Atahualpa was the last of the native lords of the mighty Inca Empire, which spanned parts of present-day Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia. He had just defeated his brother Huascar
in a violent civil war when Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro
arrived in the Andes. The unlucky Atahualpa was quickly captured by the Spanish and held for ransom. Although his ransom was paid, the Spanish killed him anyway, clearing the way for the plunder of the Andes. Other spellings of his name include Atahuallpa, Atawallpa and Ata Wallpa. His birthdate is unknown, but probably around 1500: he was killed in 1533.
In the Inca Empire, the word “Inca” meant “King,” and generally only referred to one man, the ruler of the Empire. Atahualpa was one of many sons of Inca Huayna Capac, an efficient and ambitious ruler. The Incas could only marry their sisters: no one else was deemed noble enough. They had many concubines, however, and their offspring (Atahualpa included) were considered eligible for rule. Rulership of the Inca did not necessarily pass to the eldest son first, as was the European tradition: any one of Huayna Capac’s sons would be acceptable. Often, civil wars broke out between brothers for succession.
The Empire in 1533:
Huayna Capac died in 1526 or 1527, possibly of a European infection such as smallpox. His heir apparent, Ninan Cuyuchi, died as well. The Empire immediately split, as Atahualpa ruled the northern part from Quito and his brother Huascar ruled the southern part from Cuzco. A bitter civil war ensued
and raged until Huascar was captured by Atahualpa’s forces in 1532. Although Huascar had been captured, regional mistrust was still high and the population was clearly divided. Neither faction knew that a far greater menace was approaching from the coast.
Francisco Pizarro was a seasoned campaigner who had been inspired by Hernán Cortés
' audacious (and lucrative) conquest of Mexico. In 1532, with a troop of 160 Spaniards Pizarro set off along the western coast of South America in search of a similar empire to conquer and plunder. The troop included four of Pizarro's brothers
. Diego de Almagro
was also involved, and would arrive with reinforcements after Atahualpa's capture. The Spanish had an enormous advantage
over the Andeans with their horses, armor and weapons. They had some interpreters that had been previously captured from a trading vessel.
Capture of Atahualpa:
The Spanish were immensely fortunate in that Atahualpa happened to be at Cajamarca, one of the closest major cities to the coast where they had disembarked. Atahualpa had just received word that Huascar had been captured and was celebrating with one of his armies. He had heard of the foreigners coming and felt that he had little to fear from fewer than 200 strangers. The Spanish hid their horsemen in the buildings around the main square at Cajamarca, and when the Inca arrived to converse with Pizarro, they rode out, slaughtering hundreds and capturing Atahualpa. No Spanish were killed.
With Atahualpa captive, the Empire was paralyzed. Atahualpa had excellent generals, but none dared try and free him. Atahualpa was very intelligent and soon learned of the Spanish love for gold and silver. He offered to fill a large room half full with gold and full twice over with silver for his release. The Spanish quickly agreed and the gold began flowing in from all corners of the Andes. Most of it was in the form of priceless art and it was all melted down, resulting in an incalculable cultural loss. Some of the greedy conquistadors took to breaking up golden items so that the room would take longer to fill.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, Atahualpa had proven to be ruthless in his ascent to power. He ordered the death of his brother Huascar and several other family members who blocked his way to the throne. The Spanish who were Atahualpa’s captors for several months found him to be brave, intelligent and witty. He accepted his imprisonment stoically and continued to rule his people while captive. He had small children in Quito by some of his concubines, and he was evidently quite attached to them. When the Spanish decided to execute Atahualpa, some were reluctant to do so because they had grown fond of him.
Atahualpa and the Spanish:
Although Atahualpa may have been friendly with some individual Spaniards, such as Francisco Pizarro’s brother Hernando, he wanted them out of his kingdom. He told his people to not attempt a rescue, believing that the Spanish would leave once they had received their ransom. As for the Spanish, they knew that their prisoner was the only thing keeping one of Atahualpa’s armies from crashing down on them. Atahualpa had three important generals, each of whom commanded an army: Chalcuchima in Jauja, Quisquis in Cuzco and Rumiñahui in Quito.
Death of Atahualpa:
General Chalcuchima allowed himself to be lured to Cajamarca and captured, but the other two remained threats to Pizarro and his men. In July of 1533, they began hearing rumors that Rumiñahui was approaching with a mighty army, summoned by the captive Emperor to wipe out the intruders. Pizarro and his men panicked. Accusing Atahualpa of treachery they sentenced him to burn at the stake, although he was eventually garrotted. Atahualpa died on July 26, 1533 in Cajamarca. Rumiñahui's army never came: the rumors had been false.
Legacy of Atahualpa:
With Atahualpa dead, the Spanish quickly elevated his brother Tupac Huallpa to the throne. Although Tupac Huallpa soon died of smallpox, he was one of a string of puppet Incas who allowed the Spanish to control the nation. When Atahualpa’s nephew Túpac Amaru was killed in 1572, the royal Inca line died with him, ending forever any hope for native rule in the Andes.
The successful conquest of the Inca Empire by the Spanish was largely due to unbelievable luck and several key mistakes by the Andeans. Had the Spanish arrived a year or two later, the ambitious Atahualpa would have consolidated his power and may have taken the threat of the Spanish more seriously and not allowed himself to be captured so easily. The residual hatred by the people of Cuzco for Atahualpa after the civil war certainly played a part in his downfall as well.
After Atahualpa’s death, some people back in Spain began asking uncomfortable questions, such as: “Did Pizarro have any legal right to invade Peru, take Atahualpa hostage, kill thousands and take away literally tons of gold, considering that Atahualpa had done nothing to him?” These questions were eventually solved by declaring that Atahualpa, who was younger than his brother Huáscar with whom he had been warring, had usurped the throne. Therefore, it was reasoned, he was fair game. This argument was very weak – the Inca did not care who was older, any son of Huayna Capac could have been king – but it sufficed. By 1572 there was a complete smear campaign in place against Atahualpa, who was called a cruel tyrant and worse. The Spanish, it was argued, had “saved” the Andean people from this “demon.”
Atahualpa today is seen as a tragic figure, a victim of Spanish ruthlessness and duplicity. This is an accurate assessment of his life. The Spanish not only brought horses and guns to the fight, they also brought an insatiable greed and violence which was just as instrumental in their conquest. He is still remembered in parts of his old Empire, particularly in Quito, where you can take in a fútbol game at the Atahualpa Olympic Stadium.
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.