The Battle of Cajamarca

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Podcast Transcript

Some of the most important battles in history, the ones that changed the course of civilizations, are often very small battles. 

In 1532, a battle, really just a skirmish, took place, which completely changed the future paths of Peru, Spain, and the entire continent of South America. 

Despite the importance of this battle, few people have ever even heard of it. 

Learn more about the Battle of Cajamarca and how it changed the shape of the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’m guessing that most of you listening to this are not familiar with the Battle of Cajamarca. However, you should be. By the end of this episode, I hope you have an appreciation for the event that took place almost 500 years ago and how it shaped the world in ways that can still be felt today.

The year 1532 was forty years after Columbus arrived in the Americas. 

Spain had established a firm foothold in the new world. Hernan Cortez had conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico. Spain had major ports in the Caribbean and had begun their takeover of Central America.

However, at this point, they still hadn’t conquered what would be perhaps their most lucrative colony, Peru. 

Peru was further away than Mexico or the islands in the Caribbean, which could be accessed directly by ship from Spain. It was in the Andes Mountains and had to be accessed by land or at least by ship from the Pacific coast. 

Peru, at the time, was ruled by the Incan Empire. 

The Incas were not an ancient empire at the time. It was established in the 13th century in the Peruvian highlands around the city of Cusco. According to Incan mythology, the first emperor, Manco Cápac, founded Cusco and started the dynasty. Initially, the Incas were one of several small and competing tribes in the region.

The Incan Empire is certainly worthy of its own episode in the future but for the purpose of this episode, we can establish that the Incans were the dominant power in the region, a position they had held for several centuries.

Most importantly, in the early 16th century, just before the arrival of the Spanish, the Incan empire reached its zenith under the 11th Incan Emperor Huayna Capac. 

It stretched from present-day southern Colombia to central Chile, including most of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and northern Argentina. This vast area was home to diverse peoples and environments, all integrated into the empire through an extensive road system, sophisticated agricultural techniques, and a centralized administration.

Of all the great pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas, the Incas were by far the largest and most powerful. 

However, a unified, powerful empire, united under a great ruler, is not what the Incan Empire was when the Spanish arrived. 

Huayna Capac died in 1527 of some disease, which might have been a disease brought by the Europeans, like mumps or smallpox. Around the same time of his death, his eldest son and heir apparently died as well. 

This resulted in a struggle for the throne between two younger sons of Huayna Capac, Huáscar and Atahualpa, and the start of the Inca Civil War.

Atahualpa, based in the northern city of Quito, and Huáscar, ruling from the traditional Inca capital of Cusco, engaged in a bitter and bloody struggle for control of the empire. The conflict weakened the Inca state both militarily and administratively, culminating in Atahualpa’s victory in 1532.

The timing of the war couldn’t have been worse. 

The war weakened the Inca Empire just at the exact moment that the Spanish were about to enter under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro. Estimates have been placed on the number of Incan losses on both sides at around 100,000.

Francisco Pizarro was a Spanish conquistador born around 1474 in Trujillo, Spain. Motivated by tales of rich civilizations in the New World, he traveled to the Americas for fame and fortune. 

He joined Vasco Núñez de Balboa in his expedition to cross Panama to the Pacific Ocean.  He later turned on Balboa, resulting in Balboa’s arrest and execution. He was rewarded with being appointed mayor of Panama City.

Having heard stories of the wealth of Peru, he led an expedition down the coast in 1524 and again in 1526.

He returned to Spain to raise money and men and to get crown approval for another expedition to Peru to finally conquer it. 

He set out from Panama on December 27, 1530, with three ships, 180 men, and 27 horses.

After establishing a base on the coast and being reinforced by Hernando de Soto, he set out into the interior of Peru on September 24, 1532.

The time he spent on the coast gave him a clearer picture of the political and military situation in Peru, especially what was happening with the civil war, which had ended only months before.

Atahualpa had been resting in the mountains, not far from the city of Cajamarca, after the end of the war with his brother. 

Pizarro wanted to conquer Peru, but he was vastly outnumbered. There were perhaps millions of people in the Incan empire, and Pizarro had about two hundred men in total now spread across several camps, plus some guns and horses.

Despite a massive advantage in technology, it didn’t really matter when they were that outnumbered. They literally wouldn’t have had enough ammunition. 

Pizarro set up a base in Cajamarca with only 110 infantry, 67 cavalry, three muskets, and two small cannons. Atahualpa, who was not far away, had an army of 50,000.

Pizarro’s plan was to use subterfuge and to use Atahualpa as the means to conquer Peru with just a skeleton force. 

He sent his brother Hernando, as well as his lieutenant Hernando de Soto, to meet with Atahualpa in his camp, surrounded by his army. They were sent there to deliver a message that Pizarro wanted to meet with Atahualpa in person the next day in Cajamarca, November 16, 1532.

Atahualpa agreed, and the two men returned to Pizarro at his base in Cajamarca. 

The next day, Atahualpa arrived in Cajamarca with about 6000 to 8000 people in tow. It isn’t known if these were non-military personnel or if it was just a small number of his larger 50,000-man army. 

Either way, Atahualpa didn’t come prepared for combat. He came assuming that he was there parlay with the Spanish. 

When Atahualpa arrived in the central plaza, he was approached by a priest and an interpreter. The priest demanded that he adopt the one true faith and that he pay tribute to Emperor Charles V, the King of Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Atahualpa is reported to have replied, “I will be no man’s tributary.”

With that, Pizarro unleashed his plan. He and his men were hiding in buildings surrounding the central plaza. At the appointed moment, they opened fire with his muskets and cannons, and his cavalry ran into the central plaza. 

Here, I should note that while this is usually called the Battle of Cajamarca, it is also sometimes referred to as the Massacre of Cajamarca, and I can’t say that it is an unfair description. 

Atahualpa and his retinue were not prepared for battle. They had come under the guise of diplomacy, not looking for a fight. 

When the fighting began, the Incas were not just caught by surprise, but they simultaneously experienced firearms and horses for the first time in their lives. They were in a state of shock, not just from the surprise attack but from the loud guns and the strange creatures these men were riding. 

Over the course of the next hour, several thousand Incas were killed, with estimates being placed between 2,000 and 5,000, and thousands more were captured. 

The Spanish had zero casualties. In fact, the only injury sustained was on Pizarro himself. He had a cut on his hand when he rushed in to capture Atahualpa. His wound didn’t even come from an Inca but from another Spanish soldier who tried to kill Atahualpa.

That was the point of the entire ambush. Pizarro knew that the best chance they had was to capture Atahualpa alive, not kill him. 

Atahualpa wasn’t even standing by all accounts. He was sitting on the litter he was carried in on. His servants would throw themselves in the way of the Spanish, sacrificing their lives to protect their ruler. 

Not only had the Spanish captured the leader of the Incan Empire, but they had also killed many of Atahualpa’s top commanders in the process, leaving the Incas leaderless.

The remaining Incan forces that were outside of town ended up scattering after the attack.

Pizarro then demanded a ransom for the release of Atahualpa—an incredibly steep ransom. 

He demanded that the Incas provide a room filled with gold and then two more rooms filled with silver.  Pizarro was going to get the riches he had come to the New World for. 

After several months, the Incas managed to assemble the ransom, a room filled with gold and two with silver.

However, Pizarro didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. 

Instead, Atahualpa was put on trial on 12 different counts, including killing his brother during the Civil War and plotting against the Spanish. 

Pizarro didn’t want to put Atahualpa on trial; rather, he agreed to do it after pressure from his men. Pizarro wanted to send Atahualpa back to Spain, where he could be judged by the King of Spain.  

Atahualpa was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was to be burned alive, which was normally reserved for heretics. He was allowed to convert, which he did at the last minute, and was then executed by strangulation. 

The execution of Atahualpa was not received well by Holy Roman Emperor Charles I, who wrote to Pizarro saying, “We have been displeased by the death of Atahualpa since he was a monarch and particularly as it was done in the name of justice.”

With Atahualpa dead, Pizarro, still with a very small number of men, managed to conquer the rest of Peru. At first, they did it with puppet rulers and then finally through direct rule. 

The Incan army weakened after years of civil war and, with the loss of all of their top commanders, wasn’t a force to be reckoned with. There were some minor skirmishes with the Spanish, but there were never any major battles that were fought that could have resulted in a conclusive victory. 

The diseases that took the life of the previous emperor, Huayna Capac, spread throughout Peru over the next years, making the conquest of the region that much easier. 

Spain ruled Peru for almost 300 years until it finally became independent in the early 19th century. 

During that time, Peru was the greatest source of silver for the Spanish Empire and was the driving force behind the Manila Gaellon trade across the Pacific with China. 

The Battle of Cajamarca was the effective end of the Incan Empire, the greatest such empire in the New World. It opened the way for the Spanish conquest of the rest of the continent, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego.

Pizarro managed to defeat a massively larger force with an absurdly small number of men. He managed to do this via a sizable advantage in technology, and a whole lot of deception. 

The Battle of Cajamarca wasn’t a great battle in terms of the number of combatants, but it was an incredibly significant battle insofar as its outcome shaped world history. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener happy_camper13 on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:


This is my new favorite educational podcast. I really appreciate that the information given is unbiased and doesn’t inject any modern politics into the stories, especially the historical ones. The host is very articulate and knowledgeable as well.

I especially enjoyed the episodes covering the events surrounding the First World War. I have studied quite a bit during that period but have still learned a lot of new things.

I highly recommend the episodes on Saint-Denis, the Enigma Code, and the Maginot Line in particular.

Thanks, HappyCamper! I’m always amazed when people tell me what their favorite episodes are because they are always different. I’ve had people suggest that I should figure out what the most popular episodes are and do more of those, but the truth is, there is no most popular episode. 

So, if anyone wonders why I don’t do more episodes on any particular topic, it is because every episode seems to be someone’s favorite episode

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show