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Francisco Pizarro and Spanish Conquest of Inca Empire

Cancel anytime. A lot of ink has been spilled covering the lives of history's most influential figures, but how much of the forest is lost for the trees? The Age of Exploration and the explorers who set out on their history-making expeditions left many legacies and profoundly influenced history around the world.

In Charles River Editors' Legendary Explorers series, listeners can get caught up to speed on the lives of the most important explorers of history in the time it takes to finish a commute, while learning interesting facts long forgotten or never known. He also benefited from the fact that Montezuma had been a weak leader, looking for divine signs before making any decisions. In he returned to Spain to plead his case for more power and received a mixed response. He was elevated to noble status and given the title of Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley, one of the richest territories in the New World.

He was removed as governor, however, and would never again wield much power in the New World. He personally financed and led an expedition to explore Baja California in the late s and fought with royal forces in Algiers in After that ended in a fiasco, he decided to return to Mexico but instead died of pleuritis on Dec.

Most of his soldiers had been peasants or younger sons of minor nobility with little to look forward to in terms of wealth or prestige. After the conquest, his men were given land, native slaves, and gold. The encomendero had certain rights and responsibilities. Importantly, smallpox readily spread throughout the Americas, decimating Native American populations, before most had ever actually made contact with the Europeans themselves.


Estimates of how many Native Americans were living in the Americas when Columbus arrived, and how many may have succumbed to smallpox and other Old World diseases, vary considerably. Some estimates claim that 95 percent of the pre-Columbian Native American population succumbed to these Old World diseases. At any rate, the ruin caused by these diseases among the Native American populations was unquestionably enormous. Moreover, this devastation continued into the 20 th Century, particularly among the Alaskan Inuit peoples, as well as the native populations of Australia, New Guinea, and Africa.

Bearing the above in mind, we now consider that Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro each came to the New World, in the early 16 th century, with an entourage numbering a mere several hundred or less. Yet each conquered a fierce warrior empire numbering in the millions. Cortes conquered the Aztecs and Pizarro, the Incas. How were the Spanish conquistadores able to vanquish these empires, in the face of such overwhelming numerical odds? Some historians attribute the Spanish conquests of the Aztecs and Incas to their steel weapons and armor and, even more so, to their horses.

Others attribute the Spanish victories to the devastating effect of smallpox on those Native American civilizations. Thus, a key purpose of this posting is to sort through these differing points of view, to give each standpoint its proper due. Then, noting that smallpox was an inadvertent factor in the conquests of the Aztecs and Inca empires by the Spanish conquistadores, we recount how British forces in colonial North America, led by Lord Jeffrey Amherst, deliberately used smallpox as a bio-weapon against rebelling Native Americans, in the first documented instance of biological warfare in the New World.

These Native Americans had never seen horses before they confronted the horses ridden into battle by the conquistadores. Thus, we might very well appreciate how shocking it must have been to Aztec and Inca foot soldiers, when facing a charging horse for the first time.

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Moreover, horses gave the Spaniards tremendous advantages of speed and maneuverability on the battlefield. Yet Cortez started out with only 17 horses and Pizarro with only Thus, could so few horses have actually been the factor that enabled several hundred Spanish conquistadors to defeat warrior empires of several millions? In support of this premise, there were numerous battles, in which a mere few dozen or less Spanish horsemen routed thousands of Aztec and Inca warriors, while slaughtering many of them in the process.

Keegan also credits another factor with regard to the defeat of the Aztecs; the extraordinary limitations the Aztecs imposed on their own war-making ability; at least by European standards. Although Aztec armies were very well trained, organized, and supplied, the objective of Aztec warfare was the taking of large numbers many thousands in some instances of live prisoners for their ritual sacrifices. Consequently, Aztec weapons and tactics were designed to wound and immobilize, rather than to kill.


Thus, while the Aztecs had bows and arrows, their favored weapon was a wooden sword, studded along its sides with flakes of flint, which was designed just to wound. And, since Aztec battles were fought for the purpose of taking prisoners, they were characterized by a high degree of ceremony and rituals.

Moreover, the fighting effectiveness of their enemies was similarly limited by the same ceremony and rituals. Battles were prearranged, and the fate of the captives was known in advance. Remarkably, it was all part of a culture in which prisoners were expected to be voluntary participants in their own ritual murders. Thus, Aztec weapons, strategy, and tactics were hardly suited for battle against the invading Europeans, whose sole purpose was to win a decisive crushing victory.

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Nonetheless, while the Spanish had the advantages of horses, and superior weapons and tactics, could these factors alone have prevented the Aztecs from simply overwhelming them by weight of their sheer numbers alone. Indeed, the Aztecs nearly did just that in their first encounter with the conquistadores, in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan; at the time bigger and richer than any city in Spain.

The conflict began when Cortes, famously and suddenly took the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, prisoner in his own palace. Cortes lost two-thirds of his force, and was barely able to escape from Tenochtitlan, and then retreat back to the coast. It was the chance introduction of variola the smallpox virus , which spread rapidly through the densely populated Aztec empire, killing a third or more of its population in a mere few months. The smallpox victims included Cuitlahuac, the Aztec emperor who succeeded Montezuma.

After that, in , Cortes attempted to subdue Tenochtitlan a second time. Nevertheless, smallpox had been taking its inevitable toll, by then having killed nearly half of the Aztecs, and Cortes was able to capture the city.

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Exactly how smallpox came to Mexico is not entirely clear. Some sources state that an infected slave, who arrived in Mexico in from Spanish Cuba, transmitted the infection to the Aztecs. Other accounts suggest that smallpox was carried by Cuban Indians, who the Spaniards brought along as auxiliaries.

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Regardless, since the Aztecs had no prior exposure to variola, most of them and their leaders were killed by the Old World germ, leaving the survivors bewildered and demoralized. It is estimated that 3. The first encounter between Pizarro and the Incas was at Cajamarca, a town in what is now the Peruvian highlands.

As in the case of Cortes at Tenochtitlan, Pizarro, at Cajamarca, enjoyed the advantage of his horses 27 in this instance and superior weaponry. Jared Diamond, in his marvelous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel , provides gripping first-hand Spanish accounts of the confrontation at Cajamarca. One of the conquistadores relates that many of the Spanish soldiers, when first seeing the enormous numerical advantage of the Incas, were terrified to the point of incontinence.