Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

In the Inca's Stronghold


The desperate nature of their venture must have been deeply impressed upon the Spaniards, as, climbing the slippery steps of that mountain roadway, the cavalry leading their horses by the bridles, and the infantry assisting their steps by means of pikes and arquebuses, they slowly progressed towards the sierra's summit. Carefully their scouts reconnoitred the craggy steeps, crowned by deserted fortresses, from which they expected an avalanche of rocks and stones and missile weapons. With every sense alert and nerves tingling with apprehension, they crept around the scarped sides of precipitous cliffs, now and then compelled to cross an abysmal chasm, over a frail and trembling suspension bridge of osiers, swung like a hammock above a roaring torrent.

They fully realized what it was they were now engaged in—the most perilous adventure of that century. Why were they climbing those mountain heights? Why were they penetrating the heart of a country swarming with inhabitants, as an ant-hill swarms with ants? Why were they suffering, enduring, persisting in going farther and farther into a region from which, if they were defeated in battle, there would be absolutely no escape?

Their leader, iron-hearted Pizarro, had from the first proclaimed their purpose to be the extension of their sovereign's power and the conversion of the Indians to the "only true faith"; but, if they ever admitted the truth, they could have confessed the real purpose of that expedition in a single word. It was gold, or its equivalent, that was the animating motive for all their toils and heroic exploits. But, while the motive was ignoble, no one can deny that they heroically endured, valiantly fought, and stoutly combated all the difficulties that man and nature had thrown in their way. They may have murmured, but no member of that little band complained aloud, for all the weak-kneed ones had been weeded out. Before the sierras were well entered, Pizarro had given them the opportunity to return to San Miguel. Only nine availed themselves of this offer, and the ninescore who remained were truly "men of blood and iron." They had borne their heavy armor beneath the blazing sun of the lowlands, sweltering and staggering with the heat and the burden; through the sierras they had toiled, upward, ever upward, and at last had arrived at the bleak plains, above which towered the higher Andes, with their crowns of perpetual ice and snow.

While crossing this elevated region, with cold so intense that the soldiers shivered until their armor clanged, they were met by another embassy from the Inca. He sent greeting, and a gift of llamas to Pizarro; but his messenger was accused by a spy, who had penetrated to the Inca's camp and returned, of treachery on the part of his master. A wrangle ensued between the spy and the ambassador, during which it became evident to Pizarro that Atahuallpa was playing a double game, luring him on by gifts and fair promises, but all the while perfecting a snare for his destruction. It was but natural that Pizarro, himself with sinister aims against the monarch of the country he was invading, should hold suspicions of that sovereign; and again, it was not remarkable that the Inca should have viewed the approach of the Spaniards with distrust. In the simplicity of his nature, he saw no reason, no adequate motive, for this invasion, since he himself held gold in light esteem, and, content with the religion of his ancestors, could not conceive why the strangers should wish to impose their own upon him and his people.

A glorious vision burst upon the gaze of the Spaniards, when, having descended half-way the eastern declivities of the mountain range they had climbed, they saw the vale of Cassamarca spread before them. Oval in shape, about fifteen miles in length by three or four in width, verdant with a luxuriant vegetation and watered by sparkling streams, it lay amid the dark and frowning Andes like an emerald in a sombre setting. Through its fields and meadows ran a broad, deep river, which was spanned by two bridges of excellent construction, affording access to a small plateau at the foot of the sierras, where lay the white-walled city of Cassamarca.

The architecture of this city was of a composite character, for, while most of the dwellings were huts of sun-baked clay, and all were roofed with thatch of straw or palm, others again were of hewn stone and of massive construction. These latter, of course, gave Cassamarca its distinctive character, the most notable of them being a temple dedicated to the sun, the convents where dwelled the Virgins of the Sun, and huge barracks, in which the Inca's soldiers were usually quartered.

Convento of the virgins


Two forts defended the place, one at the end of the plaza mentioned, and the other on higher ground, both constructed of hewn stone laid in massive blocks, the more elevated one reached by a winding stairway cut in the rock, and surrounded by a triple enclosure. So Cassamarca was a place of great strength, and even though it had never before been visited or seen by white men, it was fortified, as though their coming had been long expected. There were other temples within the walls, besides the structure dedicated to the sun, and the city was well supplied with water by means of aqueducts, which also afforded irrigation facilities for the fields and gardens, thereby conducing to their aspect of exuberant fertility.

The chief attraction in this verdant valley, and which was probably the cause of the city having been built here, lay about three miles distant, and was indicated by the clouds of vapor hanging over it. Here were, and are to-day, the famous hot springs, to which the nobility and royalty of Peru resorted, and which Inca Atahuallpa was enjoying when rumors reached him of Pizarro's entrance into his kingdom. The slopes of the surrounding hills were covered with the tents of his army, which, an observer states, appeared in the distance like snow-flakes, so white and numerous were they.

In his richly hung pavilion, towards the close of a day in mid-November, sat Inca Atahuallpa, surrounded by his court. The pavilion was so pitched that access was afforded, on the one hand, to a spring of thermal water, and on the other to one of refreshing coolness fresh from the mountain. Numerous tents adjacent contained the nobles and their families, while others, almost equally numerous, held the inmates of the royal harem.

Amid the brilliantly clad courtiers and warriors, Atahuallpa was conspicuous, not alone by the dignity of his presence, but on account of the obsequious attention bestowed upon him, for none approached except with averted face and eyes cast to the ground.

He was tall, even stately, for a Peruvian; his face was brown and beardless, his eyes black, glittering, and bloodshot; his jet-black hair was cut short, and around his head was twisted a turban of many colors, with a peculiar fringe hanging from it to the eyebrows. This head-dress was adorned with a plume which had been plucked from the coraquenque, a bird so rare that only two of the species were supposed to exist at the same time, and these were preserved to furnish the distinctive insignia of royalty. The fringe of crimson wool, called the borla, which almost concealed the Inca's eyes, except when he swept it aside with his hand, was another emblem of royalty, without which he could not appear in public. His chief garment was a large, loose robe of finest wool, brilliantly colored, and his adornments consisted of emeralds worn in profusion, finger-rings, earrings, and bracelets of gold.

Surrounded by his army, in whose strength he had so implicitly relied as to allow Pizarro to enter the valley without opposition, Atahuallpa considered himself invincible. Yet he was disturbed at the thought of the continuous advance of that mailed band of monsters now descending the slopes of the sierra. He could see their glittering arms and fluttering banners, as they reached the lower hills and wound out into the plain, and needed not the reports of his generals to convince him that they were marching straight upon Cassamarca. He had invited them thither, in truth, had emptied the city of its inhabitants, and the great halls of his soldiers, in order that they might find room in which to take up their quarters.

Marching in three divisions, and in order of battle, the undaunted warriors advanced without a halt across the valley and into the city, where they sought quarters in the barracks provided for the Indian soldiery. Each great building was more than a hundred feet in length, and divided into several apartments, with doors opening upon the square or plaza. An ominous silence greeted the Spaniards as they tramped through the deserted streets, and they looked in vain for some one to welcome them. But, though the city when occupied was said to have contained ten thousand inhabitants, not one seemed to have been left within its walls.

Whether this boded ill, or betokened an excess of hospitality, Pizarro knew not. The Inca assured him, later, that he had cleared the city in order that his guests might have the greatest liberty and feel that it was truly theirs. But the silence itself was ominous, and, suspecting that the fortress frowning over him might contain a body of warriors secreted within its walls, he ordered it to be occupied at once, himself climbing the stony steeps in the van of his men. From the parapet of the cliff-top fortress, he had an unobstructed view of the town and valley spread out beneath him, and also of the Inca's camp three miles away.

Descending swiftly, he disposed his troops according to a plan which he had conceived while gazing down upon the valley. He had discovered nothing at all suspicious, either in the Inca's movements or in the city and its environs; but he still believed Atahuallpa was concerting some deep-laid scheme for his destruction, and resolved to anticipate him. From the moment of his descent, in truth, events shaped by his actions, set in motion by the operations of his powerful mind, succeeded each other with such rapidity, that, though it was then late in the afternoon, before darkness fell next day he had virtually accomplished the conquest of Peru.

This seems incredible; but the sober statements of historians bear us out in this assertion. Though Pizarro had been for years intent upon and preparing for the conquest; though he had been for months engaged in this campaign and for weeks on the march, the capture of the Inca, carrying with it the subjugation of his myriad subjects, was but a matter of hours. Hurried on by the daemon within him, now that the crucial moment had arrived, Pizarro made his moves with dexterity and rapidity.

A storm of hail and snow had greeted his arrival at Cassamarca, but that did not delay his arrangements, nor deter him from sending a body of cavalry, under De Soto and Hernando Pizarro, to announce his arrival to the Inca and request his commands. The descending sun had reached the crest of the western sierra ere the little band of cavaliers started on this perilous mission, but they put spurs to their steeds and were soon in the presence of Atahuallpa. A trumpeter rode in the van and announced their progress by loud blasts which resounded throughout the valley, so that the Inca was apprised of their coming, and gave orders for his warriors to admit them within the lines. His attitude and that of his nobles was friendly, but that of the warriors seemed hostile, for all had arms in their hands, such as spears and lances, bows and arrows. Had they chosen to do so, they might easily have annihilated these thirty-five bold horsemen; though it would have cost them dear, for each man was the pick of his company, and stouter hearts never beat in human breasts than those of the two Hernandos, De Soto, and Pizarro.

The Inca was discovered half reclining on a cushion, surrounded by his nobles, ranged according to their respective rank. They parted, as the horsemen approached, and Hernando Pizarro, without dismounting, but respectfully doffing his helmet, announced through an interpreter the object of his visit. It was the same old speech, which, placed in the mouths of various desperadoes, had done service in Mexico and elsewhere, to wit: "We have come, O mighty prince, in the name of a still mightier monarch across the great waters, who, having heard of you and your wonderful country, has been moved to send this embassy, in order to cultivate your friendship, and especially to impart to you the doctrines of the only true faith, which we profess, and without which you and your subjects shall be condemned to flames everlasting. We have also come with an invitation from our commander, who would be pleased to have you visit him without delay, but who awaits your orders."

Having delivered his message, Hernando awaited an answer, but it did not come. During all the interview the Inca had remained with his gaze directed to the ground, and had not deigned to cast even a glance at the cavaliers. He had spoken not a word nor seemed to hear the message; but finally, after an interval of silence, one of his nobles inclined his head and muttered, "It is well."

But still, though tacitly invited to depart, the Spaniards had not learned the Inca's pleasure, and their spokesman pressed for a reply. A faint smile flickered across Atahuallpa's features as he at last found voice and replied: "This is a fast-day, and I must keep it rigidly, but to-morrow I will visit your commander and inform him of my pleasure. Meanwhile, let him occupy the great buildings on the plaza till I come."

As he glanced, though somewhat listlessly, at the horse De Soto rode, that cavalier, said to have been the best mounted in the army, thought to astonish, if not to terrify, the Inca by putting the fiery steed through his paces. Clapping the spurs into its. sides, he caused the mettlesome charger to prance and rear, to dash furiously forward upon the plain, and then to return at full speed, straight for the Inca and assembled nobles.

Atahuallpa had never seen a horse before that day, and may have been excused if he thought it some unearthly monster with an appetite for human blood; but when it charged directly for him, and even when thrown upon its haunches so close that flecks of foam bespattered the royal robes, he manifested no fear. So stolid and unfeeling was he, in fact (according to Pedro Pizarro), that several of his warriors, who had shrunk back in fear, were ordered by him to be executed!