Francisco Pizarro and the Start of European Colonization

On this day in 1531, Spanish explorer, conquistador and creep Francisco Pizarro springs a trap on the Incan emperor, Atahualpa. With fewer than 200 men against several thousand, Pizarro appeals to Atahualpa’s vanity, lures the Incan icon to a feast fit for the king and opens fire on the unarmed Incas. Pizarro’s men massacred nearly all in the retinue and captured Atahualpa.

Pizarro himself had sprung from a liaison between his father, a Captain of the guard, and a humble village girl from Castile in 1475. Pizarro’s career began as a swineherd; by the time he neared middle-age, he was mayor and magistrate of Panama. In 1523 he embarked upon the adventure that was to lead to his lasting fame and in partnership with a soldier, Diego de Almagro, and a priest, Hernando de Luque, he made preparations for a voyage of discovery and conquest down the west coast of South America.

Quickly realizing that the land which would be called Peru was rich in natural resources, and well governed, with considerable infrastructure, Pizarro returned to Spain, sought and received the authority and prerogatives of a viceroy from Charles V; colleagues Almagro and Luque were left in subordinate positions. All the “famous thirteen” who first “discovered” Peru with him received substantial rights and privileges in the new territories.

In January, 1531, Pizarro set sail with one ship, 180 men, and 37 horses, being joined later by two more ships. By April they had made contact with emissaries of Atahualpa, emperor of the Incas, who was residing near the city of Cajamarca with an army of about 30,000 men. Somewhat scornful of Pizarro’s small force, the Inca accepted a proposal that the two leaders meet in that city.

Exploiting the now-hapless Incan ruler to maximum effect, Pizarro used Atahualpa to incite and pacify, extorted tons of gold from him, and forced him to convert to Christianity before ultimately killing him. Initially, Atahualpa was to be burned at the stake—the Spanish believed this to be a fitting death for a heathen—but at the last moment, Friar Valverde offered the emperor clemency if he would convert. Atahualpa submitted, only to be executed by strangulation.

Fighting between the Spanish and the Incas would continue well after Atahualpa’s death as Spain consolidated its conquests. Pizarro’s bold and craven victories, however, effectively marked the end of the Inca Empire and the beginning of the European colonization of South America.

As for nasty old Pizarro himself, Karma would indeed pay him a chilly visit in his dotage. Resentments between the conqueror and his original henchmen had grown toxic over the ensuing years, as Pizarro hoarded riches beyond the party’s original agreement of even-Steven. Not long after he had his chief rival and former best friend Almagro executed, adherents to Almagro rallied, attacking Pizarro’s palace on June 26, 1541. Pizarro died that day a painfully protracted death, drawing a cross of his own blood on the ground, kissing it, and crying “Jesus” as he fell.

Somewhere high above the mists of Machu Picchu, Atahualpa was smiling broadly. And here endeth the lesson.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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