Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

A March to the Mountains


We left Pizarro at San Miguel, that first town founded by Europeans in Peru, on the river Piura, not far from the sea. While he was engaged in partitioning lands and natives among the settlers, erecting buildings, and establishing a form of government, Atahuallpa the victorious was encamped in a beautiful valley at the base of the great mountains known as Cassamarca. He himself had not taken part in the last battle, for it had been fought and won by a brave general in command of his veteran troops.

As Cassamarca was conveniently situated between the far-distant cities of Quito and Cuzco—which latter the Inca had not yet seen—he awaited the coming of his general there, intending after his arrival to march upon the City of the Sun. His camp, in fact, was about ten days' journey from San Miguel, from which, in the last week of September, 1532, Pizarro set out to seek him.

As will be shown in the unfolding of this narrative, Pizarro could not have chosen a more opportune time for invasion, or have contrived a more fortunate combination of circumstances, had he been perfectly aware of what was occurring behind that mysterious barrier of mountains which interposed between him and the army of the Inca. The death of Huayna Capac, the elder Inca, had occurred sometime in 1525, and while Pizarro was equipping himself for the conquest—reconnoitring the coast, voyaging to Spain and soliciting the crown, raising troops, accumulating munitions, and building vessels—the important events were happening within the empire, or kingdom, which were to hasten its downfall.

The decisive event, the conflict between Atahuallpa and Huascar, occurred in the first half of the year 1532, and but for that clash of the two sovereigns, who should have been at peace, Pizarro might not have been permitted to invade their country. For, not only had it weakened the Inca's power, by causing an alienation of hitherto servile thousands, whose allegiance was now divided, but it had been the cause of Atahuallpa's leaving his capital city of Quito and advancing to a point much nearer the coast, and hence more accessible to the invaders. Had there been no feud between the two rivals, on the thrones of Quito and Cuzco, and especially if they could have united against the common foe, there is no question but that the Spaniards would have been repelled, if not annihilated.

Many thousand Peruvians had been slain in battle, and the surly survivors compelled to look upon the victor as their lord; while in addition to the massacre committed by the soldiers, Atahuallpa had perpetrated another, by which the royal family of nobles was nearly exterminated. Summoning them to meet at Cuzco for consultation, it is said, he ordered them to be butchered, many to be tortured, merely because they could, like himself, boast of Inca blood in their veins. Many of them were his half-brothers, for the late Huayna Capac left a numerous progeny, "who might each one of them show a better title to the crown than the illegitimate Atahuallpa"; and many, again, were his sisters and cousins. All were regarded by the common people with veneration, and though these were the most submissive, docile subjects in the world, they could not but resent this bloody act of the usurper.

Another thing that contributed towards the weakness of the resistance encountered by Pizarro was the status of the people inhabiting many places on and near the coast. In pursuance of the Peruvian method, such of the places as had been recently conquered were governed by curacas, or caciques taken from the subjugated people, and, as may be imagined, these were not overzealous in defence of their master's dominions. Such were the curacas of Puna, Tumbez, and other cities, met with by the Spaniards in their march to the interior.

These, then, were the conditions that favored the Spaniards at the particular time they landed on the coast and invaded the country: internecine strife, which had resulted in the overthrow of the legitimate sovereign; universal distrust among the people, who had seen their revered ruler defeated in battle, made prisoner, and another advanced to the throne; and, finally, the easily diverted allegiance of the frontier inhabitants of a territory remote from the royal capital and centres of influence.

These things opened the way for Pizarro's advance, but they can hardly be said to have made possible the conquest of a country containing, perhaps, millions of people, whose warriors were numbered by the hundred thousand, and trained to blindly obey a despot who had never known defeat. They were imperfectly armed, it is true, with barbaric weapons, did not know the uses of gun-powder, were unacquainted with horses and cavalry, and could only oppose their thinly clad or naked bodies to the soldiers encased in steel armor. But they could assemble overwhelming masses, and were adepts at ambuscade and in the defence of mountain passes, through which the invaders would be compelled to march.

While the young Inca may have had an inkling of what was occurring on the coast, doubtless having received reports from Tumbez and Puna, he was in the dark as to the prowess of those who were soon to be his opponents. Vague reports had reached both Atahuallpa and Pizarro, by which both had been greatly disturbed. The Inca had heard of the wonderful weapons carried by the Spaniards, of the strange and terrible animals they rode, and of the shining armor they wore, which was impenetrable by arrow, dart, or javelin.

On the other hand, Pizarro had been informed by his interpreters of the invincible Inca, at whose nod myriads of fierce warriors were assembled in battle array, at whose behest thousands would offer themselves in sacrifice, going to death as joyfully as to a feast. But he was also told that this Inca possessed treasure incalculable, palaces plated with gold, and gems of inestimable value, which would become the spoil of the conqueror who should penetrate to his sacred capital of Cuzco.

That decided Pizarro, who resolved to wait no longer. Without the reinforcements he had expected, and for which he had delayed departure from San Miguel, he set out with less than two hundred men, to subdue a country containing a thousand times the number of his soldiers in a single province alone. First, there was a desert to cross; but the soldiers, refreshed by their long sojourn in the valley of the Piura, made nothing of it, and were rewarded for their toils when they turned towards the sierras by entering a fertile and picturesque country, well watered and abounding in fruits and flowers. Valleys of great beauty were found by the Spaniards, nestling among the hills and embosomed in the mountains, which, the farther they travelled, grew more and more difficult of ascent.

All the way, however, the army marched over one of the great royal roads, which, though at last winding and zigzagging among cliffs and crags, at times merely a narrow trail along the brinks of precipices, was smooth, and for the greater part shaded, with sparkling streams running beside the parapets.

It may not have been the Inca's intention to provide sustenance for the invaders of his country, but this he did, nevertheless. Every night, after entering the rough sierra region, they were sheltered beneath the roofs of the royal road-houses, and their meals were furnished from the ample stores of provisions contained in adjacent granaries. This was "quartering on the enemy" with a vengeance, and grim Pizarro smiled as he reflected upon the manner in which his mission was being expedited by the very people he had come to conquer. Having received no orders to the contrary, these people wasted upon the invading Spaniards a gracious hospitality which was new in their experience, and which they basely requited.

Peruvian warriors


At a little hamlet called Zaran, set in the centre of a mountain valley, the curaca received Pizarro so hospitably that he resolved to tarry here, while his lieutenant, De Soto, went on ahead with a small force to reconnoitre. De Soto was a dependable soldier, but, as the days lengthened into a week, and he did not return, his commander became uneasy. He was about setting out in search of him, when the cavalier appeared, his force intact, and in his company an Indian of imposing presence, a brother of the Inca himself, who had come as an ambassador. Like the messengers from Montezuma to CortÚs, he brought rich presents for the stranger who had so rashly invaded his country, in the shape of a fountain carved from an emerald, gold-embroidered garments, and a peculiar perfume made from dried goose flesh. These he presented Pizarro, at the same time saying, through the interpreter, "Great stranger, I am here with a request from my sovereign and brother, the only and invincible Inca of Peru, that you honor him with your presence at his camp near Cassamarca, where the hot springs gush forth from the mountains."

"I have come for that purpose," replied Pizarro, without an instant's delay. "I and my comrades have come to see with our own eyes the great monarch of this land and to carry him a message from my own sovereign who is a still greater one, and who has laid upon me his commands to inform the king, your brother, the lord of this land, of the religion we profess, and to convert him to the practise of it, so that his soul may be saved from hell, in which, otherwise, it shall burn forever and forever!"

The ambassador made no reply, though he appeared astonished and incredulous that any people should have been so foolish as to come so far to impose their religion upon another people who already had one. He was shown about the camp and entertained at dinner, during which he expressed great satisfaction at the viands, and especially the wines, both food and drink being new to his palate. He examined everything he saw with attention, never before having seen either white men or their belongings, and was so insistent upon being told by the interpreters the meaning of it all that Pizarro was convinced that he came less as an ambassador than as a spy. He sent him away, however, without disclosing his suspicions, after presenting him with a red cap and a few glass beads, and with a message to the Inca that, having heard of his renown, he had come to assist him to subdue his enemies, as well as to convert him to the "only true faith." The Indian noble was delighted with the cap and beads, and so well pleased with all he saw that he must have made a most favorable report, for the Spaniards were not retarded in their march, but, rather, helped along, by royal orders. Was it the purpose of the Inca to lure the Spaniards on, deeper and deeper into the mountainous interior, and having secured the passes by which they had gained access to the country, fall upon and massacre them all? Or was he really animated by a curiosity to see for himself these wonderful strangers of whom he had heard so much?

Pizarro was puzzled, but, true Spaniard that he was, inclined to a belief in the Inca's treachery rather than his good faith. He knew that he was placing himself in the Inca's power, provided treachery were intended; but he would not retreat, nor would he halt longer by the way. Sending back to San Miguel the presents he had received, not only from the Inca, but from the chiefs of various provinces, Pizarro gave the word to march onward. The place where the Inca was said to be encamped with his army was then but four or five days' distant, though the way was rugged and defended by forts. Owing to some oversight, these forts were not occupied, all the natives having been draughted into the Inca's army. Towns and villages were passed by, embedded in the vegetation of most fruitful valleys; but they were almost deserted, for the men were off in the army, and the women and children had fled to the forests.

A cluster of villages was discovered on the opposite bank of a broad and rapid river, to cross which Pizarro made a floating bridge, upon which all went over in safety, the cavaliers holding their horses by the bridles as they swam behind. No soldier of the company worked harder than Pizarro, who insisted upon remaining behind until the last of his men had passed over. By such acts as these, by "putting his shoulder to the wheel" whenever needed, and by constant oversight of his men, he won their regard; and they held to him loyally, undeterred by the prospect of danger ahead or the unknown fate that awaited them.

Hearing conflicting reports as to the strength of the Inca's army and the location of his camp, Hernando Pizarro obtained what he believed was the truth by putting a captive Indian to the torture. Under the pressure of a cord about his temples, twisted so tightly that his eyes nearly burst from their sockets, the poor wretch "confessed" that the Inca had revealed his plans to him, which were: to get the white men in his power, after decoying them so far into the country that they should be wholly at his mercy, then make slaves of them and appropriate their horses and their weapons. Almost any sort of a confession could have been obtained by torture, which, though it gratified the brutal passions of the Spaniards, rarely served their purpose at the time it was applied. This is only one cruel incident of a journey which lasted many days, and during which, doubtless, many another Indian was tortured, in order that he should be forced to reveal what he did not know!

After sending forward the curaca of San Miguel to ascertain if the mountain passes were guarded, Pizarro diverged from the great main road which he had been following for days, and took a narrower, more tortuous one, that led him and his band up the craggy sides of the cordillera. A mighty wall of mountains now opposed his progress, behind which, he was informed, lay the beautiful vale of Cassamarca, where he had every reason to believe, he would find the Inca and his army.

But it was one thing to know where the Inca was intrenched, and quite another to enter his stronghold! It was defended by a natural barrier which, had the Inca but supplemented the creations of nature with defensive works, and manned them with his soldiers, might have held the Spaniards off indefinitely. But, though at times the roadway was like the steps of a staircase cut in the solid rock, and several craggy points were met with which were crowned by fortresses, the Spaniards encountered no opposition in their passage of the cordillera.

At last, they reached the crest, where, benumbed by the cold, they might still have fallen easy victims to the valor of the Inca, if he had but put forth his arm to destroy. That he did not man the mountain passes with his best warriors, and from the craggy heights tumble down great rocks upon the heads of the ascending Spaniards, was taken as a proof that he had planned to kill them in some other way; for, had he cared to do so, he might have swept them all into the sea.