Francisco Pizarro was born in 1474 or 1476 in Trujillo, a small town near Cáceres, Spain. His parents – his father was a captain in a Spanish army and his mother was believed to be a courtesan or a prostitute – were not married, so his birth records were not in the church. Francisco lived with his father’s side of the family. His family was poor, so he didn’t have enough money to go to school and remained illiterate. While he was young he worked on a pig farm. When he got older he chose to become a soldier and took part in campaigns in Italy and Navarre.

Filled with enthusiasm at the accounts of the exploits of his countrymen in America, Pizarro set sail to the New World with Alonzo de Ojeda, on 10 November 1509 and was with him on his discoveries of present-day Venezuela and Colombia. From 1509 onwards, Pizarro was involved in different undertakings in San Sebastian, Cartagena (both in present day Colombia) and Santa María de La Antigua del Darién (present day Panama), where he became an associate of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who was the first European to see (and stand in the waters of) the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean (on 13 September 1513). When Pedrarias Dávila, Nuñez de Balboa’s main rival, arrived in Santa María de La Antigua del Darién, Pizzaro – being an opportunist – joined forces with him, and was the officer selected by Pedrarias to arrest his mentor. There was a quick trial, conviction and Nuñez de Balboa was beheaded on 21 January 1519.

By 1522, the success of Hernán Cortéz in Mexico, and the stories of the cities of gold in the south, made Pizarro want to head an expedition to the south. He formed a partnership with Hernán de Luque (a priest), Diego de Almagro, and Gaspar de Espinoza (the man with the money) to explore to the south of Panama. They called their enterprise, the “Empresa del Levante”.

Pizarro set sail in November 1524 with 114 men, and 4 horses. The first trip did not yield any great quantities of gold. Pizarro only went as far south as Punta Quemada, off the coast of Colombia. He sent back some of the small quantity of gold he was able to get, to Pedrarias, to keep him happy, and in support of the expedition. On March 10, 1528, the three partners reach another agreement to divided all profits between them selves.

At the insistence of his partners, Pizarro went to Spain, to plea their case to King Charles V. After putting his proposed expedition before the King, and convincing him of its merits, a charter was signed on 26 June 1529. This charter granted Pizarro the Order of the Knight St. James, the title of Adelantado, Governor and Captain General and absolute authority in all territories he might discover and subjugate. A new government, independent of Panama, was granted to him in perpetuity, that extended 600 miles south of the Santiago River, the boundary between Colombia and Ecuador. He was given the authority to elect all officers who would serve under him, and to administer justice of these new lands. With 250 soldiers, his brothers Hernán, Juan, and Gonzalo, he set sail from Spain on January 18, 1530.

Arriving in Panama, his first job was to smooth the ruffled feathers of his two partners, who were given very little recognition in Pizarro’s charter. Early in January 1531, Pizarro sailed from Panama on three ships, 180 men and 27 cavaliers. Almagro and Luque were to remain in Panama, gathering more re-enforcement and supplies. He landed at the mouth of the Santiago River, and set out to explore the land. He sent back three boats to Panama, for more men. During their explorations, they reached the Gulf of Guayaquil, and were attacked by hostile natives. At that time, two ships arrived from Panama, with 100 men and some horses, commanded by Hernán de Soto.

With remarkable determination, having survived several disastrous attempts, the three explorers eventually landed at Tumbes in May 1532. A few months later, on 24 September 1432, a small band of Spaniards, totalling not more than 170 men, departed from Tumbes, eventually arriving on 16 November 1532 at the Inca city of Cajamarca to meet the leader of what they were rapidly realising was a mighty empire. En route to Cajamarca, Pizarro had learned of the Inca civil wars and of Atahualpa’s recent victory over his brother Huascar. This rift within the empire provided the key to success that Pizarro was looking for.

The day after their arrival, in what at first appeared to be a lunatic endeavour, Pizarro and his men massacred thousands of Inca warriors and captured Atahualpa. Although ridiculously outnumbered, the Spaniards had the advantages of surprise, steel, and cannons and, above all, mounted cavalry. The decisive battle was over in a matter of hours: with Atahualpa prisoner, and Pizarro was effectively in control of the Inca Empire.

Atahualpa was promised his freedom if he could fill the famous ransom room at Cajamarca with gold. Caravans overloaded with the precious metal arrived from all over the land, and within six months the room was filled: a treasure which was already enough to make each of the conquerors extremely wealthy. Pizarro, however, chose to keep the Inca leader as a hostage in case of Indian revolt, amid growing suspicions that Atahualpa was inciting his generals to attack the Spanish. Atahualpa almost certainly did send messages to his chiefs in Cuzco, including orders to execute his brother Huascar who was already in captivity there. Under pressure from his worried captains, Pizarro brought Atahualpa to trial in July 1533, a mockery of justice in which he was given a free choice: to be burned alive as a pagan or strangled as a Christian. They baptised him and then killed him on 26 July 1533.

With nothing left to keep him in Cajamarca, Pizarro made his way through the Andes to Cuzco, where he crowned a puppet emperor, Manco Inca, of royal Indian blood. After all the practice that the Spaniards had had in imposing their culture on both the Moors in Spain and the Aztecs in Mexico, it took them only a few years to replace the Inca Empire with a working colonial mechanism. Now that the Inca civil wars were over, the natives seemed happy to retire quietly into the hills and get back to the land. However, more than wars, disease was responsible for the almost total lack of initial reaction to the new conquerors. The native population had dropped from some 32 million in 1520 to only five million by 1548 – a decline due mainly to new European ailments such as smallpox, measles, bubonic plague, whooping cough and influenza.


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