"Have you mixed up Inca history with Aztec history?," a reader asked me this morning. "Your essay sounds a lot like the one you wrote about Mexican history."
There is some truth in that. The Inca and Aztec empires were great successes of organization that shared the same weakness as do all centralized powers. And both fell to Spanish forces that looked farcical in their numbers against both powers.
Pizarro's invasion force was small. 168 men. 62 horses. 1 cannon. It is hard to imagine a force that size taking over a small coastal city, let alone an entire empire. But he did.
Revisionist historians have downplayed the military and technological expertise that Pizarro's forces brought to South America. Spanish warriors had just cleared their country from Muslim control.
For centuries, the Spanish learned the arts of strategy and tactics on the field of battle. Their best tool was flexibility in battle and an ability to fight when commanders were taken out of action. Pizarro would apply those tools brilliantly.
But the Inca warriors were no pushover. The best evidence of that is how quickly the empire had expanded from 1438 to 1493. A span of only 55 years. The Inka's generals were well-versed in war, as were the warriors.
For all of his technology, Pizarro could easily have been defeated by a united Inca force.
But there was no united Inca force. Pizarro had the good fortune of invading a land that was already split by a violent civil war.
Inka Pachakuti began the empire's expansion in 1434. The death of his son in 1493 precipitated the civil war.
There was no automatic succession in the empire. The Inka would designate his successor. Inka Pachakuti's son, Thupa Inka, had designated one of his sons as his successor. But both Thupa Inka and his heir died in 1493 of an unknown disease. Two surviving sons then declared themselves as the rightful heir.
Let me pause for a moment to discuss that "unknown disease." It was unknown to the Inca. But we know exactly what it was. Smallpox. The Spanish had inadvertantly introduced it into the New World in the 1490s. And the disease managed to spread to South America before Pizarro invaded.
Not only Thupa Inka and his heir died of smallpox. A large portion of the aristocracy died, as well. Within a few years, waves of influenza, typhoid, and smallpox would infect the Inca population, killing 94% of them.
It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Thupa Inka had not been infected, if his son had succeeded him, and if there had been no civil war. But it is only speculation. Because there was a devastating civil war that followed the smallpox outbreak.
Two of Thupa Inka's sons went to war to claim the title. It was not just an aristocratic scuffle -- though there were plenty of Machiavellian moments as aristocrats, generals, and troops switched sides.
Many warriors died. On both sides. Tens of thousands. Greatly decreasing the empire's military strength.
Francisco Pizarro was the illegitimate son of a minor Spanish military officer. Nothing in his family history would have qualified him for the type of honors he sought in Spanish society.
So, he did what many Spanish wannabes, including his cousin, Hernan Cortes, did. They headed to the New World with their heads filled with fame and glory. It is not correct that the Spanish were gold-crazy. Gold and silver were merely the means to get what they wanted: titles and recognition .
Pizarro had been to the Pacific coast of South America 1526 where he had heard of the great wealth of Tawantinsuyu. When he returned in 1532, he thought he would face a formidable force fighting to defend their homeland. So, he needed to use caution and cajolery to even the odds.
One of the adherents to the throne, Atawallpa, agreed to meet Pizarro in the public square of an evacuated town. Atawallpa appeared in the full glory of The Inka. Carried on a golden litter. Accompanied by courtiers and a troop of 6,000 body guards armed only with ceremonial weapons. It was a huge mistake.
The meeting did not go well. Atawallpa offended the Spanish by mishandling a breviary offered as a gift. And he was confused why Pizarro was offering him the honor of living under the rule of Charles V.
At Pizarro's signal, his troops burst from the sides of the plaza. The sound of cannon and the unexpected cavalry charge caused confusion amongst the Inca, giving the cavalry an opportunity to cut them down with swords.
When it was all over, Pizarro dragged Atawallpa from his litter and took him hostage. Most of the Inca who had accompanied him were dead or wounded. But he had a trump card in the person of Atwallpa.
Atwallpa understood what he needed to do. After all, he had survived the civil war. He offered ransom to Pizarro. An emperor's ransom. A room 22 feet by 17 feet full of gold, and two equivalent rooms filled with silver.
The Inca honored the request and stripped the walls of sacred temples and emptied warehouses to pay the ransom. In the end, Atwallpa was executed in spite of the payment.
From that point forward, the empire was doomed. There were more battles with Inca generals changing sides. But the last organized resistance was felled in 1572. For all practical purposes, though, the empire was dead in the 1530s -- lasting barely a hundred years.
Pizarro's skill contributed to his victory. But without the outbreak of smallpox that led to a debilitating civil war, and constituent parts of the empire sitting out the invasion, he never would have succeeded.
But, succeed he did. And delivering gold and silver to his emperor attained what he had so long sought. A title to erase his illegitimacy and low birth.
He was awarded the Governate of New Castille -- a portion of the former empire.
History loves irony. Having obtained his title, Pizarro was brought down by a civil war amongst the Spanish. On 26 June 1541, he was assassinated in his palace by fellow Spaniards.
Somewhere, the spirit of Atwallpa smiled.