The Story of a Great but Shameful Victory
There is but one excuse for including this incident in this collection, and that is that it throws a light upon the methods of the conquerors of the New World. It shows how the soldiers of fortune of the sixteenth century braved the terrors of the unknown, and with a mere handful of followers aimed at the subjection of vast empires; and often reached their goal. Properly speaking, it was not a battle, but a massacre, and in order to understand it fully, we must briefly recount the adventures of Pizarro and his little band of conquerors.
Francisco Pizarro discovered Peru, and he conquered it. But no conquest was ever made by more shameful means. Like all the adventurers of his age—and Pizarro was an arch-adventurer—he went out into the unknown to search for country and for gold; if both could be obtained without bloodshed, so much the better, but if not, well, he had the blessing of the Pope; and what were often nothing more than unprovoked attacks on peaceful inhabitants were exalted into holy wars. With a Bible in one hand, a sword in the other, the conquistadors passed through the New World, telling the story of the Prince of Peace, but more often using the weapon of death. Yet it might perhaps be too severe to call them hypocrites; it was the spirit of the age.
Pizarro, then, discovered Peru, the fabled land of gold, the Eldorado of the New World. He returned to Spain, exhibited his trophies of gold and silver, fine fabrics and what not, received the right to conquer the country, and with one hundred and fifty men set out to do the conquering. He duly arrived in the New World; where Diego de Almagro, an old associate of his, received with jealousy the news that Pizarro had been appointed to effect the conquest of Peru. With the bickerings of the adventurers we have nothing to do; suffice it to say that they patched up a peace, and that shortly after Pizarro left Panama with just over two hundred men, twenty-seven of them mounted.
Three fair-sized vessels carried the adventurers down the coast to the Bay of St. Matthew. Here they disembarked, and continued their journey on land, following the coast. The inhabitants of the towns and villages fled at their approach, leaving enormous wealth to the invaders. The marching was done under great difficulties: through blinding sand, beneath the scorching rays of the sun, the invaders had to pass. Then a plague broke out, killing many and prostrating others; yet still they kept on, though some of the soldiers cursed the day that they had enlisted under the banner of the conqueror.
Arrived on the Gulf of Guayaquil, they received reinforcements which brought up their numbers to about three hundred. After some conflicts with the natives, in which several of his men were killed, Pizarro began to reconnoitre the country, and after about a month spent in this work, he founded a town, setting up church, fortress, magazine, justice house, and appointing officials. San Miguel he named his settlement in honour of the saint by whose help he had won so many victories. Fifty men were left in charge of the place, the remainder setting out shortly afterwards on their journey inland.
Pizarro's destination was about twelve days' journey from San Miguel, and his object was to come into contact with the Inca Atahualpa, who had but recently carried out a successful revolution against his brother, Huascar, who was captured by a ruse and kept a close prisoner, after having been made to witness the massacre of nearly all his friends and relatives.
Pizarro knew that the Inca was at the head of a mighty and victorious army, but that did not deter him from venturing. He had come out to conquer Peru, and there was but one thing for him to do, and that was to go forward. So forward he went. On September 24th, 1532, he left San Miguel at the head of the absurdly small force with which he intended to subdue an empire.
To the Spaniards the country through which they passed seemed like an earthly paradise; rich soil, covered with verdure and beautiful flowers which scented the air; majestic forests, fine streams, and admirable artificial waterways which the people—the last of an ancient and noble civilisation had made to render their country even more fertile.
Five days' journey from San Miguel, Pizarro called a halt to rest and take stock of his men, some of whom were discontented. The conqueror determined to have no malcontents—they might bring disaster—and calling them all together, he explained the hazardous nature of the enterprise and gave them the opportunity to go back. Nine of them chose the lesser part, and returned to San Miguel, but the rest vowed to see the adventure through to the end.
So, with a hundred and sixty-eight men the adventurer went on his way to effect the conquest of an empire. For two days he journeyed, and then reached Zaran, a town in a fertile valley lying some distance from Caxas, where Pizarro learned that a large Peruvian force was quartered. Thither he dispatched Hernando de Soto to glean information. Hernando was long in coming, and a week passed before he returned to Zaran, but when he did come he was accompanied by an envoy from the Inca, and several other Peruvians.
Soto had reached Caxas to find its inhabitants in anything but a peaceable mood, but by dint of much persuasion he had managed to win them over to such an extent that he was able to explain the reason of the presence of the Spaniards. A Peruvian tax-collector informed him that the Inca was at Caxamalca, "a place of considerable size on the other side of the Cordilleras, where he was enjoying the luxury of the warm baths, supplied by natural springs, for which it was then famous, as it is at the present day" (Prescott's "Conquest of Peru"). After visiting Guancabamba, Soto had, with the Peruvian envoy, returned to Zaran to convey his news. The envoy brought numerous valuable presents to Pizarro, and, moreover, was the bearer of a greeting, and an invitation from the Inca to visit him in the mountains.
Pizarro decided to accept the invitation, and sent off the ambassador with a message to that effect, giving him presents for the Inca. Eventually Pizarro resumed his march, and after varying fortunes reached the foot of the Andes, delivered a rousing address to his troops, received their cries of "Lead on, lead on!" and then set his face upwards.
They were going to cross the Cordilleras. We need not follow them through the long and arduous journey. At length they reached the crest of the mountain range, and there received information from a messenger, whom Pizarro had sent on in advance, that the way was clear, and that the Inca had dispatched an embassy bearing more presents and expressing the hope that the Spanish captain would soon show himself at Caxamalca. The envoy and his attendants arrived.
Pizarro assured him that he was coming as quickly as he could. So far the adventurer had been polite; now he became rude. The ambassador boasted of Atahualpa's greatness, whereupon Pizarro answered that the Inca was infinitely inferior in every respect to the great white monarch whom the new-comers represented. With grave and expressionless mien the Peruvian listened to this diatribe, and departed—to inform the Inca, no doubt, of what he had heard and seen.
Next day the troops began the descent of the Cordilleras, and met another embassy, which they received with courtesy. Almost at the same time another messenger whom Pizarro had sent on in advance hurried up to the camp with the information that he had been treated scurvily by the Peruvians. They had repudiated his mission to see the Inca on behalf of the Spaniards, and refused him admission. Moreover, he told Pizarro that the Inca was a crafty, treacherous man, who, far from being at Caxamalca, was encamped some distance away with an army of about fifty thousand men, intending, no doubt, to entice the Spaniards into the city, and then surround it.
Pizarro concealed his vexation and suspicions from the Peruvian embassy, and sent it off to the king with assurances of his coming. At last the Spaniards came in sight of Caxamalca, and sure enough the city was empty of troops, and the Inca was encamped about a league away, in a strong position on the hills.
Putting a bold face on a sorry matter, Pizarro advanced courageously, with banners and streamers flying in the breeze, mailed men and horses making a great display, and one which inspired terror into the hearts of the Peruvians, who watched their advance from a distance. On the evening of November 15, 1532, the Spaniards entered the city, which was a noble one, with clay and hewn stone buildings, some of them of immense size.
Not a soul came out to greet them; every Peruvian had gathered into the king's camp, and thither Pizarro immediately dispatched Soto and fifteen of his cavalry to interview the Inca. Soto and his troopers clattered off, followed soon after by Hernando Pizarro and twenty others, the elder Pizarro conceiving that the first force was far too small to make an impression on the Peruvians.
The embassy was conducted to the Inca's bath, in the courtyard of which that potentate sat surrounded by a large number of his nobles arrayed in gallant attire.
With almost scant ceremony, and without dismounting, Hernando Pizarro and Soto and one or two others approached the Inca, and Pizarro acquainted him with the fact that they came from the commander of the white men who had arrived at Caxamalca. They had come to instruct him and his people in the doctrines of the only true faith, and to offer him their help in his battles. They invited him to visit the new-comers in Caxamalca.
The Inca remained as dumb as a post, and almost as impassive. Only a courtier answered the Spaniards, saying "It is well."
Pizarro had another try, and at last the Inca condescended to reply, promising to visit Caxamalca in the morning, but commanding that the Spaniards were to take up their quarters only in the buildings on the square of the city.
The embassy shortly after returned to their commander, by no means so confident of success as they had hitherto been. Pizarro the elder, however, lost none of his composure or courage, and succeeded in reviving the spirits of his men. He then called a council of war and laid bare his plans, which were nothing less than to effect the capture of the Inca himself when he should look in upon them on the morrow; he was to be ambushed.
A bold plan, the very audacity of which must almost have staggered his followers. They realised, however, that it was only by treachery such as was proposed that they could hope to obtain the upper hand, for what were a hundred and seventy men against the horde of Peruvians into which they had thrust themselves?
It was decided to adopt Pizarro's plan.
Sentries were posted on all commanding points, the cavalry was divided into two divisions and concealed in the large hall which opened on to the square; Pedro of Candia and two pieces of ordnance were stationed in the fortress at the end of the square, and the infantry took up their position in other of the buildings. Pizarro had a little band of twenty men hidden away with himself to act according to the exigencies of the moment. He issued orders that the Inca was to be allowed to enter the square unmolested, that the priest Valverde was to meet him and proclaim the Christian message, and at the waving of a scarf, a gun was to be fired, and the hidden troops were to dash out on the unsuspecting Peruvians.
The night passed peacefully, as did the greater part of the next day. Atahualpa sent a message saying he was coming with his soldiers fully armed, a proposal to which Pizarro could but agree. He went as far as to assure him of a brotherly welcome! Later on, the Inca and his force began to advance, but stopped just outside the city. Atahualpa sent a messenger to say that he would not be coming till the next morning, and this time Pizarro protested that he would be put to much inconvenience if the Inca persisted in this course. The Inca graciously assured him that he would come that night after all, and would, moreover, not bring many of his soldiers, and that all would come unarmed.
Nothing could have suited Pizarro better! Towards evening, the Inca and some five or six thousand of his followers, all unarmed and unprepared for the horrible incident that was to follow, entered the tragic square, others coming in quickly. Not a sign was to be seen of the Spaniards; with hands on swords and guns they were safely hidden away, waiting for the signal to fall upon their victims:
"Where are the strangers?" asked the Inca, looking down from his gorgeous palanquin of gold and silver and rich plumes.
For answer there appeared the priest, holding in his hand either a Bible or a breviary. Addressing the Inca, he explained the reasons of their coming, and then he launched forth into a long harangue (given through an interpreter) upon the doctrines of Christianity, winding up with the assertion that the Pope, the Vicegerent of God on earth, had granted to the great white king the right to conquer the Western hemisphere. Hence their presence. If the Inca would throw over his own faith and embrace that of which they were the messengers, and own allegiance to the Spanish emperor, he would receive help and protection against all his foes.
A curious sermon!
The Inca, furious and indignant, vowed that he would be tributary to no man.
"I am greater than any prince on earth," he said. "Your emperor may be a great prince; I do not doubt it, when I see that he has sent his subjects so far across the waters; and I am willing to hold him as a brother. As for the Pope of whom you speak, he must be crazy to talk of giving away countries which do not belong to him. For my faith, I will not change it! By what authority do you say these things?"
Valverde held up his book. The Inca took it in his hands, glanced through its pages and hurled it from him. He had had enough! He demanded that the Spaniards should give an account of themselves.
Valverde picked up his book, left the Inca in a fume, and hurried off to Pizarro. After acquainting him with what had happened, he urged him to set on, absolving him on the spot for whatever he might do.
Pizarro needed no urging. He waved his scarf, the signal gun spoke forth its dreadful message, and the carnage began.
Putting himself at the head of his twenty men, Pizarro raised his war-cry, "St. Jago and at them!" and charged into the square. From their places of concealment the Spaniards issued forth into the square. The artillery in the fortress let fly, the infantry poured in a dread, terrible fire, which simply scared the Peruvians out of their wits, and the cavalry charged down upon them with flashing swords and trampling horses. In a moment all was confusion. The sight alone of the strange-looking men on horses, seemingly all in one piece, struck terror into the Peruvians, who turned to flee from their attackers. Men fell by the score, and their bodies, piling high on top of one another, blocked every avenue of escape. The crush was awful; the victims of the treacherous onslaught fought each other in their attempts to escape the whirling swords that laid so many low. At last they made a way of escape for themselves, although unwittingly. The heaving mass pressed against the wall of the plaza, a solid structure of clay and stone; crash! a great mass of it was hurled to the ground, leaving a space of some fifty yards or more in length, through which the Peruvians rushed, followed immediately by the Spanish cavalry who slashed and hacked to their hearts' content.
The centre of the massacre, however, was round the palanquin of the Inca. Pizarro meant to capture him; the Peruvian nobles determined to frustrate any such design, and ranged themselves round their monarch. Unarmed, defenceless, they set themselves against the white men, whom they tore from their saddles or met in unequal combat on foot. Dozens of them fell, yet the fight went on, the palanquin swaying as the crowd swayed. The Peruvians fought with the courage born of despair, "yet they still continued to force back the cavaliers, clinging to their horses with dying gasp, and, as one was cut down, another taking the place of his fallen comrade with a loyalty truly affecting."
The Spaniards fought with ferocity, their weapons, of course, giving them the advantage, though the numbers of the Peruvians rendered it difficult to get at the Inca. Yet the Inca must be captured or they were all lost. Upon this depended not only their lives but the success of their venture. Night was coming on apace, and still the monarch was safe in his palanquin. Some of the Spaniards sought to put an end to matters by killing the Inca, but Pizarro warned them that the Spaniard who dared to do this would do so at the sacrifice of his own life. At that instant Pizarro received a wound in the arm, inflicted by one of his own men. The Conqueror had stretched out his arm to turn aside a blow aimed at the Inca, and he received it himself; and he was the only Spaniard wounded in all that dreadful fray.
The Peruvians tried to get the Inca's palanquin towards the opening in the wall; the Spaniards tried to prevent them, and at last the latter, having succeeded in killing most of the bearers, rushed the litter, over turned it, caught the Inca as he fell, and, after a severe struggle, secured him and bore him off to one of the halls.
The plan had succeeded; in full view of his army the Inca had been taken prisoner by a handful of determined men.
But at what a price! Some historians say that two thousand, others ten thousand, Peruvians fell during the battle that was a massacre. And all during thirty brief minutes—a half hour that must ever live in history as one of the most appalling the world has ever known. Pizarro had won the day—indeed, had by that one great fray all but conquered Peru. But he had won through dishonour, through treachery, and through massacre; and he had clothed it in the mantle of religion.
When the Peruvians saw that their monarch had been captured, they one and all took to their heels, seeking to put as much distance as possible between them and the Spaniards; the army that had remained in camp also fled, pursued by the white men until they were recalled by the blare of a trumpet in Caxamalca.
After events must not detain us, though there is a temptation to follow the Conqueror. One thing must be told, however. After much dallying and long negotiations, and another breaking of faith on the part of Pizarro, the Inca was condemned to death and executed by the garotte. Pizarro pursued his triumphant course, and at last Peru was conquered and annexed to the Spanish crown.