Pizarro Conquers the Incas in Peru

Pizarro’s conquering of the Incas extended Spanish colonial control in the New World and brought an end to the vast Inca Empire.

Summary of Event

Spanish conquistadores marauding through Central America to the Pacific received reports of Birú, a rich, powerful indigenous culture to the south. Among those captivated by the rumor was one of Governor Pedro Arias d’Ávila’s chief lieutenants, Francisco Pizarro. He formed a partnership with Diego de Almagro, a business associate, and a priest, Hernando de Luque. The three were to share equally in the costs and profits of the endeavor to seize the wealth of Birú, or Peru. Exploration and colonization;Spain of South America
Inca Empire
Pizarro, Francisco
Almagro, Diego de
Soto, Hernando de
Ávila, Pedro Arias d’
Almagro, Diego de
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)
Huayna Capac
De Soto, Hernando
Manco Inca
Alvarado, Pedro de
Benalcázar, Sebastián
Núñez de Vela, Blasco
Pizarro, Francisco

Francisco Pizarro and his troops, before conquering the Inca of Peru.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

While Almagro gathered more men and supplies, Pizarro sailed in November, 1524. He reached the San Juan River, plundered gold and silver artifacts, and then returned to Panama. He set sail again in 1526 and, despite great hardship, reached Tumbes, an Incan coastal city near what is now the Peru-Ecuador border. Its wealth and splendor convinced Pizarro the rumors and reports about Peru were correct, and he returned to Panama to organize an expedition of conquest. First, however, he went to Spain and secured a charter from Emperor Charles V, authorizing him to undertake the expedition and granting him, Pizarro, most of the rewards, if it proved successful. He also discussed with Hernán Cortés the conquest of Mexico and the Aztecs (1519-1521). Accompanied by several of his half brothers, Pizarro returned to Panama. Convinced Pizarro had cheated him when obtaining the charter, Almagro could do little except cooperate and contemplate revenge.

In late 1530, Pizarro set out for Peru with 180 men and 30 horses. They plundered the coast of Ecuador before reaching Tumbes in February, 1532. The Spaniards discovered the city partially destroyed in a civil war among the Incas. Huayna Capac, the last great Inca ruler (r. 1493-1525), had died in 1525, probably from smallpox that spread from the Caribbean and devastated the Andean peoples. Two of his sons, half brothers Huáscar and Atahualpa, fought to succeed their father. They represented rival factions: Huáscar’s power centered in Cuzco, the traditional Inca capital, while Atahualpa’s power base was Quito, recently added to Tahuantinsuyu Tahuantinsuyu (four quarters), as the Incas called their empire. Furthermore, the Incas had created Tahuantinsuyu through conquest, and many of the recently subjugated people were restless. Pizarro was ready to exploit the dissension.

With reinforcements from Panama, Pizarro departed Tumbes in May of 1532, moving into the mountains toward Atahualpa’s army. Having defeated and captured Huáscar, Atahualpa knew the strangers’ movements and might have destroyed Pizarro’s men in a mountainous ambush. Perhaps overconfident, he allowed them to reach Cajamarca, where he was encamped. Pizarro sent two squads, headed by Hernando de Soto and Hernando Pizarro, to the South American Indian camp. Using as translators South American Indians seized during Pizarro’s second expedition, the emissaries conversed with Atahualpa, who agreed to visit the Spaniards in Cajamarca.

The following afternoon, May 16, Atahualpa traveled into the town, carried on a litter and accompanied by several thousand bodyguards. Pizarro sent out Father Diego de Valverde, who explained through a translator to Atahualpa the requirement (a legalism that asserted Spain’s sovereignty over the New World by way of papal donation). When Atahualpa haughtily rejected Valverde’s demands, Spaniards stormed out of buildings around the square where they had been hidden. They captured Atahualpa and slaughtered his men.

Through his captive, Pizarro wielded great influence in the Inca Empire. Atahualpa’s own faction grudgingly obeyed the captive’s orders, fearful for his safety. To them he was not only the supreme ruler of a highly centralized regime but also divine. Worried the Spaniards might ally with his defeated half brother, Atahualpa secretly ordered Huáscar’s execution. Eager to take revenge on Atahualpa, Huáscar’s supporters assisted the Spaniards.

Away from Cajamarca, Atahualpa’s lieutenants struggled to maintain control over the Inca Empire. Hoping to buy his own freedom, Atahualpa offered to fill a room once with gold and again with silver. While llama trains brought treasure to Cajamarca, the Spaniards reconnoitered. In early 1533, Hernando Pizarro looted the great religious shrine at Pachacámac, near modern-day Lima. Another contingent went to Cuzco, the Inca capital. By June, Atahualpa had amassed the promised ransom, making rich men out of all the Spaniards present at his capture, but Pizarro refused to free him. Accusing Atahualpa of murdering Huáscar and organizing a rebellion, Pizarro executed his prisoner on July 26, 1533. Sentenced to be burned alive, the Inca converted to Catholicism and was instead strangled. Hernando Pizarro left for Spain to pay the king’s fifth of the treasure and to inform Charles V of their exploits.

Reinforced by 150 men under Almagro, the Spaniards set out for Cuzco. At Jauja Atahualpa’s supporters attacked, but Spanish horsemen overwhelmed them. In open terrain, Andean soldiers armed primarily with clubs and slingshots were no match for horses and Spanish steel swords and body armor. At Vilcaconga on November 8, the advance guard commanded by Hernando de Soto was ambushed, but then saved by the arrival of Almagro. They fought another battle outside Cuzco before Pizarro’s forces entered the city on November 15, 1533.

The Spanish held Cuzco but had not pacified Tahuantinsuyu. They installed Manco Inca as puppet ruler in December, 1533. Drawn from Panama by the fabulous reports, more Spaniard reinforcements arrived, including those led by Pedro de Alvarado, a captain under Hernán Cortés during the conquest of Mexico. During the first half of 1534, Sebastián Benalcázar conquered Quito. On January 6, 1535, Pizarro founded the City of the Kings, or Lima, on the coast for easier communication with Panama. He and Almagro tried to resolve their differences. Pizarro assigned his partner the uncharted lands south of Cuzco, and in July of 1535, Almagro led a disappointing expedition into Chile.

Meanwhile, Manco Inca grew tired of Spanish abuse and exploitation. Slipping out of Cuzco, he organized a massive army in 1536 and laid siege to Cuzco, held by two hundred Spaniards. From Lima, Pizarro sent several relief expeditions, but they were ambushed before reaching Cuzco. The native Indians attacked Lima itself but could not take it. Neither could they capture Cuzco, despite their overwhelming numbers. The fighting grew more and more bitter, the atrocities of each side denying the essential humanity of the other. After several months’ siege Manco’s army withdrew. Ethnic rivalries among the indigenous peoples weakened Manco’s Great Rebellion Manco’s Great Rebellion (1536) , and, indeed, some of them remained firm Spanish allies.


The failure of Manco’s Great Rebellion sealed the Spanish conquest of Peru, although it did not bring peace to the Andes.

Almagro seized Cuzco from the Pizarros in 1537 but was defeated at Las Salinas and executed on July 8, 1538. In retaliation, Almagro’s men murdered Francisco Pizarro in 1541.

Manco Inca launched another rebellion in 1539. He then retreated into the mountains north of Cuzco and set up an independent kingdom at Vilcapampa, which survived until destroyed by the Spaniards in 1572.

To assert royal control over the Andes, Charles V sent Blasco Núñez de Vela to Peru as viceroy with orders to limit the conquistadors’ exploitation of indigenous peoples. His arrival in 1544 touched off a rebellion against the Crown. The viceroy died in the rebellion. Only in the mid-1550’s did royal authority over Peru become more secure.

Further Reading

  • Abercrombie, Thomas A. Pathways of Memory and Power: Ethnography and History Among an Andean People. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. A groundbreaking historical and anthropological study detailing the social memory and inherited rituals—hybrids of indigenous and European custom—of the Andean people. Discusses Pizarro’s conquest of the region. Illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, glossary, and index.
  • Adams, Charles. “How Cortés and Pizarro Found That Taxes Were the Chink in the Armor of the Aztec and Inca Rulers.” In For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1999. Study of one of the factors that enabled Pizarro to defeat the Incas and take control of their civilization. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Beardsell, Peter. Europe and Latin America: Returning the Gaze. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. Collection of indigenous Latin American reactions to encounters with Europe, including Inca perspectives on Pizarro. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Davies, Nigel. The Incas. Niwot: University of Colorado Press, 1995. A readable and rigorous study of the Inca Empire from its legend-shrouded origins to its catastrophic collapse.
  • Guilmartin, John F., Jr. “The Cutting Edge: An Analysis of the Spanish Invasion and Overthrow of the Inca Empire, 1532-1539.” In Transatlantic Encounters: Europeans and Andeans in the Sixteenth Century, edited by Kenneth J. Andrien and Rolena Adorno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Argues that although the Incas were adaptive and resourceful, Spanish technological superiority proved decisive to the military outcome.
  • Hemming, John. “Atahualpa and Pizarro.” In The Peru Reader: History, Culture, and Politics, edited by Orin Starn, Carlos Iván Degregori, and Robin Kirk. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995. Account of the meeting between Pizarro and Atahualpa at Cajamarca, attempting to evaluate the success or failure of attempts at communication and mutual understanding. Illustrations, map, bibliographic references, index.
  • Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Incas. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970. Reprint. San Diego, Calif.: Harvest Books, 2003. The best narrative account in English of the conquest, based on Spanish chronicles and archival sources.
  • Prescott, William H. The Conquest of Peru. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1961. A classic narrative, first published in 1847, that still makes rewarding reading, especially on the Spanish side of the conquest. Early chapters on Inca culture are more outdated.
  • Spalding, Karen. Huarochirá: An Andean Society Under Inca and Spanish Rule. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1984. Places the conquest in ethnohistorical context by explaining the nature of Andean culture prior to the rise of Inca power, the changes imposed by the Incas, and the consequences of Spanish victory.
  • Varón Gabai, Rafael. Francisco Pizarro and His Brothers: The Illusion of Power in Sixteenth Century Peru. Translated by Javier Flores Espinoza. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. Study of the short-lived dominance of Pizarro and his family in Peru. Interprets the Pizarros’ project as essentially a private business enterprise and examines the relationship of the business both to the government and public funds of Spain and to indigenous groups in South America. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.

1471-1493: Reign of Topa Inca

1493-1525: Reign of Huayna Capac

1500-1530’s: Portugal Begins to Colonize Brazil

1525-1532: Huáscar and Atahualpa Share Inca Rule