How few Spaniards defeated thousands of Incas?

The Incas were the largest empire in South America whose entire army could include 200,000 people. The Spanish army that arrived on the continent, on the other hand, was made up of almost 200 men and approximately thirty horses. Even so, the troops led by Francisco Pizarro managed to bring down the Inca empire and, ultimately, create the viceroyalty of Peru. How they did it? Know the causes!

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Inca civil war

In 1527 the emperor Huayna Cápac together with his successor Nunan Cuyuchi died of smallpox, then an unknown disease because it was brought by the Spanish.

The successor was Huáscar, the twelfth on the Inca throne, who established his palace in the city of Cusco, capital of the Inca empire.

In turn, his brother Atahualpa lived in the city of Quito, in the north of the empire, a place that gradually gained importance due to the power of his army.

Fearing the might of the army under the command of his brother, Huáscar ordered Atahualpa to arrive in Cusco. The intention was to kill him. However, clever Atahualpa only sent emissaries. These were assassinated by Huáscar, which triggered the Inca civil war.

It is estimated that the civil war between the armies of the Huáscar brothers and Atahualpa lasted three years (from 1529 to 1533), resulting in thousands of deaths. Some historians even suggest that more than 1 million people died.

The Cusco chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega reports that 150,000 men from both Huáscar and Atahualpa’s side died in the battle of Hatun Xauxa alone.

Definitively, the Inca civil war was decisive in the weakening of the Inca empire and the subsequent consecration of the power of the Spanish in the 16th century.

Finally in 1533, being a prisoner in Cajamarca, Atahualpa ordered the beheading of his brother Huáscar. His victory would not last long because that same year he was assassinated by the troops under the command of Francisco Pizarro.


Ejército inca
The Inca army was made up of approximately 200,000 soldiers.

The enemy towns of the Incas allies of the Spanish

It is believed that the Incas were an exemplary government where all its members lived in harmony in favor of the empire, but this is not the case. Many of the conquered peoples, especially in the northern regions, accepted the Inca government for fear of its powerful army.

Such is the case of the Cañaris (north of present-day Peru), Chancas (central-southern Peru), Huancas (central Andes of Peru) and even the Chachapoyas (northern jungle of Peru) cultures.

All these ethnic groups saw were fiercely subdued by the Incas. Thus, they waited for the opportune moment to rise up and recover their own government. Upon the arrival of the Spanish to the Inca territory in 1532, these towns found the precise moment for the uprising.

And, above all, the death of Atahualpa in 1533, was taken advantage of by other cultures that definitely saw the Spanish as allies to rise up against Inca power. It is worth mentioning towns such as: the tallanes, the chimús, the chinchas and the yauyos.

In other words, the great power of the Spanish army was the more than two hundred soldiers carrying firearms and horses. But, above all, the powerful army of one hundred thousand indigenous people, made up mainly of Cañaris, Chachapoyas, Chancas and Huancas.

In short, the scenario became a war between indigenous people with the leadership of a few Spaniards under the command of Francisco Pizarro.

The capture of Atahualpa

The capture and death of Atahualpa in 1533 meant the beginning of the end of the Inca empire.

Much has been studied and written about this historic fact. How some 160 Spaniards were able to defeat the powerful Inca contingent made up of 50,000 men?

The chronicles indicate in principle that the Inca emperor was confident of his power. He disdained the European contingent, who, in tattered clothing, posed no threat.

Francisco Pizarro, on the other hand, planned the meeting with Atahualpa very well in the city of Cajamarca on November 16, 1532. He deployed his troops with weapons at strategic points in the main square.

Atahualpa entered the plaza almost at nightfall (the Incas did not usually fight at night). He was accompanied by a small army of only 3,000 men (the bulk of his army stayed outside the city).

Fearing the Spanish, the Inca refused to accept the new Catholic religion and King Carlos I as the royal sovereign. The friar Vicente de Valverde, helped by an interpreter, continued to stun the Inca who finally threw the breviary (book) furiously, generating, in turn, the wrath of the Spaniards.

Then, at Pizarro’s signal, the Spanish fired their weapons from various vantage points and towers around the plaza. The massacre lasted barely 30 minutes. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 indigenous people died. Another seven thousand were wounded, causing great confusion in their withdrawal. Only one black slave in the service of the Spanish died.

Emperor Atahualpa did not resist his capture. This historic event, the capture of the great Inca ruler, son of the sun, caused despair in the Inca army, which fled confused about the development of recent events.

This moral blow to the Inca government, in the midst of a civil war, caused a misrule that finally reached its peak with the assassination of Atahualpa on July 26, 1533. Not even the seven tons of gold prevented Pizarro from ordering the death of the inca. I knew that with his death, and the misrule, the entrance to Cusco would be easier.

Atahualpa was the last Inca in power.

The diseases

In 1524 the Inca emperor Huayna Cápac died from a strange disease. The same fate befell his son and successor to the throne Nunan Cuyuchi. This strange disease could be smallpox or measles, then unknown to the Incas.

Smallpox and measles were viral diseases brought by the Spanish, which sickened millions of indigenous people even eight years before the arrival of Francisco Pizarro because the viruses traveled faster than horses.

It is estimated that at the beginning of the 16th century the indigenous population of South America was up to 20 million people, mainly from the Inca empire.

These new epidemics were new to these lands. The organisms of the indigenous people did not have the necessary antibodies to fight them. Such is the case that up to half of the Inca population could have died as a result of diseases brought by the Spanish.

And it wasn’t just smallpox and measles. New diseases such as influenza, typhus, mumps, diphtheria and syphilis also traveled with the Spanish ships.

Not even Inca natural medicine, the transfers of shamanisms or offerings to the Inca gods, could against the mysterious plagues that plagued the empire. There was much confusion and low morale.

Finally, diseases killed indigenous populations not only during the Spanish conquest but also long after. Researchers Henry Farmer and Jared Diamond estimate that up to 95 percent of the population of the Americas died from these new diseases, up to 130 years after Christopher Columbus landed on the continent.

In other words, the new diseases caused the death of approximately 50 million people in the American continent.

The guns and horses

Weapons technology was also important for the conquest and subsequent colonization of America.

While the Inca army used weapons for hand-to-hand combat (such as mallets, slingshots, arrows, and bows); the Spanish army already had gunpowder to wound their enemies from a long distance (such as cannons, arquebuses, crossbows). They also had metal weapons such as spears, daggers and swords).

In addition to the weapon advantage, the Spaniards had the power of the horse, then an unknown species in America. Equines offered greater speed, strength and flexibility in combat. In addition, they allowed to advance greater distances in less time.

This advantage in technology also caused the low morale of the Inca army, which feared the power of the Spaniards and their unknown forces.

However, this weapon advantage was not definitive for the fall of the Inca empire. Other aspects such as the Inca civil war, the existence of enemy towns of the Incas allied with the Spanish, the capture of Atahualpa and the diseases brought from Europe were also crucial.

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