Stories of South America - E. C. Brooks

Peru, the Emperor's Treasure Chest

When Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru, he had no idea of the size or the wealth of Atahualpa's country, but he had authority to take possession of it and send back to the emperor one-fifth of all the precious metals obtained. The remainder was to be divided between Pizarro and his men.

Llamas in Peru


On the landing of the second expedition in Peru, the Spaniards presented a different front toward the natives from that of their first visit. Even before they landed they convinced the Indians that their purpose was unfriendly. Before reaching Tumbez, Pizarro commanded his men to fire off cannon in order to overawe the natives along the coast. The threat was successful, for the latter were so badly frightened that they all fled. The Spaniards found the little villages by the shore deserted, and, on entering the abandoned huts, they came across food in abundance, besides many articles of gold and silver and much fine cloth made from alpaca wool. Pizarro put on board the ships a considerable portion of the treasures captured and sent back to Panama for more men. He believed that he had force enough to hold out until reinforcements arrived and that he could secure an abundance of food in the country. He saw the vessels depart and then marched southward.

In a few days the expedition reached Tumbez, but, to the surprise of all, this town also was deserted. Most of the buildings had been destroyed, and the treasures had been carried away. Pizarro learned that Atahualpa, the ruler of all the Peruvians, was encamped at Cajamarca, about three hundred miles to the south of them. Cajamarca, one of the capitals of the country, was situated on a mountain plateau at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. The commander sent De Soto, who later became famous for his explorations in North America, with a picked body of men, to investigate and report on the size of the Inca's army and his purpose. De Soto returned after several days, accompanied by a messenger from Atahualpa, who extended to the visitors a welcome to his kingdom, inviting Pizarro to visit Cajamarca.

The invitation was accepted, and immediately the Spaniards began their journey to that place, which was even more imposing than Tumbez: Several days were spent on the way; everywhere along the line of march the Spaniards saw signs of great wealth.

When Pizarro entered the beautiful valley in which Cajamarca lies, as one writer says, "he could plainly discern the glistening white houses, the fortresses perched upon rocks, and the square temples of the town; and, extending his glance beyond, he could just see the white tents of the Inca's camps, dotting the plain and hillsides in the hazy distance."

A messenger was sent to Atahualpa to announce that Pizarro had arrived and that he wished to meet the great ruler as "a friend and brother." The Inca received the messenger courteously and replied that he would visit the Spanish chieftain on the following day and extend a welcome to the pale-face soldiers from over the sea. It is probable that the Indian emperor was the victim of a fatal curiosity to see the newcomers.

The messengers, returning, reported that they had been treated with great kindness by the Inca, who seemed well-disposed and very desirous to visit Pizarro. They reported also that they had seen many articles of fine gold, that the nobles had rich ornaments, and that the Inca's meals were served in vessels of pure gold. In fact, it was difficult for Pizarro to conceive of so much gold in ordinary use as his messengers reported.

The Spanish leader now conceived a bold scheme. He announced to his lieutenants that it was his purpose to take the Inca prisoner when he visited him the following day. Remembering that Cortez by a bold stroke had captured Montezuma in Mexico, Pizarro believed it would be just as easy to seize the Inca of Peru; and, holding him captive, he might be able to rule the whole country through the prisoner. In such a way did the crafty Spaniard plan to meet Atahualpa as a "friend and brother."

Next morning Pizarro drew up his horsemen in battle array and formed his foot-soldiers so as to make a striking spectacle. Soon messengers announced that the royal procession was approaching. A little later the Peruvian army was observed passing through the city gates. Four hundred Indian boys came first, singing as they marched at the head of the column. They were followed by a thousand men dressed in a uniform of red and white squares, like a chess board. Other troops, clad in pure white and carrying silver hammers, came in large numbers. Then appeared the royal personage in regal splendor. Eighty chieftains in costumes of azure bore a glittering throne on which, high above their heads, sat the Inca, adorned with plumes of various colors and almost covered with sheets of gold and silver crusted with precious stones. Behind him came the chief officers of his court, carried in the same manner. Several bands of singers and dancers followed, while the whole plain seemed to be covered with troops. The Spaniards estimated the number of the natives at over 30,000.

Pizarro sent a priest to meet Atahualpa and to announce that he himself was now the lawful ruler of the country, having been appointed to govern it by the greatest monarch in the whole world. Atahualpa expressed astonishment. He seemed to scorn the priest, who shrank back at his gesture of disapproval. Thereupon Pizarro gave the signal for an attack on the unsuspecting Indians. Immediately martial music broke forth. The cannon roared with a deafening noise and spread death and destruction on every hand. The foot-soldiers charged with muskets and pikes. Horsemen rushed out with fiendish yells. The Peruvians were so much astonished and frightened that they fled panic-stricken in every direction, except the bodyguard around the king, which sought to protect him to the last. The land of Peru had never witnessed such a tumult. Everywhere the Peruvians, seized with superstitious fear, rushed hither and thither without aim, desiring only to escape the fearful noise and massacre.

It was Pizarro's order that the king should not be hurt. He believed that the people would be more impressed if they knew that he was powerful enough to capture the Inca with a small force and hold him a prisoner rather than kill him. Then, too, he might be able to dictate to the people if he had the king in his possession. But though the Peruvian army was scattered, it was not easy to take the Inca. His bodyguards fought desperately. However, they were overpowered and slaughtered to a man, and Pizarro, pushing his way through the carnage, seized the Inca and dragged him away a prisoner, while his soldiers, pursuing the Peruvians, continued to slay them by thousands. Probably there was never a war with less provocation, but such was the character of the man who had come to rule over this new country. He was without conscience and without pity.

At first the Inca could hardly believe that he was a captive. But he soon realized his situation and saw that Pizarro was a man who coveted gold and silver above everything else. After the confusion of battle, the conqueror and his royal prisoner entered one of the Inca's palaces. Knowing that Pizarro would do anything for gold, Atahualpa sought to buy his freedom. This was just what Pizarro wanted, for he believed the treasures of the country would now be opened to him.

The two were in a room about twenty-two feet long and sixteen feet wide. Atahualpa offered to fill this room with gold as high as his upstretched arm extended if Pizarro would free him and leave the country. Pizarro at once agreed and, drawing a line along the wall as far up as he could reach, he told Atahualpa to notify his countrymen that when the room was filled to that line the latter would be set free. If the promise were not kept, however, the Inca would be put to death.

Hoping thus to secure his liberty, Atahualpa sent messengers throughout the country directing the people to bring in the gold. Lines of llamas, hundreds long, came bearing the precious metal. Men brought it in on their backs; some of them walked six hundred miles with it. The time for ransom extended into weeks and months, but still the bearers came bringing gold.

The capital, Cuzco, was about thirty days' journey south from Cajamarca. This was the greatest city of the Incas. It was a rich town with gorgeous temples which had, it is said, floors and walls of pure gold. Soon after the capture of Atahualpa, Pizarro's vessels returned from Panama with additional troops. He now determined to push on as soon as possible to Cuzco. In the meantime, Atahualpa had an opportunity to study his captors. The point in which they surprised him most was in their ability to read and write. He had never seen anything like it before. In this one respect he knew the Spaniards to be superior to the Peruvians, whose only writing was picture-writing. He took so much interest in the art of writing that his anguish at being a captive was somewhat lessened, and he expressed a desire to learn to read and write.

One day he had one of Pizarro's men write something on his thumb-nail. It was the Spanish word "Dios," which means God. The Inca then asked every soldier that came in what it was, and each gave the same answer. This entertained him very much. When Pizarro entered, Atahualpa asked him what was written on his thumb-nail Pizarro made no reply. It was then that the Inca discovered that Pizarro could not read. By this he knew that his captor was a low-born man. Atahualpa's manner toward him changed at once, which made Pizarro furious.

Every day, however, the gold was coming in, and the promise of the Inca was on the point of being fulfilled. In the meantime, Pizarro had been entrenching himself in the country in every way possible. Still it seemed necessary to him to get rid of Atahualpa. As the captive Inca interfered with his plans of conquest, Pizarro decided to have him tried for treason on the pretext that he was secretly communicating with his followers and stirring them up to attack the Spaniards.

Thereupon Atahualpa was brought before a court and found guilty of treason. The sentence was that he should be burned at the stake, but that if he gave up his religion and accepted Christianity he would be strangled instead. The unhappy Inca could not understand the sentence, but he accepted the easier fate. Surrounded by Pizarro's soldiers, he was tied to a stake and choked to death. His body was burned. Thus ended the career of the greatest ruler of the Indians.

The news of his execution was carried throughout the empire. Before resistance to the cruelty and oppression of the Spaniards could be organized, Pizarro had a younger brother of Atahualpa crowned as Inca in the midst of great pomp and ceremony, in order to serve as a tool for his government.

The treasure brought in made the whole army of Spaniards rich, even after the emperor's fifth part had been set aside. Pizarro's brother was appointed to take it to Spain and deliver it in person to Charles V. The Indians submitted readily to the new Inca. The use of one language by most of the natives in the great empire made it easy for Pizarro to clench his conquest. The Indians, accustomed to obey their rulers, continued to obey after the rulers had changed.

Soon after Atahualpa's death, Pizarro set out to take possession of Cuzco. With him went the new Inca, whom he treated with great respect in order to impress the natives, for he expected to rule the Peruvians through him. After a long journey, covering nearly thirty days, they came to Cuzco, the capital. The ruins of that city today tell something of its greatness before the conquest. Pizarro entered it with no opposition. The Spanish soldiers were prohibited from going into private homes, but they freely entered the temples and palaces. Without scruple they tore down the golden plates and ornaments that adorned the walls and, in their greed for gold, invaded the tombs of the dead and robbed the corpses. In caverns and in public magazines were brought. to light a mass of gold vessels and strange utensils, fine cloth, golden sandals, and an abundance of grain and other food.

Ruins of Inca throne


The Spaniards found so much gold that, night after night, the soldiers gambled away enough of it to enrich the kings of Europe. Pizarro had a huge pile of gold vessels and ornaments melted down; and again a fifth was set aside and sent to Spain for the emperor, who was fast becoming very wealthy from the returns from Peru alone.

Pizarro carried the young Inca into the palace of his fathers, where, surrounded by an immense crowd of natives, the latter was formally crowned ruler of Peru. The natives clamored their approval, and the Inca accepted the empty honors, not realizing that he was both the creature and the tool of the Spaniards. Thus did Peru pass from an independent nation into a province of the Emperor Charles V. Nevertheless, it was more than a mere province. It was one of the main props of the empire. It was a treasure chest, from which the emperor drew the wealth that made his court the most luxurious in Europe.

But Pizarro was not destined to enjoy for many years the ease and peace that might have come to a juster conqueror. He had murdered the rightful ruler of Peru. He had massacred thousands of natives. He had tortured and put to death priests and other officials who stood in his way. He had visited the most brutal punishments on those who disobeyed him. He had enslaved the Indians and made them toil for the Spaniards. Moreover, he had not dealt fairly with his own men. Many were jealous of his power, and even his highest officials questioned his integrity. Therefore, some of his own company turned against him and incited the Indians to revolt. Pizarro had to fight the Peruvians and, also, a part of the Spaniards themselves.

Adventurers from Panama, learning of his wonderful discoveries, came to Peru. Many of them were as conscienceless as Pizarro. Large numbers joined the dissatisfied Spaniards in an attempt to break his power. Pizarro's early life had soured the milk of human kindness in him. He now fought his leading lieutenant, Almagro, with the same ferocity with which he had fought poverty in his youth, and when he made prisoners of Almagro and his followers he put them to death.

The conqueror moved the capital from Cuzco in 1535 and founded the city of Lima, about six miles from the coast, Within a few years the center of Spanish control in the New World passed from Panama to Lima. For nearly two hundred years Lima was not only the capital of the Spanish possessions in South America but one of the important cities of the world.

However, Pizarro did not live long after founding Lima, "The City of the Kings," as it was called. Even his own countrymen would not submit to his tyranny. He was constantly at war with them as well as with the natives. He met cruelty with cruelty, treachery with treachery. Finally, on June 26, 1541, deserted even by his formerly faithful attendants, he was assassinated in his own palace by some of Almagro's followers. Thus ended the life of a man who was too brutal and cruel to have many friends and too crafty to be a great statesman. Yet his conquest laid the foundation of Spain's dominion over all South America except Brazil. Enough gold was shipped from Peru to enrich a great empire, and it is said that sufficient silver was discovered and sent to Europe to encircle the globe seven times over had it been minted into coins and the coins laid edge to edge. No wonder that Peru was called "The Emperor's Treasure Chest."