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1532-72 - Pizarro and the Conquistadors

While the Inca empire flourished, Spain was beginning to rise to prominence in the Western world. The political union of the several independent realms in the Iberian Peninsula and the final expulsion of the Moors after 700 years of intermittent warfare had instilled in Spaniards a sense of destiny and a militant religious zeal. The encounter with the New World by Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) in 1492 offered an outlet for the material, military, and religious ambitions of the newly united nation.

Francisco Pizarro, a hollow-cheeked, thinly bearded Extremaduran of modest hidalgo (lesser nobility) birth, was not only typical of the arriviste Spanish conquistadors who came to America, but also one of the most spectacularly successful. Having participated in the indigenous wars and slave raids on Hispaniola, Spain's first outpost in the New World, the tough, shrewd, and audacious Spaniard was with Vasco Nunez de Balboa when he first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean in 1513 and was a leader in the conquest of Nicaragua (1522). He later found his way to Panama, where he became a wealthy encomendero and leading citizen.

Beginning in 1524, Pizarro proceeded to mount several expeditions, financed mainly from his own capital, from Panama south along the west coast of South America.

After several failures, Pizarro arrived in northern Peru late in 1532 with a small force of about 180 men and 30 horses. The conquistadors were excited by tales of the Incas' great wealth and bent on repeating the pattern of conquest and plunder that was becoming practically routine elsewhere in the New World. The Incas never seemed to appreciate the threat they faced. To them, of course, the Spaniards seemed the exotics. "To our Indian eyes," wrote Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, the author of Nueva cronicay buen gobierno (New Chronicle and Good Government), "the Spaniards looked as if they were shrouded like corpses. Their faces were covered with wool, leaving only the eyes visible, and the caps which they wore resembled little red pots on top of their heads."

From the time of the first contacts until today, more than ecology and much more than geography separated indigenous Americans from Europeans. To most of the peoples of the Americas, the world, the cosmos, and the human race were integrally bound in a religious framework in which the sacred seemed to penetrate everything, making it difficult to draw a border around what was and was not profane. The dichotomy between secular and religious that so preoccupied late medieval and Renaissance thought would have been a totally alien contrast to indigenous intellectuals. The tangled web of religion spread over so many acts and institutions that the Inca response to the Spanish intruders necessarily appears bizarre to the secular mind.

On November 15, 1532, Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca, the Inca's summer residence located in the Andean highlands of northern Peru, and insisted on an audience with Atahualpa. Guaman Poma says the Spaniards demanded that the Inca renounce his gods and accept a treaty with Spain. He refused. "The Spaniards began to fire their muskets and charged upon the Indians, killing them like ants. At the sound of the explosions and the jingle of bells on the horses' harnesses, the shock of arms and the whole amazing novelty of their attackers' appearance, the Indians were terror-stricken.

They were desperate to escape from being trampled by the horses, and in their headlong flight a lot of them were crushed to death." Guaman Poma adds that countless "Indians" but only five Spaniards were killed, "and these few casualties were not caused by the Indians, who had at no time dared to attack the formidable strangers." According to other accounts, the only Spanish casualty was Pizarro, who received a hand wound while trying to protect Atahualpa.

Pizarro's overwhelming victory at Cajamarca in which he not only captured Atahualpa, but devastated the Inca's army, estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 warriors, dealt a paralyzing and demoralizing blow to the empire, already weakened by civil war. The superior military technology of the Spaniards—cavalry, cannon, and above all Toledo steel—had proved unbeatable against a force, however large, armed only with stone-age battle axes, slings, and cotton-padded armor. Atahualpa's capture not only deprived the empire of leadership at a crucial moment, but the hopes of his recently defeated opponents, the supporters of Huascar, were revived by the prospect of an alliance with a powerful new Andean power contender, the Spaniards.

Atahualpa now sought to gain his freedom by offering the Spaniards a treasure in gold and silver. Over the next few months, a fabulous cache of Incan treasure—some eleven tons of gold objects alone—was delivered to Cajamarca from all corners of the empire. Pizarro distributed the loot to his "men of Cajamarca," creating instant "millionaires," but also slighting Diego de Almagro, his partner who arrived later with reinforcements. This action sowed the seeds for a bitter factional dispute that soon would throw Peru into a bloody civil war and cost both men their lives. Once enriched by the Incas' gold, Pizarro, seeing no further use for Atahualpa, reneged on his agreement and executed the Inca—by garroting rather than hanging—after Atahualpa agreed to be baptized as a Christian.

The majority of the indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, particularly where chiefdom and state-level forms of organization had existed, were initially massed together in encomiendas, grants of native labor made to soldiers and others as recompense for significant service to the Crown. These labor units, usually drawn from specified towns or hamlets, were responsible for the production of foodstuffs, the payment of tribute, the feeding of the Spaniards in the cities, mining duties, personal service for the encomenderos, and service on public works. The encomenderos who held grants were formally, if not always in practice, responsible for seeing to the Christianization and what they called the “civilization” of their charges. This system of forced labor was notoriously exploitive and oppressive, and it led, particularly in England, to the creation of the Black Legend: the English view of Spanish colonization as an inhuman series of wanton acts of destruction, torture, and murder.

This anti-Spanish propaganda, which has contributed until the present to the formation of attitudes toward Hispanics by English-speaking people, was (and continues to be) countered by the pro-Spanish White Legend, which represents the conquests and colonization as ultimately fortunate events that made possible the introduction of Christianity (i.e., salvation) and “civilization” (European customs, institutions, practices, and beliefs).

Both legends have much that is stridently incorrect or exaggerated, since the conquests and colonization led to a reality that cannot be desoribed in simple terms. Yet today it is understandably the Black Legend that has dominated the thinking about these events common among many scholars, nationalist Latinos, pro-indigenous native peoples, and Latino indigenists who focus on the violence, death, and destruction the Spaniards wrought. Meanwhile, pro-Spanish intellectuals and others who see the Americas as fundamentally European communities tend to highlight the cultural achievements of the Spaniards while minimizing their abuses. It should be noted that the English formed their view of Spanish treatment of the peoples of the Americas prior to their own efforts at colonizing. They had convinced themselves that “the Cannibals to be sure would receive rough treatment; but those who would join with the English, whether the Cimarrons of the south or the good Indians of the north, would enjoy gentle government, civility Christianity, superior technology, and abundance.”

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