Francisco Pizarro was born in 1475 in Extremadura in western Spain, when that country was even more powerful than France. He became a conquistador and an important explorer. He started the adventures that took him half way round ther world by joining Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s expedition across what is now Panama, eventually discovering the Pacific in 1513.
By 1524 he was able to lead his own expeditions to explore what is now Colombia, Ecuador and last but not least – Perú, the country best associated with the name Pizarro. Indeed, the name is abominated by all Peruvians to this day, because in 1532 Pizarro led armed adventurers against the Incas, hereditary natives and rulers of ancient Perú which was much bigger than it is now.
Francisco, an intelligent, scheming and ruthless man of the kind only Spain could produce in the sixteenth century, managed to entice the Emperor of the Incas, Atahualpa – a noble savage if ever there was one – to Cajamarca, high up in the impressive Andes range of mountains. In this town Francisco imprisoned Atahualpa and later persuaded him to pay the ransom of all the gold and silver he could muster: on receipt of the Inca fortune, the Prince would be released. Atahualpa believed and trusted the Spaniard.*
The Inca capital was at Cuzco, and it was from this beautiful mountain town that a vast army of natives set out to rescue the Emperor. When Pizarro was given notice of this advance he murdered his royal prisoner by use of the garote vil, a particularly cruel method designed for execution by slow strangulation. A few hundred Incas decided that enough was enough, and following the Urubamba River, discovered a tremendous natural stronghold perfectly hidden in the jungle-covered mountains.
There they built a self-contained fortress which they called Machu Picchu. The secret township was never discovered by the Spanish
The more warlike Incas (actually a collective name for the highest caste of Peruvian Indians) fought the Spanish in pitched battles at Jauja, Vilcashuamáno, Vilcagonga and at Cusco itself, which fell to the conquistadores in 1533. Francisco’s half brother Hernando (born 1501) marched on Pachácamac. The Inca civilization fought by hand with stone-aged weapons; the Spaniards fought with gunpowder and sword. The contest was always unequal, but many sons of Extremadura and Andalucía unwillingly left their bones on these battle fields.
When a kind of peace was restored, Francisco Pizarro consolidated his victories by founding the city of Lima, with its own port of Callao. Callao was a wise choice, because from there the Spanish galleons loaded to the gunwales with Inca treasure could set out on the long voyage home to Cádiz and other Spanish ports. The selection of Lima was unwise, as it is subjected to damp mists for nine months of every year, and humidity can reach 98%. It was a strange place to choose, as Trujillo (in the north, named after Pizarro’s birthplace) and Arequipa (in the south) enjoy one of the very best climates in the Americas.
A partner in the ‘enterprise’ was one Diego de Almagro (born c. 1475). Though he and his colleagues had received ample booty from Pizarro, he felt he had been outfoxed and cheated of his proper share, so he seized Cuzco and threw Hernando Pizarro, its governor, in jail – but Hernando soon escaped and following the orders of his half-brother, caught Almagro and promptly executed him. The conquistadores were falling out with each other, as usually happens when unheard-of fortunes are at stake.
Francisco Pizarro had not heard the last of the name Almagro; in 1541 Almagro’s son trapped and killed him in Lima.
Gonzalo Pizarro was born in 1506, and though 31 years younger, we are told he was Francisco’s brother. This would seem to be impossible unless his mother was around sixty when she sired him. It is known however that he was present in South America during Francisco’s conquest of the Incas and that he took an active part. He defended Cuzco against the assaults of Inca Manco Capac and in 1538 was appointed governor of Quito (then a part of a much larger Perú: it is now the capital of Ecuador).
The Spanish King declared Blasco Nuñez Vela the First Viceroy of Perú, and he proclaimed the New Laws in 1542. Gonzalo Pizarro disagreed with the New Laws and was the leader of the soldiers who opposed them. An uncivil war took place and Gonzalo was captured and instantly beheaded by the new Viceroy. The half-brother Hernando managed to return to Spain, but while trying to defend his actions in Perú before the King, he was trapped by friends of Almagro, thirsty for revenge. He was thrown into prison, from which he did not emerge for twenty years. The brother Juan (born around 1505) was killed when he raced to the rescue of his two brothers Gonzalo and Hernando, surrounded in Cuzcoby the forces of Inca Manco Capac.
* These are but brief biographies of the Pizarro brothers, none of whom came to a good end. You can watch a rather tedious filmed representation of some of the Peruvian adventures of Francisco in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969) from a play by Peter Shaffer. In it Christopher Plummer appears as Atahualpa and Robert Shaw as Francisco Pizarro.