The End of an Incan Era
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Tahuantinsuyu (meaning Land of the Four Corners), or the Inca Empire, had reached many of the heights of human accomplishment, and was the greatest empire on the planet. By the time Columbus reached the Americas, the Inca Empire probably surpassed even Ming China and the Ottoman Empire as the largest nation on earth. From the imperial capital of Cuzco, the Incas ruled over northern Chile, upper Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and southern Colombia. This great empire included the dry Atacama desert in the west, much of the Amazon rainforest to the east, and encompassed the whole of the Andes (the Incas were unique in their mastery of the Andes; no other empire has ever controlled such a great mountain chain). No Andean nation of today compares to the Inca Empire in size or wealth, the latter of which would eventually contribute to its downfall.
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The term "Inca" actually refers only to a small group of less than 40,000 people who conquered their Andean state by force and ruled as the nation's governing nobility. The head of the royal family (known as The Inca) ruled over the entire empire, which was made up of Inca subjects numbering over 10 million (these subjects were not Inca because they were not part of the Inca ethnic body). Within the Andean Mountains, there existed many distinct ethnic groups that were often at odds with each other and with the centralized rule of the Inca. The diversity of peoples presented special problems for the empire builders: conquering separate ethnic groups was rather easy, but consolidating all of these groups proved to be more of a challenge. These groups, sometimes played against each other and coerced into joining the empire, amounted to eighty political provinces.
Huayna Capac, the last Inca to rule over a unified empire, was forced to focus mostly on consolidating his rule, although, he did actively pursue a campaign in the north extending Inca control into the region of southern Colombia. Both he and his heir were struck down by the devastating wave of smallpox in 1525, and two of his other sons, Atahualpa and Huascar, competed for power in a bloody civil war. Although Huascar ruled over the south of the empire (including Cuzco), Atahualpa maintained control over the military, largely based in the North, and he successfully defeated his half-brother in 1532. As Atahualpa and his victorious troops began the march south towards Cuzco, they stopped in Cajamarca to camp near the thermal springs now known as the Banos del Inca. While there, he learned of the arrival of the Spanish led by Francisco Pizarro, whom he hardly considered a threat to his army of thousands.
Atahualpa received a visit by 35 Spanish cavalrymen and their native interpreter, who asked him where the Spanish were to stay in Cajamarca. Atahualpa responded by instructing the Spanish to stay just next to the city's main plaza, where he would join them the next day. Little did Atahualpa realize that the Spanish would spend the night plotting his capture. During the evening of November 16th, 1532, Atahualpa entered the plaza, with 6,000 men armed with only slings and hand axes. The rest of his troops were instructed to wait outside. Surrounding the plaza from three sides were a series of kallankas, where the Spanish soldiers had spent the night, and from where they were now poised for a surprise attack on the Inca. Atahualpa was met by the Spanish friar Vicente de Valverde, who attempted to explain his position as a man of God and presented the Inca with the Bible. Atahualpa became angry, throwing the Bible onto the ground. Valverde saw this action as an insult to Christianity -- just the excuse Valverde needed to absolve the Spaniards for an attack on the Inca.
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At the behest of Valverde, Pizarro fired his cannon into the group of natives. Pizarro's forces only included 260 mercenaries, 62 horsemen, and 198 foot soldiers, but with the screaming of horses and the firing of cannons, the Spanish took the Inca by surprise. The Inca had never seen horses or cannons before and were confused by the fearsome attack. From horseback, the Spanish hacked the Inca to death with steel swords, while firing their inaccurate, but deadly guns into the crowd. The Inca weapons were unable to pierce the armor of the Spanish, and they attempted to flee the plaza altogether. While his troops continued to kill as many of the Inca as they could, Pizarro managed to capture Atahualpa himself. As the fighting subsided, nearly 7,000 Inca lay dead and their leader was in the hands of the Conquistadors.
Atahualpa soon discovered the Spaniard's lust for gold and he made them an offer in exchange for his release. In his cell near the plaza, he raised his hand high over his head and promised the Spanish that he would have the room filled with gold up to the reaches of his fingertips. He also offered the room filled two more times with silver, all for his own freedom. Pizarro accepted and, in return, promised Atahualpa's release. As the months went by, gold and silver began arriving in Cajamarca. Pizarro was quite patient in receiving the ransom, because he was also awaiting further reinforcements. Pizarro realized that by holding Atahualpa captive, he effectively controlled the southern half of the empire (which had just been defeated by Atahualpa, and consequently saw the Spanish as liberators). Upon the advice of Diego de Almagro, who arrived with 150 soldiers on April 14, 1533, Pizarro decided that he could never give Atahualpa his freedom as promised. The Spaniards were still severely outnumbered by Inca troops, who would likely seek revenge under Atahualpa's leadership.
Atahualpa began to sense that he would never be released, and he sent desperate messages to Quito in hopes that his followers there would come and rescue him. The Spanish panicked when they learned of these attempts, and they sentenced Atahualpa to death for trying to arrange his own rescue. After the entire ransom was collected, and exactly eight months and ten days after his capture, Atahualpa was led out into the plaza to be burned at the stake. In his final hour, on July 26, 1533, Atahualpa accepted baptism and his sentence was changed to a quicker death by strangulation. After that was completed, they burnt his body anyway. The conquest of Tihuantinsuyu was well underway.
After Atahualpa's death, the Spanish crowned Huascar's younger brother Tupac Huallpa as the new Inca Emperor. Still seen as liberators, the Spanish marched south to Cuzco and entered the city without any resistance. Once back in Cajamarca, Atahualpa's Inca generals decided to destroy the city should the Spanish ever return to it again. They set fire to nearly all of the buildings, except the one in which their Inca had been imprisoned, which they left standing in his memory and as a symbol of their loyalty.
Besides Atahualpa's cell (known as the "Cuarto del Rescate"), there are no Inca buildings or ruins to be found today in Cajamarca. The several minutes I took staring into the cell made me think of the many months of Atahualpa's incarceration. I wondered if he ever realized the extent to which his life, his empire, and his culture would soon be destroyed forever.
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