The Last Days of the Inca:
By early 1534, the Inca Empire was collapsing. In July of 1533, the last great Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, had been treacherously murdered by the Spanish, leaving the kingdom without leadership when it needed it the most. Atahualpa had three mighty generals: Chalcuchima, Quisquis and Rumiñahui. Chalcuchima had been tricked and captured and Quisquis was on the run with the remnants of his army. The last hope of the Inca Empire was with Rumiñahui and his band of warriors in the frigid highlands above Tomebamba, guarding the way to Quito.
Quito and Cuzco:
Quito was the second-most important city in the Empire, after the capital Cuzco. Emperor Atahualpa had his base of support in Quito, as opposed to Cuzco, which had supported Atahualpa’s brother Huascar in the Inca Civil War that preceded the arrival of the Spanish. The Spanish had taken Cuzco without a fight, as they had been seen as “deliverers” from the rule of Atahualpa. Taking Quito would not be so easy: thousands of warriors loyal to the slain Atahualpa would doggedly resist the Spanish every step of the way.
Benalcázar and Alvarado:
Francisco Pizarro was the leader of the Spanish conquistadores in Peru. One of his trusted subordinates, Sebastián de Benalcázar, was awaiting orders at the port of San Miguel de Piura, which had flooded with Spanish soldiers and conquistadores since word of the wealth of the Inca Empire began to spread. They were clamoring to be allowed to sack Quito, but Benalcázar preferred to await orders from Pizarro. Then word reached that another expedition, led by Pedro de Alvarado, conqueror of the Maya, was on its way to loot Quito. Benalcázar hurriedly organized the Spanish and set out: the race to Quito’s riches was on.
March to Battle:
Benalcázar had about two hundred Spanish and some sixty horses: it was a large force at the time. He marched up the Peruvian coastal plain and crossed unopposed into modern-day Ecuador. There were some skirmishes near Saraguro, but Benalcázar and his men made it basically unscathed to Tomebamba, where modern Cuenca sits today. Tomebamba was a medium-sized Inca city, home of the Cañari people, who had been conquered and added to the Inca Empire relatively recently.
The Cañari, proud warriors, chafed at Inca rule. They had backed Huáscar in the Inca Civil War to their detriment: a vengeful Atahualpa had ordered many of them massacred after they were defeated in battle. The Cañari saw the Spanish as the chance to regain their independence and offered Benalcázar an alliance. Being no fool, he accepted, although the Spanish had no intention of freeing the Cañari once the Inca were gone. The Cañari would eventually come to greatly rue the day they sided with the foreigners, but for now, some 3,000 Cañari warriors swelled the ranks of the invading Spanish army.
The frosty highlands above Tomebamba are barren and treeless, marshy, wet and cold. There are scrub grasses and bushes, wet mosses and mud. The high altitude is enough to make visitors swoon if they’ve come quickly from sea level and the temperatures can dip below freezing at night. Rumiñahui felt that it was a good place to meet the Spanish, where the altitude would favor his men.
The Battle Begins:
No first-hand records of the battle survive: historians estimate it took place on or about May 3, 1534. The massive Inca host – possibly numbering as many as 50,000 warriors – was encountered by a small Spanish mounted patrol. Shrieking traditional battle cries, the native horde attacked. Although the highlands are marshy and wet, the wide-open spaces proved perfect for mounted attacks and the armored Spanish cut down dozens if not hundreds of Rumiñahui’s soldiers. Meanwhile, the main Spanish host hurried to catch up with the small patrol.
Death in the Andes:
All day long, the battle went back and forth across the marshy highlands. The Spanish were vastly outnumbered but had the advantage of horses and armor. Concerted cavalry charges could break much larger forces of native foot soldiers. Rumiñahui had dug pits, hoping to trap the horses, but none of the Spanish were tricked. Rumiñahui's captains repeatedly rallied the men to fight and the Spanish were pursued all the way back to their camp, although they were able to keep the native army from entering as dusk fell. During the night, the Spanish forces slipped away, not wanting to push their luck.
Despite their numerical inferiority, the Spanish only lost four soldiers and four horses at the Battle of Teocajas, whereas native losses may have been as many as 4,000, according to Ecuadorian historian Juan de Velasco. Rumiñahui’s men cut the heads off the horses and paraded them around as trophies: in battle, the natives often hated the horses more than the riders.
Legacy of the Battle of Teocajas:
The Battle of Teocajas was a draw. Rumiñahui failed to drive the invaders out of the Andes and Benalcázar failed to convincingly rout the Inca army, which would have been a huge morale boost for his march on Quito.
The battle did prove a couple of things, however. It proved that the Spanish military superiority was insurmountable. The Spanish had steel and horses, whereas the Andeans fought on foot with weapons of weak metals, wood or stone. In their suits of armor, the Spanish were all but invulnerable. If 50,000 berserk natives under the command of one of the best Inca Generals in history could not annihilate a force of 200 Spanish, then there was little long-term hope for the defense of Quito.
The battle also proved, however, that taking Quito would be no picnic. The Spanish, by capturing Atahualpa and then installing puppet Incas after they murdered him, had managed to take Cuzco and the southern Inca Empire almost without a fight. Atahualpa had previously battled Huascar, lord of Cuzco, and many of the southerners mistakenly viewed the Spanish as liberators and friends because they had killed Atahualpa.
The northerners were not deceived, however. Rumiñahui and other native captains fought the Spanish every step of the way to Quito: Teocajas was the first and largest encounter between the two armies, but it would not be the last. There were several pitched battles between Teocajas and Quito and Rumiñahui proved to be a clever leader, adapting his strategies to try and drive off the Spanish.
Benalcázar's military superiority eventually carried the day and he beat Alvarado in the race to Quito. In late June of 1534 the Spanish reached Quito only to find that Rumiñahui had already been there and gone, taking with him the treasures and most of the women. He also burned the storehouses and set fire to the Imperial palaces. Rumiñahui was never captured by the Spanish: he was eventually assassinated by some of his own men who hoped to put an end to the fighting.
Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Inca London: Pan Books, 2004 (original 1970).