In 1532, Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro first made contact with the mighty Inca Empire: it ruled parts of present-day Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia. Within 20 years, the Empire was in ruins and the Spanish were in undisputed possession of the Inca cities and wealth: Peru would continue to be one of Spain's most loyal and profitable colonies for another three hundred years. The conquest of the Inca looks unlikely on paper: 160 Spaniards against an Empire with millions of subjects. How did Spain do it? Here are the facts about the fall of the Inca Empire.
As late as 1528, the Inca Empire was a cohesive unit, ruled by one dominant ruler, Huayna Capac. He died, however, and two of his many sons, Atahualpa and Huáscar, began to fight over his empire. For four years, a bloody civil war raged over the Empire and in 1532 Atahualpa emerged victorious. It was at this precise moment, when the Empire was in ruins, that Pizarro and his men showed up: they were able to defeat the weakened Inca armies and exploit the social rifts that had caused the war in the first place.
In November of 1532, Inca Emperor Atahualpa was captured by the Spanish: he had agreed to meet with them, feeling that they did not pose a threat to his massive army. This was but one of the mistakes the Inca made. Later, Atahualpa's generals, fearing for his safety in captivity, did not attack the Spanish while there were still only few of them in Peru: one general even believed Spanish promises of friendship and let himself be captured.
3. The Loot was Staggering
The Inca Empire had been collecting gold and silver for centuries and the Spanish soon found most of it: a great amount of gold was even hand-delivered to the Spanish as part of Atahualpa’s ransom. The 160 men who first invaded Peru with Pizarro became very wealthy. When the loot from the ransom was divided, each foot-soldier (the lowest in a complicated pay scale of infantry, cavalry and officers) received about 45 pounds of gold and twice that much silver. The gold alone is worth over a half million dollars in today’s money: it went even further back then. This doesn’t even count the silver or the loot received from subsequent paydays, such as the looting of the rich city of Cuzco, which paid out at least as well as the ransom had.
The soldiers and people of the Inca Empire did not meekly turn over their homeland to the hated invaders. Major Inca generals such as Quisquis and Rumiñahui fought pitched battles against the Spanish and their native allies, notably at the 1534 Battle of Teocajas. Later, members of the Inca royal family such as Manco Inca and Tupac Amaru led massive uprisings: Manco had 100,000 soldiers in the field at one point. For decades, isolated groups of Spaniards were targeted and attacked. The people of Quito proved particularly fierce, fighting the Spanish every step of the way to their city, which they burned to the ground when it became apparent that the Spanish were certain to capture it.
Although many of the native people fought back fiercely, others allied themselves with the Spanish. The Inca were not universally loved by the neighboring tribes they had subjugated over the centuries, and vassal tribes such as the Cañari hated the Inca so much that they allied themselves with the Spanish: by the time they realized that the Spanish were an even bigger threat it was too late. Members of the Inca royal family practically fell over one another to gain the favor of the Spanish, who put a series of puppet rulers on the throne. The Spanish also co-opted a servant class called the yanaconas: the yanaconas attached themselves to the Spaniards and were valuable informants.
The unquestioned leader of the conquest of the Inca was Francisco Pizarro, an illegitimate and illiterate Spaniard who at one time had herded the family's pigs. Pizarro was uneducated, but clever enough to exploit the weaknesses he swiftly identified in the Inca. Pizarro had help, however: his four brothers, Hernando, Gonzalo, Francisco Martín and Juan. With four lieutenants that he could fully trust, Pizarro was able to destroy the Empire and rein in the greedy, unruly conquistadors at the same time. All of the Pizarros became wealthy, taking such a large share of the profits that eventually it sparked a civil war among the conquistadors over the spoils.
The Inca had skilled generals, veteran soldiers and massive armies numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands. The Spanish were greatly outnumbered, but their horses, armor and weapons gave them an advantage that proved too great for their enemies to overcome. There were no horses in South America until Europeans brought them: native warriors were terrified of them and at first, the natives had no tactics to counter a disciplined cavalry charge. In battle, a skilled Spanish horseman could cut down dozens of native warriors. Spanish armor and helmets, made of steel, made their wearers practically invulnerable and fine steel swords could cut through any armor the natives could put together.
The conquest of the Inca was essentially a long-term armed robbery on the part of the conquistadors. Like many thieves, they soon began to squabble among themselves over the spoils. The Pizarro brothers cheated their partner Diego de Almagro, who went to war to lay claim to the city of Cuzco: they fought off and on from 1537 to 1541 and the civil wars left both Almagro and Francisco Pizarro dead. Later, Gonzalo Pizarro led an uprising against the so-called "New Laws" of 1542, an unpopular royal edict which limited conquistador abuses: he was eventually captured and executed.
The 160 or so conquistadors who participated in the original expedition became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, rewarded with treasure, land and slaves. This inspired thousands of poor Europeans to move to South America and try their luck. Before long, desperate, ruthless men were arriving to the small towns and ports of the New World. A rumor began to grow of a mountain kingdom, richer than even the Inca had been, somewhere in northern South America. Thousands of men set out in dozens of expeditions to find the legendary kingdom of El Dorado, but it was only an illusion and never existed except in the fevered imaginations of the gold-hungry men who so desperately wanted to believe it.
The original group of conquistadors included many remarkable men who went on to do other things in the Americas. Hernando de Soto was one of Pizarro's most trusted lieutenants: later he would go on to explore parts of the present-day USA including the Mississippi River. Sebastián de Benalcázar would go on to search for El Dorado and found the cities of Quito, Popayán and Cali. Pedro de Valdivia, another of Pizarro's lieutenants, would become the first royal governor of Chile. Francisco de Orellana would accompany Gonzalo Pizarro on his expedition to the east of Quito: when they became separated, Orellana discovered the Amazon River and followed it to the ocean.