Diego de Almagro was a Spanish soldier and conquistador, famous for his role in the defeat of the Inca Empire in Peru and Ecuador and his later participation in a bloody civil war among the victorious conquistadors. He rose from very humble beginnings in Spain to a position of wealth and power in the New World, only to be defeated by his former friend and ally Francisco Pizarro
. His name is often associated with Chile: he led an expedition of exploration and conquest there
in the 1530's, although he found the land and its people too harsh and tough.
Diego was born illegitimate in Almagro, Spain: thus the name. By some accounts he was a foundling, forced to make his own fortune. According to others, he knew who his parents were and could count on them for a little help. At any rate, he went off to seek his fortune at a young age. By 1514 he was in the New World, having arrived with the fleet of Pedrarías Dávila. A tough, determined and ruthless soldier, he quickly rose in the ranks of the adventurers who were conquering the New World. He was older than most: he was approaching 40 by the time of his arrival in Panama.
The first European New World mainland outpost was created in the unlikeliest of places: the Panama isthmus. The spot that Governor Pedrarías Dávila picked to settle was humid and buggy and the settlement struggled to survive. The highlight was without a doubt Vasco Núñez de Balboa
's overland voyage that discovered the Pacific Ocean. Three of the hardened soldiers of the Panama expedition were Diego de Almagro, Francisco Pizarro and the priest Hernando de Luque. Almagro and Pizarro were important officers and soldiers, participating in various expeditions.
Conquest to the South:
Almagro and Pizarro remained in Panama for a few years, where they received the news of Hernán Cortés
’ stunning conquest of the Aztec Empire. Together with Luque, the two men put together a proposal to the Spanish Crown to outfit and direct an expedition of conquest to the south. The Inca Empire was as yet unknown to the Spanish: they had no idea who or what they would find to the south. The King accepted, and Pizarro set forth with about 200 men: Almagro remained in Panama for the purpose of sending men and supplies to Pizarro.
Conquest of the Inca:
In 1532, Almagro heard the news: Pizarro and 170 men had managed to capture the Inca Emperor Atahualpa
and were ransoming him for a treasure unlike any the world had ever seen. Almagro hurriedly gathered reinforcements and departed, catching up with his old partner in April of 1533. He brought with him 150 well-armed Spaniards and was a welcome sight for Pizarro. Soon the conquistadors began hearing rumors of the arrival of an Inca army under General Rumiñahui. Panicked, they decided to execute Atahualpa. It was a poor decision, but nevertheless the Spanish managed to hold onto the Empire.
Troubles with Pizarro:
Once the Inca Empire was pacified, Almagro and Pizarro began having troubles. The Crown’s division of Peru was vague, and the wealthy city of Cuzco fell under Almagro’s jurisdiction, but the powerful Pizarro and his brothers held it. Almagro went north and participated in the conquest of Quito, but the north was not as rich and Almagro seethed at what he saw as Pizarro schemes to cut him out of the New World loot. He met with Pizarro and it was decided in 1534 that Almagro would take a large force south into present-day Chile, following rumors of vast wealth. His issues with Pizarro were left unsettled, however.
The rumors turned out to be false. First the conquistadors had to cross the mighty Andes: the harsh crossing took the lives of several Spaniards and countless African slaves and native allies. Once they arrived, they found Chile to be a harsh land, full of tough-as-nails Mapuche natives who fought Almagro and his men on several occasions. After two years of exploring and finding no rich empires like the Aztecs or Incas, Almagro’s men prevailed upon him to return to Peru and claim Cuzco as his own.
Return to Peru and Civil War:
Almagro returned to Peru in 1537 to find Manco Inca
in open revolt and the forces of Pizarro on the defensive in the highlands and in the city of Lima on the coast. Almagro's force was weary and tattered but still formidable, and he was able to drive Manco off. He saw the Inca's revolt as an opportunity to seize Cuzco for himself and quickly engaged the Spaniards loyal to Pizarro. He had the upper hand at first, but Francisco Pizarro sent another force of loyal Spaniards up from Lima
in early 1538 and they soundly defeated Almagro and his men at the battle of Las Salinas in April.
Death of Almagro:
Almagro fled to safety in Cuzco, but men loyal to the Pizarro brothers
pursued and captured him within the city limits. Almagro was sentenced to be executed, a move which stunned most of the Spanish in Peru, as he had been elevated to nobleman status by the King some years before. He was garrotted on July 8, 1538 and his body was put on public display for a time.
Legacy of Diego de Almagro:
The unexpected execution of Almagro had far-reaching consequences for the Pizarro brothers. It turned many against them in the New World as well as Spain. The civil wars did not end: in 1542 Almagro’s son Diego de Almagro the Younger, then 22, led a revolt which resulted in the murder of Francisco Pizarro. Almagro the younger was quickly caught and executed, ending Almagro’s direct line.
Today Almagro is remembered chiefly in Chile, where he is considered an important pioneer even though he left no real lasting legacy there other than having explored some of it. It would be Pedro de Valdivia, one of Pizarro’s lieutenants, who would conquer and settle Chile.
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.