Battle of Cajamarca: Pizarro's Conquistadores Ambush, Capture Incan Emperor

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Battle of Cajamarca: Pizarro's Conquistadores Ambush, Capture Incan Emperor

Sixteenth century engraving (date and author unknown)
Showing Spanish soldiers surrounding Incan emperor Atahualpa's litter
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 16, 1532

The days of the year are getting shorter, which means I have to do a little more digging to find military events to use in this space. [NOTE: From antiquity up to the sixteenth century or so, 90 percent of military operations took place between mid-April to mid-September.] So, I found this little gem from the early days of the exploration and conquest of the New World.


The Spanish Empire was well on its way to fruition by 1525. Beginning in 1492, Christopher Columbus had discovered the New World, Cuba and Panama were colonized, and the Aztec Empire of Mexico was subjugated. Spanish conquistadores – many soldiers of fortune seeking personal wealth and power – began to fan out into other areas of the Western Hemisphere to make their mark. One such man was Francisco Pizarro.

Born in Spain sometime between 1471 and 1476, Pizarro was the illegitimate son of an infantry officer and a poor woman. His education was neglected and he grew up illiterate. [Through his father, he was a distant cousin of Hernán Cortéz, the conqueror of the Aztecs.] In 1509 he sailed from Spain for the New World, eventually arriving in Cartagena in Colombia in 1513. Pizarro was a member of the expedition headed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa which explored the Isthmus of Panama. Six years later, Pizarro arrested Balboa, who was distrusted by the new governor of Panama. Balboa was eventually beheaded. In appreciation for Pizarro's loyalty, the governor appointed him alcalde (mayor) and magistrate of the newly-founded Panama City, serving in that capacity from 1519 to 1523.

In the year 1524, Pizarro made a pact with two men he had met during his sojourn in the New World: Hernando de Luque, a priest, and Diego de Almagro, a soldier. The three men agreed to cooperate in exploring and conquering lands in South America, and to divide their spoils amongst themselves.

Portrait of Francisco Pizarro (1471?-1541); Circa 1540, author unknown
Portrait of Francisco Pizarro (1471?-1541)
Circa 1540, author unknown

The partners determined that Pizarro would command the expedition, Almagro would provide the military and food supplies, and Luque would be in charge of finances and any additional provisions they might need. They launched two separate expeditions – in 1524 and 1526 – into what is modern-day Ecuador. Neither expedition was successful, though they did discover gold and silver objects and emeralds, which only whetted their greed. When Pizarro returned to Panama after the second try, the Spanish governor refused further support. This act forced Pizarro to journey back to his native Spain in 1528 to seek the support of King Charles I (he was also Holy Roman Emperor).

Pizarro was given a license document which authorized him to proceed with the conquest of Peru. Pizarro was officially named the Governor, Captain General, and the title of "Adelantado" – meaning he answered directly to the Spanish crown – of the newly-created province of New Castile. He was further invested with all the authority and prerogatives, his associates being left in wholly secondary positions (a fact which later incensed Almagro and would lead to discord). A year later, Pizarro left Spain for the New World with three ships, 180 men and 27 horses. Among these men were three of his half-brothers, Hernando, Juan, and Gonzalo, and a cousin Pedro.

After crossing the Atlantic, this third Pizarro expedition landed at Panama, resupplied itself, and set out for Peru in December of 1530. Eventually landing in Peru in 1532 [I don't know why it took them two years…], they began to hunt for the precious metals and jewels that had lured them there. They learned that the Incan Empire – which controlled the area which they sought to conquer – had just endured a civil war.

The new emperor, Atahualpa, was resting with his army near the town of Cajamarca, which was known for its thermal baths. Pizarro's envoys had contacted officials loyal to Atahualpa, and a meeting was arranged. Pizarro and his small force marched to Cajamarca, arriving there on November 15. On the way to the town, the Spaniards saw the huge number of tents surrounding Cajamarca – Atahualpa's army was said to contain somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 men – and many were frightened. Some of the chroniclers related that many of the men "soiled themselves" while trying to sleep.

Pizarro's Army

The Spanish force was stated to include 102 infantrymen, 67 cavalrymen, and four small artillery pieces with their attendant crews. Sources state that only 12 of the foot soldiers carried firearms – harquebuses, or arquebuses – while rest were likely armed with swords, pikes, halberds, and perhaps some crossbows. This force was considerably smaller than the army led by Hernán Cortéz which conquered the Aztecs. However, Cortéz had managed to convince the Aztecs he was a super-human being. Unfortunately, the Incan ruler already knew Pizarro's men were not gods.

Sixteenth century harquebus, with equipment (Image courtesy of
Sixteenth century harquebus, with equipment
(Image courtesy of

Incan Army

The Incan army was organized along ethnic lines, with the conquered tribes organized into battalions with distinguishing clothing (feathers or jewels), arms, or body paint. At the time of Pizarro's expedition, the Incan military totaled something like 80,000 to 100,000 men. They were armed mainly with clubs, star-headed maces, knives, spears (both short throwing and long thrusting), axes, bows, slings, and bolas. There were some helmets – mostly wooden with some strengthened with copper – and quilted cotton armor reinforced with wooden plates.

All members of the Inca army were between 25 and 50 years of age. All of the empire's citizens had to perform either military or community service. One of every 50 men over 25 years old (legal age in the Inca Empire) would be chosen for military service. For noblemen, this was an honor and a duty; for common men, it was a means of social promotion. After a certain period of time (usually 6 or 7 years), the military service was considered to be fulfilled for common men. However, professional officers were permanent soldiers and paid by the state. This military caste enjoyed several privileges as the Incan state paid for their food and housing costs, as well as clothing and several other gifts such as coca, jewelry, and wives.

The Inca army's military effectiveness was based in two main elements: logistics and discipline. In order to facilitate the movement of their armies, the Inca built a vast road system. Staging areas were set along the roads so the troops and animals could rest, and weapons could be readied. Discipline was very rigid. Soldiers were not allowed to leave the battalion, not even during the approach march. Troops would maintain silence, only breaking it just before attacks by yelling and singing in order to intimidate the opposing force.

Incan soldiers (the two figures in front carry star-headed maces) (Image courtesy of
Incan soldiers (the two figures in front carry star-headed maces)
(Image courtesy of

Army squads were organized in the following manner: The front lines were initially occupied by slingers and archers, which would go to the rear of the formation after the initial barrages. The lines behind them were occupied by storm-troopers with clubs and axes, then short-spear bearers and closing the formation long-spear bearers (up to 6 meters long).

During a battle on open ground, the Inca army would usually be divided into three groups. The main group would launch a frontal attack against the opposing force while the other two would flank it and circle around behind it to attack from the rear. Before the hand-to-hand combat would start, the Inca army would use ranged weapons (slingshots, arrows and short spears) in order to break the enemy's lines. The army would also feign a retreat; when the enemy attacked, the Incas would counter-attack using a pincer movement.

Prelude to the Battle

On the evening of November 15, Pizarro held a council of war, and outlined to his officers his plan for the next day. The Spaniards were allowed to obtain quarters in the town of Cajamarca. Pizarro selected the town's main plaza, placing the Spanish cavalry and infantry in three long buildings around the plaza, while some harquebusiers and four pieces of artillery were located in a stone structure in the middle of the square. In the meantime, Pizarro sent an invitation to Atahualpa to a feast in the town on the morrow. Surprisingly, Atahualpa accepted. The stage was set.

Battle of Cajamarca

At noon the next day, Emperor Atahualpa entered Cajamarca, carried into the town on a platform on which he sat in a chair. A Spaniard present at the battle later wrote:

"Atahualpa himself was very richly dressed, with his crown on his head and a collar of large emeralds around his neck. He sat on a small stool with a rich saddle cushion resting on his litter. The litter was lined with parrot feathers of many colours and decorated with plates of gold and silver…"

Another eyewitness stated that Atahualpa was borne into the town by 80 lavishly dressed Incan nobles. In addition, he had some 7000 Incan soldiers with him – some of them certainly his personal bodyguard – with 2000 of them sweeping the road before their emperor. Amazingly, the Incans were armed only with knives and bolas. Upon entering the square, the emperor was approached by a Spanish friar named Vincente de Valverde approached the Inca and ordered him to accept Catholicism as his faith and Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor as sovereign. Atahualpa was equally insulted and confused by the Spaniard's demands.

Portrait of Atahualpa, as drawn by an unknown Spaniard (1533)
Portrait of Atahualpa, as drawn by an unknown Spaniard (1533)

Although Atahualpa likely had no intention of conceding to their demands, according to one chronicler he attempted inquiry into the Spaniards' faith and their king, but Pizarro's men began to grow impatient. Discussion ended abruptly when Atahualpa was offered a Bible and dropped it on the ground. [One version of this particular incident said that when handed the Bible, Valverde said that the Bible spoke of the Christian faith. Atahualpa then held the book to one ear, then asked, "Why does it not speak to me?" then threw it on the ground.] Historical accounts differ as to whether the friar returned to Pizarro and related the incident, along with some demands by the Inca, after which Pizarro ordered the attack to begin, or whether he immediately turned to the hidden Spanish troops and exhorted them to attack in the name of the Church, absolving them of the murders to come.

At the signal to attack, the Spaniards unleashed gunfire at the vulnerable mass of Incans and surged forward in a concerted action. The effect was devastating: the shocked and unarmed Incans offered so little resistance that the battle has often been labeled a massacre by some historians. Contemporary accounts by members of Pizarro's force explain how the Spanish forces used a cavalry charge against the Incan forces, who had never seen horses, in combination with gunfire from cover (the Incan forces also had never encountered firearms before) combined with the ringing of bells to frighten the Inca. Other factors in the Spaniards' favor were their steel swords, helmets, and armor as the Incan forces had only leather armor and were poorly armed. The Spanish also had four small cannons commanded by a Greek artillery captain which were used to great effect in the crowded town square.

Pizarro pulls Atahualpa off his litter at the end of the battle (author unknown) (Image courtesy of
Pizarro pulls Atahualpa off his litter at the end of the battle (author unknown)
(Image courtesy of

The main target of the Spanish attack was Atahualpa and his top commanders. Pizarro rushed at Atahualpa on horseback, but the emperor remained motionless. Some of the Incas, however, flinched, and Atahualpa immediately had them put to death despite being under attack. The Spanish later severed the hands or arms of the attendants carrying Atahualpa's litter to force them to drop it so they could reach him. The Spanish were astounded that the attendants ignored their wounds and used their stumps or remaining hands to hold it up until several were killed and the litter slumped. However, the Spanish noticed that Atahualpa was drunk and so left him sitting on the litter while they fought the rest of Incas. A large number of Incas rushed to place themselves between the litter and the Spanish, deliberately allowing themselves to be killed. While his men were killing these Incas, Pizarro rode through them and pulled Atahualpa from the litter, shouting the Spanish battlecry, "Santiago!" [Saint James]. While he was doing so, several soldiers also reached the litter and one attempted to kill Atahualpa. Recognizing the value of Atahualpa as a hostage, Pizarro defended him and received a sword wound to his hand for his trouble.


The Incas sustained casualties of 2000 dead, while the rest of the 5000 or so Incas were captured. Spanish casualties were exceptionally light: various sources indicate that up to 5 Spaniards were killed and only one man wounded. In addition, Atahualpa was now a prisoner of Pizarro. The Spaniards sacked the Incan camp, finding large amounts of gold, silver, and emeralds.

Footnote #1: Atahualpa promised to fill a room with gold and silver. After two months, the Spanish melted down the precious metals they had received. There was sufficient gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide to a height of more than 8 feet. This ransom made even the soldiers rich, not just Pizarro and the King of Spain (who took 20 per cent of the booty). The conquistadors each received a share appropriate to his rank: horseman received 88 pounds of gold and 178 pounds of silver, while foot-soldiers received half that amount.

Footnote #2: After several more months, Pizarro finally concluded that keeping the Incan emperor was more of a liability. In August of 1533, a kangaroo court was held, accusing Atahualpa of treason. He was found guilty and condemned to be burned at the stake. When offered an alternative, Atahualpa converted to Catholicism (taking the name of Juan Santos Atahualpa), and was strangled to death on August 29, 1533 (John the Baptist's feast day).

'Funeral of Atahualpa' by Luis Montero; oil on canvas (1868); Currently at the Art Museum of Lima, Peru
"Funeral of Atahualpa" by Luis Montero; oil on canvas (1868)
Currently at the Art Museum of Lima, Peru

Footnote #3: Pizarro was assassinated on June 26, 1541 by the son of his old partner Diego de Almagro. His body was interred in the Lima cathedral.

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thanks loads, helps loads with my assignment
really interesting and is the best source of information I have receive so far
not only is it interesting and understandable and it has lots of info I really need

thx NOT where is the cause and effect????

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