Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

The Prisoner and his Ransom


Recalled by shrill blasts of the trumpet, the cavalry ceased their pursuit of the fugitives, and returned to the plaza, where the last scenes of the dreadful massacre were enacted in the despatching of the wounded and the removal of the dead. While the pavement of the plaza was still encumbered with the victims of the Spaniards' vengeance, the Inca was summoned from his cell to sup with his conqueror. Pizarro might have spared his prisoner this humiliation, but his nature was of the coarse and vulgar sort that gloats over the condition of a fallen foe. Atahuallpa had been roughly handled in the affray at the litter, and his robes torn from his person, so he was reclothed in less expensive garments, while his diadem and jewels were appropriated by the victor.

In the accounts given of this banquet following after the massacre, it is stated that the Inca bore himself with serenity, though still bewildered by the sudden and terrible change in his fortunes. Like Montezuma of Mexico, in similar circumstances, he accepted his hard fate stoically, and even indulged in the hope of an early release from imprisonment. But, with all his fortitude, he had, as may be imagined, but little appetite for the tempting viands that were set before him, nor would he more than taste the delicious wines in which Pizarro besought him to drown the remembrance of his woes.

It was veritably a "Barmecide feast" for the unfortunate Atahuallpa, who might well have thought it all unreal and but the product of a dream. He was brought to his senses, however, by Pizarro, who improved the occasion by delivering a homily upon his pride and arrogance; and he did not fail to mention how fortunate Atahuallpa should consider himself in having fallen into the hands of such considerate people as the Spaniards and such a merciful captain as himself. "Reflect," he said, "upon what you did. You came against us with a mighty army; you threw the Book of God upon the ground; you insulted a minister of the Most High; yet we have preserved your life, and have killed but a few hundred of your people. This punishment, you cannot but perceive, has been sent in order that you should be abased, and be forced to acknowledge the greatness of our Lord and God, in whom we believe."

Atahuallpa humbly assented, amazed at himself that he should accept the commands of this low-born conqueror. He could not but admit that the gods of the strangers were more powerful than his own, though he was inclined to attribute his downfall to the fortunes of war and not to the defection of his gods. To the end, indeed, he clung to his belief in the sun-god, and gave adherence to no other.

Conquered and conqueror, that night, slept in a room of the great "Serpent House," and guarded by some of the sentinels whom Pizarro, with his customary watchfulness, had posted throughout the plaza and surrounding buildings. The Spanish captain did not seek his couch until he had taken every precaution against a surprise by the enemy, who, even though dispersed and demoralized, might yet rally and again brave death in an attempt to rescue their revered sovereign.

But the night—that memorable night of November 16, 1532—passed without disturbance, and the morning sun once more shone brightly upon the vale and city of Cassamarca. The day was the Sabbath, yet it was not to be one of rest or recreation, for either Spaniards or Peruvians, as both were actively employed, the former in scouring the plain for prisoners, and the latter in removing the corpses of those who had been slain in the massacre.

A body of cavalry went out to ransack the Inca's camp at the hot springs, and in the afternoon returned with immense booty in gold and jewels, besides several thousand prisoners, including the entire household of Atahuallpa, not excepting the favorite members of his harem. Those whom the Inca desired were allowed to attend him, and he was given quarters large enough to accommodate all, where his privacy would not be invaded.

In the composite nature of Pizarro, cruelty and the humane sentiment were strangely blended. While on occasions he could be as cruel as Atahuallpa himself—in whom inborn ferocity was always slumbering—yet again he was often moved to merciful deeds. He was the only Spaniard wounded at the massacre, yet he seemed to bear no ill-will, either towards the soldier who had inadvertently slashed him with his sword, or against the Inca, whom he was defending at the moment. So, when some of his men approached him with a proposition for putting the prisoners to death, or maiming them by cutting off their hands, to prevent them from doing further harm, he rejected it without hesitation. He had shed blood enough already to awe the natives and prevent them from rising against the Spaniards; though there still existed an army of many thousand Peruvians, besides the fugitives then fleeing to the mountains.

Although prepared, by what they had seen, for an immense amount of plunder in the Inca's camp and pleasure pavilion, what they secured there surprised the Spaniards greatly. They brought back golden cups and goblets, ewers, urns, vases, bracelets, necklaces, and emeralds by the handful, all of which, together with the spoil stripped from the nobles murdered in the plaza, were deposited in safe-keeping for future division. Vast droves of llamas, the Peruvian sheep, were found wandering on the hills, in charge of skilled shepherds, and hundreds of them were driven in and slaughtered for the table. Unaware of the strict regulations under which these large flocks had been accumulated, and by which they had been preserved, the Spaniards not only slaughtered these valuable animals indiscriminately, but allowed the survivors finally to run wild and disperse.

There were few things which the invaders had the capacity to appreciate at their real worth; but to gold, gems, fine feathers and fabrics they attached an exaggerated importance. Seeing and noting this, the shrewd Atahuallpa took hope that he might, perchance, purchase his freedom by appealing to Spanish avarice. One day, as he and Pizarro were conversing together, he let drop the remark that he could, if so inclined, cover with gold the floor of the room in which he was confined.

Pizarro's dull eyes sparkled, observing which the Inca continued, "Not the floor only can I cover, but half the room I will fill, if—if you will but set me free."

The avaricious conqueror gasped in astonishment, but his habitual caution did not desert him. "That would be a vast treasure, surely," replied he, slowly; "but the cost would be great, i' faith!"

"The price would be my freedom; that is not much—to you; it is everything to me. But I will do more. See—as high as I can reach on the wall, this room will I fill with treasure of gold, and the room next this twice over with silver."

Saying this, Atahuallpa the Inca stood on his toes and held his hand high against the wall.

Pizarro hesitated, not because he hoped to drive a better bargain; for never before had a ransom been offered so large, even for the life of a king. But he was reflecting upon the consequences to himself should the Inca be set free. The experiment would be worth trying, for he could thus get hold of treasure that might otherwise be secreted by the natives and be lost to him, and—he craftily reasoned with himself—he might give his word to free the Inca, and keep it, but quickly get his prisoner in the toils again. So he cried out heartily, with the air of an honest man, "I agree!" and sending for paint and a brush, he drew a red line along the wall, at the height indicated by the Inca. Some say it was nine feet above the floor; but, at any rate, it was as high as a man of medium size could reach, standing on tiptoe; and the room was thirty-five feet in length by eighteen in breadth.

That would be 35 x 18 x 7, let us say; so many cubic feet of gold! Not solid, not in nuggets and ingots, but in the form of ornaments, idols, plate, basins, ewers—worth many times their weight in gold as archeological treasures; but that the Spaniards did not know. After they got them in their possession, they broke up and cast into bars this inestimable treasure, and thus the world lost what can never be replaced.

Two months the Inca demanded for the collection of the ransom, for the most of it was in Cuzco, many days' distant by swift couriers, and a long and painful journey for the porters, bowed beneath their precious burdens. Orders were instantly sent to the capital, to Quito, and to the various depositories of the Inca's wealth, which were obeyed without question, and soon the golden stream was flowing towards the vale of Cassamarca.

The Peruvians valued the precious metals only for their use and ornament, while the Spaniards paid for them the price of their souls. They were willing to go through fire and flood for gold and silver, and jeopard their hopes of heaven in their acquisition. Gold was the "greatest thing in the world," for, according to their belief, it not only placed all the pleasures of earth within their grasp, but secured exemption from the pains of purgatory! Hence their avid desire to get it, the risks they ran to acquire it, whether rightfully or not, and the dangers they braved in its pursuit.

Soon the great highway between Cassamarca and Cuzco was alive with Indians staggering beneath their burdens of gold and silver. They arrived at Cassamarca, singly and in groups, with treasure to the amount of fifty thousand dollars daily; yet the greedy Spaniards, though they were looking upon a vaster spoil than any they had ever dreamed of finding, were dissatisfied. Their appetite grew with the means for gratifying it, and they began to complain of the Inca's dilatory methods.

Rumors arose of his intention to beguile them with a sight of treasure and false promises, while his armies were assembling, even on the road to Cassamarca. When taxed with this by Pizarro, Atahuallpa laughed in scorn. "Delay!" he cried. "Why should I delay? Is not my freedom worth more to me than aught else in the world? What can I do, a prisoner here, and my armies scattered all the way between Cuzco and Quito? You have only to send out spies, commander, to ascertain the truth. Do so, I beseech of you, and you will learn that Atahuallpa keeps his word."

Pizarro did as suggested, and found no cause for alarm. In truth, he sent out his brother, Hernando, with a squadron, who reported all quiet in the country districts, and then pushed on to the town of Pachacamac, situated nearly three hundred miles away, in the mountains. This place was the abode of a deity worshipped by some of the Peruvians as the creator of the world. He belonged to a tribe of Indians that had been conquered by the Incas, and was so much revered by them that the sagacious sun-worshippers, instead of overthrowing his image and massacring his priests (as the Spaniards would have done), admitted him to a place in their pantheon. While they believed their religion to be the only true one, and their rulers heaven-descended children of the sun, they were not concerned about the gods of other peoples. If they chose to run after false gods, let them do so, and take the consequences. But in time, the Peruvian conquerors themselves came to regard the god of Pachacamac with veneration, and he was virtually admitted to conjoint worship with their own deity.

When he reached Pachacamac, Hernando Pizarro proceeded after the manner customary with the conquerors, and, being refused admission to the sanctuary, broke down the door, and found himself in a gloomy cave, "smelling like a slaughter-house." At the far end of the cavern the great idol was perceived, grinning at the Spaniards out of the darkness, and without further ceremony he was seized by the shoulders and ejected. When brought to the light he was discovered to be a hideous monster, in the form of a beast with the head of a man, carved out of wood. He was soon reduced to fragments, and after the cave had been cleansed a large stone cross was erected in his place, which the natives regarded with veneration, and cared for so faithfully that it remained there many years.

The Indians had everywhere received Hernando and his men with hospitality, and no sign of hostility had been perceived in any place; but, though they had regaled them with banquets by the way, and met them with music and dancing, they had forwarded to the priests of Pachacamac tidings as to the true mission of the strangers. Thus the priests had been forewarned, and, gathering their treasures together, had decamped for parts unknown.

It was a sore disappointment to the freebooters to find that the bulk of the treasure had been taken away, and they cursed their folly in first attending to matters of religion, instead of to the despoiling of the temple. Thereafter, they promised themselves they would first secure the plunder, and leave the destroying of idols and erecting of crosses to their spiritual advisers, whose business it was to attend to such things.

Notwithstanding their remissness, however, they managed to secure pillage to the amount of about a hundred thousand dollars, and obtained information at Pachacamac that was worth vastly more than that. This was, that the principal commander of the Inca's army in the south, the renowned Chalcuchima, was at a town in the vicinity with a small guard only, though not far away lay a body of his warriors, estimated at thirty or thirty-five thousand. Instead of offering battle, the general allowed himself to be approached by emissaries of Hernando, who assured him that it was the command of his master, Atahuallpa, that he return with them to Cassamarca.

Now, Chalcuchima was the general who, in conjunction with another named Quizquiz (then at Cuzco), had won the great victory over Huascar Inca, by which Atahuallpa had been raised to supreme power in the empire. He was really a great commander, and, having almost unlimited resources under his control, including a large army of seasoned warriors, he might have met and vanquished, in all probability destroyed, the band of Spaniards under Hernando Pizarro. He had heard of the capture of his sovereign by a small body of wonderful warriors, and was burning to avenge the insult to his sacred majesty. But as time went by and no orders came from the head of the state, who alone could issue them, being the commander-in-chief, he was puzzled and bewildered.

When, then, a detachment from that band of invincible strangers made its way to his mountain stronghold, bearing a command for him to hasten back with them to see and converse with the Inca, he accepted the order without distrust, and prepared to accompany Hernando Pizarro. He was borne in a litter on the shoulders of attendants, who served in relays, and at every place along the highway was received by the people with great ceremony; yet, on his arrival at Cassamarca, he abased himself before the Inca like the meanest of his countrymen. He entered the town in state, but when arrived at the plaza alighted from his litter, put off his sandals and gold-embroidered robes, and, taking a burden on his back, in token of inferior station, went in and prostrated himself at Atahuallpa's feet. He kissed his hands repeatedly, and, with tears raining down his furrowed cheeks, exclaimed in a voice choking with emotion: "O my master! Would that I had been here: then this terrible misfortune might not have come to you."

But the Inca, though said to have been tenderly attached to Chalcuchima, manifested no emotion whatever. He could be gay and cordial with the Spaniards, but was ever haughty and dignified in converse with his subjects. He listened to him coldly, and then, without deigning to convey any information respecting his future plans, waved him away, with a gesture that signified there was still a "great gulf fixed" between even the greatest of his subjects and the "Child of the Sun." Chalcuchima departed sorrowfully; but this was only the first of his humiliations, for he was detained a prisoner by Pizarro, instead of being allowed to return to his army, and never recovered his freedom.

The roads and trails of the mountains were so rugged that the horses of Hernando Pizarro's troop lost their shoes long before the expedition was ended, and, there being no iron at hand, they were all shod with silver! That metal and gold were found to be abundant in the region around and beyond Pachacamac, and it was with this welcome information (as well as with his important prisoner) that Hernando returned to his brother, after an absence of nearly four months.

Meanwhile, successive events had brought matters near to a crisis with the Inca. Yielding to the persuasions of Pizarro, he had issued orders throughout his empire for the safe conduct of three soldiers, who were sent as emissaries to Cuzco for hastening the collection of the ransom.

It was a venturesome journey of more than six hundred miles, and as Pizarro did not care to risk the lives of his cavaliers in such an enterprise, he despatched three common soldiers from the ranks. They were entirely unknown, these base-born freebooters, and, unaccustomed to receiving such attentions as the abject Peruvians heaped upon them, became insolent and haughty, on the road and in Cuzco, the capital, giving rein to the worst passions of their depraved natures. They were carried all the way on the shoulders of natives, served at the inns and nobles' palaces with the best the land afforded, and treated, indeed, as though they were royalty itself, instead of merely members of a marauding band that had secured temporary possession of the country's sovereign.

But, though they disgusted and enraged all classes by their behavior, in Cuzco even daring to violate the vestal virgins' sanctuary, they were deferred to, on account of the Inca's peremptory commands, and given all the gold in the temple for transmission to Cassamarca. The stories they had to tell almost surpassed belief, but they showed seven hundred plates of gold, stripped from the walls of the sun's great temple, and pointed to two hundred Indian porters laden with the golden spoils.