The War of the Two Brothers: The Division and Downfall of the Inca Empire
On the 26th of July 1533, the last ruler of the Inca Empire, Atahualpa, was executed by the Spanish with a garrotte (a device used to strangle someone). This marked the end of the once mighty Inca Empire, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of that region of South America. Only a year earlier, Atahualpa had emerged victorious from a bloody civil war to become the Sapa Inca (meaning ‘the only Inca’). This war is known variously as the Inca Civil War, the Inca Dynastic War, the Inca War of Succession, and the War of the Two Brothers.
The Death of a Sapa Inca
The War of the Two Brothers began with the death of the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac, and his heir apparent, Ninan Cuyochi in 1527. The two men had likely succumbed to smallpox, a disease which had spread to the native communities from the Spanish arrival to the continent.
Traditionally, the Sapa Inca would pass his throne to his eldest son. In Huayna Capac’s case, however, his eldest son, Ninan Cuyochi, is said to have died before him. Not long after his son’s death, Huayna Capac too was on his deathbed. The Sapa Inca decided to break with tradition, and divided the empire between his two younger sons – Huáscar and Atahualpa.
The 12th Inca, Huayna Capac. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Division of the Inca Empire
Of these two sons, Huáscar was the elder, and the second son of Huayna Capac’s legitimate wife. In comparison, Atahualpa was said to have been the son of one of Huayna Capac’s concubines. Thus, Huáscar was given the entire Inca Empire to rule, with the exception of Quito and its surrounding area, which was situated in the northern part of the empire. Ruling from Cuzco (Cusco), the capital of the Inca Empire, Huáscar commanded the loyalty of most of the population.
Atahualpa, on the other hand, commanded the loyalty of the Inca army, which was stationed in the north at that time, with the purpose of subjugating smaller tribes on the empire’s frontier. Moreover, three capable generals – Chalcuchima, Quisquis, and Rumiñahui, would transfer their allegiance to Atahualpa. It is thought that they originated in the northern part of the empire, and thus felt an affiliation with Atahualpa.
Painting depicting General Rumiñahui, (1925) by José Yépez. Municipal Palace of Quito, Ecuador. ( Public Domain )
The War’s Beginnings
It is possible that Huayna Capac had hoped that the two brothers would rule the empire together harmoniously. This was not to be so, as Huáscar saw Atahualpa’s command of the empire’s armed forces as a threat to his own position as Sapa Inca. As a result, Huáscar decided to strike first by making an attempt to capture Quito.
This maneuver seems to have been quite successful initially, and Huáscar’s troops supposedly defeated Atahualpa, and captured him near Tomebamba. Atahualpa managed to escape, however, and returned to Quito to gather his forces. Although Huáscar attempted to capture Atahualpa’s capital, he was defeated, and pushed back to the south. Atahualpa then sent an army led by Chalcuchima and Quisquis against Huáscar, whilst another general, Rumiñahui was left behind to guard Quito.
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Defamatory Stories Surrounded Huáscar
It has been said that Huáscar was becoming an increasingly despised ruler. For example, it has been claimed that Huáscar killed the lords who had been escorting the dead body of his late father, Huayna Capac. These men were high-ranking nobles from Upper Cuzco. The nobility was further outraged when Huáscar supposedly threatened to burn the royal mummies and seize their estates.
Moreover, it has been alleged that Huáscar killed the messengers that had been sent by Atahualpa. An alternate accusation is that Atahualpa’s messengers (who were said to be bearing gifts to Huáscar) had their noses mutilated, and were sent back with their clothes torn. It is likely that these allegations of Huáscar’s cruelty were derived from the side of the victors, i.e. Atahualpa and his supporters, and Huáscar’s side of the story is probably forever lost to history.
Depiction of a Chasqui playing a pututu (conch shell). Chasquis (Chaskis) were the great messengers of the Inca Empire who were said to have run up to 240 km (149 miles) a day. Using a relay system, they were allegedly able to transport an important message from Quito to Cuzco in just a week. ( Public Domain )
The End of the War of the Brothers…and Soon After an Empire
In 1532, Atahualpa’s army had finally defeated Huáscar in a decisive battle outside of Cuzco, and the Sapa Inca was captured as a prisoner of war. News of this victory reached Atahualpa, who was in the city of Cajamarca.
Drawing of Huáscar captured by Atahualpa’s army, by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala. ( Public Domain )
At the same time, sightings of strange white-skinned men with “wool on their faces” (the Spanish) were reported as well. Little did Atahualpa know that his reign would be short, and that these strange men would go on to conquer his empire and eventually be the cause of his death.
Shortly after his victory over Huáscar, Atahualpa would in turn become a captive. Thus, the War of the Two Brothers ended not with the re-unification of the Inca Empire under one ruler, but its conquest by the Spanish.
Engraving of the seizure of Atahualpa at Cajamarca. ( Public Domain )
Featured image: Portraits of Huáscar and Atahualpa from Peruvian stamps issued in 2004. Photo source: Stamps Peru
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