Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

In the Land of Poisoned Arrows


Four hundred years ago the continent of South America was known to the world at large only as a vast wilderness inhabited by savages. But a few points had been touched at here and there on its north-eastern coast, and no expeditions of discovery had been made to its unknown interior. Columbus, Vespucius, Pinzon, and others had sailed along certain sections of the coast, but behind the barrier of its mountains all was mystery. It was called, indeed, and for many years after the first landing of Spaniards in the West Indies remained, the "mysterious continent."

It is on the northern coast of this continent, in the year 1510, that we obtain our first glimpse of Francisco Pizarro. He had sailed thither from Santo Domingo, in an expedition commanded by Alonzo de Ojeda, a cavalier renowned for his lion-like courage, but whose impetuous bravery always led him into disaster. His lieutenant, Pizarro, was equally brave and resolute, but cool and calculating, even in the midst of perils; and thus we see him the first time he looms upon the horizon of history, sturdily defending himself against the attacks of desperate Indian hordes.

Behind him and his companions lay the interminable forest, which, swarming with hostile Indians, enveloped them on every side save in front, where stretched the sea, but upon which they could not embark unless some were left to perish. His commander had been given the governorship of a province on the isthmus of Darien; but he had to conquer that province first, and as it was occupied by natives who fancied they had a better right to it than Ojeda—as they really had—and as they were, moreover, fierce and warlike, being allied to the cannibal Caribs of the islands, he found himself engaged in war at the outset.

There were no braver men in the world than the Spaniards of those days, seasoned by their wars with the Moors and their many encounters with the American Indians, and, as every foe they met had been overcome, they held these natives of the New World in contempt, from the ease with which they were vanquished. There was hardly a Spaniard who did not consider himself a match for at least a score of Indians, clad as he was in his impenetrable armor of steel, and armed with keen-edged sword or arquebuse; while his naked enemy was almost defenceless, his rude weapons consisting solely of war-club and javelin, or lance of fire-hardened wood, with bow and arrows. But these natives of "Terra Firma"—as the north coast was called—possessed a weapon which made them for a time the equals of the Spaniards. It was the terrible poisoned arrow, dipped in the deadly curare, or woorari, prepared by them in the secret recesses of the forests.

Clouds of these envenomed arrows assailed the Spaniards as they landed on the hostile shore; but they did not heed them, having hitherto considered an arrow-wound as of no consequence. When, however, soldier after soldier dropped to the ground in most excruciating torments, which were swiftly ended by inevitable death, the survivors became panic-stricken. Ojeda thus lost seventy of his men in his first encounter with the Indians of Terra Firma, and was himself wounded in the thigh, and would certainly have died but for his heroic remedy, which he made his surgeon apply, on pain of death for refusal. Wrenching the envenomed arrow from the wound, he enclosed his thigh between two red-hot plates of iron. By this means the poison was expelled, though the limb was scorched and shrivelled; but he survived, while his pilot, the gallant Juan de la Cosa, died from a similar wound, after his body had swollen to twice its natural size.

Although equally exposed with Ojeda, Francisco Pizarro survived this skirmish with the Indians unharmed, to make his bow to posterity. He was simply a soldier of fortune, seeking adventure as another man might have sought game in the forest or fish in the sea. He had enlisted as a private in the expedition; but when at last it became necessary for Ojeda to return to Santo Domingo for reinforcements, he was left in command of the decimated company, and in this capacity showed his abilities.

It is doubtful if he ever before aspired to leadership, being apparently contented with his position in the ranks; but he accepted what was thrust upon him without protest, and did his duty as before. He promised Ojeda to await his return during fifty days; but thenceforth ill-luck pursued the gallant leader to the verge of the grave, which he found in Santo Domingo at the end of this very voyage. He never returned to succor his companions, and in this manner, as the leader of a forlorn hope against starvation and violence, Pizarro found his first command.

Never was an inexperienced commander left in a more perilous situation. Turn whichever way he would, he found himself menaced by a danger. Inland stretched the vast forest, which white men had scarcely penetrated but which was alive with hostile savages. The bay upon which the projected settlement had been begun opened invitingly to the sea, upon which was safety, and beyond were friends. But the two small vessels left by Ojeda could not carry the company, and there was no alternative but to wait until famine, assisted by the Indians with their poisoned arrows, had sufficiently thinned out that devoted band. It was a dreadful choice—of death by starvation or by violence—but Pizarro grimly accepted the hard conditions, and, intrenching himself behind palisades of palm-logs, awaited the inevitable ending. It came in about six months, when there remained only men enough to fill the brigantines. They killed the horses they had saved for this emergency, salted their meat for sea-stores, and embarked.

While as a hero of history Francisco Pizarro cannot be ignored, it may be truthfully urged that he was not an ideal one. As we proceed in the history of his life we shall discover that though he remains to the end patient, persevering, and uncomplaining—possesses, in fact, many admirable qualities—he is ever brutal, cold-blooded in his cruelties, calculating in his villanies. While he remains in the ranks, and even when holding a little brief authority, his baser qualities do not appear; but it is probably because he has not become so prominent as to command attention.

And yet, perhaps, an excuse may be found, not only in the circumstances of his early life, but in those by which he was surrounded when first we find him. His heart may have been seared by the horrors of that long wait in the wilderness, when he was compelled, day after day, to witness the death-throes of comrades; to repel attacks by the savages; to steel himself against the cries of the wounded and dying; to hold himself, through it all, ready for any emergency: He was coarse by nature, perhaps brutal; but the sufferings of that six months' siege probably made him callous, and insensible to sympathy. Upon some natures this terrible experience would have operated towards the softening of their hearts; but Francisco Pizarro seems to have been made of that stern stuff which hardens in the fire of affliction.

It was his intention to sail direct for Santo Domingo, whence he had come; but when only a few leagues from shore he was met by an expedition under command of one Enciso, a lawyer, with reinforcements and provisions. As soon as Enciso, who had come out as Ojeda's partner, learned that the famished men were deserting their post, he was for putting them all in irons; but he was resisted by Pizarro, who compelled him to furnish them with supplies, which he did on condition that they would return to the settlement.

It seemed fated that Pizarro should not leave the isthmus until he had discovered certain things which led up, step by step, to the conquest he achieved a few years later. His better judgment urged him to return to Santo Domingo, but by the arrival of Enciso he was now only second in command, and compelled to obey him. He submitted without a murmur, for, in whatever school he had been trained, previous to his ventures in America, he had learned to obey.

The three vessels sought the harbor of San Sebastian—as the settlement had been named—but it was with reluctance that those who had suffered there so acutely returned, and the very fact that Enciso forced them to do so excited a dissension which resulted in his ruin. They found the palisades broken down, and the Indians, who had destroyed it, as expert as ever in the use of poisoned arrows. They caused such consternation that, though one of the vessels had foundered, carrying down nearly all their provisions, they resolved to evacuate San Sebastian and seek another refuge.

They were reduced to the verge of starvation; but after subsisting awhile upon the buds of palm-trees and the flesh of such animals as they could find in the forest, they were saved by a man who had not been invited to become one of their number, but who had come out from Santo Domingo headed-up in a barrel. This man was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who, of course, is known to every reader of history as the discoverer of the Pacific. When he had broken out of his barrel and made his appearance before Enciso on shipboard in mid-sea, that worthy was for throwing him overboard at once; for as a lawyer he knew the risks in protecting a man who, like Balboa, had run away from his creditors. It would have been better for Enciso had he carried out his original intention, for Balboa was largely responsible for his downfall when, elected alcalde  of the second settlement these wanderers founded, he expelled the lawyer from their midst.



For the time, however, Balboa was the savior of the starving colonists, as he led them to an Indian village, far inland, where they found not only provisions in abundance, but golden idols, chains, and breast-plates in the greatest profusion. These inland Indians, unfortunately for them, did not use the poisoned arrow, so the Spaniards, weak and famishing as they were, had everything their own way. They slashed the poor natives with their swords, pierced them with lances, shot them down with arquebuses, and, after making many prisoners, founded near the site of their village the town of Antigua.

At this point the fortunes of Balboa and Pizarro rise, in proportion as those of Enciso descend. With the expulsion of the unfortunate lawyer from the colony, we have nothing to do, for it is the fortune of the patient, plodding, and as yet unambitious Pizarro that we are following. Many years later Enciso cast Pizarro into prison on account of his share in the proceedings against him at Antigua; but that will be mentioned when we come to it. For a brief period of his career Pizarro's fate and Balboa's became, as it were, intertwined, for they were much alike and the best of comrades; but so long as they were together, the "man-of-the-barrel" was ever the leader, and the common soldier seemed content to have it so.

While he held a subordinate position, it appears, Pizarro never quarrelled with his companions, either of his own rank or with those above him. He was a model soldier, and in many respects an admirable man—of a sort, but not the sort that would command admiration or respect at the present day.

Pizarro was always at the beck and call of Balboa, and if he ever protested against the treatment of Ojeda's partner, and that of the still more unfortunate Nicuesa (who was not only deprived of his province, but set adrift to perish in obscurity), no record has been made of the fact. He became captain of a company, and that seemed to be the limit of his ambition. But he was a good captain, good to his men, faithful to his commander, hesitating at no difficult duty assigned him, balking at no peril or prospective danger.

Sent out by Balboa in search of gold, he discovered a province in which the sepulchres of the natives were full of treasure in the shape of little golden gods and ornaments. Despatched against the hostile Indians of the mountains far from the coast, he defeated them with great slaughter, though having with him a mere handful of fighting-men. For they lacked that weapon of which mention has been made—the poisoned arrow.

It is strange that, while the mountaineers made no use of this effective arm against the invaders of their territory, the natives of the coast, from Paria to Darien, all possessed it. An Italian who visited the north coast of South America about the middle of the sixteenth century wrote: "The principal arms the Indians carry are bows with poisoned arrows, which they make either of palm wood or of slender river reeds; and instead of iron at the point they tie hard fish-scales or pieces of flint, anointing them with a black bitumen which is a pure venom, made from roots, herbs, ants, and some other beastly mixtures, and then moistened with snake's blood, by old women, who boil it with great diligence until it is brought to perfection; and owing to the injurious vapors which rise from it, most of these women die in consequence. When the fluid is fresh, the man's body that is wounded with it swells inwardly and he soon dies mad. But if the poison has been prepared a long time it loses a great part of its strength and deadly virus, so that the wounded man may be cured by a red-hot iron, with which his wound is seared, and thus he does not die."

The same traveller states that after Enciso had been expelled from Darien, Balboa started inland in search of gold. He made friends with some Indian chiefs, one of whom was called Panciaco, and was baptized by the Spaniards as Don Carlos. "He gave them a certain quantity of gold; but seeing how they quarrelled in the sharing of it, with one hand he tossed it all out of the scales onto the ground, saying: 'I am not a little surprised that you Christians make such a fuss about so vile a thing, as if it were good to eat or to drink! But since you have so great a desire for this metal, I will lead you to a place where you all may satisfy yourselves with it.' He then conducted them to the great Southern Ocean. Balboa, on account of the great riches that he found in this province, named it the Golden Castile, and there the city of Panama is now established."

On another expedition, led by Pizarro, a cacique  named Careta was captured, whose daughter, said to be a comely maiden, Balboa took as his wife, thus making an ally of an Indian who might have proved a determined enemy. Through this maiden, or her father, Balboa first heard of the great Southern Ocean, which we now know as the Pacific, and, being seconded by his indomitable captain, Francisco Pizarro, he determined to seek it out. The journey was long, and for a great part of the distance lay through the hostile territory of King Ponca, who was finally converted from foe to friend, and consented to guide them to the ocean.

After more than three weeks in the forests, enduring terrible privations, the summit of a lofty mountain appeared above the wilderness of trees. Before they reached it, however, they were assailed by the hostiles of another tribe, of whom the Spaniards killed more than six hundred, from their deserted huts securing vast treasure in pearls and gold. They found, also, what was then to them of more importance, an abundant supply of food. Encouraged by the evidence of wealth in this new country, and refreshed by their repasts, after so much suffering, Balboa and Pizarro pressed forward with renewed energy, accompanied by less than fourscore men of their command, the others having fallen out by the way. Still with them, however, was the famous blood-hound, Leoncito, who had torn so many Indians in pieces that he was a host in himself, and at sight of whom the timid natives fled in affright.

At last, right in front of them rose the craggy peak which King Ponca had pointed out at a distance and from which, he said, the great Southern Ocean might be seen. Commanding his men to wait till further orders, Balboa climbed eagerly to the summit, desirous to be the first to view that watery world which had thus far eluded the search of all explorers, including Columbus, the first, and himself, the last.

Its magnitude, its extent, he may not have imagined; but whatever it might be, he, Balboa, was the first white man to gaze upon it, and, if the records may be credited, Captain Pizarro was the second. For, after sinking upon his knees and offering thanks to God for the great favor which had been granted him, Balboa rose and waved his hands to his companions as a signal to join him. Led by their captain, they pressed forward rapidly, scrambling to the peak beside him, whence they gazed enraptured upon the shimmering surface of the ocean, like a silver crescent in the distance, with vast stretch of intervening forests beautiful to behold.

This notable event occurred on September 25, 1513, at which date Francisco Pizarro had passed more than three years in the vast forest-wilderness of Darien.