Orfeas Katsoulis | Apr 21, 2024

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Atahualpa (Quito or Cusco (disputed), March 20, 1497 - Cajamarca, July 26, 1533) was the thirteenth and last ruler of the Tahuantinsuyo, or Inca Empire, before the Spanish conquest.

He came to power after defeating his half-brother Huáscar in the civil war that broke out after the death of his father Huayna Cápac, who was stricken with an infectious disease (probably smallpox). Reigning de facto from 1532 to 1533, he cannot properly be considered an Inca Qhapaq (emperor), since he did not obtain the office either as a result of direct inheritance or by some sort of abdication in his favor by his predecessor. He is most famous for the ransom he promised Francisco Pizarro in exchange for his release: a volume of gold and silver equal to that of the room where he was imprisoned. However, the ransom did not come in time and Atahualpa was executed, after baptizing himself in extremis.

According to Garcilaso Inca de la Vega, whose conclusions have been confirmed by Agustin de Zarate and Lopez de Gomara, Atahualpa was the son of Huayna Cápac and Pacha, the heir to the throne of Quito (capital of present-day Ecuador) where, again according to that legend, he was born.

Since Princess Pacha was the legitimate daughter of the last ruler of the kingdom of Quito, the late Cacha Duchicela, who was defeated by Huayna Capac, Atahualpa would have been, on his mother's side, the rightful heir to the northern territories of the empire. This version is over-appreciated by modern Ecuadorian historians who have made Atahualpa a national hero, but it does not find as much support among the most accredited scholars of Inca history.

According to most Spanish chroniclers, led by Sarmiento de Gamboa and Juan Diez de Betanzos, Atahualpa was instead the son of Huayna Cápac and Palla Coca, a princess from Cuzco, the capital of the Inca empire, where the prince is said to have seen the light. His mother may have come from the prestigious Panaca family known as Hatun Ayllo, founded by the ninth ruler of the dynasty, the famous Pachacútec.

Cieza de León, for his part, states that the prince was born in Cuzco but attributes to him as his mother a concubine from Huayna Capác, a native of the northern part of the Empire, referred to generically as a "quillaco," an epithet, rather derogatory, that the Incas reserved for the inhabitants of the Quito region. This usually very reliable author, however, drew his information from some Cuzco nobles hostile to Atahualpa.

Betanzos's hypothesis seems the most credible, given the author's position: he had in fact married an Inca princess who had already been betrothed to Atahualpa. Through her he had access to the most confidential information about the late ruler's genealogy. His version is, moreover, confirmed by Sarmiento de Gamboa, another distinguished chronicler who had helped compile the famous Informaciones, collected directly from the natives by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo on behalf of the Spanish Crown.

Atahualpa, however, left Cuzco with his father at the age of about 10 and moved to Quito, participating in the many military campaigns that took place in the north of the country. Many of the territories conquered by Tupac Inca Yupanqui, far from being assimilated into the empire, had, by the death of this ruler, de facto removed themselves from the authority of the Incas and needed to be subjugated again. Numerous military campaigns were needed to permanently fix the empire's borders at the northern border.

The young Atahualpa had the opportunity to prove his aptitude for military leadership on several occasions. He also knew defeat and, on one occasion was saved, in extremis, by the providential intervention of a reinforcement army, commanded by Huayna Cápac himself, but by his courage and determination he won the admiration of the soldiers and won their trust and affection. During these campaigns he attended and learned the teachings of the most esteemed generals of the Inca army and was able to earn their esteem in a reciprocal position. Three of these, especially, Quizquiz, Chalcochima and Rumiñahui, bound themselves to him unconditionally and were the pillars of his future successes.

Upon Huayna Cápac's death, the problem of succession presented itself dramatically. The elderly emperor, unlike his predecessors, had not associated with the running of the empire any of the potential heirs. Stricken, it seems, by a smallpox epidemic he had designated Ninan Cuyuchi, the eldest of his sons, as his successor, but this prince survived the late emperor only a few days, crushed by the same deadly disease.

Huáscar, already a resident of Cuzco, had become the rightful heir, but Atahualpa, who had the favor of the military, was making claims on the territories of the kingdom of Quito, which, he asserted, had been entrusted to him by his father and which he had no intention of abandoning.

Huayna Cápac's remains were brought to the capital to be interred there with the customary pomp reserved for deceased emperors, but the dignitaries accompanying the funeral procession did not include Atahualpa. The king's son, fearing danger to his life, had preferred to remain in Quito, surrounded by loyal armies. In Cuzco his claims were supported by his mother's powerful imperial family, Hatun Ayllo, but even more found support in the threatening presence of the armies of the North, which had spoken out in his favor.

Without bloodshed, a tacit partitioning of the empire was achieved, which saw the Kingdom of Quito rule itself independently, under the authority, only formal, of Cuzco.

The status quo was maintained for a few years, but Huascar grew increasingly impatient with the limitation of his authority, despite Atahualpa's avoidance of acts that might undermine the situation in any way.

The ruler of Cuzco was probably being stirred up by the faction adhering to the Panaca Capac Ayllo, the family of Tupac Inca Yupanqui, who had always been bitter enemies of the Hatun Ayllo family siding with Atahualpa. Probably also contributing to the determination of his actions were the aims of the head of the Cañari nation, a buffer state on the border between the two brothers' zones of influence, which aspired to regain its independence and which fueled all sorts of provocations between both contenders.

The crisis was determined when Atahualpa sent a delegation to his brother's court to assure his loyalty but also to demand greater independence. His appointees brought important gifts, but Huascar, irate, tore them apart and, uttering senseless accusations, branded the dignitaries treasonous, demanding a confession. To their outraged protests he reacted by first subjecting them to torture and later sentencing them to capital punishment. One of them, spared for the purpose, was to join Atahualpa in intimating that he must go to Cuzco immediately, on pain of death, and was to deliver to him, out of supreme contempt, a singular gift: women's clothes to be worn upon his entry into the capital.

It was war, which broke out when Atahualpa saw the first army sent to capture him arrive, under the leadership of General Atoc.

In the first clash, Quito's armies debuted by suffering a severe defeat. But Atahualpa's generals, Quizquiz and Chalcochima, veterans of many battles, quickly managed to turn the tide and bring the war within the very borders of the Inca empire.

The conflict was beyond bloody: the plains, the sites of the battles, were covered with the bones of fallen soldiers, testifying to the loss of life on both sides.

Huascar did not seem to fully understand the situation and engaged in reckless tactics. With each defeat he hastily reconstituted a new army to respond to his opponent's advance, which punctually shelled the new army. Only when Quito's armies were in close proximity to Cuzco did he realize the dramatic nature of the situation and endeavored to mobilize the entire empire to form a force that would be numerically preponderant.

He had almost succeeded, but fate was not on his side. Having improvised himself as supreme commander, he boldly pushed himself toward the enemy with his insignia unfurled. But he was recognized by Chalcochima, Atahualpa's general. The shrewd soldier, omitting the central field of the battle, concentrated all his troops on the place where Huascar was directing his soldiers and, with a daring stroke, managed to capture him alive.

The war was over, and Quito's armies had only to enter Cuzco triumphant, which, moreover, was spared from pillage. However, the same magnanimity was not reserved for Huascar's loyalists, who were slaughtered by the hundreds, while the hapless ruler himself had to endure outrages and humiliation, and to see his own wives and children slaughtered before him.

The Spaniards had meanwhile entered Peru.

The ambassadorship of Hernando de Soto

During the latter stages of the war, Atahualpa had stayed away from the area of operations. This was not an excess of caution, but rather a shrewd strategy, as the territories conquered by his armies had to be controlled. With each victorious battle, Quizquiz and Calicuchima moved closer and closer to the empire's capital, but left behind vast hostile areas that could have risen up, compromising their safety. To avoid surprises, a powerful army commanded by Atahualpa himself, with the help of Rumiñahui, one of his most experienced generals (and, according to some authors, his first cousin), provided for their backs by garrisoning the newly conquered territories.

When news of the final victory reached him, Atahualpa did not show too much desire to travel immediately to the conquered capital. Perhaps he feared that the war might still hold surprises, or he did not want to find himself personally involved in the bloody purge his generals were completing.

There was also another reason that advised him not to leave the northern borders unguarded. For he had been warned of the arrival of strange people, who had come from the sea on huge houseboats and were subduing the coastal areas. The reports spoke of a foreign race, white and bearded, with strange shining sticks that caused thunder and lightning, and with even stranger and huge silver-footed animals. The imagination of the natives had thus translated the image of blunderbusses and horses equipped with irons to their hooves.

The Inca ruler had tried to get more precise information on the matter by sending scouts and asking local leaders for reports on the situation. His informants had reassured him. First of all, they were not gods, as had at first been supposed, since the newcomers, strange as they were, behaved in every way like ordinary men: they were hungry, thirsty, and not capable of performing miracles. As for their dangerousness, one could rest assured. There were very few of them, just over a hundred, and their weapons were not as deadly as had been feared. The silver sticks had to be cocked every time, very slowly, and they were no more accurate than a good arrow. Their animals were also not so fearsome because they could not act at night and did not kill anyone. It was thought that they were needed by their masters to move around, as the latter were too weak to do so on their own.

Atahualpa, misled by these reports, decided to wait for the foreigners in Cajamarca, where he felt safe, protected as he was by some 80,000 men-at-arms.

The Spanish march would have been very difficult, if not impossible, if the Inca had decided to attack them along the way. Indeed, the path to Cajamarca lay on steep trails along the slopes of the Andes, where horses would have been useless and where a handful of warriors could have annihilated any opponent in one of the many gorges along the way. Instead, Francisco Pizarro, who had set out from the town of San Miguel, the first Spanish settlement in Peru, in the plains of Piura, was able to reach Cajamarca undisturbed on November 15, 1532.

The Inca was taking advantage of the baths in a thermal area near the city. Pizarro sent a contingent to him under the leadership of Hernando de Soto and later increased the size of this troop by joining it with another group of soldiers, commanded by his brother Hernando Pizarro. The two horsemen were admitted to Atahualpa's presence, but they could not speak to him directly as the ruler, who kept his gaze ostentatiously downcast, made his wishes known only through a dignitary. They were nevertheless offered chicha in golden goblets to drink, and the Spaniards took advantage of this favor to invite Atahualpa in turn to travel to Cajamarca, for a dinner meeting with their commander. At first they got only a refusal, prompted by the excuse of a fasting ritual that had to be completed, but Atahualpa finally had second thoughts and promised to visit the foreigners the next day.

At the time of the farewell, Hernando de Soto, who had noticed the curiosity with which the sovereign looked at his horse, had an idea. Carousing his steed he improvised a kind of charge by pointing at a squadron of soldiers. The latter retreated in fright, but when the horseman, turning back, halted the animal a step away from Atahualpa, the latter did not blink. The Spanish captain did not know that by his act he had condemned to death the soldiers he had frightened. As soon as he and Hernando were gone, the Inca ruler, in fact, had the entire squadron put to death for the cowardice they had shown.

The next day Atahualpa arrived in Cajamarca in the early evening, escorted by numerous unarmed subjects, but upon entering the city he hesitated and stopped. Pizarro then sent a Spaniard who knew a few words of Quechua; the latter managed to persuade him to enter the main square with his retinue. A friar, Vicente de Valverde, then came forward, along with a local interpreter, Felipillo. Vicente de Valverde introduced himself as a man sent by God, telling Atahualpa that the Pope had sent Spaniards to their lands so that they could convert to Christianity, and for this reason the Incas would have to recognize the authority of King Charles I of Spain.

His speech was a stereotypical formula of the time, called Requerimiento, which Spain made its soldiers pronounce to demand subservience from the original inhabitants before imposing it with their own weapons.

Atahualpa obviously replied that he would not be anyone's tributary and asked from what power such a claim derived. The friar showed him a Bible. Atahualpa took it and put it to his ear as if to listen, then, hearing no sound, disinterestedly threw the book on the ground and demanded, in turn, an explanation of the presence of the Spaniards within the Inca Empire. Valverde merely picked up the Bible and ran to report the incident to Pizarro, speaking of Atahualpa as a "proud dog."

The Battle of Cajamarca

Vicente de Valverde, who had returned to report to Pizarro, had not merely expressed suspicion of an impending attack by Atahualpa's men. The friar had incited the Spanish commander to order the attack on his soldiers, who were hiding near the main plaza. Valverde had tried to convey to Pizarro the same deep indignation he himself had felt at seeing the sacred scriptures outraged and thrown on the ground. The Spanish commander, for his part, had no need to be incited. From the night before he had carefully prepared the ambush, knowing that the only chance of success was the capture of the enemy ruler, as the events in Mexico had shown.

As Valverde gave a prior acquittal to the soldiers for the crimes they would commit, Pizarro gave the order for the attack. The Spanish squads, which had hitherto remained defiladed on the sides of the plaza, came out, brandishing their steel swords and slinging, some, the few firearms they had, while artilleryman Pedro de Candia thundered the few culverins with which the tiny army was equipped. Atahualpa's unarmed men were distinctly taken aback and startled by the roar of the Spanish arquebuses and artillery.

This was not a real battle, but rather a massacre. The Spanish soldiers, although clearly outnumbered, thanks to their technologically superior weapons and surprise effect, killed thousands of Inca. At one point the Amerindians, desperate for an escape route, massed themselves against the wall that bordered the plaza and, with their pressure, brought it down. Everyone tried to save themselves through the hopeless breach, but the Spaniards on horseback chased them across the plain continuing the slaughter. The number of dead is still disputed, but the most reliable figure reaches 5,000 natives. A huge number thinking that the fighting Spaniards numbered about 160.

During the battle Atahualpa had remained in the center of the plaza, standing on his litter supported by his most loyal nobles. The Spaniards tried to capture him, but they were confronted by a human wall that prevented their movement. Heedless of their losses, the Inca nobles promptly replaced the fallen and ever new bearers supported the ruler's litter. Pizarro finally managed to reach him and grab him by the leg, just in time to parry the stab of an excited Spanish soldier who was trying to strike Atahualpa. The Inca was thus dragged out of the fray and imprisoned in the city's place of worship, namely the Temple of the Sun.

Pizarro followed his royal captive by swabbing his stricken arm as best he could. The captain turned out to be the only wounded Spaniard in the Battle of Cajamarca.

The redemption of Atahualpa

Having overcome his initial dismay, the Inca ruler, who had feared for his life, began to plan solutions to regain his freedom. Atahualpa had noticed the greed with which Francisco Pizarro viewed the Inca's many artifacts of gold and silver and precious stones and thought he could profit further from the situation: he told the Spanish commander that, in exchange for his own freedom, he would have the room in which he was imprisoned filled with precious metals as far as his hand could touch them.

Pizarro, though incredulous, accepted his offer and even had the expedition's notary draw up a regular contract, pledging to free his royal captive if the promise was fulfilled.

In fact, he had no intention of releasing him, but the imprisoned Inca, paid by his assurances, instructed his dignitaries to bring all the gold and silver needed for the agreed ransom.

Before long, numerous shipments of precious metals began to flow into Cajamarca, to the amazement of the Spanish who had hitherto doubted the actual power of their captive.

When gold and silver would be melted down into ingots, their value would surprise even the most optimistic.

Pizarro would get 2,350 silver marcos and 57,220 gold pesos. To the other horsemen 362 silver marcos and 8,880 gold pesos. To the humblest foot soldiers, only, so to speak, 135 silver marcos and 3330 gold pesos, that is a real fortune for the time.

The ransom distribution act was found and printed by Quintana in his work Francisco Pizarro and is very useful for historical research on this event, not so much for the detailed listing of the amounts attributed to each, but for the complete and exhaustive list of the conquistadores present in Cajamarca.


While waiting for the ransom payment to be completed, Atahualpa had to adjust to his new condition as a prisoner. The Spaniards, recognizing his rank, allowed him to hold a small court in Cajamarca, while closely monitoring his movements.

Some of the Conquistadores took to the emperor's quarters and became intimate with him, observing his habits and customs. From their accounts we can get an idea of what the life of an Inca ruler was like, although Atahualpa's cramped condition was nowhere near the magnificence in which he was, usually, accustomed to act.

The Inca ruler was served by his concubines and one in particular who changed, however, every week. He never wore the same dress twice and would even change it several times in the same day if it became soiled or stained. The discarded garments were kept in a chest and were burned at regular intervals. The same thing was done for fallen hair or cut nails. This custom was due to superstition and fear of a possible evil spell against him. He ate alone, sitting on a low stool, served by one of his women. Any of his subjects who were admitted to his presence had to appear barefoot, with a burden on their shoulders and keep their eyes downcast.

Atahualpa was gifted with remarkable intelligence and greatly impressed the Spaniards by the skill with which he learned the game of dice and the even more difficult game of chess. He showed great interest in writing and listened with deep attention to the history of the Spanish nation.

He was a man in his early 30s, of sturdy build and medium height, well-proportioned and judged attractive. His features were angular but regular. He had a proud and penetrating gaze, but his eyes were bloodshot. One of his earlobes was torn, either from a battle wound or, as malicious rumors whispered, from a love affair.

He was once seen drinking the chicha in a skull adorned with gold and, when questioned about the significance of that macabre trophy, reported that it was the skull of one of his brothers who had sworn to drink in his own and who, instead, had been defeated. Asked what he would do if he won the battle with the Spaniards, he replied, candidly, that he would save some of them, the barber and the blacksmith first, and that, except for a few others to be sacrificed to his gods, he would have the remainder castrated to be assigned to guard his harem.

Not surprisingly, though imprisoned, the Inca ruler was not inactive when it came to settling the matter with his brother Huáscar, who, though in shackles, was trying to get in touch with Spanish troops who, for their part, were eager to meet him. On his orders, his followers eliminated the deposed ruler of Cuzco, drowning him in the river near the city of Andamarca where he was imprisoned. Along with him were suppressed his surviving dignitaries, the queen consort and his mother.

The process

The payment of the immense ransom was not intended to enable Atahualpa to regain his coveted freedom. The fear of an uprising of the natives loyal to him instilled a deep hatred toward his person believed to be the possible source of all the troubles feared by the ignorant troop. Pizarro himself was torn between the desire to honor his word and the concern to safeguard the integrity of the expedition. To tell the truth, some of the captains, among them Hernando de Soto, appealing to a sense of honor, would have wanted to hold fast to their promise to free the august prisoner or at least to transfer him to Spain to be judged by the emperor himself.

It seems that Pizarro's will finally bent before the insistence of Vicente de Valverde and Riquelme, the Crown Treasurer. While de Soto was away on a scouting mission, all the more timely, Atahualpa's fate was fulfilled and Pizarro bowed to the will of his men, decreeing his death at the stake. Garcilaso Inca de la Vega has handed down to us a tale in which an actual trial of Atahualpa would figure. According to his narrative, the Inca would be accused of treason and put on trial, under the charge of as many as twelve charges, admittedly rather laughable. The trial would have been conducted according to all the trappings of legality, and there would have been no shortage of interventions by accusers and defenders, in deference to the forensic procedures of the time.

Modern historiography has, however, rejected this hypothesis by pointing out a whole series of contradictions. Today, the version of a judgment issued by a select council of captains, without any obvious formality, seems clearly credited.

The killing

Friar Vicente de Valverde, who had never ceased trying to convert him to the Christian religion, told him that if he converted to Catholicism and was baptized, his sentence would be commuted. It would still be death, but the sentence would not be carried out at the stake. The Inca religion abhorred the destruction of the corpse, which it was believed would not allow immortality to be achieved, and the proposal found immediate acceptance by the condemned man. Atahualpa was thus baptized with the name Francisco and, instead of being burned at the stake, he was executed by garrote like a common criminal; that same night, thousands of his subjects slit their wrists to follow him into the afterlife.

When de Soto, upon returning from his expedition, was confronted with a fait accompli, he had an indignant reaction and reserved the right to inform the emperor of the true extent of events. In the face of his threats, all the major players in the affair related to Atahualpa's death tried to downplay their responsibilities, blaming each other in a squalid display of petty hypocrisy.

Atahualpa was executed on July 26, 1533, although for many years, following Juan de Velasco's chronicle, the date of his death was considered to be August 29. Historian Raoul Porras Barrenechea is credited with reconstructing the exact chronology of events.

He was buried in the small church improvised by the Spaniards in Cajamarca, but after the departure of the European troops the natives picked up his corpse and took it to Quito, to inter him in a burial ground that remains unknown to this day.

After his death, Tawantinsuyu was ruled by his young brother Tupac Huallpa and later by his other brother Manco Inca Yupanqui. However, after his demise the final conquest of the whole of Peru was still far off, because Atahuallpa in his lifetime had ordered not to attack the Spaniards but with his death this safe-conduct disappeared and the battles with the Inca army began.

Some of Atahuallpa's sons residing in Quito were able to outlive their august parent. At first they had been imprisoned by Rumiñahui, who, taking advantage of the anarchy that had disrupted the kingdom, had attempted to usurp the throne, but, later, they were freed by the Spanish.

Three boys, Diego Illaquita, Francisco Illaquita and Juan Ninancoro and two maidens, whose names are unknown, were entrusted to the Dominicans who had, in the meantime, settled in Cuzco, to provide for their education. Dominican Domingo de Santo Tomas, the author of the first Quechua grammar and the first Quechua-Castellan dictionary, took a liking to their fate and obtained, for them, from the Crown a small annuity barely sufficient to guarantee a decent existence.

Three other children, Carlos, Francisco and Felipe, were instead raised in a Franciscan convent in Quito. For these, too, the Crown granted handouts. Carlos received an encomienda, Francisco, better known as Francisco Tupac Atauchi, was able to enjoy an annual annuity, Felipe, on the other hand, died very young.

Historians still question whether Atahualpa should be considered a legitimate Inca emperor. First and foremost, it must be considered that the granting of the office required some sort of investiture and recognition by the Panacas of Cuzco and the custodial Ayllos.

There is no doubt that Atahualpa did not comply with this peremptory prescription. The prince, however, had himself crowned during the civil war in a purpose-built palace in the province of Carangue, with all the required formalities and in the presence of representatives of all the Panacas of Cuzco loyal to him. Obviously not present were the leaders of the families hostile to him and, notably, those of Capac Ayllo, descendants of Tupac Inca Yupanqui.

On that occasion Atahualpa changed his name to Caccha Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui Inca, where "Caccha" is the appellation of a god of battles and the other epithets recall the ninth ruler of the dynasty, the "reformer of the world," Pachacútec, while the last term of "Inca" serves to reinforce his status as absolute ruler.

It is clear that Atahualpa intended to reform the entire empire and set himself up as the founder of a new era. Under this assumption, it is likely that he, himself, would not have bothered to endorse, later, his power in the capital with ceremonies that he thought were now obsolete. Let us not forget, in this regard, that his intentions to depopulate Cuzco and to rebuild the imperial capital in the north of the country are well known to chroniclers of the time.

In light of these considerations, it is not believed that Atahualpa can be considered as belonging to the classical dynasty of Inca emperors, with all the assumptions that such a placement would entail. To his opponents he was merely a usurper; to his loyalists, on the other hand, he was to be considered the progenitor of a new dynasty.


  1. Atahualpa
  2. Atahualpa
  3. ^ Pizarro aveva conosciuto Hernán Cortés, il conquistatore dell'impero azteco ed aveva fatto tesoro dei suoi insegnamenti e, in specie, aveva assimilato la tattica impiegata nell'arresto di Montezuma.
  4. También suele ser escrito en castellano contemporáneo con doble ele, Atahuallpa. Los registros más tempranos escribieron el nombre de manera variable como <Ataguallpa>, <Atabalipa> y similares. En la ortografía quechua contemporánea, el nombre se escribe Atawallpa.
  5. Rostworowski, 1999, pp. 170-174.
  6. Rostworowski, 1999, p. 184.
  7. ^ Some sources indicate Atahualpa was named after St. John the Baptist and killed on 29 August, the feast day of John the Baptist's beheading. Later research has proven this account to be incorrect.[1]
  8. Diego Esquivel y Navia Noticias cronológicas de la gran ciudad del Cuzco (em castelhano)Fundación Augusto N. Wiese , 1980, p. 61
  9. Rostworowski, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu p. 159
  10. a b Rostworowski, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu p. 160

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