Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

On the Peruvian Frontier


On a day in January, 1531, nearly three years after his departure for Spain, Pizarro launched the fourth and largest expedition, for which he had been so long preparing, and in which he had invested everything he possessed. His ships were freighted with his hopes, as well, for he never despaired of achieving the conquest upon which he had set his heart.

Having in mind the treasures he had seen at Tumbez, and doubting not they were yet awaiting him, he issued orders for his pilots to steer straight for the gulf of Guayaquil, upon which that port was situated. Baffling winds and currents forced him to land at a point about sixty miles from Tumbez; but still, despite these obstacles, he traversed in fourteen days a distance it had taken him two years to gain in his previous attempts.

Landing his troops in the province of Coaque, Pizarro marched them along the shore, while the ships pursued a parallel course by sea, and in this manner he approached and surprised an Indian village. The inhabitants came forth to greet him amicably, as they had done before, relying upon the supposed friendliness of the strangers; but, having arrived in strength and with power, the Spaniards cast off the cloak of humanity, which they had assumed in their weakness, and fell upon the Indians like fiends. They fled in terror as the soldiers, sword in hand, ravaged the village of all they possessed, not only of gold, silver, and gems, but of food as well. A vast amount of spoil was obtained, which, boasted Pizarro, would never have been found if they had not surprised the natives before they could secrete it.

"Hereafter, comrades," he said, as he harangued his men in the deserted village, "we will do as we have done to-day. The friendship of the natives is a good thing, but their treasure is what we are after. We will pursue this course at Tumbez, for there we shall find enough to enrich us all. This is but paltry plunder to what we shall find at Tumbez!"

Still, there was gold, in ornaments and grains; and as for emeralds, they were so numerous that the Spaniards did not realize their value. Some were found as large as birds' eggs; but the best of them were destroyed by the soldiers, on the advice of one Fray Reginaldo, a Dominican monk, who had come out to convert the heathen, but who was not averse to despoiling them of their riches. Fray Reginaldo advised the soldiers to test the stones with a hammer. If they broke, they were not precious stones, but if they did not break they were true emeralds, said Fray Reginaldo.

The simple soldiers took his advice, and thus lost their gems; but it was noticed that the monk did not submit his own emeralds (of which he had a goodly number secreted about his person) to this rude test. On the contrary, he preserved them all intact, and on his return to Panama disposed of them at values greatly enhanced by the destruction of the soldiers' emeralds, which, if they had been saved and sold, might have caused a glut in the market.

No soldier was allowed to plunder for himself, solely, but was obliged, under pain of death, to make a return to his commander of everything he had taken. The pillage of this Indian village was brought together in a heap, and after deducting the "royal fifth"—or the amount that was always reserved for the crown—the remainder was divided among the soldiers in proportion to their rank. Pizarro dealt more fairly by his men, when dividing the spoils, than CortÚs in Mexico, and they rarely had occasion to complain. Realizing the necessity existing for making an impression upon the people of Panama, he concluded to send the bulk of this pillage back to the isthmus, together with the vessels comprising his small squadron. It amounted to twenty thousand castellanos, or more than two hundred thousand dollars, and when it reached Panama created a great sensation.

The effect upon the Panamans was what Pizarro had calculated, and reinforcements were sent back by the returning ships; but, unfortunately, the resources of the isthmus in respect to population were not too great. Still, there is little doubt that Pizarro never could have accomplished anything in Peru, had it not been for that convenient way-station established by old Pedrarias on the south coast of the isthmus. Panama and Pizarro are of necessity linked together in the conquest of Peru, and, poor as was the support afforded the conqueror by the infant settlement, he could not have existed without it.

After several months of marching and waiting, during which the little army suffered terribly from an epidemic that laid many a soldier low, a vessel arrived off the coast containing provisions. It also brought as passengers the royal officials, such as the veedor, or inspector, king's treasurer, and comptroller, who had been left behind in the haste of departure from Spain, and whose presence was not over-welcome, as they were not soldiers, but spies. A more acceptable addition to Pizarro's force was that of a valiant officer named Benalcazar, who joined him with thirty soldiers. These about supplied the places of those lost by disease, and Pizarro continued his march along the shores of Guayaquil until he arrived opposite the island of Puna. He was then on the mainland, and had no craft of any kind in which to reach the island, where he purposed to establish a camp and await the arrival of reinforcements.

This island lies at the mouth of the Guayaquil river, is about twenty miles in length by four in breadth, and at the time of Pizarro's visit was covered with magnificent forests. While he was pondering upon the problem of how to reach it without boats, the cacique of the island chanced to come over to the mainland with a number of attendants. He not only cordially invited Pizarro to visit him, but offered to ferry his army across on balsas, which, without delay, his men constructed on the spot, of materials obtained in the forest. They were so large and so buoyant, that the whole army went over on them together with the guns, baggage, and horses.

A camp was pitched in a beautiful grove on a headland, whence a view was afforded of the bay, and distant Tumbez across the waters, and where the Spaniards were daily visited by thousands of Indians, who professed the greatest joy at being allowed to entertain them as guests. Their manifestations of gladness were so extravagant that Pizarro finally became suspicious, and, sending spies into the forest and fields, discovered that his professed friends were drilling their warriors for battle and making weapons for warfare, such as arrows, bows, spears, and javelins.

They had drawn Pizarro into a trap, and were about to spring it; but the grim soldier was not one to await the movements of an enemy. His motto was ever, "Well begun, half won," and to begin well meant, with him, a sharp and sudden attack before the enemy was aware of his designs.

A number of chiefs had met in a hut to consult together upon the best means for destroying their enemy. Informed of this by his interpreter, Pizarro surrounded the hut with his soldiers, and captured every one. The chiefs protested their innocence, but their enemies, the Indians of Tumbez, some of whom had come over to greet the Spaniards, declared they were worthy of death, so they were permitted by Pizarro to kill them. They beheaded these unfortunate caciques, every one, and the result was that their people rose in insurrection, whether they had intended earlier to do so or not. The little band of Spaniards, less than two hundred in number, was soon surrounded by thousands of savages, whooping, howling, and fighting with demoniac fury. Amid showers of darts and arrows, Pizarro and his brothers led a charge upon the Indians, in which a few of the Spaniards fell to rise no more, and Hernando Pizarro was wounded by a javelin in the leg.

The savages, however, were repulsed, and fled in terror to the deeper forest, whence, for days afterwards, they emerged singly or in small parties, for the purpose of cutting off stragglers and sentinels. This mode of warfare the Spaniards could not successfully combat, and it was becoming excessively annoying, when they were greatly relieved, one day, by the sight of a vessel approaching the island. It was filled with volunteers, to the number of one hundred or more, under the command of Fernando de Soto. This opportune arrival of the cavalier who subsequently discovered the Mississippi, bringing with him the veterans of Nicaragua, as well as spare horses for the cavalry, put a different face on the affair.

Pizarro now had at his command a well-equipped force of about three hundred men, and felt strong enough to carry out his designs against the city of Tumbez. Embarking his soldiers in the ship, therefore, and lading the horses and baggage upon balsas, he crossed the gulf to the mainland. He anticipated some resistance from the inhabitants of Tumbez, as at the time of his first visit it was strongly fortified and filled with warriors; but he was not prepared for what he did experience, when, having landed on the mainland, he formed his forces for the attack. In the first place, the natives cut off one of his balsas by stratagem and killed three of his men; in the second, when he advanced with his soldiers, to storm the city if it resisted, or to treat with its people if they were inclined to surrender, he found it entirely deserted. During the long interval between his arrival at Puna and his descent upon Tumbez, the inhabitants of the latter place had received correct information as to the real intentions of the Spaniards. They knew, at last, the character of the men who, only a few years before, had come in the guise of peaceful missionaries, who spurned their gifts of gold, and who affected heart-felt concern as to their souls' salvation.

The Indians of Coaque had sent word of their rapine, those of Puna could testify as to their lust for blood, and the dwellers in Tumbez concluded to retreat before it was too late. They not only deserted their city, but so far as they could demolished it, so that only the fortress and the great temple remained intact, though stripped of their golden decorations. The priests and nobles had fled, taking with them all their treasures; the "brides of the Inca" also had disappeared, taking with them the rare flowers of gold and silver that had bloomed in their gardens; while of the two Spaniards who had been left here by Pizarro, there was not the slightest trace.

Then, perhaps, Pizarro doubted the wisdom of his policy of rapine—when his soldiers, bereft of the last hope of sharing the treasures they were told Tumbez contained, murmured and muttered, almost rebelled. Promises were no longer of avail to pacify, neither would threats subdue them, so Pizarro placed himself at their head and led them into the country. The curaca of Tumbez was captured, but no satisfaction was obtained from him, though through his efforts a scroll of paper was delivered by an Indian to Pizarro, on which had been written, by one of the Spaniards left in his charge on the first visit: "Know ye, whoever ye may be that may chance to set foot in this country, that it contains more gold and silver than there is iron in Biscay!" Whether, as the disappointed soldiers insinuated, this paper was a mere device of their commander to keep alive their expectations, or whether it was really genuine, the truth of its statement was made manifest ere many months had passed. The land of the Incas was a land of gold, indeed, only the surface deposits of which had been gathered by the Peruvians, and many a galleon was to sail from the isthmus to Spain, laden with a golden cargo.

Sending out De Soto and his cavalry to reconnoitre in the foot-hills, Pizarro advanced with the main army along the coast. He had convinced himself, at last, that the policy of pillage was not the true one, for he found that it angered the people and that news of his doings was transmitted ahead of him, to his great disadvantage. So he ordered that the natives, when met with, should be unmolested, unless they themselves provoked an attack. This meant that few deeds of violence were done at that time, as the natives were responsive to good treatment and rarely, if ever, began hostilities. On the contrary, they received the invaders with hospitality, feeding them from their scanty stock of supplies, and providing them with shelters at night.

So Pizarro again assumed the role of missionary, proclaiming peace and good-will, as before. His reason for this appears, when we reflect that he had now cut loose from his base of supplies on the coast, and was advancing into unknown country. What was before him he knew not, but, from scattered fragments of information obtained through his interpreters, he learned that the ruler of the land was not so very far away, and probably awaiting his coming, with countless thousands of trained warriors. It would not be good policy, therefore, to leave a hostile population between his army and the coast, which in case of his defeat might rise and massacre.

More than a year had elapsed since his departure from Panama, for he left Tumbez early in May, 1532, and a month later might have been found in the beautiful valley of the Piura, the fertility of which, proclaimed by verdant fields and most luxuriant vegetation, induced him to halt and found a city. A site was selected, and with extraordinary diligence the soldiers worked at the quarrying of stone, cutting of timber, and erection of buildings, with such success that soon this first European colony in Peru could boast a fortress, a city hall, a church, and a king's store-house, besides other structures of lesser importance.

They did not labor unassisted, for the Indians were forced to contribute their services. In fact, they probably performed the greater part of the labor, as, soon after the organization of a municipal government, they were apportioned among the colonists, together with the rich lands in the vicinity. Thus that pernicious system of slavery, known as repartimientos, was established in Peru, as it had already been for years in the West Indies and Mexico. Even the monks who accompanied Pizarro as missionaries were in favor of this arrangement, as (in the words of one who was intimate with the commander), "It being evident that the colonists could not support themselves without the services of the Indians, the religious instructors and our leaders all agreed that it would serve the cause of religion, and tend greatly to their spiritual welfare, since they would thus have the opportunity of being initiated in the true faith, conforming to the mandates of his majesty!"

Thus the new city was founded, and the people to whom the land belonged on which it stood were enslaved, in the name of religion and the cross! The audacity of its founders was only equalled by their hypocrisy; but both these qualities served them well in the coming crisis of their lives.