Cuzco 1536–37 is a highly illustrated and detailed study of one of the most important campaigns in the colonization of the Americas, the Spanish conquest of the vast Inca Empire. On the blog today, author Si Sheppard share a section of the book that didn't make it into the book.

  Cuzco 1536–37


It was in the year 1532—according to a calendar of which he knew nothing—that Atahualpa became the sapa inca, the sole lord of Tawatinsuyu, the land of the four quarters, known to history as the Inca Empire.

It had been far from a smooth transfer of power. Atahualpa had been on campaign with his father, Huayna Capac, in Ecuador when the eleventh sapa inca died. The succession passed to the elder son, the 31-year-old Huascar, in the imperial capital, Cuzco. Atahualpa would remain in Quito to take personal responsibility for pacifying the empire’s unsettled northern frontier.

This compromise was a recipe for confrontation. Atahualpa and his half-brother shared the same father, but they traced their lineage through rival bloodlines of royal descent that had contested for imperial supremacy over several generations. Though Huascar had inherited the royal title and with it the sacred precincts of Cuzco, the bulk of the royal army was in Quito. The veteran troops and generals Huayna Capac had led north on his last campaign remained loyal to Atahualpa. This uneasy balance of power ultimately degenerated into the maelstrom of civil war—the first in Inca history.

The sources differ on the origins and course of the conflict, even as to which of the two brothers struck first. According to Juan de Betanzos, hostilities commenced in 1530 when Huascar ordered generals Hango and Atoc to march on Quito with an army 6,000 strong and to gather levies as they progressed through the provinces of Jauja, Tarma, Bombon, Huánuco, Huailas, and Cajamarca. Hango and Atoc advanced from Calca and linked up with Cuxi Yupanque, Atahualpa’s cousin, in Jaquijahuana, swelling the total size of the army to 10,000 warriors.

When word of this advance reached Quito, Atahualpa reacted swiftly. Naming Quizquiz, Chalcochima, and Rumiñawi his chief generals, he ordered the garrison stand to arms and raised an additional 60,000 warriors from the surrounding provinces.

The loyalties of the empire’s myriad subject peoples, now forced to choose sides between rival dynasts, would be severely tested. When the Cañari nation learned that Atahualpa had raised an army and was rapidly recruiting more men, they sent messengers to Hango and Cuxi Yupanque urging them to strike before the odds tipped against them. Hango and Cuxi Yupanque advanced to Tumibamba, where they linked up with the Cañaris, who were now in arms against Atahualpa.

When Atahualpa learned that the Cañaris were against him, he took a cup of chicha beer in his hands and, pouring it on the ground, swore an oath that his blood would be likewise spilled if, after conquering Hango, he did not impose a punishment on the Cañaris they would never forget.

Leaving an uncle of his, Cuxitopa Yupanque, behind to govern Quito in his absence, Atahualpa led his forces south to Ambato. The two armies met on a field near the town of Mochacaxa. This first clash was a victory for Atahualpa. Hango and Atoc were killed (the former being reduced to having his skull detached for use as a gilded drinking cup for Atahualpa; the skins of both men were flayed and stretched into the fabric for drums), and Cuxi Yupanque was captured. In the fluid political environment that prevailed, Cuxi Yupanque was not only pardoned but appointed Atahualpa’s second-in-command.

One of Hango’s captains, Aguapante, had been imprisoned and placed under guard in a house. At nightfall Aguapante dug through the foundations of the house and escaped. He was subsequently able to rally some of the chiefs of the Cañaris, and when they assembled, he sent a messenger to Huascar to inform him his forces had been defeated and urge him to send a relief column because the Cañaris had declared themselves enemies of Atahualpa and loyal to Huascar.

When this news reached Huascar he ordered an army of 15,000 warriors raised and under the command of one of his brothers, Guanca Auqui, to link up with Aguapante and carry the fight to Atahualpa, who was now officially damned as a traitor (auca). Guanca Auqui found Aguapante at Tumibamba, where he had assembled as many Cañaris as he could. But this combined force was surprised and wiped out by an army led by Chalcochima and Quizquiz. Guanca Auqui, Aguapante, and some 5,000 of the men brought from Cuzco escaped, together with some of the chiefs of the Cañaris, among them Ucoxicha.

Guanca Auqui sent a messenger to Huascar pleading for assistance. Huascar dispatched another 30,000 warriors under Llasca. In the meantime, Guanca Auqui was hounded by Chalcochima and Quizquiz in his retreat. Whenever Guanca Auqui found a stronghold, he stopped and sought to dig in, but Chalcochima and Quizquiz continued to push him ever further south. Guanca Auqui had made a stand at the bridge of Vilcachaca in Cajamarca when Llasca and his reinforcements arrived. Llasca offered battle but, leading from the front, was cut down. His army immediately routed. Guanca Auqui again escaped and again sent a message to Huascar to inform him of the defeat and plead for assistance.

Huascar ordered another 30,000 men under Coriatao to succor Guanca Auqui, who had fallen back to the Bombon bridge. On this occasion, Chalcochima and Quizquiz moved too fast; unaware Guanca Auqui had been reinforced, the vanguard they pushed forward to seize the bridge was overwhelmed and wiped out.

When Chalcochima and Quizquiz learned of this setback, they detached 10,000 warriors to their flank and then feigned a retreat. When Guanca Auqui and Coriatao, following up on their success at the bridge, gave pursuit, they found Chalcochima and Quizquiz standing their ground at a field called Chancha. When battle was joined, the detached warriors fell on their rear. It was another victory for Atahualpa’s captains; Guanca Auqui, Coriatao, and Aguapante escaped and fell back to Jauja.

Chalcochima and Quizquiz, both exhausted by the battle, decided to hold their position and allow their army to regroup for a few days. At Jauja, Guanca Auqui, taking advantage of this slackening in pressure, called in levies from the surrounding provinces, adding 40,000 warriors to the survivors from the Chancha battle.

Guanca Auqui clashed again with Chalcochima and Quizquiz at Jauja. The battle was as bitter and hard-fought as its predecessors. Again defeated, Guanca Aunqui and his captains once more escaped and fled, on this occasion to the Angoyaco bridge.

Chalcochima ordered one of his captains to take a detachment of warriors and pursue Guanca Auqui to the far side of Angoyaco bridge. Meanwhile, Chalcochima and Quizquiz with the main force subjugated Jauja and the surrounding provinces. Chalcochima ordered that the principal leaders captured there be placed in a prison until he returned from Cuzco after ultimate victory. He then intended to make war drums from the skin of their bellies, since they were quite fat; thus he would amuse himself.

Chalcochima and Quizquiz remained in Jauja for some time and regrouped their army, which had been decimated and exhausted during its series of battles. Guanca Auqui meanwhile sent yet another messenger to Huascar to ask for aid. Huascar gathered 30,000 warriors and placed them under the command of one of his cousins, Quilisca Auqui, a son of Topa Inca. He left with this army and linked up with Guanca Auqui in Picoy. Assuming Chalcochima would cross the Angoyaco bridge, Quilisca Auqui set up an ambush on the slope to Picoy. However, Chalcochima and Quizquiz decided to bypass him by crossing the Rumichaca bridge and to take the high ground from its flank. Thus they fell on both Guanca Auqui and Quilisca Auqui, who were defeated. Guanca Auqui once more escaped, but Quilisca Auqui was captured, bound, and dispatched to Atahualpa in Quito.

After his defeat in Picoy, Guanca Auqui fled with his soldiers to the province of Andahuaylas, just 30 leagues from Cuzco.[1] After he crossed the Vilcas bridge, he burned it, and from there sent a message to Huascar with word of the defeat and capture of Quilisca Auqui. Huascar mobilized 50,000 men and ordered the nobility of Cuzco, including Inca Roca, Atao Inca Yupanque, Chui Yupanque, and many other high-ranking members of the elite, more than 300 in total, to spearhead this force.

These reinforcements linked up with Guanca Auqui and Aguapante at Andahuaylas. The combined army, amounting to 60,000 warriors, there awaited Chalcochima and Quizquiz, who had already advanced to Vilcas, 14 leagues distant. Chalcochima and Quizquiz commanded that all their baggage be left in Vilcas and that every available man depart on a forced march through the wilderness of the Chancas, which leads to Andahuaylas.

Atahualpa, meanwhile, was advancing from Quito to take possession of the provinces his captains had wrested from allegiance to Huascar. According to Betanzos, “Chalcochima and Quizquiz had been inflicting such destruction on the people of the provinces through which they passed that everything was consumed in fire and blood.” Atahualpa added terror to the misfortunes of war.

After summoning the three chiefs of the Cañaris, he ordered their hearts be torn out, saying he wanted to see the color of the hearts of evil men. The hearts were then sliced into pieces and distributed among the Cañaris, Atahualpa crying in a loud voice that if the subjects of these three chiefs had good hearts and wished him well, they would arise and eat the evil hearts of their leaders. Cowed, the Cañaris complied. To cap this theater of intimidation, Atahualpa’s Quillaycingas subjects built a great bonfire, took the dead bodies of the chiefs, cut them in pieces, roasted them, and ate them with peppers and corn. Atahualpa then ordered the Cañari nation be relocated to the province of Huambo.

Atahualpa had other administrators loyal to Huascar returned to the site of a battle and buried alive in a fenced place he ordered be called Collana Chacara, “excellent sown field.” He said that he planted that garden with people of evil hearts to see if they would produce evil fruit.

When Atahualpa found that he could not breach the fortifications of the Pastos nation, he commanded one night that large fires be lighted in his camp and that the soldiers act as if they were carefully guarding it. Atahualpa then ordered his warriors, guided by spies, to march, leaving the fires lighted in his camp. Under cover of darkness they fell upon the camp and routed the Pastos warriors, who were well fortified, but were caught off-guard.

When Atahualpa arrived in the province of Çoçora he found the people of Palta and those of the surrounding provinces had taken refuge on a mountain near there, since they did not wish to surrender to or serve him. He ordered his warriors to surround that mountain and allow none to escape. This they did, and they captured multitudes. Atahualpa then ordered all of the prisoners be slaughtered, even that pregnant women be opened alive and that the babies be ripped from their wombs.

News of this massacre spread, and with it fear. Throughout the march to the neighboring province of Guambo, Atahualpa ordered all the men be killed and the women distributed to his warriors for wives. Thoroughly cowed, the populace of Guambo and all the surrounding provinces submitted without resistance. When Atahualpa saw they came in peace, he received them with honor. He then proceeded via the Çaña Valley, where he ruthlessly stamped out any incipient opposition, to Cajamarca.

As Atahualpa consolidated control of the empire behind the front lines, his captains continued to press forward with the war. When Huascar’s captains learned that their enemies had left Vilcas, they decided that Inca Roca and Guanca Auqui would depart with 40,000 men through the wilderness of the Chancas and intercept Chalcochima at a place called Chaquipampa. The rest of the army, 20,000 men in total under Atecayque and Aguapante, would strike at Vilcas to burn all the men and baggage that Chalcochima and Quizquiz had left there. Then they would proceed by forced march on the road that Chalcochima and Quizquiz had taken and fall on their rear, while Inca Roca and Guanca Auqui were engaging the vanguard.

Atecayque and Aguapante swiftly overwhelmed the garrison at Vilcas, massacred the camp followers, and looted or burned the baggage. Unaware of this disaster, Chalcochima and Quizquiz had hurried their march through the wilderness and were about to arrive at Andahuaylas when they encountered Inca Roca and Guanca Auqui. Since night had fallen when they met, they stopped and all agreed to postpone the battle until the next day.

When Chalcochima saw that the night was almost gone and that it would soon be daylight, very quietly he roused his troops, after having been fully informed by spies of the whereabouts of Inca Roca’s camp. Inca Roca and his men were caught off-guard, since they had agreed to fight the next day. Surprised and overwhelmed, they were defeated. Inca Roca and Guanca Auqui fled, not halting until they had crossed the bridge at Apurímac, which they then cut.

Atecayque and Aguapante were preparing to depart Vilcas and fall on Chalcochima’s rearguard, as had been agreed, when news reached them of the defeat of Inca Roca and Guanca Auqui. They thus pulled out to consolidate their forces at the Apurímac bridge.

Appraised of this latest reverse, Huascar summoned his last reserve, 30,000 men, which he personally, along with the rest of the nobility who remained at Cuzco, led into the Jaquijahuana Valley to a position above the Cotabamba bridge. From there he summoned his captains and the 30,000 men under their command at Apurímac.

When Quizquiz and Chalcochima occupied Andahuaylas, they sent for the men and baggage in Vilcas. Only then did they learn Atecayque had annihilated everything they had left behind. The pregnant wives of Chalcochima and Quizquiz had been cruelly murdered. Chalcochima swore by the Sun and the Earth not to leave Cuzco until he had captured Atecayque and exacted revenge. He would administer a punishment that would be legendary.

Quizquiz and Chalcochima advanced to Curahuasi. From there their spies reported that Huascar had left Cuzco and that the captains who were at Apurímac by Huascar’s orders had pulled back to join him at the Cotabamba bridge. Chalcochima ordered a captain with 500 warriors to leave Curahuasi and proceed by the Cotabamba road to find out whether Huascar was coming in search of him or waiting for him at Cotabamba. He then detached another captain with another 500 men and ordered 200 of them to serve permanently as sentinels one league from the main camp; the remaining 300 would perform the same duty at one-half league distance. Always careful to maintain their screening forces at set intervals before them, Chalcochima and Quizquiz then advanced from Curahuasi, taking the Cotabamba road to the right of the main route from Cajamarca to Cuzco in order to avoid the dangerous pass near the Apurímac bridge.

Huascar divided his army, 60,000 strong, into three sections. The first was comprised of the 30,000 levies from Cuntisuyu, Charcas, Collasuyu, Chuyes, and Chile under Arampa Yupanqui. He ordered them to march above Cotabamba, toward another neighboring province of the Omasuyus, so that they would push the enemy toward the Cotabamba River and the Apurímac bridge. The 25,000 men he had brought from Cuzco under Guanca Auqui were to move toward Cotabamba and take the enemy in the flank. Of the 5,000 men who remained, he assigned one half to one of his brothers, Topa Atao, and the other to one of his cousins, Inca Roca.

When Arampa Yupanqui learned that Atahualpa’s forces were traveling via a small valley or ravine that leads to Huánuco Pampa, he advanced to meet them and succeeded in isolating and routing one of Chalcochima’s divisions. The two armies then clashed in a general engagement, the battle lasting from morning until almost sunset. Casualties were severe on both sides, although, since they held the high ground, less on Huascar’s side than that of Chalcochima and Quizquiz. Many of the latter retreated to a great scrubland near Huánuco Pampa. Huascar had this set on fire, and a large portion of the enemy force was incinerated. Chalcochima and Quizquiz pulled the bulk of their army back across the bridge at Cotabamba to regroup.

Huascar then announced his intention to personally lead the unit of 5,000 men in advance of the rest of his army. “Since I will be ahead, the enemy will see that I have few men and when they see me thus, they will attack me with all their fury, thinking that I don’t have more men. They will abandon discipline in their attack and be scattered.” The signal for a general attack would come when Huascar removed the canopy of his litter. At that point, “you will all come together with good discipline and as quickly as you can. Thus we will attack our enemies and destroy them.”

Huascar then crossed the bridge at Cotabamba. Pushing forward through the night he first ambushed and overwhelmed Chalcochima’s captain with the 500-strong advance party, then the next detachment of 200 men. However, some of these escaped and were able to warn their captain, who was a half-league to the rear with his 300 men. Under cover of darkness he cautiously reconnoitered the oncoming force. When he heard a figure in a litter ask his bearers what time it was, and heard them answer, “Sole lord, it will soon be daylight,” he realized Huascar had come in person.

Chalcochima’s captain immediately pulled back to the main camp to spread the alarm. Chalcochima and Quizquiz roused their men and formed two squadrons, one of 6,000 picked men from Quito, the other of 100,000 men both from Quito and the newly subordinated provinces. The elite 6,000 men were ordered to put up a token resistance and then flee when Huascar arrived. Chalcochima instructed Quizquiz to take as many men as he needed and position himself to the rear. At the appropriate moment, he should come forward to reinforce the 6,000-strong vanguard, which would then turn on Huascar. Chalcochima would place himself with the rest of the army behind a nearby hill to then take Huascar in the flank.

Attempting to avoid any sentinels, Huascar and his men approached stealthily through ravines, clumps of weeds, and rock outcroppings. At one hour before dawn, Huascar arrived and fell on the 6,000 picked men, who were arrayed in the middle of the road pretending to be asleep. When Huascar attacked, they all arose and pretended to fight until breaking in feigned flight, as they had been ordered. Leading the pursuit, Huascar fell right into the trap. His men were cut down, and the sapa inca himself was captured, badly wounded. Huascar’s tunic, his gold halberd and helmet, his shield with its gold trappings, his feathers, and his insignias of rank, were all dispatched to Atahualpa, Chalcochima and Quizquiz wanting him to have the honor, as their lord, of treading upon the symbols of authority borne by his defeated rival.

The war was not yet won, for the bulk of Huascar’s army was still intact and unaware of his capture. Chalcochima hit upon the idea of using Huascar’s own ruse as a stratagem. He climbed aboard Huascar’s litter and ordered it be placed amid a detachment of 5,000 men, who would then advance, with the bulk of his forces led by Quizquiz following up behind them. When Huascar’s army saw him, they would think he was Huascar, being pursued by the army of their foes.

After marching for three leagues, Chalcochima and Quizquiz arrived at the field camp set up by Huascar’s captains. When they saw Chalcochima’s warriors approach, they recognized Huascar’s litter from its canopy. They marshaled their troops and awaited the signal to attack their enemies.

Chalcochima ordered Quizquiz’s warriors to halt and feign preparation for battle He then took up a position with his 5,000 men on the ridge of a high hill with slopes running both to Huascar’s troops and to his camp. Once there, he had the canopy lowered; Huascar’s captains immediately gave the order to attack.

When Huascar’s men had approached within six sling shots, Chalcochima ordered one of Huascar’s litter-bearers be released. This man promptly fled to Huascar’s captains and informed them their lord was now a prisoner of his foes. Huascar’s army promptly disintegrated, and Chalcochima and Quizquiz ordered a general assault, driving their routed foes back to the Cotabamba bridge. As this was narrow, many of Huascar’s men in their desperation threw themselves into the river and drowned. Chalcochima and Quizquiz then occupied Cuzco without resistance.

Having received word of this final victory Atahualpa now advanced from Cajamarca to the province of Guamachuco. From there he ordered Cuxi Yupanque to take command in Cuzco, with specific instructions: “You are to assemble all of the sons and daughters of my father, Huayna Capac. You must punish and kill all the males you find who know how to use a sling.” As for the females, all those “who have known a man” were also to be liquidated; those still virgins were to be brought to him, along with Huascar, his mother Ragua Ocllo, and his principal wife Chuquihuipa.

Cuxi Yupanque ordered poles be driven into the ground on both sides of the royal highway leading to Cuzco. From these he had Huascar’s sisters and wives, and their children, hanged. Any pregnant women were horribly killed. The sons of Huayna Capac were hanged from the same poles. One of the few to survive was Paullu Topa, who protested there was no reason for his execution because Chalcochima had just liberated him from prison, where he had been confined by Huascar for being a partisan of Atahualpa. In fact, he had been incarcerated because of an affair with one of Huascar’s wives (who had paid for her infidelity by being buried alive).

The purge, supplemented by expropriation of property, threatened to consume Cuzco and the surrounding suburbs. Those royal houses accused of aligning with Huascar, such as that of Topa Inca Yupanqui, were decimated, as were any subordinate peoples that had rejected Atahualpa’s claim, such as the Chachapoyas and Cañaris. Huascar was forced to watch all of this, including the execution of more than 80 of his sons and daughters, and his beloved sisters Coya Miro and Chimbo Cisa. And so the line and lineage of Huascar was rendered extinct.

Atahualpa remained in Guamachuco for another three months, staging great celebrations to commemorate his victories, and accepting the submission of the surrounding regional governors. He did intend to make his way to Cuzco to be formally invested as sapa inca and receive the imperial crown, the braided mascaipacha, in the Coricancha, the golden temple and house of the sun, in the tradition of all his predecessors. But as he was about to leave, messengers arrived from Tangarará on the coast to the northwest with ominous information: an alien people had landed on the shores of the Pacific Ocean (the Mama Cocha). They insisted on meeting the sapa inca, and no one could dissuade them or stop them. The stage was set for one of the most decisive first contacts between peoples in human history.


[1] A league roughly equates to 3 miles or 5km.