Checked content

Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire

Related subjects: General history

Background Information

The articles in this Schools selection have been arranged by curriculum topic thanks to SOS Children volunteers. Click here to find out about child sponsorship.

One of the main events in the conquest of the Inca Empire was the death of Atahualpa, the last Sapa Inca on 29 August, 1533

The Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire was a process through which a group of Spaniards led by Francisco Pizarro succeeded in toppling the Inca Empire in the early 16th-century, as part of the discovery and conquest of the new world. They took advantage of a recent civil war in the empire (between the groups of the brothers: Atahualpa and Huascar) to capture the ruling monarch, Inca in the city of Cajamarca on November 15, 1532. Today it is called the Siege of the Incas. In the following years the conquistadors managed to consolidate their power over the whole Andean region, repressing successive indigenous rebellions until the establishment of the Viceroyalty of Perú in 1542 and the fall of the resistance of Vilcabamba in 1572.


By the early 16th century, the Inca empire had seen many years of strong leadership under Huayna Capac. However, the emperor and his designated heir, Ninan Coyuchui, died probably of smallpox. The ensuing war of succession between the Panakas (royal lines) weakened the Inca leadership and contributed to its speedy downfall. At the centre of the conflict were the two main contenders, Huascar and Atahualpa, who were both sons of Huayna Capac.

Huascar may have been intended by his father as the new emperor, though no records remain to confirm this. Huascar reigned in the southern regions of the empire, where he was well-liked despite being known for his cruelty—he came close to murdering his sister and mother. Atahualpa, on the other hand, was chosen to govern the northern territory known as the Kingdom of Quito, which was located in modern-day Ecuador and southern Colombia.

After a few years of relative peace, war broke out between the two brothers. It is estimated that 100,000 people were killed in this bloody dispute. After many struggles, Atahualpa, teetering towards insanity, finally defeated Huascar, and treated the losers terribly.

After sending Huascar to prison, Atahualpa took the throne, but the conflict and his cruelty contributed to the weakening of the empire at the critical moment at which the Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro arrived.

Arrival of Pizarro

Francisco Pizarro and his brothers ( Gonzalo, Juan, and Hernando) were attracted by the news of a rich and fabulous kingdom.

There lies Peru with its riches;
Here, Panama and its poverty.
Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian.
— Francisco Pizarro

They arrived to Inca territory in 1531, which they called Peru. According to historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea, Peru is not a Quechuan nor Caribbean word, but Indo-Hispanic or Hybrid.

After three long expeditions, Pizarro established the first Spanish settlement in northern Peru, calling it San Miguel de Piura. On July 1532. Pizarro sent his fellow conquistador, Hernando de Soto, to explore the land and soon returned with an envoy from the emperor Atahualpa, bringing presents and an invitation for a meeting with the Spanish.

Capture of Atahualpa

After his victory over his brother, Atahualpa began his southward march from Quito to claim the Inca throne in Cusco. Atahualpa had heard tales of "white bearded men" approaching his territory. Some accounts say that Atahualpa sent messengers with presents to Pizarro and his men to induce them to leave, and others contend that it was Pizarro who sent a messenger to Atahualpa requesting a meeting. Most accounts agree, however, that Atahualpa met with Pizarro voluntarily.

Atahualpa and his forces met with the Spaniards at Cajamarca on the evening of November 15th. Rather than meeting with Atahualpa himself, Pizarro sent Hernando de Soto, friar Vincente de Valverde and native interpreter Felipillo to speak with the Inca leader. De Soto spoke with Atahualpa for a while and told them that they were emissaries from King Charles I of Spain. They also said they came in peace and were prepared to serve him against his enemies. Atahualpa nearly scoffed at that as he believed their behaviour was not what one would expect of embassies and emissaries. In fact he knew of their earlier atrocities against the nuns dedicated to serve the god Inti in his temple. He demanded a full accounting of their behaviour in his country and an apology from their leader Pizarro. He did however agree to meet with them in the city the next day.

De Soto noticed the sight of his horses were unnerving some of the Inca's attendants so with an incredible display of horsemanship, he performed the tricks an experienced horseman would do. He stopped short of the Inca with the horse just inches away from Atahualpa. While this frightened the attendants, the Inca was unblinking. This told the Spaniards that they were not dealing with a fearful one like Moctezuma II in Mexico and it gave them even more fear the night of the 15th and early on the 16th. However it gave Pizarro the idea he needed to win Peru.

The next morning, Pizarro had his men strategically placed around the square where they were to meet. When Atahualpa came with 4,000 unarmed soldiers and attendant, Friar Valverde spoke with him about the Spanish presence in his lands as well as engaged in a poorly executed attempt to explain to him the precepts of the Catholic religion, an attempt which was certainly not helped by an unskilled translator. After doing so, he offered Atahualpa a Bible in the expectation that he and his men would immediately convert to Christianity or be considered an enemy of the Church and of Spain by the Spanish Crown. While Atahualpa did not succeed in this he had planned to meet with Pizarro to cpautre him and hill pizarro and his commanders. However, he planned to keep the necessary specialists (gun-men, calvary, etc.) to help train his army.

The Inca-Spanish confrontation in the Battle of Cajamarca left thousands of natives dead

Atahualpa stated that he was no one's vassal and asked where they got their authority to do this. A popular but widely disputed legend states that Valverde pointed to the Book saying that it contained God's word and handed it over to Atahualpa. Supposedly, when the Inca was presented with the Book he shook it close to his ear and asked "Why doesn't it speak to me?" Having literally never seen a book before, he then threw the unfamiliar object aside. Supposedly, this is what gave the Spanish a reason to attack, starting the Battle of Cajamarca on November 16, 1532. Though the historical accounts relating to these circumstances vary, the true motivations for the attack seemed to be a desire for loot and flat-out impatience, in that the Inca did not adequately understand the Conquistadores' demands. Pizarro executed Atahualpa's 12-man honour guard and took the Inca captive at the so-called ransom room, where they demanded a lofty sum of precious gems and metals to be exchanged for Atahualpa.

Although largely unarmed, the fact that a small number of Spanish troops were able to defeat the thousands Inca warriors at Cajamarca is attributable to many factors, among them that the Spanish had caballeros. The fact that the Inca Empire had a highly centralized chain of command correlated with the emperor's well-being or military victories, created a fictional perception of how the various gods perceived the Inca to either soldiers or commoners alike. This meant that not only the advent of the Spaniards holding the emperor hostage effectively paralyzed the empires' forces for a time.

The Spanish weapons included heavy metal swords and shields, some had guns and perhaps cannons; the Inca's weapons were by far inferior to those of the Spaniards. The Inca used heavy cloth, wood, and leather for their armor, and their weapons were made of sharpened stones and wood that they used as spears as well as bows and arrows. Nevertheless, there were many more Incas than Spaniards; this added to the Inca's inability to comprehend the threat of the Spanish.

The Incas were eventually defeated due to inferior weapons, 'open battle' tactics, disease, internal unrest, the cunning, boldness and steely courage of the Spanish, and the capture of their emperor. Some of the same factors contributed to the success of similar, small Spanish bands against the Aztecs and other Andean civilizations. However, ensuing hostilities like the Mixtón Rebellion, Chichimeca War, and Arauco War would require that the conquistadors sometimes ally with friendly tribes in these later expeditions. Many of the guns used by the Spaniards were obsolete and clumsy to use in the close-combat situations that the Spanish found themselves in, and most natives adapted in 'guerrilla fashion' by only shooting at the legs of the conquistadors if they happened to be unarmored. During Atahualpa's captivity, the Spanish, although greatly outnumbered, forced him to order his generals to back down by threatening to kill him if he did not. According to the Spanish envoy's demands, Atahualpa offered to fill a large room with gold and promised the Spanish twice that amount in silver. While Pizarro ostensibly accepted this offer and allowed the gold to pile up, he had no intention of releasing the Inca; he needed Atahualpa's influence over his generals and the people in order to maintain the peace.

Atahualpa feared that if Huascar came into contact with the Spanish, he would be so useful to them that Pizarro would no longer need Atahualpa and have him killed. To avoid this, Atahualpa ordered Huascar's execution, which took place not far from Cajamarca according to some chronicles. Others mentioned that Huascar had been previously killed in battle, and a few others that Huascar was killed before Pizarro's arrival.

In the end, this tactic was futile; months passed, and as it became clear to Atahualpa that the Spanish did not intend to free him, he began to call on his generals to launch an attack on the Spanish. Still outnumbered and fearing an imminent attack from the Inca general Rumiñahui, the Spanish began to see Atahualpa as too much of a liability. He was charged with 12 crimes, the most grave being attempting to revolt against the Spanish, practicing idolatry and murdering his brother, Huascar. He was found guilty of all 12 charges and garroted on July 26, 1533.

Rebellion and reconquest

The situation went quickly downhill. As things began to fall apart, many parts of the Inca Empire revolted, some of them joining with the Spanish against their own rulers. Many kingdoms and tribes had been conquered or persuaded to join the Inca empire. They thought that by joining the Spaniards, they could gain their own freedom. But these native people never foresaw the massive waves of Spaniard immigrants coming to their land and the tragedy that they would bring upon their people.

After Atahualpa's execution, Pizarro installed Atahualpa's brother, Tupac Huallpa, as a puppet Inca ruler, but he soon died unexpectedly, leaving Manco Inca Yupanqui in power. He began his rule as an ally of the Spanish and was respected in the southern regions of the empire, but there was still much unrest in the north near Quito where Atahualpa’s generals were amassing troops. Atahulapa's death meant that there was no hostage left to deter these northern armies from attacking the invaders. Led by Atahualpa’s generals Rumiñahui, Zope-Zupahua and Quisquis, the native armies inflicted considerable damage on the Spanish. In the end, however, the Spanish succeeded in re-capturing Quito, effectively ending any organized rebellion in the north of the empire.

Manco Inca initially had good relations with Francisco Pizarro and several other Spanish conquistadors. However, in 1535 he was left in Cusco under the control of Pizarro’s brothers, Juan and Gonzalo, who so mistreated Manco Inca that he ultimately rebelled. Under the pretense of performing religious ceremonies in the nearby Yucay valley, Manco was able to escape Cusco.

Spaniards executing Tupac Amaru, the last Inca of Vilcabamba, in 1572

Diego de Almagro, originally one of Francisco Pizarro's party, returned from his exploration of Chile, disappointed in not finding any wealth similar to that of Peru. King Charles I of Spain (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) had awarded the city of Cuzco to Pizarro, but Almagro attempted to claim the city nonetheless. Manco Inca hoped to use the disagreement between Almagro and Pizarro to his advantage and attempted the recapture of Cuzco during the spring of 1537. The siege of Cuzco was waged until the following spring, and during that time Manco's armies managed to wipe three relief columns sent from Lima, but was ultimately unsuccessful in its goal of routing the Spaniards from the city. The Inca leadership did not have the full support of all its subject peoples and furthermore, the degrading state of Inca morale coupled with the superior Spanish siege weapons soon made Manco Inca realize his hope of recapturing Cuszo was failing. Manco Inca eventually withdrew to Vilcabamba after only 10 months of fighting, and therefore, the Spanish reinforcements from the Indies arriving under the command of Diego de Almagro eventually took the city once again without conflict.

After the Spanish regained control of Cuzco, Manco Inca and his armies retreated to the fortress at Ollantaytambo where he, for a time, successfully launched attacks against Pizarro based at Cuzco and even managed to defeat the Spanish in an open battle. However, when it became clear that defeat was imminent, they retreated further to the mountainous region of Vilcabamba, where the Manco Inca continued to hold some power for several more decades. His son, Túpac Amaru, was the last Inca. After deadly confrontantions, he was murdered by the Spanish in 1572.

The Spaniards destroyed almost every Inca building in Cuzco, built a Spanish city over the old foundations, and proceeded to colonize and exploit the former empire.

In total, the conquest took about forty years to complete. Many Inca attempts to regain the empire had occurred, but none had been successful. Thus the Spanish conquest was achieved through relentless force, legendary courage and remarkable cunning, aided by factors like smallpox and a great communication and cultural divide. The Spaniards destroyed most of the Incan culture and introduced the Spanish culture to the native population.

Important Years:

  • 1532 - Spaniards capture Atahualpa and force him to paralyze his army
  • 1533 - Atahualpa's brother Huascar and then Athahualpa himself are killed. Cuzco seized, Inca army defeated
  • 1534 - Northern Inca army defeated, Quito destroyed
  • 1535 - Lima is founded, expedition by Diego de Almagro marches south to Chile
  • 1536 - Manco Inca reclaim much of Cuzco, but fail to capture Lima
  • 1537 - Manco Inca is defeated in Cuzco, his grand army - the last of Incas - disbanded
  • 1572 - The last Sapa Inca, Tupac Amaru, is executed and last sanctuary Vilcabamba captured


Struggle for power opposed Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro and resulted in a long civil war. Almagro was killed. Then Almagro's descendants venged his death by killing Pizarro. Despite the war, the Spaniards did not neglect the colonizing process. Its most significant act was the foundation of Lima in January, 1535, from which the political and administrative institutions were organized. The necessity of consolidating a Spanish Real Authority on these territories, led to the creation of a Real Audiencia (Royal Audience). In 1542, the Spanish created the Viceroyalty of New Castilla, that shortly after would be called Viceroyalty of Peru. Nevertheless, the Viceroyalty of Peru was not organized until the arrival of the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo in 1572. Toledo ended the indigenous state of Vilcabamba, executing the Inca Tupac Amaru. He also promoted the economic development from the commercial monopoly and the mineral extraction of the argentiferous mines of Potosí, using the Inca institution called mita.

In fiction

The conquest of the Incas is dramatized in Peter Shaffer's play The Royal Hunt of the Sun. In the play, Pizarro, Atahualpa, Valverde and other historical figures appear as characters.

The conquest is also used as a starting point for the Matthew Reilly novel Temple, where the siege of Cusco is used. Many historical figures are mentioned, especially Pizarro who is mentioned as the pursuer of the protagonist.

The Inca are featured in the third Campaign in Age of Empires 3, having a Lost City hidden in the Andes. The player has to make his/her way through a blizzard in the mountains before reaching a verdant valley containing the hidden Inca City. They are also in the Multiplayer, found primarily in the areas making up Chile and Argentina. They have spearmen, bola-throwers, and have (as upgrades), the great Inca road systems, cotton armor, and Chasquis messengers. This section of the Campaign is set after the conquest of the Inca, and the player has to fend off a separate attack similar to the Spanish Conquest.


When has it ever happened, either in ancient or modern times, that such amazing exploits have been achieved? Over so many climes, across so many seas, over such distances by land, to subdue the unseen and unknown? Whose deeds can be compared with those of Spain? Not even the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Francisco Xerez, Report on the Discovery of Peru
When I set out to write for the people of today and of the future, about the conquest and discovery that our Spaniards made here in Peru, I could not but reflect that I was dealing with the greatest matters one could possibly write about in all of creation as far as secular history goes. Where have men ever seen the things they have seen here? And to think that God should have permitted something so great to remain hidden from the world for so long in history, unknown to men, and then let it be found, discovered and won all in our own time!
Pedro Cieza de León, Chronicles of Peru
Retrieved from ""