The Battle of Cajamarca: an End to an Empire in South America

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  • Topic: Atahualpa, Inca Empire, Francisco Pizarro
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The Battle of Cajamarca: an end to an Empire in South America

New World: Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475 - June 26, 1541) seized Incan emperor Atahualpa (pictured; c. 1502 - August 29, 1533) after victory at Cajamarca, Peru.

Pizarro had just 168 men and Atahualpa had 80,000 battle-hardened soldiers who had recently defeated an indigenous enemy. However, the Spaniards had iron swords, guns, horses and armour, which the Incas did not. The result: one of history's most incredible battles, and it was all over in one afternoon.

Atahualpa (or Atahuallpa; Atabalipa) (ah'-ta-oo-al'-pa), was the13th and final emperor of the Incan Empire. He was a younger son of the Incan ruler Huayna Capac and an Ecuadorian princess of the Quito; although not the legitimate heir, he seems to have been the favourite. When Huayna Capac died (c. 1527), the kingdom was divided between Atahualpa, who ruled the northern part of the empire from Quito, and his half-brother Huáscar, the legitimate heir, who ruled from Cuzco, the traditional Inca capital. Contemporary chroniclers depicted Atahualpa as courageous, ambitious, and very popular with the army. In 1532 he was celebrating his victory in a devastating war of accession with his elder half-brother.

He had been embroiled in war with Huáscar for control of the whole Incan Empire. The war ravaged Inca cities, wreaked havoc on the economy, and decimated the population. Early in 1532, near Cuzco, while Pizarro was making his way to Atahualpa's heartland, the army of the Incan lord had defeated Huáscar's army in what was probably the greatest of any Incan military engagement to date. Atahualpa treacherously captured his half-brother and his family and later had them executed, while Atahualpa was himself a prisoner – of Pizarro. (As Huáscar had been something of an ally to the Spanish, his half-brother's actions were later cited as a cause of the treatment Pizarro meted out to Atahualpa.)

In November, while the newly victorious Atahualpa and his battle-hardened army of 80,000 were relaxing with the hot springs in the town of Cajamarca, before their planned triumphal entry into Cuzco, Francisco Pizarro entered the city with a force of 168. Atahualpa got wind of the incursion. History was about to change in a most dramatic way.

On November 15, as the Spanish band moved close to Cajamarca, they tortured a few natives and discovered that Atahualpa was waiting for them at Cajamarca. Bravely, 'Governor' Pizarro’s 'army' moved towards the Incan town, and saw a beautiful place filled with so many tents that the soldiers were filled with fear. Hernando Pizarro, the leader’s brother, estimated the number of Incan soldiers at 40,000, but an eyewitness wrote that he gave this estimate in order to calm his comrades: there were in fact more than 80,000. Meanwhile, most of Pizarro’s men were hidden around the main courtyard of Cajamarca.

Atahualpa ambushed

Invited by the Spaniard to attend a feast in his honour, the Inca chief accepted. The next day, he arrived at the appointed meeting place with several thousand unarmed retainers; Pizarro, prompted by the example of Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma in Mexico, had prepared an ambush.

The next day at around noon, Atahualpa appeared in the town centre, carried on a litter, or palanquin, borne by 80 Incan noblemen in rich blue livery, and with a retinue of 2,000 Indians sweeping the road before him. An eyewitness wrote “Then came a number of men with armour, large metal plates, and crowns of gold and silver which they bore, that it was a marvel to observe how the sun glinted on it."

Atahualpa was also surrounded by his warriors, many thousands of them. One of the Spaniards who was present wrote:

“Atahualpa himself was very richly dressed, with his crown on his head and a collar of large emeralds around his neck. He sat on a small stool with a rich saddle cushion resting on his litter. The litter was lined with parrot...
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