Discover more from Kvetch
Conquistadores: The Age of Heroes (Part II)
Pizarro and the Incas, how heroes die, and aftermaths
This is Part II of a two part series. I suggest reading at least the pre-amble to Part I before reading on.
Although his warriors outnumbered the Spaniards by at least ten to one, they soon broke ranks and fled, pursued and cut down by the horsemen. In just over two hours thousands were killed without a single Spanish casualty.
— Fernando Cervantes
Soldiers and adventurers without women had few prejudices, but wives were arbiters of society, and when a few Spanish women arrived and as a distinctly Spanish society grew, race lines hardened.
— T.R Fehrenbach
In Part II:
Pizarro and the Inca
Qualms of conquest
How heroes die
Spain as the true successor to Rome
Women as arbiters of social (race) norms
Pizarro was stabbed repeatedly and viciously, slipping in a pool of his own blood while attempting to make the sign of the cross and calling for a confessor… Juan Rodríguez Barragán, bashed Pizarro’s head in with a water jar, yelling ‘you can go to hell to make your confession!’
— Fernando Cervantes
3. Pizarro and the Inca
Francisco Pizarro was born illegitimate and poor, grew up illiterate, and died enormously wealthy having conquered a ferocious empire with a few hundred men.
In 1526 Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru in the wake of dynastic conflict: two sons of a deceased Incan ruler had each been left one part of an empire they wanted to themselves. They had left the land scorched and embittered. How Pizarro must have felt Providence’s guiding hand, to serve him embittered allies on a platter, allowing him to echo the recent ally-led victories of Cortés in Mexico.
There was good reason for local bitterness. Victories were marked (per Cervantes):
in a most dramatic fashion by flaying the defeated lords of the Altiplano and, after impaling their heads on poles, fashioning their skins into drums
The victorious brother made his defeated brother watch the sadistic and public torture and slaughter of his wives and children.
So when the conquistadores marched through Peru they were greeted as liberators and found plenty of allies among Inca rivals.
The campaign against the Incas echoed that of the Mexica in more ways. The conquistadores kidnapped the emperor and held an empire for ransom. Their artillery, horses and steel gave them a practical as well as a morale advantage, terrifying the Inca warriors. This was the first encounter of the Spaniards with the Inca emperor:
As soon as the Spaniards left, Atawallpa ordered a squadron of his own soldiers to be executed because they had shown fear at the approach of the horses. He also ordered the execution of ‘their immediate superiors, who were there, and their wives and children’ – done, so one Spanish account had it, ‘in order to terrorize his people so that no one would run away when confronted with the Christians’
And then in his capture:
two salvos of artillery fire gave the signal for the horsemen to gallop out of their quarters, followed by foot soldiers. A savage butchery ensued. Within minutes, hundreds of Atawallpa’s soldiers lay dead on the ground. Although his warriors outnumbered the Spaniards by at least ten to one, they soon broke ranks and fled, pursued and cut down by the horsemen. In just over two hours thousands were killed without a single Spanish casualty. In another echo of Cortés’s capture of Moctezuma, Pizarro seized Atawallpa and took him to safety.
The following morning Soto rode to Kónoj with thirty horsemen. The tens of thousands of troops there offered no resistance, something that can only be explained by the total subservience that every inhabitant of Tawantinsuyu was expected to show the Sapa Inka.
The power granted to the Spaniards through their hostage was almost comical in its magnitude. The Spaniards sent a contingent to the Inca capital Cusco, where they found so much treasure they needed 700 local porters to carry it back through the Andes over several months. It’s hard to think of a comparable feat in history.
Leaving Cajamarca early in the new year, 1533, they arrived in Cusco two months later – no mean feat given that, as the crow flies, the distance between the two cities is a good 750 miles and the road cuts across the central Andes. Crossing the watershed between the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon basin, the expedition would have had to negotiate wild torrents and several subsidiary ranges of steep mountains – a journey that has been compared to travelling from Lake Geneva to the eastern Carpathians or from Pike’s Peak in the southern Rocky Mountains all the way to the Canadian border.
Atawallpa’s general in Cusco had received strict instructions to allow the three Spaniards to take as much gold as they could manage from the Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun, whose interior walls were lined with the precious metal. No information survives about what the three envoys thought of the Inca capital, other than Juan de Zárate’s remark that the streets were well organized and paved and that, in the eight days they had spent there, they had not managed to see all the sights. They were, of course, busy with a more pressing priority: they amassed so much gold and silver that they had no way of taking it back to Cajamarca. It is a measure of the overriding nature of the hold of the Sapa Inka over his subjects that the treasure was carried by no fewer than 700 porters who formed the escort of the three Spaniards on the return journey.
On an ill-fated expedition to Chile, the Inca allies outnumbers the Spanish by 20 to 1. And, as opposed to Cortés’s astute management of indigenous allies, here it was Spanish arrogance and mismanagement that doomed the enterprise and sewed discontent throughout the region:
Almagro set off for Chile in early July with nearly 600 Spaniards and 12,000 Inca allies supplied by [the puppet Inca emperor] Manqo, under the leadership of one of the Sapa Inka’s own brothers, Paullu Tupaq, and the powerful priest Willaq Umu, a distinguished relative of Wayna Qhapaq. The expedition was not an edifying experience, by any standards. The Spaniards treated their Inca subordinates with unspeakable cruelty. Not surprisingly, the latter began to put up a resistance, organizing ambushes and killing Spaniards whenever they could. Then, as the high passes leading into Chile began to take their toll on the Spaniards, the majority of their indigenous followers defected in disgust: by late October only Paullu and his followers remained on the expedition. Even Willaq Umu was making his way back to Cusco, leaving the Spaniards – in one chronicler’s words – with no one ‘even to fetch them a jar of water’
Manqo rebelled. Despite the ravages of disease and their disadvantage against horses and steel and gunpowder, the indigenous rebel warriors used the terrain to their advantage and learned to take advantage of horses’ weaknesses:
indigenous troops surrounded Cusco in their tens of thousands. By night, their fires seemed to an eyewitness to resemble ‘a very clear sky, filled with stars’. Manqo and his commanders, who had learned valuable lessons from their previous encounters with Spanish horsemen, wisely chose to stay on the slopes of the surrounding hills. Unable to seize the initiative in such circumstances, the conquistadores, with their ineffective eighty horses, could only watch the swelling numbers of natives with dread. Manqo waited patiently until the sheer weight of numbers was overwhelmingly in his favour. Then, on Saturday 6 May, he launched a concerted attack on Cusco, in which the Inca combined the power of their slings with an innovative technique that was as unexpected as it was devastating: all the stones had been made red-hot in the campfires. Soon the thatched roofs of the city caught fire. The Spaniards almost suffocated in the dense smoke, managing to survive by huddling on the one side of the main square that had no houses. Although Manqo’s advance out of the hills and on to open ground technically brought the Spanish horses into play, he had again resourcefully anticipated the Spanish tactics with a new device: Inca warriors tied three stones to the ends of tight ropes connected to dried llama tendons, which, when thrown, twirled and tangled themselves around the legs of the horses, bringing most of them down.
The Spaniards did manage to escape this predicament — just another in a string of outrageous numerical and tactical disadvantage. The fight against Manqo brought out Pizarro’s savagery in a way that made his men question his faculties. He killed sixteen of Manqo’s captured lieutenants after they surrendered with the promise of clemency. Then there was the execution of Manqo’s wife (and sister):
But her execution reached levels of cruelty that shocked even the most heartless conquistadores. Having stripped her and tied her to a stake, Pizarro ordered a group of his Cañari allies first to beat her and then to impale her limbs with arrows. Once dead, her body was placed in a large basket and floated down the Urubamba river where it was bound to be found by Manqo’s men. A few days later Manqo was shown the body. ‘He wept and agonized over her, for he loved her very much’, and returned to Vilcabamba bearing the late queen’s remains
Pizarro was not alone in conquistador cruelty. The brutality of Francisco de Chaves was legendary:
Francisco de Chaves, ‘el pizarrista’, who led a savage campaign of unparalleled cruelty throughout the territory in the summer of 1539, brutal enough to horrify Charles V into ordering a substantial compensation to the natives of the region, all to be taken from Chaves’s estate: the most unspeakable of his many crimes had been his order to massacre 600 children.
4. Qualms of conquest
Cerventes provides an extended and interesting deliberation on the Church’s legal and moral justification of the conquests in the New World. From the start, there was considerable handwringing.
It’s tempting to dismiss all moral and theological justifications for conquest as sophistry, merely different covers for one peoples to subjugate another. Yet there’s a fascinating parallel with how subsequent to the conquests both in the Spanish New World and in Anglo Australia that right was reassessed. Whilst the civilisations they met were considerably different, ultimately both the Spanish and English arrived and claimed a land and dominion over its inhabitants.
Where the Spanish relied on a decree by the Pope, and percolated on the dominium of the indigenous people, the English relied on a principle of terra nullius or “nobody’s land”. And without going into the long and messy details, each civilisation sought moral legitimacy. It was unacceptable for either to simply conquer. Then in the case of the Spaniards, the influential theologian and friar Francisco de Vitoria determined that right had never been there in the first place, decades after the conquests that shook the world. For Australians, the High Court in the Mabo case of 1992 said actually it was somebody’s land and the theory upon which modern Australia was built crumpled and lost its moral veneer. Of course, Australia remains under British dominion and despite decades of high immigration a fundamentally Anglo nation. And the Spanish New World still speaks Spanish five centuries later. So in many ways these revisions were just as fake as the original justifications.
the authors of the Requerimiento still aimed to justify the Spanish presence in America on the basis of the bulls of donation that Pope Alexander VI had granted to Isabel and Fernando in 1493. Yet now, Vitoria categorically rejected that such a donation could be valid. [T]he pope had no power whatsoever that he could ‘donate’ to kings or princes for the elementary reason that ‘no one can give what he does not have. He [the pope] has no … dominium … and therefore cannot give any’.
At a stroke, Vitoria had effectively deprived the Crown of the one prop for its actions in the New World that still carried some degree of respectability, even among passionate defenders of the indigenous peoples.
5. How heroes die
Pizarro was killed by rivals who he had unwisely left destitute and scorned:
Armed with two crossbows, an arquebus and a collection of swords and halberds, they made for Pizarro’s home, a two-storey building on the main square, directly opposite the cathedral. Breaking into the house, they killed a page, and rushed up the stairs where they met Francisco de Chaves, the brutal slayer of the 600 children, who had been dining with Pizarro and a number of guests, most of whom had fled in a panic when they heard the commotion. Chaves had decided to face the aggressors, thinking that he could persuade them to desist. Instead, he was summarily stabbed to death. The conspirators then moved towards the dining room where they found Pizarro with his breastplates only half-buckled, brandishing a large sword. With him were two pages, his half-brother, Francisco Martín de Alcántara, and the one guest who had chosen to stay, Gómez de Luna. In the fight that followed, the Almagristas overwhelmed Pizarro and his supporters. Francisco Martín and Gómez de Luna were killed. Surrounded, Pizarro was stabbed repeatedly and viciously, slipping in a pool of his own blood while attempting to make the sign of the cross and calling for a confessor. The coup de grâce was said to have come when one of the conspirators, Juan Rodríguez Barragán, bashed Pizarro’s head in with a water jar, yelling ‘you can go to hell to make your confession!’
How did the other conquistadors die? Everyone wants the reward, no one wants the risk.
After investing heavily in Charles V’s ill-fated expedition to Algiers in 1541, in which he almost lost his life while pursuing the notorious Ottoman corsair Hayreddin Barbarossa, Cortés was subsequently cold-shouldered in Castile until, frustrated, he decided to return to Mexico. On his way to take ship he was struck down with dysentery and died aged sixty-two in Castilleja la Vieja, near Seville, on 2 December 1547, a wealthy but embittered and disappointed man. Meanwhile, Cortés’s impetuous friend Pedro de Alvarado had been the latest to take on the challenge of sailing to China and the Spice Islands. Before he set sail, his horse took fright and ran amok; the conquistador was thrown and crushed under the weight of his horse, dying a few days later, on 4 July 1541 at fifty-six years old. Nor was Jiménez, conqueror of the Muisca, able to capitalize on his successes. After returning to Spain and wandering aimlessly through the courts of Europe for twelve years, he was allowed to return to New Granada as a mere colonist. His subsequent attempt to conquer the llanos was a frustrating and expensive disaster that left him ‘poor and weighed down with debt to the last day of his life’. He died in old age in Suesca, Colombia. For his part, Federmann was accused of breach of contract by the Welser family, and died in February 1542 aged thirty-seven in a Valladolid prison. Of the three conquistadores who tried to lay claim to Bogotá, Benalcázar was the most successful: managing to catch Charles V in 1540, before Las Casas had had his say, he secured the title of governor of Popayán, the city he himself had founded on his way to Bogotá in 1536. Still, this was much less than he had hoped for. Once back in Popayán, he became embroiled in land feuds and vendettas lingering from the Pizarro and Almagro disputes. He was then sentenced to death and died in 1551 at fifty-six years old, before he had a chance to sail back to Spain to appeal against the decision.
This was an ignoble end for a group of men who – whatever their myriad faults and crimes – had succeeded, more or less through their own agency, in fundamentally transforming Spanish, and European, conceptions of the world in barely half a century.
6. Spain as the true successor to Rome
Fehrenbach writes that Spain was the true successor to Rome:
Like all truly imperial peoples, the Spanish did not bargain with alien civilizations and cultures they found; they struck them down. They were not sailors, merchants, colonizers, nor refugees; they were conquistadores.
Everywhere the Spanish went, they carried their civilization and implanted it with immense success. Conversely, the other Atlantic-European peoples were not truly imperial. The Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French went out for trade, or to found colonies. They sent out successful traders, and they planted some successful colonies, usually in relatively wild and uninhabited regions.
The Dutch and British and Portuguese never perceived an imperial purpose nor undertook a “civilizing” mission until the twilight of their hegemonies, when it was too late. Their “empires” proved ephemeral, though some of their spun-off colonies endured and grew.
The Spanish alone made a true empire in the Roman fashion, something not always seen. They did this because the Spanish alone of all Europeans possessed an imperial consciousness and past when the great navigators opened up the world.
In the centuries following the Spanish conquests of the New World, Spain began to decline. The sclerosis manifested in the sale of noble titles and the corresponding exemption of a full quarter of the population from taxation and productive labour.
The crown used desperate means to raise revenue. It sold offices, titles, and privileges. For a price one could now ennoble a dead grandfather. It taxed every use and function, controlled most prices through monopolies, and sold religious bulls or privileges. The crown put any title from a dukedom to the privilege of putting “don” before one’s name up for sale, along with certificates of limpieza de sangre, or “clean blood.” While constantly increasing taxes stifled the economy, the constant additions to the “nobility” dried up the tax rolls, because nobles were exempt from taxes. In Spain the hidalguía or gentry were classified as noble, and the passion for titles proliferated its numbers beyond those of any Western nation. The clergy was also excused from taxation. In 1541, there were one hundred thousand nobles against only eight hundred thousand tax- paying free subjects in Castile. In the next century, one Spaniard in seven was officially noble. In all, a full quarter of the male population had the privileges of the nobility, the clergy, the military, or office by the eighteenth century; thus one-fourth the population was removed from taxation and productive labor.
7. Women as arbiters of social (race) norms
We saw in Part I how delighted conquistadores were to be gifted nubile maidens on their adventures. After the conquests, Spanish men in the new world remained undiscriminating, marrying and siring children by natives freely. Until the Spanish women arrived. And in a natural swipe to cut out the competition — and as executors of social norms — they ended inter-marriage.
Most conquistadores had wed native women. Few Spanish women survived the passage to the Indies. In 1646, a century after the Conquest, there were still nine males to every European female in New Spain.
Spanish society was inherently racist in its attitudes toward Jews and Moors. However, the racism of the Indies grew directly out of the colonial situation and society. Cortés himself and most of the conquistadores had been quite free from any prejudice based on skin color or appearances.
Soldiers and adventurers without women had few prejudices, but wives were arbiters of society, and when a few Spanish women arrived and as a distinctly Spanish society grew, race lines hardened. By the last half of the sixteenth century, interracial marriages were officially discouraged, though never illegal, and they virtually ceased.1
Thanks for reading Kvetch! Subscribe for free
The racial caste system that emerged through the mixing of Spaniards, local indios and imported African slaves became cartoonishly complicated (Africans were imported as they made better slaves than the local indios as they were better able to withstand both the work and the disease):
Castes of the White Race (Criollo or Peninsular)
European father and Negra mother = Mulatto
European father and india mother = Mestizo
European father and mulatta mother = Cuarterón
European father and mestiza mother = Criollo
European father and china mother = Chino blanco
European father and cuarterona mother = Quintero
European father and quinterona mother = Blanco (white)
Castes of the Indian Races (All):
Indio father and negra mother = Chino
Indio father and mulatta mother = Chino oscuro
Indio father and mestiza mother = Mestizo claro
Indio father and china mother = Chino cholo
Indio father and zamba mother = Zambo claro
Indio father and china chola mother = Indio
Indio father and quintera or cuarterona mother = Mestizo pardo
Castes of the Negro Race:
Negro father and Mulatta mother = Zambo
Negro father and mestiza mother = Oscuro
Negro father and china mother = Zambo
Negro father and zamba mother = Negro
Negro father and cuarterona or quintera mother = Mulatto oscuro
Mulatto father and zamba mother = Zambo miserable
Mulatto father and mestizo mother = Chino claro
Mulatto father and china mother = Chino oscuro