El Dorado, Part III

El Dorado, Part III

The Conquest of Perú

By Robert Drynan


Atahualpa’s ransom included filling this room once with gold and twice with silver.


The first attempt at exploration of the interior of the South American continent was undertaken in 1522 by Pascual de Andagoya. He landed at a point near where the border of Ecuador and Colombia lies today. Nearby friendly indigenous people told him of a city of gold called Virú that stood on the banks of a river known as Pirú, (hence the origin of the name Perú.) Andagoya fell ill and cut short his explorations, returning to Panamá.

Francisco Pizarro arrived in the New World in 1502. He accompanied Vasco de Balboa on his march across the Panamanian Isthmus in 1524 to be among the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. In Panamá, Pizarro formed a partnership with a soldier, Diego de Almagro, to explore and conquer Virú and divide it’s wealth between them. Pizarro and his confederates mounted two expeditions to the land of El Dorado in 1524 and 1526 respectively both of which met with forceful resistance. It served to reinforce their certainty that Virú offered opportunity for wealth and power. As Pizarro and Almagro began preparations for a third adventure, the governor of Panamá refused them permission to initiate the attempt. Pizarro sailed to Spain and in 1528 obtained permission for the venture directly from the King of Spain, Carlos I in a document known as the Capitulación de Toledo.    

In the mean-time a young adventurer, Francisco de Orellana, Pizarro’s cousin and like Pizarro, native of Trujillo in Spanish Extremadura, arrived in Panamá at the tender age of seventeen.  When Pizarro returned from Spain in 1530, Orellana joined his cousin’s expedition. Pizarro’s force consisted of 108 infantry and 60 horsemen when he marched to Cajamarca. He met with Atahualpa’s army of many thousands and defeated the Inca emperor by ruse. Approaching with gifts, the Spaniards slew Atahualpa’s personal guards and made the Inca emperor prisoner. 

Pizarro’s brothers Gonzalo and Hernando and another prominent Spaniard, Hernando de Soto, who a few years later explored the Southern United States from Florida to Arkansas, also participated in the venture. After the ransoming and execution of Atahualpa, the Spanish forces marched on the Inca capital at Cuzco and capturing the city, installed seventeen-year-old Manco Inca as a puppet emperor, (a tactic perhaps learned from Hernán Cortéz, who slew Moctezuma and installed his son Cuautemóc). Pizarro returned to the coast and founded Lima, making that city the capital of his conquest.

Almagro, Pizarro’s partner in the conquest, marched southward in an abortive expedition to conquer present-day Chile. During Almagro’s absence Pizarro consolidated his power in Perú and when his partner returned, they fell out over the division of the spoils: a dispute over Pizarro’s claim of the rights to Cuzco. In the ensuing civil war, Pizarro prevailed at the battle of Las Salinas in 1638 and executed Almagro. However, he failed to execute Almagro’s son Diego El Mozo, who later in 1541 invaded Pizarro’s palace in Lima with the aid of supporters and assassinated him. El Mozo was installed by his confederates as governor of Perú, but shortly thereafter was defeated in the desperate battle of Chupas in September of 1542. He escaped to Cuzco, but was arrested, immediately condemned to death, and executed in the great square of the city.

NOTE: It is difficult to place the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the context of twenty-first century values. History tells us the Conquistadores committed terrible acts of cruelty, or in the best possible construct, acted with extreme indifference to human suffering. On the other hand the human experience in Europe in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries offered no guidance for alternative conduct. The conquistadores that arrived in the Americas had left behind a Spain that had fought with terrible ferociousness to drive the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula and had completed the conquest of Andalucía virtually on the eve of Cristóbal Colón’s discovery of America.

In Europe of the era leaders of modest beginnings acquired wealth and noble stature as rewards for military success and their companies thrived on loot taken in their campaigns: perhaps the first inklings of Western Civilization’s concepts of socio-economic upward mobility.

It would be difficult to expect that these warriors would have altered their conduct in their campaigns in the Americas. They certainly faced the same threats of dismemberment, pain, and torture that they handed out. In that context a twenty-first century Westerner might be able to sense the extraordinary courage displayed by these early explorers and warriors, without excusing their lack of humanity.

And what of the wonderment? They had never seen monumental cities as Tenochtitlan the site of modern Mexico City or the marvels of Cuzco or the Inca fortress of Sacsayhüaman, constructed of massive cut stones weighing as much as 300 tons. They gave credence to cities of gold and risked all to discover El Dorado. They had never imagined a river of the magnitude of the Amazon or encountered the density and extension of that river’s surrounding forests. How could they resist the temptations; the eye-popping wealth that Atahualpa brought to pay the price of his ransom or the gold and emeralds they found simply strewn over the ground around Lake Guatavita?

What of the fabulous animals they discovered: llamas, serpents, tapirs, leopards, birds? What of the foods they tasted for the first time: bananas, tomatoes, cacao, maize, papayas, mangos, avocados, guanabanas, chirimoyas?

Whatever their shortcomings, these adventurers were men of courage. They encountered wonders at every turn and faced dangers far beyond anything for which they had prepared themselves. They were certainly no lesser men in their time than Daniel Boone, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, or John Glenn.


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