The prudence, fortitude, military discipline, labors, perilous navigations, and battles of the Spaniards – vassals of the most invincible Emperor of the Roman Catholic Empire, our natural King and Lord – will cause joy to the faithful and terror to the infidels. For this reason, and for the glory of God our Lord and for the service of the Catholic Imperial Majesty, it has seemed good to me to write this narrative, and to send it to Your Majesty, that all may have a knowledge of what is here related. It will be to the glory of God, because they have conquered and brought to our holy Catholic Faith so vast a number of heathens, aided by His holy guidance. It will be to the honor of our Emperor because, by reason of his great power and good fortune, such events happened in his time. It will give joy to the faithful that such battles have been won, such provinces discovered and conquered, such riches brought home for the King and for themselves; and such terror has been spread among the infidels, such admiration excited in all mankind.
So wrote the brother of the Spanish explorer Fransisco Pizzaro of astounding events that took place in the Peruvian highland town of Cajamarca on November 16, 1532. The day would witness what geographer Jared Diamond identifies in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, as the pivotal moment in Europe’s conquest of the Western Hemisphere and the beginning of the fall of the vast Inca empire.
Leading a ragtag band of 168 men 1,000 miles from the nearest reinforcements in Panama, Pizarro marched directly into the teeth of Inca Emperor Atahuallpa’s army of nearly 80,000 soldiers. Completely surrounded by the Inca forces, the terrified Spaniards fortified themselves in the town square of Cajamarca. Secreting a single small cannon and groups of horsemen, Pizzaro sent a bold invitation to meet with the Inca emperor. Confident in the might of his forces, Atahuallpa approached the waiting Spaniards, fully expecting to imprison or kill the entire group. The account describes the advance of thousands of lavishly dressed Indian soldiers escorting Emperor Atahuallpa to the rendezvous:
These Indian squadrons began to enter the plaza to the accompaniment of great songs, and thus entering they occupied every part of the plaza. In the meantime all of us Spaniards were waiting ready, hidden in a courtyard, full of fear. Many of us urinated without noticing it, out of sheer terror. On reaching the center of the plaza, Atahuallpa remained in his litter on high, while his troops continued to file in behind him.
Governor Pizarro now sent Friar Vicente de Valverde to go speak to Atahuallpa, and to require Atahuallpa in the name of God and of the King of Spain that Atahuallpa subject himself to the law of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the service of His Majesty the King of Spain. Advancing with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other hand, and going among the Indian troops up to the place where Atahuallpa was, the Friar thus addressed him: ‘I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like manner I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book. Therefore, on the part of God and of the Christians, I beseech you to be their friend, for such is God’s will, and it will be for your good.’
Atahuallpa asked for the Book, that he might look at it, and the Friar gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open the Book, and the Friar was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper he threw it away from him five or six paces, his face a deep crimson.
The Friar returned to Pizarro, shouting, ‘Come out! Come out, Christians! Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things or God. That tyrant has thrown my book of holy law to the ground! Did you not see what happened? Why remain polite and servile toward this over-proud dog when the plains are full of Indians? March out against him, for I absolve you!’
At this, Pizzaro ordered the cannon fired and the Spaniards charged from their hiding places. The Indians panicked. Hundreds where cut down by Spanish steel attempting to keep Atahuallpa’s litter upright. Pizzaro’s men finally managed to topple it by charging it with a press of horsemen and thus Atahuallpa was captured.
The small band of Spanish cavalry now jumped a broken wall and charged into the plain with its waiting mass of the Inca army. The account reads that “It was an astonishing sight, for the whole valley for 15 or 20 miles was completely filled with Indians.”
The slaughter continued all day until at nightfall the Spaniards were obliged to retire. The account estimates that six or seven thousand Indians lay dead with many more wounded. It was an utter route with the Indians completely undone by a combination of surprise, Spanish steel and horseflesh, and the sheer audacity of the incredibly outnumbered Spaniards. Atahuallpa was understandably upset at finding himself so unexpectedly captive. Governor Pizzaro offered a few words of “consolation”:
Do not take it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, for with the Christians who come with me, though so few in number… by reason of our good mission, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolical life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few in number, subjugate that vast host… Our Lord permitted that your pride should be brought low and that no Indian should be able to offend a Christian.
In the eight months that followed, Pizzaro held Atahuallpa ransom while his men explored the surrounding territory at full liberty and extracted the largest ransom in history in return for a promise to free him – enough gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide by 8 feet in height. Once the gold was secured, Pizzaro summarily had Atahuallpa executed. By this time Pizzaro had managed to reinforce his army significantly and when it later came to fighting, the Spaniards had the advantage.
That fateful day in Cajamarca marked the fall of the vast Inca empire. An empire that certainly rivaled the Holy Roman Empire in splendor and sophistication (though not, apparently in audacity, cunning and steel weaponry). In time, dedicated Jesuit Priests would bring essentially the entire population of South and Central America into the worship of the Roman Catholic faith (enforced, of course by Spanish swords).