Juan Pizarro (1511-1536) was half-brother to Hernán
and Francisco Pizarro
, leader of the Spanish conquest of the Inca. He was also a full brother of Gonzalo Pizarro
. Juan accompanied his brothers on their bloody mission and became known as something of an impulsive hothead, brave but reckless. He was extremely loyal to his brothers and fought in the major battles of the conquest until his death at the battle of Sachsaywaman in 1536.
Like Francisco, Juan was the illegitimate son of Gonzalo Pizarro y Rodriguez, a Spanish nobleman from Extremadura who made his name fighting in wars in Italy. His exact date of birth is unknown, but probably about 1511. As a bastard, he could not count on any inheritance: he would have to make his own fortune. Like many young men, he was thrilled by the tales of the Spanish New World. Unlike many, he had connections: his older brother Francisco, who had been active in the New World since 1502. When Francisco came to Spain in 1528 to get royal support for a third foray into western South America, Juan (along with Hernán and Gonzalo) went back with him.
The Conquest of the Inca:
Young Juan soon became an important part of Francisco Pizarro’s conquest. He was a brave, skilled horseman and often led his brother’s cavalry. One of the original 160 conquistadores who reached the Inca Empire in 1530, he went from Cajamarca to Cuzco, and was richly rewarded by his brother when the loot was divided up. As one of Francisco’s brothers, he had a high ranking and was almost as important as Diego de Almagro
. He served as a sort of lieutenant for his brother, who trusted him in spite of his recklessness.
Lord of Cuzco:
In 1535, Francisco left Cuzco in the hands of Juan and Gonzalo while he went to explore the coast and found the city of Lima. Although both men were young, there was no one else he could trust. Also in charge was puppet native leader Manco Inca Yupanqui, one of the surviving sons of Huayna Capac and half-brother to Atahualpa
. Juan and Gonzalo proved to be cruel and ruthless. They oversaw a period of brutal looting and rapine in Cuzco: nobles were tortured for their wealth and Inca women were forcibly taken from their homes and taken as “wives” by the conquistadors.
Juan and Manco:
Juan and Gonzalo were the worst of the bunch. Manco had been keeping his sister, Inquil Coya, in seclusion: the beautiful Inca maiden was to be his wife. Juan saw her and seized her for himself, locking her in his home. She would bear him a daughter, Francisca, in 1535. Gonzalo took away Cura Ocllo, one of Manco’s wives. Manco Inca was enraged by these actions, but there was nothing he could do, as the Spaniards had crowned him Emperor and owned real power in the Empire. The native nobility was also scandalized, but followed the lead of Manco. Manco tried to escape Cuzco in late 1535: he was captured and tortured.
The Siege of Cuzco:
In April of 1536, Manco finally escaped. He quickly raised a mighty army of 200,000 Inca warriors and laid siege to Cuzco. By this time, Juan’s brother Hernando Pizarro had returned to lead the defense. There were less than 200 Spaniards holed up in Cuzco, and they fought valiantly, but the constant pressure from thousands of Inca was taking its toll. The Inca were attacking from the fortress of Sachsaywaman
, strategically located on a hill over Cuzco. The desperate Spanish knew that they would never hold Cuzco unless they could take Sachsaywaman.
Assault on Sachsaywaman:
Juan and Gonzalo were selected to lead some fifty cavalry – almost all of the available horses – in an assault on the fortress. In early May (the exact date is unknown, but probably around the 14th) the riders sallied forth and fought their way to the fortress. They decided on a frontal assault and were doing well considering how badly they were outnumbered. When Gonzalo and his men became pinned down, Juan bravely attacked. He had been recently injured and could not wear a helmet. During the attack, he was hit on the head by a large stone.
The Death of Juan Pizarro:
Juan was brought back in secrecy to Cuzco that night, gravely wounded. He lived long enough to dictate a will, dated May 16 1536. In it, he disowned Inquil Coya and his daughter. He left nothing to the “Indian woman from whom I have received services” and “who has given birth to a girl that I do not recognize as my daughter.” This seems very cruel, as Juan by that time was a very wealthy man: a contemporary mentioned his fortune as totaling 200,000 ducats.
Juan had been a well-known conquistador leader and the Spanish tried to keep his death from the rebellious natives, knowing it would hearten them, but word leaked out and Manco celebrated.
The Spanish were soon reinforced and were able to quickly reassert control over the rebellious natives. Juan’s death, in many ways, was the beginning of the end for the Pizarro brothers: Francisco was hacked to death in Lima in 1541 by mutinous conquistadors and Gonzalo was executed for treason in 1548. Only Hernando lived to a ripe old age. Manco Inca remained in revolt until his death in 1544, murdered by Spanish assassins.
In the end, Juan himself did not leave much of a legacy. Disowned, his daughter faded into obscurity and he did not leave behind any other children. He was only thirty-five when he died and his life had been defined by violence, cruelty and rapine. He was, perhaps, more cruel than the average conquistador, but that could possibly be attributed to his position of authority over the others. It could possibly be said that his attitude toward Manco Inca caused the latter to go into open rebellion, but given the abuses of the Spanish, a revolt was bound to happen sooner or later.
As a Pizarro brother, he left a much greater mark. The Pizarros collectively ruled Peru and the southern Inca Empire well into the 1540’s and amassed incredible wealth in the process. Because Francisco was able to trust his brothers to watch his back, he was able to successfully manage hundreds of greedy, ruthless Spanish conquistadors and use them to bring down one of the mightiest empires in the world. Even so, the gold-hungry adventurers eventually turned on one another, leading to Francisco’s assassination and a series of bloody civil wars in the 1540’s.
Note: the image that accompanies this article is of Francisco Pizarro, as no known images of Juan exist.
Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Inca London: Pan Books, 2004 (original 1970).