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The Fall of the Inca Empire  

R. Alan Covey

Popular accounts of the European invasion of the Inca Empire emphasize a single event—Francisco Pizarro’s capture of the Inca warlord Atahuallpa at Cajamarca on November 16, 1532—as a definitive moment of conquest. Historical and archaeological scholarship tells a more complicated story. Recent studies of the Incas have shown their empire to be less powerful than once believed, relying on the cooperation of powerful men and women whose personal and family interests did not always align with the policies of the state. When the ruler Huayna Capac died suddenly in a pandemic that swept through the central Andes, the ensuing sovereign crisis intensified factionalism and provincial resistance, culminating in a devastating civil war in which Atahuallpa and his army of frontier veterans triumphed. After unsuccessful voyages of exploration, Pizarro and his men entered Inca territory in this uncertain atmosphere, intent on plundering and colonizing the Andes. Encouraged by provincial lords, they sought out Atahuallpa, captured him, and held him for ransom. With the most powerful Inca lord a prisoner, Andean elites quickly pivoted to formulate new tactics for gaining or holding onto power. For several years, the invaders looked less like conquerors and more like Inca allies or subjects who quickly grafted themselves onto existing power structures. Although there was fierce resistance to Spanish plundering in the mid-1530s, Pizarro and his companions survived because of their alliances with Inca nobles and other Andean elites, who accepted the status of a subject nobility. As Spanish monarchs claimed Inca sovereignty, the imperial titles (Inca and Coya) became entwined with the Spanish nobility, but the legacy of the Inca continued to inspire ordinary Andean people to resist Spanish colonial rule.