Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

The Desperate Adventurer


It was no consolation for Pizarro to learn that, while he was on his return voyage, Almagro was seeking him in the south, and that they were playing a game of cross-purposes. Yet such was the case. His faithful partner, after again raking and scraping the environs of Panama, as with a fine-tooth comb, had raised a scurvy crew of soldier-sailors, and, fitting up the second vessel they had purchased, had sailed in search of him down the coast.

He barely missed him several times, at last arriving at Quemado, where Pizarro had received such a warm reception. The natives had returned to their village, and behind the palisades awaited the coming of the strangers. No gold was to be found, as it had been taken away by Pizarro, but Almagro resolved to attack the place, nevertheless.

He assailed it with fury, and eventually drove out its defenders; but he fared still worse than Pizarro, whose wounds were not severe, as he was wounded in the head by a javelin and lost the sight of an eye.

He narrowly escaped with his life, and the pain from his wound was great, yet he persevered in his search, sailing farther south than any one before him, and turning about at the river San Juan, where he found a large Indian settlement and lands in a high state of cultivation.

Having landed at different points along the coast, when on the way thither, Almagro contrived to secure considerable treasure, so his voyage was not altogether bootless, though personally he had suffered severely. Touching at the Pearl Islands on his way back, he learned that Pizarro was then in hiding at Chicama, and, seeking him out, had the satisfaction of finding him still in health, and with about fifty stout comrades still faithful to their cause. They embraced with fervor, and then, after recounting their adventures, mutually resolved to continue their explorations.

The old governor was still obdurate, but finally De Luque, the clerigo, won him over; though, with malicious cunning, he insisted that Almagro should accompany the second expedition and have equal command with Pizarro. This condition, as he craftily intended, made trouble, by exciting the suspicions of Pizarro, who was disposed to believe that Almagro had solicited the command himself. Up to this time the three friends had worked in harmony for the success of their schemes. De Luque had furnished the funds, Almagro had toiled night and day to fit out, arm, provision, and man the vessels, while Pizarro had not spared himself nor his crew in his endeavors to insure success.

Pedrarias did all he could to cripple the enterprise and to excite distrust in the minds of the two chief adventurers. They were soon to see the last of him, but before he was superseded he shot a "Parthian arrow" at them, in the demand for an accounting. He proposed to retire from the partnership, and demanded, as his share of the spoils, four thousand pesos. He finally accepted a thousand, and, after much grumbling and many threats as to what he would do to Pizarro when once he had him again in Panama, he allowed the original trio to continue their explorations.

Almagro sailed from Panama at last, with two ships, better fitted for the voyage than before, and with a force of one hundred and sixty men. He gave the command of one ship to Pizarro, retaining the other for himself. Previous to setting out, the contract entered into by the partners was reaffirmed in the same solemn manner as before, each one taking oath, "in the name of God and the holy Evangelists," to be true to the others. Whatever might result from the enterprise, even to the extent of a kingdom or an empire, with the captives and their ransoms, was to be divided equally. This they mutually promised and swore to, calling upon God to take vengeance upon them if they failed to comply with the provisions of the contract.

This instrument was dated March 10, 1526, and received the signatures of Pizarro and Almagro by proxy, as one of these worthies was absent, and neither of them could write. So affecting was the ceremonial which took place, as before, in the great cathedral, that many of the spectators were "moved to tears"; yet the two commanders were scarcely afloat upon the ocean ere the slumbering flame of distrust broke forth. Subsequently, they almost came to blows, and in the end one of them lost his life, virtually at the hands of the other.

Afloat at last, however, with two good ships, some good men, a few horses, and munitions, Almagro and Pizarro steered straight for the river San Juan, arrived at which they threw off the mask of friendship assumed on former occasions and promptly attacked the natives. In one of the towns along the banks of the river they captured several Indians, and booty to the amount of fifteen thousand pesos in gold. This plunder, so quickly obtained, determined them on a course of action which shows the wisdom and energy of the leaders. Knowing that the sight of it would create a profound impression in Panama, and probably draw recruits to their cause, it was resolved that Almagro should at once return and endeavor to obtain such recruits, while the pilot of the expedition, in the other ship, should proceed southward on an exploring trip merely, without engaging in hostilities.

Each was to return as speedily as possible, after his purpose was achieved, and report to Pizarro, who, with the bulk of the soldiery, was to remain on or near the coast. It was a wild, a desperate scheme, and one only to be thought of by desperate adventurers, for, according to reports from the natives, they were then on the verge of a populous country, the warlike natives of which could easily sweep away, by concerted effort, any small band of invaders like this, even though encased in steel and armed with wonderful weapons. But the voyagers sailed off, Almagro to the north and Ruiz, the pilot, to the south, leaving Pizarro and his men alone in the enemies' country.

It was not long before this isolated band of Spaniards was enduring the pangs of hunger, and Pizarro's old enemy, starvation, looked him in the face again. For himself, seemingly, Pizarro did not care; he was used to privation, even laughed at famine. By his patient endurance, tact, sympathy, and never-ceasing attentions, he won the regard of his men, and kept their spirits up until Ruiz, the pilot, returned with most wonderful stories of what he had seen on the southward voyage. He had not only discovered cities and towns occupied by people far advanced in civilization, but had seen and over-hauled a large native boat, by the Indians called a balsa, which contained a cargo that might have come from the Spice Islands.

The balsa, of itself, was a wonderful craft, being the first ever found, owned by natives of America, navigated by means of a sail. It was a large double raft, with thatched huts on its decks, containing bales of cloths delicate in texture and exquisite in coloring, beautiful pottery, and articles in gold, together with scales in which to weigh the precious metal and gems. Conversing with the owners of the balsa by means of signs, Ruiz had learned of a land beyond, which abounded in temples and palaces, and the capital of which, called Cuzco, was the home of Huayna Capac, their king. The mountains contained rich veins of silver and mines of gold, while the hills were covered with their native sheep, by them called llamas, from the wool of which the cloths composing their gaments were woven. They themselves came from the coast town of Tumbez, which, though a place of importance, could not compare with the capital.

Ruiz had met with people prepared to fight him, but, as his instructions were to explore, and not to engage in conflict with the natives, he had avoided close contact with them, and had thus returned without having shed human blood, and with little plunder. It is refreshing to read of an expedition like this one conducted by sturdy Bartholomew Ruiz, a native of Moguer, the little town near Palos, in Spain, which produced the Pinzons, who befriended and sailed with Columbus. His townsman and exemplar, Vicente Yanez Pinzon, was the first European to cross the equator on the Atlantic coast of South America, and Ruiz has the distinction of being the first to pass south of the line on the Pacific; though Magellan had first crossed it sailing northwardly, in 1520.

While the pilot was absent, Pizarro and his band had endured incredible sufferings, mainly from hunger and sickness. Clouds of mosquitoes had made them miserable, caimans, or alligators, had devoured some of the Spaniards, and fourteen had lost their lives in attacks by the natives. Still, Pizarro was undaunted, and when, a few days after the arrival of Ruiz, Almagro returned with provisions and a reinforcement of eighty soldiers, he immediately re-embarked his men.

All were now in good spirits, with a prospect of leaving the scenes of their sufferings behind them, and a lure of gold and gems to lead them on. But the winds and sea-currents turned against them, tempests arose and buffeted them sorely, and they were compelled to seek a haven. This they found in a natural harbor of an island which had been discovered by Ruiz and by him called Gallo. Here they remained a fort-night, engaged in recruiting their strength and repairing their vessels, which the gales had racked severely. Then they went on again, and passing over to the main-land arrived off the port of Tacamez, a town of two thousand dwellings arranged along regular streets, which were filled with people, whose golden ornaments glittered in the sunshine. Two rivers coursed through a verdant and highly cultivated plain, one of which, Pizarro was told by some captives aboard, flowed over golden sands, while the other was famous for its brilliant emeralds.

The country was evidently richer than any other the Spaniards had seen; but even so, its inhabitants knew how to defend it, for a flotilla of war-canoes came out to meet the ships, with golden ensigns at their prows, while a force estimated at ten thousand warriors marched along the shore, seeking an opportunity to engage the enemy at close quarters. This opportunity the dauntless Pizarro was disposed to give them; but, landing with a force of mailed soldiers for the purpose, he was soon surrounded by an overwhelming number of warriors. They were well armed, too, and pressed him and his small company so hard that they were in danger of being driven into the sea, if not entirely annihilated, when they were saved as if by a miracle. That is, if we may believe the story told by the Spaniards, a miracle in guise of an accident saved them. Some of the horses had been landed, the cavaliers had mounted, and were preparing to charge the assembled hosts, when one of them fell from his charger. The Indians had never seen a horse before, and like others of their race, as in Mexico, thought steed and rider formed one animal. When, therefore, this strange animal fell apart, they were more astonished than at sight of the original apparition, and, opening their ranks, allowed the Spaniards to regain their ships.

Whether this really happened or not, it is certain that even such doughty fighters as Almagro and Pizarro deemed it best not to attack this horde of barbarians, after experiencing the nature of the reception they had prepared for them, and at a council of war, aboard ship, resolved upon retracing their course to the island of Gallo. Neither of the captains was prepared to abandon the expedition entirely, but both were convinced that to proceed farther, with their incomplete equipment, would be the height of folly. The question now arose as to which one should remain and which proceed to Panama for reinforcements. Pizarro held that he should be allowed to make the voyage while Almagro remained behind, for it was hardly fair that the latter should have all the pleasuring, careering about in a ship or loitering at home, while he, Pizarro, should under-go the toil and suffering.

His partner held otherwise, arguing that he had the requisite experience in obtaining recruits and supplies, and, moreover, that, although Pedrarias was now superseded by another governor, he still had influence enough to "lay Pizarro by the heels" and cast him into a dungeon. If both went back without having accomplished anything worth while, there was a certainty that their creditors would incarcerate them forthwith, in default of the treasure which they had hoped to receive for their advances. This was the only thing upon which they agreed.

The dispute waxed so warm that each laid his hand on his sword, and but for the interference of Ruiz, and Ribera the king's treasurer, there might have been an encounter. Both were good swordsmen, both were valiant and obstinate, so there was little doubt that one or both would have been slain. But, while Almagro was of powerful build, he was short and "squatty," and lacked the "reach" of his antagonist, Pizarro, who was tall, broad-shouldered, and as agile as ever he had been in the best days of his soldiering.

In passing, we may as well mention that, of the two, Pizarro more nearly approached the ideal leader and commander, being handsome, energetic, and unsparing of himself on tedious march, or in action with the enemy. Almagro, however, though hideously ugly and afflicted with disease, was equally brave, and had the reputation of being more generous and companionable than his rival.

A truce was patched up between the two, and after his blood had cooled, Pizarro consented to remain at Gallo, while Almagro returned to Panama for another foray upon its resources. As all the soldiers also wished to return, being heartily disgusted with the hard conditions by which they were oppressed, the two commanders were hardly able to restrain them. Prevented, not only from leaving the island with Almagro, but from sending home letters to their friends, these soldiers "kindled a fire in the rear" of their leaders by smuggling a note to Panama in a ball of cotton sent as a specimen product to the governor's wife. In this "round robin," signed by several of the soldiers, their woes were recited in doggerel verse, which, though rude and unpolished, became an effective weapon against Almagro and Pizarro. These two were compared to a drover and a butcher, the one going to Panama for victims, the other remaining at Gallo, but both engaged in slaughter:

"O good Lord Senor Governor,

Have pity on our woes;

The butcher stays behind with us,

To you the drover goes!"

The soldiers' verses, together with the haggard and emaciated appearance of the returning survivors, had such an effect upon the new governor, Pedro de los Rios, that he not only forbade the raising of more recruits, but at once despatched two vessels to Gallo for Pizarro and his men. They were under command of a lawyer named Tafur, who found the objects of his search in a famishing condition, their clothing in rags, their armor rusty and battered, and themselves dispirited to the last degree. They hailed the coming of Tafur with delight, and, after ravenously consuming the food he gave them, gladly consented to return with him to Panama. All, in fact, returned, save Pizarro and thirteen stout-hearted companions, who decided to remain with him and share the toils and dangers of another campaign. Various stories are told of the manner in which Pizarro persuaded these thirteen to remain with him, but that which has received credence from most historians is the following: He assembled his men on the strand, and, marking a line in the sand with his sword, stepped across it, saying: "On this side lies Peru, which is to be gained only by fatigue, hunger, thirst, and the facing of dangers untold; on the other is Panama, with its life of ease, but of poverty and obscurity. Choose ye, comrades, whether to go back with Tafur or remain with me; for I have no desire to force any man against his will."

It was a crisis in Pizarro's life, and he met it boldly. Folding his arms across his breast, he stood proudly erect, and waited the decision of his comrades. He knew, and they knew, that no matter how many stayed behind, nothing could be done without further assistance from Panama; but this assistance was promised, by Almagro and the clerigo, provided Pizarro would hold on a little longer. It was the moral effect of the act, in refusing to abandon what had been gained, and holding to what had been achieved, that would enable them to win in the end.

At first, there was much murmuring among the company clustered together on the sands; then one of them turned suddenly and strode across the line to Pizarro's side. It was Ruiz, the pilot, a man animated by high aspirations. He was soon joined by another, a Greek cavalier, Pedro of Candia, who afterwards became a shining figure in the conquest. Eleven others followed them, and that was all. Just a "baker's dozen" stayed by Pizarro, out of more than a hundred. The commander bit his lip, his eye flashed; but he uttered no word, either of reproach or commendation. He had his own reasons for remaining, and his comrades, he supposed, also had theirs; but he resolved that their constancy to him in his evil fortune should not go unrewarded.

After they had crossed the line, and thus cast in their lot with his, not one of them went back; except that the pilot, Ruiz, was sent with Tafur to aid Almagro in fitting out another expedition. The lawyer was provoked by the action of Pizarro and his sturdy twelve, and at first refused to give them any provisions, but finally relented, and then sailed away to the north, leaving them alone upon this desolate island.

Gallo was so very desolate, indeed, that the Spaniards concluded they could not exist upon it, so they constructed a raft (no vessel having been left them), and made their way to the isle of Gorgona, about seventy miles distant. They were several days in making the voyage, but when arrived at Gorgona found it high and wooded, with spring-fed streams coursing through thickets of tropical vegetation. As pheasants and rabbits were abundant here, which the Spaniards killed with their cross-bows, they did not lack for food at first; but after these had become scarce, they were compelled to subsist upon such shell-fish as they could find, together with palm nuts and buds. They were not, however, brought to such extremities as at Quemado, though they often went hungry and suffered greatly from noxious insects.

It was a sort of Crusoe life that Pizarro and his twelve companions led at Gorgona, though they were not quite so solitary as Defoe's sailor castaway, whose adventures occurred about one hundred and forty years after their own. Seven months they lived isolated from all others of their kind, on an island so near the mainland that a balsa could easily have reached it had the natives been disposed to venture. Fortunately for Pizarro, the Indians of that coast were not seafarers, and he was not molested. But if they had known how near to them and how defenceless existed that man who was to cause them and their kindred untold misery, by sending over a few balsa-loads of warriors they might have saved their kingdom from destruction.