Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Pizarro and the Inca's Golden Ransom

The great expedition to the land of gold, which Vasco Nunez de Balboa had planned to make, was left by his death to be carried out by one of his companions in the discovery of the South Sea, the renowned Francisco Pizarro. It was an expedition full of romantic adventure, replete with peril and suffering, crowded with bold ventures and daring deeds. But we must pass over all the earlier of these and come at once to the climax of the whole striking enterprise, the story of the seizure of the Inca of Peru in the midst of his army and the tale of his incredible ransom.

Many and strange were the adventures of Pizarro, from the time when, with one small vessel and about one hundred desperate followers, he sailed from Panama in 1524, and ventured on the great unknown Pacific, to the time when, in 1531, he sailed again with one hundred and eighty men and about thirty horses and landed on the coast of Peru, which he designed to conquer as Cortez had conquered Mexico. A faithless and cruel wretch was this Francisco Pizarro, but he had the military merits of courage, enterprise, daring and persistency, and these qualities carried him through sufferings and adversities that would have discouraged almost any man and brought him to magical success in the end. It was the beacon of gold that lured him on through desperate enterprises and deadly perils and led him to the El Dorado of the Spanish adventurers.

Landing and capturing a point on the coast of Peru, he marched with his handful of bold followers, his horse and guns, eastward into the empire, crossed the vast and difficult mountain wall of the Andes, and reached the city of Caxamalca. Close by this city the Inca, Atahualpa, lay encamped with an army, for a civil war between him and his brother Huascar had just ended in the defeat and imprisonment of the latter.

Desperate was the situation of the small body of Spanish soldiers, when, in the late afternoon of the 15th of November, 1532, they marched into Caxamalca, which they found empty of inhabitants. About one hundred more men, with arms and horses, had joined them, but in a military sense they were but a handful still, and they had every reason to dread the consequences of their rash enterprise.

All seemed threatening,—the desertion of the city by its people, the presence of the Inca, with a powerful army, within a league's distance, the probable hostility of the Indian emperor. All the Spaniards had to rely on were their arm,—cannon, muskets and swords of steel,—new and terrible weapons in that land, and their war-horses, whose evolutions had elsewhere filled the soul of the Indian with dismay. Yet what were these in the hands of less than three hundred men, in the presence of a strong and victorious army? Filled with anxiety, Pizarro at once despatched a body of horsemen, led by his brother Hernando and the famous cavalier Hernando de Soto, to visit the Inca in his camp.

Great was the astonishment of the Indian soldiers as this strange cavalcade, with clang of arms and blast of trumpet, swept by, man and horse seeming like single beings to their unaccustomed eyes. De Soto, the best mounted of them all, showed his command of his steed in the Inca's presence, by riding furiously over the plain, wheeling in graceful curves, and displaying all the vigor and beauty of skilled horsemanship, finally checking the noble animal in full career when so near the Inca that some of the foam from its lips was thrown on the royal garments. Yet, while many of those near drew back in terror, Atahualpa maintained an unflinching dignity and composure, hiding every show of dread, if any such inspired him.

To the envoys he said, through an interpreter the Spaniards had brought, "Tell your captain that I am keeping a fast, which will end to-morrow morning. I will then visit him with my chieftains. Meanwhile, let him occupy the public buildings on the square, and no other."

Refreshments were now offered the Spaniards, but these they declined, as they did not wish to dismount. Yet they did not refuse to quaff the sparkling drink offered them in golden vases of great size brought by beautiful maidens. Then they rode slowly back, despondent at what they had seen,—the haughty dignity of the Inca and the strength and discipline of his army.

That night there were gloomy forebodings throughout the camp, which were increased as its occupants saw the watch-fires of the Peruvian army, glittering on the hill-sides, as one said, as thick as the stars in heaven." Scarcely a man among them except Pizarro retained his courage; but he went round among his men, bidding them to keep up their spirits, and saying that Providence would not desert them if they trusted to their strength and their cause, as Christians against pagans. They were in Heaven's service and God would aid them.

He then called a council of his officers and unfolded to them a desperate plan he had conceived. This was no less than to lay an ambuscade for the Inca and seize him in the face of his army, holding him as a hostage for the safety of the Christians. Nothing less decisive than this would avail them, he said. It was too late to retreat. At the first sign of such a movement the army of the Inca would be upon them, and they would all be destroyed, either there or in the intricacies of the mountain-passes. Nor could they remain inactive where they were. The Inca was crafty and hostile, and would soon surround them with a network of peril, from which they could not escape. To fight him in the open field was hazardous, if not hopeless. The only thing to do was to take him by surprise on his visit the next day, drive back his followers with death and terror, seize the monarch, and hold him prisoner. With the Inca in their hands his followers would not dare attack them, and they would be practically masters of the empire.

No doubt Pizarro in this plan had in mind that which Cortez had pursued in Mexico. He would take care that Atahualpa should not be killed by his own people, as Montezuma had been, and while the monarch remained alive they would have the strongest guarantee of safety. This bold plan suited the daring character of Pizarro's officers. They agreed with him that in boldness lay their only hope of success or even of life, and they left the council with renewed confidence to prepare for the desperate enterprise.

It was noon the next day before the Inca appeared, his litter borne on the shoulders of his chief nobles and surrounded by others, so glittering with ornaments that, to quote from one of the Spaniards, "they blazed like the sun." A large number of workmen in front swept every particle of rubbish from the road. Behind, and through the fields that lined the road, marched a great body of armed men. But when within half a mile of the city the procession halted, and a messenger was sent to the Spaniards to say that the Inca would encamp there for that night and enter the city the following morning.

These tidings filled Pizarro with dismay. His men had been under arms since daybreak, the cavalry mounted, and the infantry and artillerymen at their posts. He feared the effect on their spirits of a long and trying suspense in such a critical situation, and sent word back to the Inca begging him to come on, as he had everything ready for his entertainment and expected to sup with him that night. This message turned the monarch from his purpose, and he resumed his march, though the bulk of his army was left behind, only a group of unarmed men accompanying him. He evidently had no fear or suspicion of the Spaniards. Little did he know them.

It was near the hour of sunset when the procession reached the city, several thousand Indians marching into the great square, borne high above whom was the Inca, seated in an open litter on a kind of throne made of massive gold, while a collar of emeralds of great size and beauty encircled his neck and his attire was rich and splendid. He looked around him with surprise, as there was not a Spaniard to be seen, and asked, in tones of annoyance, "Where are the strangers?"

At this moment Pizarro's chaplain, a Dominican friar, came forward, with Bible and crucifix in hand, and began to expound to him the Christian doctrines, ending by asking him to acknowledge himself a vassal of the king of Spain. The Inca, when by aid of the interpreter he had gained a glimpse of the priest's meaning, answered him with high indignation, and when the friar handed him the Bible as the authority for his words, he flung it angrily to the earth, exclaiming,

"Tell your comrades that they shall give me an account of their doings in my land. I will not go from here till they have made me full satisfaction for all the wrongs they have committed."

Picking up the sacred volume, the friar hastened to Pizarro, told him what had been said, and cried out,

"Do you not see that while we stand here wasting our breath in talking with this dog, full of pride as he is, the fields are filling with Indians? Set on, at once; I absolve you."

Pizarro waved a white scarf in the air, the signal agreed upon. A gun was fired from the fortress. Then, with the Spanish war-cry of St. Jago and at them!" Pizarro and his followers sprang out into the square. From every avenue of the great building they occupied poured armed men, horse and foot, and rushed in warlike fury upon the Indians. Taken utterly by surprise, the latter were hurled back in confusion. Their ranks rent by the balls from cannon and musketry, hundreds of them tram-pled under foot by the fierce charges of the cavalry, pierced by lances or cut down by swords, they were driven resistlessly back, falling in multitudes as they wildly sought to escape.

The massacre went on with especial intensity around the Inca, his nobles, none of them armed, struggling with what strength they could in his defence. "Let no one who values his life strike at the Inca!" shouted Pizarro, fearing his valued prize might he slain in the wild tumult. Fiercer still grew the struggle around him. The royal litter swayed back and forth, and, as some of its bearers were slain, it was overturned, the monarch being saved from a fall to the ground by Pizarro and some others, who caught him in their arms. With all haste they bore him into the fortress and put him under close guard.

With the capture of the Inca all resistance was at an end. The unarmed Peruvians fled in terror from the fearful massacre. The soldiers in the fields were seized with panic on hearing the fatal news, and dispersed in all directions, pursued by the Spanish cavalry, who cut them down without mercy. Not till night had fallen did Pizarro's men cease the pursuit and return at the call of the trumpet to the bloody square of Caxamalca. In that frightful massacre not less than two thousand victims, perhaps many more, were slain, the most of them unarmed and helpless. That night Pizarro kept his word, that he would sup with Atahualpa, but it was a supper at which he might well have drunk blood. The banquet was served in one of the halls. facing the great square, then thickly paved with the dead, the monarch, stunned by the calamity, sitting beside his captor at the dread meal.

Let us now go forward to a still more spectacular scene in that strange drama, one which proved that the Spaniards had truly at length reached the "land of gold." The Inca was not long a prisoner before he discovered the besetting passion of the Spaniards, their thirst for gold. A party was sent to pillage his pleasure-house, and brought back a rich booty in gold and silver, whose weight and value filled the conquerors with delight.

Thinking that he saw in this a hope of escaping from his captivity, the Inca one day said to Pizarro that if he would agree to set him free, he would cover the floor of the room in which they stood with gold. Pizarro listened with a smile of doubt. As he made no answer, the Inca said, earnestly, that "he would not merely cover the floor, but would fill the room with gold as high as he could reach," and he stood on tiptoe as he put his uplifted hand against the wall. This extraordinary offer filled Pizarro with intense astonishment. That such a thing could be done seemed utterly incredible, despite all they had learned of the riches of Peru. The avaricious conqueror, dazzled by the munificent offer, hastened to accept it, drawing a red line along the wall at the height the Inca had touched. How remarkable the ransom was may be judged from the fact that the room was about seventeen feet wide and twenty-two feet long and the mark on the wall nine feet high. To add to its value, the Inca offered to fill an adjoining but smaller room twice full with silver, and to do all this in the short time of two months. It would seem that he would need Aladdin's wonderful lamp to accomplish so vast and surprising a task.

As soon as the offer was made and accepted, the Inca sent messengers to Cuzco, his capital city, and to the other principal places in his kingdom, with orders to bring all the gold ornaments and utensils from his palaces and from the temples and other public buildings, and transport them in all haste to Caxamalca. While awaiting the golden spoil the monarch was treated with the fullest respect due to his rank, having his own private apartments and the society of his wives, while his nobles were permitted to visit him freely. The only thing the Spaniards took good care of was that he should be kept under close guard.

He took one advantage of his measure of liberty. His brother and rival, Huascar, though a captive, might escape and seize the control of the state, and he learned that the prisoner had sent a private message to Pizarro, offering to pay for his liberty a much larger ransom than that promised by Atahualpa. The Inca was crafty and cruel enough to remove this danger from his path, if we may accept the evidence of his captors. At any rate the royal captive was soon after drowned, declaring with his dying breath that his rival would not long survive him, but that the white men would avenge his murder. Atahualpa told Pizarro, with a show of great sorrow and indignation, of his brother's death, and when the Spaniard threatened to hold him responsible for it, the Inca protested that it had been done without his knowledge or consent by Huascar's keepers, who feared that their captive might escape. However it occurred, Pizarro soon afterward learned that the news was true. It may be that he was well satisfied with the fact, as it removed a leading claimant for the throne from his path.

Meanwhile, the ransom began to come in—slowly, for the distances were great, and the treasure had to be transported on foot by carriers. Most of it consisted of massive pieces of gold and silver plate, some of them weighing from fifty to seventy-five pounds. The Spaniards beheld with gleaming eyes the shining heaps of treasure, brought in on the shoulders of Indian porters, and carefully stored away under guard. On some days articles to the value of half a million dollars are said to have been brought in.

Yet the vast weight in gold which was thus brought before them did not satisfy the avaricious impatience of the Spaniards. They made no allowance for distance and difficulty, and began to suspect the Inca of delaying the ransom until he could prepare a rising of his subjects against the strangers. When Atahualpa heard of these suspicions he was filled with surprise and indignation. "Not a man of my subjects would dare raise a finger without my orders," he said to Pizarro. "Is not my life at your disposal? What better security would you have of my good faith?" He ended by advising him to send some of his own men to Cuzco, where they could see for themselves how his orders were being obeyed. He would give them a safe-conduct, and they could superintend the work themselves.

The three envoys sent were carried the whole distance of more than six hundred miles in litters by relays of carriers, their route laying along the great military road of Peru and through many populous towns. Cuzco they found to be a large and splendid city. The great temple of the Sun was covered with plates of gold, which, by the Inca's orders, were being torn off. There were seven hundred of these plates in all, and a cornice of pure gold ran round the building. But this was so deeply set in the stone that it could not be removed. On their return, these messengers brought with them full two hundred loads of gold, besides great quantities of silver.

Gradually the vast ransom offered by the Inca, far surpassing any paid by any other captive in the world's history, was gathered in. The gold received came in a great variety of shapes, being wrought into goblets, ewers, salvers, vases, and other forms for ornament or use, utensils for temple or palace, tiles and plate used to decorate the public edifices, and curious imitations of plants and animals. The most beautiful and artistic of these was the representation of Indian corn, the ear of gold being sheathed in broad leaves of silver, while the rich tassels were made of the same precious metal. Equally admired was a fountain which sent up a sparkling jet of gold, with birds and animals of the same metal playing in the waters at its base. Some of these objects were so beautifully wrought as to compare favorably with the work of skilled European artists.

The treasure gathered was measured in the room in its original form, this being the compact, but even in this loose form the gold amounted to a sum equal, in modern money, to over fifteen millions of dollars, with a large value in silver in addition. All this was melted down into ingots and divided among the conquerors, with the exception of the royal fifth, reserved for the King of Spain. The latter included many of the most curious works of art. The share of Pizarro probably amounted to not less than a million dollars, anal even the common soldiers received what was wealth to them.

The ransom paid, what was the benefit to the Inca? Was he given his liberty, in accordance with the compact? Yes, the liberty which such men as Francisco Pizarro give to those whom they have injured and have reason to fear. The total ransom offered by Atahualpa had not been brought in, but the impatient Spaniards had divided the spoil without waiting for the whole, and the Inca demanded his freedom. De Soto, who was his chief friend among the Spaniards, told Pizarro of his demand, but could get from him no direct reply. His treacherous mind was brooding deeply over some dark project.

Soon rumors became current among the soldiers of a design of revolt entertained by the natives. These spread and grew until an immense army was conjured up. The Inca was looked upon as the instigator of the supposed rising, and was charged with it by Pizarro. His denial of it had little effect, and the fortress was put in a state of defence, while many of the soldiers began to demand the life of the Inca. To those demands Pizarro did not turn a deaf ear. Possibly they arose at his own instigation.

Hernando Pizarro, who had shown himself a strong friend of the captive, was absent. De Soto, another of his friends, was sent at the head of an expedition to Huamachuco, a town a hundred miles away, where it was said the natives were in arms. Scarcely had he gone when Pizarro, seeming to yield to the demands of the soldiers, decided to bring Atahualpa to trial on the charges against him.

A court was held, with Pizarro and his fellow-captain Almagro as the judges, an attorney-general being appointed for the crown and counsel for the prisoner. The crimes charged against the Inca were chiefly of a kind with which the Spaniards had nothing to do, among them the assassination of Huascar and the guilt of idolatry. These were simply to bolster up the only real charge, that of exciting an insurrection against the Spaniards. The whole affair was the merest show of a trial, and was hurried through without waiting for the return of De Soto, who could have given useful evidence about the insurrection. The culprit was adjudged guilty, and sentenced to be burnt alive that very night in the great square of Caxamalca!

Atahualpa and Pizarro


It was a sentence that might well have been expected as the termination of such a trial by such men. Pizarro, in fact, did not dare to set his captive at liberty, if he proposed to remain in the country, and the cruel sentence, which was common enough at that day, was carried out except in one particular. As the poor Inca stood bound to the stake, with the fagots of his funeral pile heaped around him, Valverde, the Dominican friar, made a last appeal to him to accept the cross and be baptized, promising him a less painful death if he would consent. The Inca, shrinking from the horror of the flames, consented, and was duly baptized under the name of Juan de Atahualpa. He was then put to death in the Spanish manner, by the garrote, or strangulation.

Thus died the Inca of Peru, the victim of Pizarro's treachery. Great was the indignation of De Soto, on his return a day or two later from an expedition in which he had found no rebels, at what had been done. Pizarro tried to exculpate himself and blame others for deceiving him, but these told him to his face that he alone was responsible for the deed. In all probability they told the truth.