Monday, December 27, 2010

December 27, 1530 – Pizarro’s Lost Expedition Leaves Panama

For hundreds of years, no one was quite certain what happened to the hundreds of men under the command of Francisco Pizarro y González. Pizarro seemed an apt commander and loyal Spaniard, but many theories have arisen about failures in battle, overwhelming armies of Punians, or the Spanish going native and joining the Inca’s court to deliver them with firearms and horses. After much contention, the truth has gradually been assembled by historians piecing together Spanish chronicles with legend recorded by the Incan Nation.

The initial biographical information about Pizarro is clear beyond his questioned birth date. A somewhat distant relative of Cortés, conqueror of the Aztecs, Pizarro sailed to the New World along with Governor Nicolás de Ovando and some 2,500 colonists. He traveled with Balboa on the explorer’s trek across Panama and was one of the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. His loyalty to Spain was displayed as Pizarro later arrested Balboa for his trial and execution. In good position with the government and spurred by stories of Cortés’ success conquering the Aztecs, Pizarro made company with the priest Hernando de Luque and the soldier Diego de Almagro to explore south and conquer the great wealth of an empire rumored to be there.

Their first expedition went out in 1524, but it quickly returned due to harsh weather, failing supplies, and battles with natives. 1526 saw another attempt, this one twice the size of the first and sailing much farther south. While Pizarro explored jungles, a ship sailed on past the equator and captured a native raft loaded with trade goods of pots, textiles, and, most importantly, gold and jewels. They explored further, but they found new hostilities in a land recently conquered by the Inca and decided to turn back. Pizarro stayed with thirteen men and awaited more provisions. A ship arrived to evacuate them, but Pizarro and his comrades pushed on in exploration, eventually coming across friendly natives at Tumbes and continued south. Finding irrefutable proof of the wealth of the empire to the south (as well as discovering llamas), the explorers returned to Panama to prepare for a third expedition.

The governor refused to allow it, so Pizarro sailed for Spain and returned with the Queen’s signature on the Capitulación de Toledo approving conquest. Pizarro left that December of 1530 and sent back further treasure to Almagro, who was gathering more recruits. Almagro would leave to join him, as would conquistador Hernando de Soto, the only man to return from the expedition. De Soto came back to Panama three years later, sunburned and sporting numerous battle scars, and told vague stories of the Inca attacking and overwhelming the conquistadors without provocation. Others assumed he escaped from a military defeat before reaching the Inca or leaving the expedition once it had changed allegiance to Atahualpa. While his word was debated, de Soto encouraged Spain not to waste human life by sending explorers south again.

From Incan records, it is told that the emperor Atahualpa, newly secured to the throne by defeating his brother Huascar, feared what white-skinned interlopers might do. He gathered survivors of the Battle of Puná and anyone with knowledge about the Spanish while Pizarro was away. Studying their tactics and the tales of conquest in the north, he determined that they were hardly demigods, clearly mortal though greatly powerful. When they appeared at his city of Cajamarca, Atahualpa invited them to feast and then killed the Spaniards in a great ambush, calling out, “My lands shall be no man’s tributary!” It is suspected that de Soto was sent back to Panama as a warning to the Spanish.

With conquest out of the question, the Spanish largely turned east and north, securing the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico as well as moving around Portuguese land in Brazil to Argentina. Trade with Europe would build with the Inca, first in secret as the smallpox plague swept through the empire and then marginally promoted by Atahualpa’s descendant Túpac. It is with Túpac that Francis Drake would make a treaty during his circumnavigation of the Earth in 1578. Trade blossomed, exchanging gold and exotic flora for weapons and manufactured goods, eventually turning the west coast of South America into an economic dependency under English influence as had been seen in parts of India and East Asia.

In reality, Atahualpa underestimated his opponents. Agreeing to an audience with Pizarro, Atahualpa was ambushed and captured. The Spanish demanded a roomful of gold and two rooms of silver as ransom and, receiving it, still had Atahualpa executed as murderer of his brother. Placing puppet-emperors upon the throne, Pizarro effectively conquered the Inca and added yet more land and riches to the growing Spanish Empire.

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