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Huáscar and Atahualpa: An Inca Civil War


Huáscar and Atahualpa: An Inca Civil War

Francisco Pizarro

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Death of Atahualpa

Atahualpa had promised to fill a large room half full with gold and twice over with silver in order to secure his release, and in late 1532, messengers spread out to the far corners of the Empire to order his subjects to send gold and silver. As precious works of art poured into Cajamarca, they were melted down and sent to Spain.

In July of 1533 Pizarro and his men began hearing rumors that the mighty army of Rumiñahui, still back in Quito, had mobilized and was approaching with the goal of liberating Atahualpa. They panicked and executed Atahualpa on July 26, accusing him of "treachery." The rumors later proved to be false: Rumiñahui was still in Quito.

Legacy of the Civil War

There is no doubt that the civil war was one of the most crucial factors of the Spanish conquest of the Andes. The Inca Empire was a mighty one, featuring powerful armies, skilled generals, a strong economy and hard-working population. Had Huayna Capac still been in charge, the Spanish would have had a tough time of it. As it was, the Spanish were able to skillfully use the conflict to their advantage. After the death of Atahualpa, the Spanish were able to claim the title of "avengers" of ill-fated Huáscar and march into Cuzco as liberators.

The Empire had been sharply divided during the war, and by allying themselves to Huáscar's faction the Spanish were able to walk into Cuzco and loot whatever had been left behind after Atahualpa's ransom had been paid. General Quisquis eventually saw the danger posed by the Spanish and rebelled, but his revolt was put down. Rumiñahui bravely defended the north, fighting the invaders every step of the way, but superior Spanish military technology and tactics, along with allies including the Cañari, doomed the resistance from the start.

Even years after their deaths, the Spanish were using the Atahualpa-Huáscar civil war to their advantage. After the conquest of the Inca, many people back in Spain began wondering what Atahualpa had done to deserve being kidnapped and murdered by the Spanish, and why Pizarro had invaded Peru in the first place. Fortunately for the Spanish, Huáscar had been the elder of the brothers, which allowed the Spanish (who practiced primogeniture) to assert that Atahualpa had "usurped" his brother's throne and was therefore fair game for Spanish who only wanted to "set things right" and avenge poor Huáscar, who no Spaniard ever met. This smear campaign against Atahualpa was led by pro-conquest Spanish writers such as Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa.

The rivalry between Atahualpa and Huáscar survives to this day. Ask anyone from Quito about it and they'll tell you that Atahualpa was the legitimate one and Huáscar the usurper: they tell the story vice versa in Cuzco. In Peru in the nineteenth century they christened a mighty new warship "Huáscar," whereas in Quito you can take in a fútbol game at the national stadium: "Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa."


Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Inca London: Pan Books, 2004 (original 1970).

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

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