Francisco Pizarro

The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1474-1541) was the obscure adventurer and ruffian who discovered and overthrew the Inca empire of Peru. Assassin of the Inca Atahualpa, Pizarro was assassinated in turn by his own countrymen.

Francisco Pizarro was born at Trujillo in Estremadura. The illegitimate son of a poor hidalgo (small landholder of the petty nobility), he never learned to read and may have earned his keep herding his father's swine. This allegation is often cited by Pizarro's detractors in terms of a comparison with Herná Cortés the better-born conqueror of Mexico. But the destruction wreaked by Cortés upon Aztec civilization was no less far-reaching than Pizarro's impact upon the society of Peru.

Pizarro left Spain for the New World in the wake of the early discoveries. He joined Alonso de Ojeda on the latter's disastrous expedition to Colombia and subsequently accompanied Vasco Núñez de Balboa on his march to the South Sea (Pacific Ocean). It was Pizarro who later arrested the condemned Balboa on orders from the great explorer's rival, Pedrarias de á vila. He then settled down as an encomendero (lord of Indian serfs) in Panama.

Yet Pizarro remained a conquistador without a conquest. Emboldened by tales of fabulous kingdoms to the south, he went into partnership with another adventurer, Diego de Almagro, and a priest, Luque. This combination financed and led several voyages of reconnaissance. Pizarro then journeyed to Spain, where the Emperor commissioned him to undertake the southern conquest and to establish a province of New Castile. So empowered, he returned to the New World, accompanied by his half brothers Gonzalo, Hernando, and Juan Pizarro, his cousin Pedro Pizarro, and Martin de Alcántara. At the end of 1530 Pizarro set sail with 180 men for Peru.

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Conquest of Peru

Pizarro arrived at a time most favorable for his designs. Atahualpa, brother of the Inca Huáscar, had usurped the throne and moved the seat of government from the traditional Andean stronghold of Cuzco to Cajamarca in the north. It was on the northern coast, at Tumbes, that Pizarro's forces landed; and after consolidating his position, the conqueror marched on the new capital in 1532. Tricked into capture under cover of false negotiations, Atahualpa sought to buy his freedom with his gold. The loot delivered, the monarch was slain. Meanwhile, reinforced by troops under Almagro, the Spanish had captured and sacked Cuzco itself. In 1535 Pizarro founded his own capital of Lima near the coast, thus originating the troublesome later-day distinction between the Indian society of the mountains and the Hispanicized civilization of the seaboard.

The Spanish conquest has shed some of its glamour in the light of modern research. Peruvians under Manco Capac, successor to the deposed Huáscar, held out against the Spanish for 40 years more; Indian revolts recurred for another 200. The question persists: why was this great civilization mortally wounded, if not instantly overthrown, by the Estremaduran adventurer? The immediate answer lies in the outbreak of civil war within the Peruvian ruling class, a division which gave Pizarro his opportunity. Atahualpa's rivals rejoiced in his downfall, just as enemies of the Aztecs had at first welcomed and abetted the invasion of Cortés. Yet the explanation for the Spanish success must be sought deeper in the structure of society, where it can be grasped in the relation between the social divisions within these native American empires and the level of technology.

Like the leaders of the splendid civilizations of the ancient Near East, the priestly and military ruling classes of the Incas and Aztecs employed the surplus appropriated from producers to subsidize irrigation and flood-control projects, to build large cities and road networks, and to underwrite the production of craftsmen-artists. But unlike the agrarian producers of those earlier civilizations, the peasants lacked suitable draft animals, wheeled vehicles, and plows. Under these conditions the productivity of labor was extremely low, and it required a stern labor discipline, upheld by a powerful religiopolitical orthodoxy, to extract a level of surplus product sufficient to the requirements of the ruling classes. Divided among themselves, such rulers were further weakened by the hostility of subject peoples and the passivity of agrarian producers. Faced with a determined neofeudal enemy skilled in the art of conquest from the center outward, they were less able to mobilize resistance, and to sustain it, than the primitive peoples of the north, the far south, and the east. In the final analysis, writes a historian of European expansion, J. H. Parry, these civilizations' "combination of wealth and technical weakness was their undoing."

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His Death

Cortés had been able to overcome immediate challenges from Spanish competitors; Pizarro was not so fortunate. Tensions between original invaders and latecomers divided the conquistadors into two parties, respectively led by Pizarro and his sometime associate Almagro. The situation was only briefly eased by an Almagro expedition to Chile. Upon his return he seized Cuzco and confronted the Pizarros in the Las Salinas War. Captured by Hernando Pizarro in 1538, Almagro was executed; but his shade haunted Francisco until his own murder in Lima (June 26, 1541) by members of the defeated faction. Civil war persisted until 1548, when the Spanish government finally asserted its authority over the new colony. Of the band of marauding brothers, only Hernando survived the Pizarro "victory" over the Incan empire.

Further Reading on Francisco Pizarro

William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Peru (1847; and many subsequent editions), is the classic treatment of Pizarro and his victims. The story was retold in John Hemming's excellent The Conquest of the Incas (1970). John Alden Mason, The Ancient Civilization of Peru (1957; rev. ed. 1964), is a useful introduction to the pre-Columbian societies of the region. John Horace Parry, The Spanish Seaborne Empire (1966), is the best single-volume treatment of its subject.