Atahualpa (ca. 1502-1533) was the Inca emperor of Peru whose capture and execution by Francisco Pizarro enabled the conquistadores to secure the Inca lands for the Spanish crown.

Atahualpa, whose name means "virile-sweet," was a son of the emperor Huayna Capac, last of the family of Incas to rule an undivided empire which extended from present-day southern Colombia through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia into northwestern Argentina and northern Chile. At Huayna Capac's death (ca. 1528) in Quito, this vast territory was divided between two of his sons: Huáscar, who won the imperial throne in the capital city of Cuzco to the south, and his half-brother Atahualpa, who gained the northern portion of the kingdom, with its center in the city of Quito.

The division led to civil war between the half-brothers, reaching a peak in 1532 with the defeat and imprisonment of Huáscar. At this point the Spaniards entered Peru. Francisco Pizarro and about 180 men reached Atahualpa's base at Cajamarca in November 1532. The confrontation between the Spanish conquistador and the Inca, who had thousands of troops camped nearby, took place in the main square of the town. The Inca rejected the call of Pizarro's emissary, the priest Valverde, to swear obedience to the king of Spain and to acknowledge Christianity as the true religion, and he threw to the ground the breviary that was proffered. Pizarro then ordered his strategically placed troops to attack the soldiers with Atahualpa; the Peruvians were routed and the Inca seized by the Spaniards.

The capture of the head of the monolithic Peruvian state was the key to the subsequent Spanish conquest of the Inca empire. Atahualpa offered to purchase his freedom by filling the large cell in which he was imprisoned with objects of gold. The Spaniards took the treasure and declared that Atahualpa had fulfilled his agreement. But they refused to release him from their "protective custody," since Pizarro feared for the safety of his vastly outnumbered and isolated troops.

Spanish accusations that Atahualpa was plotting against them and that, as was apparently the fact, he had successfully ordered, from prison, the assassination of Huáscar, gave Pizarro the excuse for placing Atahualpa on trial. The sentence that he be burned to death was changed to execution by strangulation when the Inca agreed to accept Christianity and be baptized. Atahualpa was garroted by the Spaniards on Aug. 29, 1533, leaving the leaderless empire open to complete subjugation by the European invaders.


Further Reading on Atahualpa

The classic work by William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Peru (2 vols., 1847; many later editions), remains the best account of the conquest and the fate of Atahualpa. Philip Ainsworth Means, Fall of the Inca Empire and the Spanish Rule in Peru: 1530-1780 (1932), relates the same events, also in a vivid prose style. J. Alden Mason, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru (1957; rev. ed. 1969), and Burr C. Brundage, Empire of the Inca (1963), describe the pre-Columbian period in Peru from an anthropological viewpoint and include brief accounts of the Spanish seizure of power. All of these works draw heavily from one of the great early Spanish narratives about the Inca empire and its conquest by the Spaniards, Garcilaso de la Vega's Royal Commentaries of the Incas (1609-1617; many later editions and translations).


Additional Biography Sources

Norman, Ruth, The last Inca, Atahualpa: an eyewitness account of the conquest of Peru in 1535, El Cajon, CA: Unarius Academy of Science Publications, 1993.