Last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, is a key figure in the European colonization of South America. He was the last emperor of the largest Pre-Columbian Empire. Atahualpa was a powerful leader, revered by his subjects. And yet he was taken captive by a small Spanish force of only 200 men under the command of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro in 1532. His capture by Spanish, ended the resistance and paved way for Spanish colonization of South America.
In 1526 or 27, a crisis arose following the death of Inca ruler, Huayna Capac (“the young mighty one”). Huayna died of a contagious disease brought to the New World by Europeans. The situations worsened when Huayna’s designated heir to the throne, Ninan Cuyuchi, died as well infected with the same disease. The death of these two powerful men led to a strife between the surviving brothers. In the North, Athahualpa ruled his part of the Empire from Quito, while his half-brother Huascar, controlled the other half of empire from Cusco.
This arrangement did not last long and a bloody civil war broke out only after five years of Huayna Capac’s death. In one of the battles, Huascar managed to defeat and capture Atahualpa. But Atahualpa fled the prison. After gathering strength, Atahualpa marched south against Huascar and defeated the initial resistance. Along the way he slaughtered every Huascar loyalist. He set up base at Cajamarca and planned a final assault on his brother. In following Battle of Quipaipan, Atahualpa inflicted a crushing defeat on Huascar and captured him. Next, Atahualpa invited all the leaders to the capital at Cusco to oversee the partition of the kingdom into two equal halves. However, this was just a deceit. When all the leaders had arrived at the capital, Atahualpa had each one of them killed. This action was taken to eliminate all threats to his throne.
But Atahualpa has not foreseen that a greater threat in the form of the Spanish commanded by conquistador Francisco Pizzaro will arrive at their gates. Although Pizzaro had arrived in Peru in early 1531, he began his march towards Cusco after one and half years. It was audacious for Pizzaro to march with a small Spanish force of 200 men against Atahualpa who had at least 80,000 men at his disposal. When news of the Spanish march arrived at Cusco, Atahualpa did not view the Spanish as any threat. He kept on underestimating his opponents.
When Pizzaro invited Atahualpa to attend a feast at Cajamarca, he decided to leave all the warriors in the mountains and travelled with just 5,000 unarmed men. Spanish had other intentions though. When Atahualpa arrived at Cajamarca he was met by a friar named Vicente de Valverde. Valverde tried to convince Atahualpa of converting Christianity and accept Spanish monarch, Charles V as his sovereign. This angered Atahualpa and he refused all the demands. Then on Valverde’s signal, Pizzaro’s men open fired at the unarmed Incas. Within an hour, 5,000 Inca warriors were killed without any resistance. During the firing, Pizzaro saved Atahualpa from his death only to hold him captive. Pizzaro knew that a living Atahualpa was the only insurance that 80,000 Inca warriors will not raid their settlement.
While held hostage, Atahualpa was still the king and yielded great power. He ordered the execution of Huascar, when he received news that Spanish were planning to replace him with Huascar. Soon after, Spanish got information that one of Atahualpa’s generals was marching towards Cajamarca with the intention of rescuing the king. Atahualpa was soon tried by the Spanish on charges of stirring a rebellion. In 1533 he was sentenced to death by burning at the stake. This horrified Atahualpa as Incas believed that if body was burned the soul would not be able to go on to afterlife. To escape his fate, Atahualpa made a handsome offer to the Spanish. He offered to fill a large room once with gold and twice with silver. It is known that the Incas had already started gathering this ransom. But to their dismay, the Spanish rejected this offer.
It is learned that prior to Atahualpa’s execution he was baptized to Roman Catholicism. In accordance with Atahualpa’s wishes he was not burnt at the stake rather he was strangled to death on a Garrote (a Spanish equipment with a seat and a rope like strangulation mechanism). The execution was carried out on July 26, 1533 and Atahualpa was given a proper Christian burial. It is learned that Atahualpa’s body was taken away by his loyal supporters and mummified to be buried secretly somewhere in North of his empire.