in the civil war. Atahualpa’s underestimation of the Spanish would cost him his empire.

The Battle of Cajamarca

On the 15th of November, Pizarro and Atahualpa agreed to meet at Cajamarca on the following day. According to some accounts, the meeting took place on the 15th, rather than 16th of November. In any case, Pizarro was planning to ambush and trap the Sapa Inca.

Atahualpa, still belittling the Spanish, decided to leave most of his 80,000 troops outside the city, and brought with him only several thousand unarmed retainers to the meeting. According to one version of the story, at the start of the meeting, Vicente de Valverde, a friar traveling with the expedition, demanded Atahualpa convert to Catholicism, and to acknowledge the Spanish king as his sovereign. Should Atahualpa refuse, he would be considered an enemy of the church and of Spain.

The Sapa Inca replied that he would be “no man’s tributary” and threw the Bible / prayer book that the friar had handed to him to the ground. This was the moment the Spanish had been waiting for to spring their trap.

The Inca had clear numerical superiority over the Spanish – several thousand Incas against less than 200 Spanish. Atahualpa’s men, however, were unarmed. On the other hand, the Spanish were armed with steel swords, muskets, and several small cannons. On top of that, they brought about 40 horses (animals which the Inca had never encountered before) into battle.

The weapons and horses of the Spanish added to the initial shock of the surprise attack and Atahualpa’s retainers were massacred. According to one estimate, in the course of two hours, more than 4,000 Incas were killed by Pizarro and his men. Pizarro, on the contrary, did not lose a single man.

The Spanish completed their victory with the capture of Atahualpa. Pizarro himself charged at the Sapa Inca on horseback but capturing him was not as easy as the Spaniards had thought. The bearers of Atahualpa’s litter refused to leave their posts and the Spaniards had to kill them before they could take the Sapa Inca.

The Battle of Cajamarca, showing Emperor Atahualpa surrounded on his palanquin. (Simon chara / Public Domain)

The Battle of Cajamarca, showing Emperor Atahualpa surrounded on his palanquin. (Simon chara / Public Domain)

Pizarro realized the importance of keeping Atahualpa alive. Therefore, when one of his men was about to kill Atahualpa, Pizarro intervened, and received a cut on his hand in the process.

The capture of Atahualpa was the greatest shock of all to the Incas. As the Sapa Inca was considered to be a living god by his subjects, the Spaniards did the unthinkable by laying their hands on him.

The morale of the Incas was shattered, even the 80,000 strong army encamped outside Cajamarca was paralyzed, being unable to do anything after Atahualpa’s capture. Had Atahualpa not been captured by Pizarro, the story would have had a much different ending.

Following their victory at the Battle of Cajamarca, the Spanish kept Atahualpa as their prisoner, but later found him to be a liability. Therefore, in 1533, Pizarro staged a mock trial, found Atahualpa guilty of revolting against the Spanish, practicing idolatry, and murdering Huascar, the true Sapa Inca. Atahualpa was executed on the 29th of August 1533.

The death of Atahualpa, however, was not the final end of the Inca Empire. The surviving Incas put up a fierce resistance against the Spanish. It was only in 1572, with the fall of their final stronghold, Vilcabamba, that the subjugation of the Incas was finally completed.

Spaniards executing Tupac Amaru, the last Inca of Vilcabamba, in 1572. (PhJ / Public Domain)

Spaniards executing Tupac Amaru, the last Inca of Vilcabamba, in 1572. (PhJ / Public Domain)

The Battle of Cajamarca is undoubtedly a pivotal event in the history of the world. Prior to the battle, Pizarro’s situation was a precarious one, as his expedition could have been easily wiped out by Atahualpa, had he wished to do so. Atahualpa’s underestimation of Pizarro, as much as the audacity of the Spaniards, contributed to the Sapa Inca’s capture at Cajamarca, thus paving the way for Spanish colonialism in the western part of South America.

Top image: Street art illustrating what the Spanish conquistadores did to the Inca during their conquest and the Battle of Cajamarca. Source: shantihesse / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren            


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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