Reign of Huayna Capac Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Huayna Capac weakened the Inca Empire by pushing its boundaries to their greatest extent, which led to rebellions on the empire’s fringes. At his death, a bitter struggle for succession further weakened the empire just as the conquering Spaniards arrived.

Summary of Event

Under Huayna Capac, the Inca Empire’s vast geographical reach strained the resources of the state. Difficult wars on the periphery encouraged large and conquered groups to rebel for independence. The prolonged wars in the north produced a virtual state within a state with its capital in Quito and a substantial number of Incas who no longer regarded Cuzco as their home. The untimely death of Huayna Capac plunged the already weakened state into a war to determine succession just before it was to face its greatest threat for survival: Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro. Inca Empire Huayna Capac Huáscar Pachacuti Topa Inca Atahualpa Pizarro, Francisco Pachacuti Topa Inca Yamque Ninan Cuyochi Huáscar Atahualpa Huayna Capac

Tihuantinsuyu, the Inca Empire, exploded from its capital city of Cuzco early in the fifteenth century. Located 11,024 feet above sea level in what is now southern Peru, Cuzco, which means “navel” (signifying the center of the world), was regarded by its rulers as a site chosen by the solar deity to be the center of an empire that would unite the world, hence its name Tihuantinsuyu (four quarters). The rulers claimed descent from the solar deity and called themselves Sapa Incas Sapa Incas (divine rulers). The Sapa Incas ruled with the support of their kinsmen, descendants of the founder Manco Capac. One of the greatest of the conquering Sapa Incas was Pachacuti, the ninth king.





At an advanced age and in poor health, Pachacuti called his sons to Cuzco to name a successor, hoping thereby to avoid a struggle for succession at his death. He placed the borla, a fringed headband indicating royal authority, on the forehead of one of his sons, Topa Inca, who had been campaigning for three years against the Canaris in the north. Pachacuti asked to see Topa Inca’s six-month-old son, and he placed a borla on his head, too, named him Huayna Capac, and designated him his father’s successor. He announced his decisions to the elite Incas, who pledged their loyalty to Topa Inca, and he retired. Another son, Yamque, assumed duties as domestic ruler, and Topa Inca resumed his northern campaign.

After living two years with his grandfather, Pachacuti, Huayna Capac returned to his birthplace and his father’s campaigns. While Huayna Capac was still a teenager, his father became very ill, possibly from poison. Topa Inca assembled the Incas, and in their presence he placed the borla on Huayna Capac’s forehead. Nevertheless, as soon as Topa Inca died, one of his concubines convinced several Incas that before death Topa Inca had revoked his nomination and chosen her son to succeed him. Huayna Capac was in the care of his uncle, who acted swiftly when he learned of the planned coup. He ordered the concubine’s assassination and imprisoned her son. Huayna Capac’s marriage to Cusi Rimay, who became the coya, official wife, proceeded as scheduled.

For the first years of his reign, Huayna Capac ruled with the assistance of four regents. To cement his rule, Huayna Capac scrupulously observed the funerary and mourning rituals of his father and then made several tours in the vicinity of Cuzco. He gave elaborate gifts to the Inca families and to the curacas, heads of communities, to reaffirm mutual loyalties.

Similarly, he sent four Inca officials on inspection tours of the realm, one to each of the four major administrative divisions. They, too, were to reestablish loyalties through exchanges of reciprocal gifts and pledges. The inspectors were to hear complaints, settle disputes, ensure that religious ceremonies and sacrifices were practiced as prescribed, and take measures to improve the prosperity of villages. When the regents had confidence that Huayna Capac was mature enough to rule on his own, they resigned. He continued and expanded the range of his inspection tours, still renewing bonds through rituals of reciprocity, initiating construction projects, and encouraging agricultural improvements.

Despite his peaceful initiatives, the fringes of his empire were fraying. He sent his trusted uncle north of Cuzco to modern Colombia as a gesture of peace and cooperation. Likewise, Huayna Capac went south of Cuzco to modern Chile. In these regions, the Incas entered new cultural zones, encountering different language families, different physical environments, and customs that did not include reciprocity rituals and mutual obligations between groups. Huayna Capac had to suppress rebellions, build fortresses, and improve roads to facilitate the movement of armies. In modern Bolivia, and past the easternmost range of the Andes, the Incas moved into the montaña, the rain forest. There the Incas met bitter, prolonged resistance. Once defeated, ethnic groups on these extremities complied reluctantly with Inca attempts to restructure their lives and rebelled frequently.

While in the south, Huayna Capac learned that rebellions in the north had been successful, resulting in the deaths of many Inca governors, including his uncle. Huayna Capac returned to Cuzco and raised a large army to punish the rebels and recover lost territory. While roads north were being widened and storehouses filled to supply the army, Huayna Capac assembled the curacas from the north and, with ceremonies of reciprocity, settled local quarrels and reaffirmed their loyalty. Despite these promising signs, he had to overcome more rebellions. While preparing for the campaign, he learned that a rebellion in Cuzco itself had been crushed and that five large ethnic groups north of Quito had formed a league to resist Inca expansion.

For the next twelve years, Huayna Capac stayed with his armies in the north. Each campaign resulted in a demand for more soldiers and more Inca officers. Quito became a major administrative and military center. The numbers of Incas in Cuzco diminished because many died in battles and survivors received estates near Quito and Tumibamba that they settled permanently. Huayna Capac became an absentee emperor. He directed and fought in campaigns to the north, to western coasts, and into the montaña from his own estate in Tumibamba. He sent rather than led captives to Cuzco for victory processions. While on one of the coastal campaigns, Huayna Capac heard reports of sightings of strange boats. The fishermen and merchants may have spotted the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro’s ship along the Ecuadoran coast in late 1524 and early 1525.

In that same year, a strange epidemic spread through Tihuantinsuyu. Because the earliest chroniclers described the victims as having inflammations on the skin, the disease has been often, but not conclusively, associated with smallpox. Huayna Capac, too, became ill. There had been no public announcement of his successor, and Huayna Capac’s aides asked him to make his choice. He named Ninan Cuyochi, the only son of Cusi Rimay, to be the first choice and Huáscar the second. Ninan Cuyochi, however, had died of the disease, too.

Another concubine claimed to be the highest-ranking wife and urged that her older son, Huáscar, be designated the next Inca ruler. Huayna Capac died before the aides returned with the news of Ninan Cuyochi’s death and before he could confirm the choice of Huáscar. The Incas soon thereafter split into two hostile camps, one supporting Huáscar and the other supporting his half brother, Atahualpa, as Pizarro was outfitting ships for his second voyage down the western coast of South America.


A number of factors led to the downfall of the Inca Empire soon after Huayna Capac’s reign: traditional uncertainties about the succession of rulers; having one Inca rule; the introduction of devastating diseases from Europe, such as smallpox; a civil war between half brothers Huáscar and Atahualpa, for Inca rule, which decimated the armies and the elite class of the Incas, left the empire without a leader, and opened the door to the empire’s demise; and, perhaps most important, the Incas’ belief that the Spanish conquerors were gods who could be trusted at a time when leadership was most needed.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Betanzos, Juan de. Narrative of the Incas. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton and Dana Buchanan. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. An account of Inca history and traditions prepared for the viceroy of Peru. Completed in 1557 with assistance from his wife Doña Angelina Yupanqui, niece of Huayna Capac, widow of Atahualpa, and former mistress of Francisco Pizarro.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cieza de León, Pedro de. The Discovery and Conquest of Peru: Chronicles of the New World Encounter. Translated and edited by Alexandra Parma Cook and Noble David Cook. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. One of the earliest chronicles, written by one of Pizarro’s soldiers shortly after the events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cobo, Bernabé. History of the Inca Empire: An Account of the Indians’ Customs and Their Origin, Together with a Treatise on Inca Legends, History, and Social Institutions. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. Part of a history of the New World written by a Jesuit priest who lived in Peru. Work based on careful scholarship and completed in 1653.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, María. History of the Inca Realm. Translated by Harry B. Iceland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A premier authority on Inca history and society.

1471-1493: Reign of Topa Inca

1525-1532: Huáscar and Atahualpa Share Inca Rule

1532-1537: Pizarro Conquers the Incas in Peru

Categories: History