Pedro de la Gasca

The Spanish priest and statesman Pedro de la Gasca (ca. 1496-1567) reestablished royal authority in Peru in the 1540s after the rebellious conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro overthrew the Spanish crown's representatives.

Trained in theology and a graduate of the University of Salamanca, Pedro de la Gasca showed himself throughout his life to be a prudent, energetic, and loyal servant of the powerful emperor Charles V. Appointed to the important Council of the Inquisition, Gasca first emerged in a significant role when, about 1540, he was sent to the Valencia region of Spain to investigate cases of heresy, to inspect the financial and judicial condition of the region, and to guide its defense against possible invasions by the French and the Turks.

In 1542 Charles V decreed the "New Laws" in an effort to administer more fairly the affairs of his Indian subjects, who were being abused by the Spaniards throughout the widespread American empire, and especially to bring peace to Peru, which was being torn by civil strife among the rapacious conquerors. The laws provided, among other matters, for an end to encomiendas (a system of tribute payment by Indians to Spaniards), for the establishment of an audiencia (supreme court) in Peru, and for the appointment of the first viceroy to the region.

The harsh enforcement of the New Laws by that viceroy precipitated rebellion by Gonzalo Pizarro, the half brother of the leader of the conquest, Francisco Pizarro. The viceroy was killed in battle by Gonzalo's troops (1545), and the rebellious encomenderos, or Spanish tribute holders, of Peru seized control of all of western South America from Panama south into Chile.

Such a grave and unprecedented challenge to the authority of Europe's mightiest monarch could not go unanswered. The dispatch of a powerful military force to Peru was considered but rejected because of the difficulties of sending and maintaining troops over such a great distance.


Departure for Peru

Charles V finally decided to send one man to try to win Peru back from the rebels. That man was Pedro de la Gasca. In an unprecedented exchange between a loyal official and his king, Gasca insisted on the grant of unlimited powers from the Crown before he would agree to undertake the mission to Peru. Gasca left for Peru in 1546. His retinue consisted of a secretary and a servant, but he was armed with decrees revoking the prohibition against encomiendas; he had full authority to draw unlimited revenues from the royal treasury; he had total judicial power, ranging from the death sentence to amnesty; and he carried, as evidence of the royal confidence and authority vested in him, parchment papers that were blank except for the signature of Charles V.


Defeat of Pizarro

Because the Isthmus of Panama was under Pizarro's control, Gasca landed at the port of Santa Marta in Colombia. Soon, by judicious correspondence, he won over Pizarro's aides in Panama, partly by the immediate announcement of the repeal of the portion of the New Laws forbidding possession of encomiendas and partly because they saw little to fear in this lone priest.

Allowed to enter Panama, Gasca bombarded Pizarro and other rebel leaders in Peru with letters playing upon a variety of emotions: letters of promise of amnesty, letters of assurance of punishment, letters telling of the organization of powerful forces to reconquer the land should the rebels not submit to the Crown. Toward the middle of 1547 Gasca landed in northern Peru and there, joined by loyal Spaniards, he slowly gathered forces for the final contest with Pizarro.

On April 9, 1548, the small forces of the royalists and the rebels, probably numbering fewer than 1,500 on each side, faced each other on a plain near the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco. But the heart had gone from most of the rebels, and some of the principal officers and many of the troops crossed over to join the royal army as the battle began. The skirmish turned into a rout. Gonzalo Pizarro and his field marshal, Francisco de Carvajal, were made prisoners with all their troops. That same night Pizarro and Carvajal were tried and convicted by a two-man court appointed by Gasca. Both men were executed the following morning.

Gasca remained in command for another 2 years, busy in the reorganization and stabilization of the colony. He made an extensive redistribution of land, of encomiendas, and of honors, and he sent out exploring expeditions to remote regions of western South America, as much to keep disaffected conquistadores busy as to discover and settle new regions.


Return to Spain

In January 1550, Gasca departed from Peru for Spain, taking with him for the Crown a treasure estimated at several million dollars. Emperor Charles obtained for him first the bishopric of Palencia and then that of Sigüenza, and Gasca served in Spain for the rest of his life, not only as a churchman but also as a consultant on Peruvian matters and other colonial American affairs for the Crown and in his capacity as a member of the Council of the Inquisition.

Gasca's reconquest of Peru is significant in that it consolidated and institutionalized royal authority in what was to become the richest jewel in the Spanish imperial crown. On his death Gasca was buried in the Church of the Magdalena in Valladolid, a city that he loved and a church to which he had given much financial support.


Further Reading on Pedro de la Gasca

The classic work of William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Peru (2 vols., 1847; many later editions), continues to be the best account in English of the conflict between Gasca and the conquistadores in Peru. Philip A. Means, Fall of the Inca Empire and the Spanish Rule in Peru 1530-1780 (1932), contains a lively restatement of the source materials used by Prescott. Chief among the early chronicles is that by Garcilaso de la Vega, First Part of the Royal Commentaries of the Incas (2 vols., 1964). See also James Lockhart, Spanish Peru, 1532-1560 (1968), and John Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas (1970).