Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

Sailing the Unknown Sea


What were the thoughts of Pizarro, as he gazed upon Balboa's gory trunk and beheld the head of that once-valiant commander roll to the ground? If his sluggish brain conceived any ideas at all, the thought which was uppermost must have related in some way to the removal of a rival from his path. He may have felt resentful towards Pedrarias for his dastardly act, but he was too politic to show it, and his nature was too debased, his sensibilities too blunt, for him to feel the horror and injustice of it all.

He still did his duty as a soldier, and Pedrarias had no more faithful adherent, thenceforth, than Francisco Pizarro. His behavior during the terrible retreat across the isthmus made by Morales, when, hemmed in by prowling savages, he had again and again charged upon the foe, holding them at bay while his companions effected a temporary escape from death, had commended him to the irascible old governor. He had been virtually the leader of that forlorn expedition, which had returned so rich in gold and pearls, yet so decimated by death, and by all he was acknowledged to have been its savior from absolute destruction.

He was the man, of all men then on the isthmus, to take the place made vacant by the death of Balboa; but, though he might have carried on that leader's work, have manned the brigantines, and sailed southwardly in quest of the shadowy kingdom of which the cacique had informed him, he then had no opportunity. For, though he had displayed great ability as a fighter, he had not given evidence of possessing the qualities that make for supreme command. Perhaps he was too wary to do so, knowing the jealous nature of the governor, and preferred to bide his time—which might come after the removal, by death or otherwise, of Pedrarias. He awaited this event, however, in vain for years. The crafty old man had a strong hold on life, and before he was superseded caused more than Balboa and his companions to lose their heads. He sent Espinosa, the man who had prosecuted Balboa, to refit and man the ships the latter had built and experimentally navigated; but he took the wrong direction, sailing northward instead of southward, and returned without having accomplished anything. In his heart, Pizarro was delighted at this turn of affairs, but he dared not voice his thoughts.

Within two years after the execution of Balboa, or in 1519, Pedrarias removed the seat of government across the isthmus to Panama, and, after various excursions of a military character for his master into Nicaragua, Pizarro settled down to the life of a cattle farmer. He had won distinction as a conquistador, having then been ten years engaged in fighting Indians, founding colonies, and, to the best of his ability, serving his king. That he had also served himself, and had accumulated quite a fortune from his years of toil and hardship, is nothing to his discredit. In truth, it is rather strange than otherwise that he should have saved anything at all, since the Spanish adventurers were thriftless, given to gambling, and reckless of the future. Perhaps, however, Pizarro was a better gambler, as well as more provident, than the others. Certain it is that soon after the founding of Panama he held a large acreage of land in its vicinity, which he worked, or made pretence of working, with a repartimiento  of Indian slaves.

But, as already mentioned, he was not the stuff of which farmers and planters are made. First, last, and all the time he was a soldier; and, moreover, there lingered with him the remembrance of the Peruvian tradition. Finally, he imparted his information to his partner, one Almagro, who, like him-elf, was a soldier of fortune. Like Pizarro, he was born out of wedlock—a foundling; like him, also, he was stained with crime, having fled to the New World in his youth on account of having stabbed a companion.

Almagro was told of the land of gold, with its temples supposed to be filled with treasures, the dominions of its ruler filled with teeming millions; of the strange beasts, the llamas, drawings of which he had seen, but which as yet no white men had ever beheld. Almagro listened and wondered. He was the exact opposite of his partner, for, while the latter was sluggish, grasping and covetous, silent and reserved, he was active in mind and body, and generous to a fault. He became enthusiastic over the scheme which, having long dwelled upon it in his mind, Pizarro slowly unfolded, and was for setting forth at once in search of the land of wonders.

Don Diego de Almagro


Pizarro was not sure the time had come for that. Provided, in the first place, they could obtain the consent of the governor, they would receive no assistance from that grasping individual; in the second, therefore, they must furnish their own funds, and they had not yet accumulated enough for the venture. In this emergency they bethought themselves of an individual who was on terms of friendship with both, and withal a man of talents as well as substance. This man was Fernando de Luque, a clerigo, or ecclesiastic, attached to the cathedral of Panama, and on an intimate footing with the governor. Having been cautiously broached on the subject, after some thought he consented to enter the partnership, and thus the "triumvirate" was formed which eventually accomplished—at least, it led up to—the conquest of Peru.

Pedrarias was insanely jealous of his prerogatives, and more crabbed than ever; but the clerigo managed him so carefully that he finally consented to the scheme, with the provision—which they had anticipated—of receiving a fourth part of the profits. In this manner the strange partnership was formed, consisting of two soldiers, one cleric, and the governor of Panama, who, though a "silent" partner, inasmuch as he did not contribute any funds, had greater power than any of the others to make or mar the expedition. This compact was concluded in 1522, at a time when the glorious news from CortÚs in Mexico was stirring the souls of men in Panama and elsewhere; and this "cousin" of CortÚs, Pizarro, may have been moved thereby to break the spell which had so long held him and to imitate his exploits. The partnership continued, in a manner, during several years; but at last, as will be narrated in course, Pizarro became the sole survivor of the company.

Pedrarias, filled as he was with the venom of distrust and jealousy, could not grasp the situation in its immensity, but frittered away his time in little ventures into Nicaragua, finally, in 1526, going off on a head-hunting expedition there on the trail of a lieutenant whom he imagined disloyal. This unfortunate, an hidalgo named De Cordova, was the first to meet the conquerors of Mexico coming down from the north, through Honduras, and doubtless might have accomplished great things, had not Pedrarias cut short his career by taking off his head.

An incentive to the formation of the triumvirate probably lay in the unsuccessful voyage made in 1522 by one Andagoya, who, in the brigantines Balboa had built, coasted farther to the south than any one before him, merely confirming the reports of a rich country concealed behind the mountains, whose glittering crests, covered with eternal snows, he had ventured far enough to see. The wonder is, not that this partnership was formed, but that some others did not make their way along the southern coast.

Nine years had passed since Balboa and Pizarro first looked upon the Pacific; Panama and the "Golden Castile" on the isthmus had lured hundreds of cavaliers to their death; but there still remained many adventurers, young, reckless, and filled with longings to emulate CortÚs and Columbus. Why, then, was it left for three men well advanced in years to form this compact for conquest? Pizarro and Almagro were over fifty years of age, while De Luque was a staid priest of Panama, whose departure in this instance, from his regular course of life earned for him the sobriquet the public bestowed of Fernando el Loco or the "Crazy-head." He was the moneyed man of the enterprise; Pizarro was to be the chief adventurer, fighter, and discoverer; while Almagro was to act as go-between, remaining at Panama to beat up recruits and forward supplies.

Two years elapsed before their preparations for a voyage were complete, and it was not until November 14, 1524, that Pizarro finally set sail from the port of Panama. The funds of the partners were not sufficient to fit out a large fleet, so two small vessels merely had been purchased. The larger of the two was one of the brigantines built by the lamented Balboa. It had lain dismantled in the harbor for years, and was hardly fit for sea-service; but in it Pizarro embarked, with a hundred men, more or less, which Almagro, after infinite exertions, had drummed up in Panama.

Previous to the departure from port a solemn service was held in the cathedral, at which the prominent figures were the three partners, Almagro, Pizarro, and De Luque the priest. They partook of the sacrament together, at the instance of the clerigo, who divided the holy wafer into three parts, and the compact between the three was recited and renewed in the most impressive manner. The cathedral was crowded with the motley populace of Panama, and after the ceremony was over a procession was formed, led by Pizarro and Pedrarias, followed by the soldiers and sailors, after whom trooped a shouting multitude.

The Panamans had derided the venture of "Fernando el Loco" and his partners, but now that the long-exploited voyage was really about to begin, they went wild with enthusiasm. They wept over the leave-taking of the four principals in the affair, as embraces and caresses were exchanged between them; they fired salutes from cannon and arquebuses, as Pizarro and his men went aboard their vessel, and as it finally swept out of the bay towards the open ocean. Now that the expedition was an accomplished fact, the people of Panama, who had ridiculed the idea, realized how great were the faith and constancy of those who had promoted it. The least they could do was to grant their approval, and this was given so heartily that Pizarro, standing upon the high after-cabin of his ship, repeatedly removed his great, plumed hat and bowed his acknowledgments.

So the adventurers went off in a "blaze of glory," and for a time were filled with satisfaction; but not many days passed ere murmurings began. Almagro, in his desire to complete the complement of soldiers and sailors for the voyage, had impressed every vagabond he had found running loose in Panama, as well as hired all the good men—which latter were quite few. Thus, while Panama was well rid of its vagabonds, Pizarro found himself encumbered with such a pack of traceless wretches as any commander less forceful than he would have turned back into the purlieus whence they were drawn. Not so Francisco Pizarro, however. The old soldier was in his element when in command of refractory men. He neither bullied nor beat them; but he awed them into submission just the same, and they were compelled to sail forth with him into the unknown.

He shaped his course for the Pearl Islands, the scene of his adventures ten years before, where he had formerly found most beautiful pearls in abundance, and to which he had given the name by which they are still known. Having taken in wood and water there, he crossed the open mouth of gulf San Miguel, the shores of which he and Balboa had explored in 1513, and on the waters of which they had embarked with the Indian cacique in canoes. Thence he coasted southward to the headland of Puerto Pinas, which was the farthest point reached by Andagoya, and, entering the mouth of a small river beyond this promontory, made a landing on the verge of a forest.

He was now in a region which had never been explored, for no white man had gone farther than Andagoya, despite the eleven years that had elapsed since Balboa's great discovery. Feeling it incumbent upon him to investigate thoroughly as he went on, Pizarro resolved to explore the little river, perchance there might be gold-mines, or a settlement, at its mouth or along its banks. It was called the Biru, and the similarity of this name to that of the land of which the adventurers were in search—Peru—gave them the impression that it could not be far away. But, notwithstanding his auspicious beginning, and in spite of the thorough preparation he had made for the voyage, months, even years, were to glide by ere he was to look upon the riches of Peru.

Nothing was found along the river indicating a populous country, or one abounding in natural wealth, so the explorers were recalled, and the ship dropped down-stream to the sea, where the southerly course was resumed. After some days and nights of voyaging, another lonely inlet was descried, and an anchorage was made; but this place proved as desolate and repellent as Biru, and after wood and water had been obtained the open sea was sought again. Ten days of aimless sailing succeeded, during which the voyagers were assailed by tempests so severe that the crazy craft was strained in every part. The wind blew fiercely, always ahead, the seas ran mountains high, and at last, worn out with continual watching and working, Pizarro resolved to return to the inlet last entered. As the provisions began to fail at this point, and the hapless Argonauts were finally reduced to an allowance of two ears of Indian-corn a day, with an occasional bite of green cowhide and some palm-tree buds, they called the place Puerto de la Hambre  (Hungry Harbor). The country adjacent appeared to them the most desolate spot in the world, for, while dense, tropical forest hemmed them in, the shores were steep and rocky, and nothing life-supporting could be found anywhere.

The rains still fell incessantly, the dank forest was all but impenetrable, the scant provisions were daily growing less, so Pizarro concluded to send back to the Pearl Islands for fresh supplies. His men were for returning, nearly all of them, but to this he would not consent. It was with difficulty that he hushed their murmurings, overcame their mutinous feelings, and finally despatched the vessel to the islands. It was under the command of an officer named Montenegro, who promised that he would perform his duty faithfully and make all haste to secure the needed provisions and return.

Two weeks were allowed him, that time being considered ample for the voyage; but thrice two weeks passed away before Pizarro saw his ship again, and meanwhile he lost thirty of his men by sickness and starvation. Even their scant supply of corn gave out, and they were compelled to live on small shell-fish and sea-weed, their last bit of cowhide being a strip of tanned leather from the ship's pump, which, boiled and divided among the starving men, was greedily devoured.

It was thought that the coast was absolute ly uninhabited, not a soul having been discovered on the voyage; but one day, as some of these gaunt and haggard men were wandering in sheer desperation about the forest, they came upon a clearing in which was a group of Indian huts. They hastened with the welcome news to Pizarro, and soon all who could walk were on the way.

The savages fled at sight of the white men, who lost no time in breaking into their huts, where they found ample supplies of corn and cocoa-nuts, to which they helped themselves without asking leave of the owners. These soon returned, impelled by curiosity, and, after they had overcome their fears, ventured to converse with the strangers by signs.

In his years of intercourse with the isthmian natives, Pizarro must have picked up some Indian words, which served him well at this time, for he received information from these people that their settlement was but an outpost of a mighty nation, as it were. Ten days' journey inland, beyond the cordilleras, lived the great king who ruled their world. He was called the "Child of the Sun." His empire was so vast that no one person had seen the whole of it, and his riches so abundant that no one could measure them.

An assurance that, at last, he was on the confines of the golden country was afforded Pizarro by the ornaments the Indians wore, which, though of rude workmanship, were of pure gold. The Spaniards were greatly rejoiced at this news direct from the land of gold, which had seemed so vague and unsubstantial hitherto. They now had the evidence of their ears and their eyes, that there was such a kingdom as had been described to Pizarro and Balboa, years before.

As for Pizarro himself, it is not known whether he manifested any emotion at receiving this confirmation of the cacique's story; but he probably used it to the best advantage in cheering the drooping spirits of his followers. It was the first positive information that had been received from the land of the Incas; but as it came filtered through sign-language mainly, it might have been misinterpreted.

Returning to the coast with the provisions afforded by their timely discovery, the Spaniards resumed their watch for Montenegro's vessel; but their corn and cocoa-nuts were exhausted, and starvation was again staring them in the face, before their eyes were cheered by the sight of a sail. Seven long weeks, in fact, passed by before the ship returned, and by this time most of them were so weak they could scarcely stand.

As soon, however, as his men had somewhat recovered their strength, Pizarro hoisted sail again and resumed his interrupted voyage. They then had provisions ample for a time, and the sight of native gold had whetted their appetites, so at first there were few protests against proceeding farther. Favored at first by good weather, they proceeded rapidly down the coast, and eventually reached a region where the sea-shore was more open than hitherto. Perceiving signs of human occupancy there, Pizarro concluded to land and establish a station. Penetrating the fringe of mangroves along the shore, where the stilted trees were pierced by waterways or avenues, the Spaniards saw on a hill, less than a league distant, a palisaded village. It seemed to be deserted, so they took possession, and were delighted to find it well provisioned, and supplied as well with gold, in nuggets and ornaments. It seemed strange to Pizarro, acquainted as he was with Indian wiles, that there should be no people in or near it, so he sent Montenegro with a small force to investigate the forest adjacent.

But these Indians were more wary and warlike than any he had encountered on that coast. They had left their village as a bait to attract the invaders, but were watching their movements from the forest. No sooner, therefore, was Montenegro's force out of sight among the defiles of the hills than a body of warriors sprang from ambush near the village and sent a shower of arrows into the ranks of Pizarro's company. Three soldiers were killed outright, and many wounded, despite their coats of mail and quilted cotton. Possessing great contempt for the natives, the result of many conflicts with them on the isthmus, Pizarro sallied forth to meet them in the open. He was ably supported by his men, but, recognized by the Indians as the leader, upon him was concentrated such a storm of darts and arrows that he was seven times wounded and compelled to retreat.

Pizarro always kept his face to the foe, and as he was slowly retreating backward, holding his buckler as a defence and stabbing at the foremost assailants with his sword, his foot slipped on the slope of the hill and he fell to the ground. In an instant a mob of savages was upon him, but, throwing them aside, he sprang to his feet, and slashed about him so vigorously that they were put to flight, after two had been cut down by his sword. His men rallied to the rescue, and at the same time Montenegro attacked the Indians in the rear, so that they were thrown into confusion and retreated into the forest, where they disappeared. The hill-slope was covered with their dead and wounded; but, as the Spaniards also had suffered severely, they concluded to evacuate the place, which they did after plundering the houses, and fell back upon their ship.

It had been Pizarro's intention to send the ship back to Panama, while he awaited fresh provisions and reinforcements at this place, which he called Quemado; but the attack, most fortunately, had been made in time for him to countermand the order, else his force might have been exterminated. Despite his losses, however, he was not disposed to complain, for this desperate attack had given him a foretaste of what was to be expected farther on, as he should penetrate the country, and he fully realized the inadequacy of his little force to attempt its conquest. Still, the idea of returning to Panama was so repugnant to him that, rather than face his creditors, a bankrupt adventurer, he caused himself and a portion of his crew to be set on shore at Chicamd, on the main-land to the westward of the port whence he had sailed, and there awaited further news from Almagro and his friends.

His wounds soon healed, for, unfortunately for the southern Indians, they were not acquainted with the use of poisoned arrows. Still, these wounds inflicted at Quemado were the first he had received in many years, if not the first of consequence in his experience, and probably made a lasting impression. He must have been convinced of the futility of proceeding farther, unless better equipped than he had been on this first expedition. He had no intention, however, of abandoning his project, and so grimly waited at Chicama, while the treasurer of the expedition proceeded with the vessel to Panama, carrying with him a full account of what had been done, together with the gold that had been collected. Governor Pedrarias was furious when he learned of the terrible losses, especially of the lives that had been spent in this wild-goose chase after an unknown empire. He swore that he desired nothing better than to get Pizarro into his clutches; and as for allowing him to set forth again, wasting precious treasure and shedding the blood of his cavaliers, the heavens should fall before he would consent to it!

Pizarro was careful not to place himself in the power of the murderous Pedrarias, for he remembered Balboa. But he was still determined to carry on his researches, inflexibly bent upon achieving the conquest of Peru, and no man on earth, not even Pedrarias, should turn him from his purpose.