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The Defeat of the Inca

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  • 0:08 Empires at War
  • 0:36 The Invasion of Peru
  • 2:31 Empires Meet
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you'll explore the history of the great Inca Empire and the conquest of Peru by the Spanish. You'll also learn how the great Inca Empire met its end.

Empires at War

In the early 16th century, during a period called the Age of Exploration, great empires who had never met suddenly discovered each other as Europeans began travelling the world. In South America, the greatest clash was between the Spanish explorers and conquerors, called conquistadores, and the powerful Inca Empire, the largest empire in the western hemisphere. Eventually, the Spanish defeated the Inca, and the mighty empire fell.

Invasion of Peru

In 1521, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and an alliance of native Mexican armies toppled the powerful Aztec Empire and made Spain instantly rich. Inspired, other Spaniards began exploring more of Central and South America in search of other wealth. One of these men, named Francisco Pizarro, began exploring the coast of northern South America with his brothers. In 1526, they started hearing stories about a powerful, and rich, empire that ruled from the high peaks of the Andes Mountains. Pizarro went back to Spain to ask permission to conquer this empire and returned in 1532 with the blessing of the Spanish Empress.

What Pizarro did not know, as he began his conquest of South America towards modern-day Peru, was that he was not seeing the Inca Empire at its best. Smallpox, which swept down from Mexico years before, had decimated the population. Additionally, the Empire was still recovering from a civil war. When the Sapa Inca, Inca emperor, named Huayna Capac died in 1527, his sons Huáscar and Atahualpa started fighting over the throne. Atahualpa had just defeated Huáscar in 1532 when he heard news about new invaders attacking villages near the coast, the Spanish. Atahualpa hadn't even made it back to his capital city, Cusco, but was still at the site of the last battle, Cajamarca.

Atahualpa was feeling pretty victorious after defeating Huáscar, so despite that fact that the entire empire was weak from war, he sent messengers inviting Pizarro to meet him at his camp in Cajamarca, where 80,000 Inca warriors guarded the emperor. Pizarro had amassed an army of local soldiers who didn't like the Inca Empire and wanted to see Atahualpa dethroned, but he decided to accept the Inca emperor's invitation and only took a small number of his best men.

Empires Meet

When Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca, Atahualpa welcomed him as a guest into his own tent, a Mesoamerican gesture to indicate that the emperor was strong enough not to have any reason to fear the Spanish. Per Spanish law, a conquistador had to offer a foreign emperor the chance to convert to Christianity by reciting a speech called the Requerimiento. The Requerimiento explained, in Spanish, that God had chosen the Spanish emperor to conquer the world, and that anyone who refused was a heretic and enemy of Spain.

Pizarro read the Requerimiento, but translation was very difficult and Atahualpa didn't understand. He tried to clarify, but Pizarro lost his temper and his soldiers killed Atahualpa's men inside the tent, capturing the emperor. In Inca culture, attacking someone during a diplomatic meeting was so dishonorable that it would never have been attempted, which is likely why Atahualpa allowed the Spaniards into his tent without bringing many of his own guards.

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