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Ten Facts About Francisco Pizarro

The Conquistador Who Brought Down the Inca Empire

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Francisco Pizarro (1471-1541) was a Spanish conquistador whose famed conquest of the Inca Empire in the 1530's made him and his men fantastically wealthy and won for Spain a rich New World colony. Today Pizarro is not as famous as he once was, but many people still know him as the conquistador who brought down the Inca Empire. What are the facts about Francisco Pizarro?

1. He Rose from Nothing to Fame and Fortune

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When Francisco Pizarro died in 1541, he was the Marquis de la Conquista, a wealthy nobleman with vast lands, wealth, prestige and influence. This is a far cry from his beginnings: he was born sometime in the 1470’s (the exact date and year is unknown) as the illegitimate child of a Spanish soldier and a household servant. Young Francisco tended the family swine as a boy and never learned to read and write.

2. He Did More than Conquer the Inca Empire

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In 1528, Pizarro returned to Spain from the New World to obtain official permission from the King to embark upon his mission of conquest along the Pacific coast of South America: this would eventually be the expedition that brought down the Inca Empire. What most people don't know is that he had already accomplished much: he arrived in the New World in 1502 and fought in various conquest campaigns in the Caribbean and in Panama. He was along on the expedition led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa which discovered the Pacific Ocean and by 1528 was already a respected, wealthy landowner in Panama.

3. He Relied Greatly Upon his Brothers

Artist: Guaman Poma
On his 1528-30 trip to Spain, Pizarro got royal permission to explore and conquer. But he brought back to Panama something even more important: his four half-brothers. Hernando, Juan and Gonzalo were his half-brothers on his father's side: on his mother's side was Francisco Martín de Alcántara. Together, the five of them would conquer an empire. Pizarro had skilled lieutenants, such as Hernando de Soto and Sebastián de Benalcázar, but deep down he only trusted his brothers. He particularly trusted Hernando, who he sent twice to Spain in charge of the "royal fifth," a fortune in treasure destined for the King of Spain.

4. He Had Good Lieutenants

Artist: Eladio Sevilla
Pizarro's most trusted lieutenants were his four brothers, but he also had the support of several veteran fighting men who would go on to other things. While Pizarro sacked Cuzco, he left Sebastián de Benalcázar in charge on the coast: when Benalcázar heard that an expedition under Pedro de Alvarado was approaching Quito, he rounded up some men and conquered the city first in Pizarro's name, keeping the defeated Inca Empire unified under the Pizarros. Hernando de Soto was a loyal lieutenant who would later lead an expedition into the southeast of the present-day USA. Francisco de Orellana accompanied Gonzalo Pizarro on an expedition and wound up discovering the Amazon River. Pedro de Valdivia went on to be the first governor of Chile.

5. His Share of Loot was Staggering

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The Inca Empire was rich in gold and silver, and Pizarro and his conquistadors all became very rich. Francisco Pizarro made out best of all. His share from Atahualpa's ransom alone was 630 pounds of gold, 1,260 pounds of silver and odds-and-ends such as Atahualpa's throne: a chair made of 15 karat gold which weighed 183 pounds. At today's rate, the gold alone was worth over $8 million dollars: this does not include the silver or any of the loot from subsequent endeavors such as the sacking of Cuzco, which certainly at least doubled Pizarro's take.

6. Pizarro had a Mean Streak

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Most of the conquistadors were cruel, violent men who did not flinch from torture, mayhem, murder and rapine and Francisco Pizarro was no exception. Although he did not fall into the sadist category - as some other conquistadors did - Pizarro had his moments of great cruelty. After his puppet Emperor Manco Inca went into open rebellion, Pizarro ordered that Manco's wife Cura Ocllo be tied to a stake and shot with arrows: her body was floated down a river where Manco would find it. Later, Pizarro ordered the murder of sixteen captured Inca chieftains: one of them was burned alive.

7. He Backstabbed His Partner…

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In the 1520's, Francisco and fellow conquistador Diego de Almagro had a partnership and twice explored the Pacific coast of South America. In 1528 Pizarro went to Spain to get royal permission for a third trip. The crown granted Pizarro a title, a position of governor of the lands he discovered and other lucrative positions: Almagro was given the governorship of the small town of Tumbes. Back in Panama, Almagro was furious and was only convinced to participate after given the promise of the governorship of as-yet undiscovered lands. Almagro never forgave Pizarro for this double-cross.

8. …and it Led to a Civil War

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As an investor, Almagro became very wealthy after the sacking of the Inca Empire, but he never quite shook the feeling (most likely correct) that the Pizarro brothers were ripping him off. A vague royal decree on the subject gave the northern half of the Inca Empire to Pizarro and the southern half to Almagro, but it was unclear in which half the city of Cuzco belonged. In 1537, Almagro seized the city, leading to a civil war among the conquistadors: Francisco sent his brother Hernando at the head of an army which defeated Almagro at the Battle of Salinas. Hernando tried and executed Almagro, but the violence didn’t stop there.

9. Pizarro was Assassinated

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During the Civil Wars, Diego de Almagro had the support of most of the recent arrivals to Peru: these men had missed out on the astronomical payoffs of the first part of the conquest and arrived to find the Inca Empire nearly picked clean of gold. Almagro was executed, but these men were still disgruntled, above all with the Pizarro brothers. The new conquistadors rallied around Almagro’s young son, Diego de Almagro the younger. In June of 1541 some of these went to Pizarro’s home and murdered him. Almagro the younger was later defeated in battle, captured and executed.

10. Modern Peruvians don’t Think Very Highly of Him

Photographer: Manuel González Olaechea y Franco
Much like Hernán Cortés in Mexico, Pizarro is sort of half-heartedly respected in Peru. Peruvians all know who he was, but most of them consider him ancient history, and those who do think about him generally don't hold him in very high regard. Peruvian Indians in particular see him as a brutal invader who massacred their forebears. A statue of Pizarro (which wasn't even originally meant to represent him) was moved in 2005 from the central square of Lima to a new, out-of-the way park outside of town.

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