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At its height, the Inca empire stretched from modern day Colombia to central Chile, and had about nine to ten million inhabitants, yet in 1532 Francisco Pizarro and a meager 62 horsemen and 102 foot soldiers conquered the empire. Pizarro was able to conquer the Incas not only because of his cunning and ruthlessness, but also because their kingdom was in disarray, therefore, I will discuss what I believe are the three main reasons why the empire fell, and none of them will have anything to do with Francisco Pizarro.

My first explanation for the demise of the Incas is their rapid and recent expansion they had gone through only a few decades before Pizarro arrived. Circa 1438 AD Inca Yupanqui (Pachacutec) defeated the Chancas and expanded his empire out of the Cuzco valley. Around 1463 AD, while Inca Yupanqui was busy organizing his conquests and remaking Cuzco, the capital of his empire, his son, Topa Inca, was allowed to take control of the Inca army and continue the task of conquest. During that time, Topa Inca conquered the Northern Highlands of Peru, the Southern and Central Highlands of Ecuador, and then the Northern and Central Coastal areas of Peru. When Inca Yupanqui died around 1471 AD, and Topa Inca became Sapa Inca and took over the empire. During Sapa Inca s rule, the empire virtually doubled in size, with the conquest of the lands of the Southern Coast of Peru, the northern half of Chile, Northwest Argentina, and Eastern Bolivia. This was done less than sixty years before Pizarro marched into Cajamarca (Davies 125-129).

The successor to Sapa Inca was his son Huayna Capac in 1493 AD.

When Topa Inca died ca. 1493 AD, he was succeeded by his son Huayna Capac. The empire had expanded rapidly to absorb millions of people spread over thousands of miles of land, and Huayna Capac had to concentrate much of his effort on quelling various rebellions in the north and defending the large border. Thus, when Huayna Capac died (c.1527) he was not able to add much land to the empire (Davies, 132).

Because of this expansion about half a century before Pizarro arrived, the Incas had created a large amount of enemies. As Hemmings wrote: Cort z had brilliantly manipulated rival factions during the conquest of Mexico twelve years before, Pizarro hoped to do likewise. (Hemmings, 90). Because of all of the years of warfare, by the time Pizarro came into the picture several new Inca cultures still rebelled against Incan rule, Pizarro would use this conflict in order to take over the kingdom.

When Huayna Capac died suddenly in 1527 from what is believed to be smallpox, it was unclear who had been named as his successor. His son Huascar, who the Spanish referred to as the legitimate son, had the support of the Inca nobility in Cuzco and did become Inca for a few years. Meanwhile, his half brother Atahualpa, who had been fighting up north near Quito, still controlled Huayna Capac’s powerful army (Davies 134). What happened then is my second explanation for why the Inca empire collapsed: Huascar and Atahualpa launched the kingdom into a violent civil war.

At first, Huascar s forces defeated Atahualpa s, who was imprisoned but managed to escape, but Atahualpa s generals Quizquiz and Chalco Chima defeated Huascar in Cuzco and subsequently had him killed (Davies, 134). Despite Huascar s death the kingdom was still very much divided between Atahualpa and Huascar s supporters. This would be important for Pizarro s success.

My final reason for the demise of the Incan kingdom is their ruler s own lack of judgment. By sheer coincidence, Pizarro s troops and Atahualpa and his troops were both near Cajamarca. Atahualpa was asked to meet Pizarro and, despite still having most of the kingdom against him, Atahualpa went into Cajamarca with his guard down. On November 16, 1532, Pizarro and his men ambushed Atahualpa, using the advantages provided by their horses and a surprise attack to overcome the Inca and his unarmed retinue, in the end Atahualpa was imprisoned. Despite the generous ransom Atahualpa provided for his freedom, Pizarro had Atahualpa executed on July 26, 1533 (Davies, 190).

In the end, Pizarro had to conquer a kingdom that still did not have all of its subjects under its law. The recent and rapid Inca expansion did not allow enough time for all of the people to be absorbed into the Inca languages and traditions. To add to the already diverging kingdom, a brutal civil war closely followed the merge with the new cultures, which sent one part of the kingdom to side with Atahualpa and the other with Huascar. By killing Atahualpa…the Spanish had cast themselves in the role of champions of Huascar and as such enjoyed a certain degree of support among certain elements of the population (Davies, 191). The civil war allowed Pizarro to side with a certain side so that his small army would not have to do most of the fighting. Finally, I consider Atahualpa one of the main reasons for the empire s demise because by foolishly allowing himself to get caught he stopped his army from being able to defeat the Spaniards and set in motion what would eventually be the death of his people.


Davies, Nigel The Ancient Kingdoms of Peru

Penguin Books, London 1997

Hemming, John Atahualpa and Pizarro

History 169 Reader

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