c. 1475 – 1541
Exploration Ranking 3rd of 26
Pizarro and “The Famous Thirteen," the men who stayed with him. 1935 stamp from Peru.
Following in the footsteps of Hernán Cortés was a second cousin, Francisco Pizarro. Cortés’ mother was a Pizarro. In 1533, Pizarro destroyed the Inca Empire which had controlled present-day Peru and Ecuador, the northern half of Chile, and part of Bolivia. The fact that its population was considerably larger than all the rest of South America combined demonstrates the magnitude of Pizarro’s conquest. He established Spanish rule and founded the city of Lima, Peru in 1535. The result is that the Spanish language, culture and Catholic religion were imposed on the whole region. In addition, after the fall of the Inca Empire, no other part of South America had any chance of successfully resisting European conquest. The end result is the Spanish language, culture and Catholic religion remained dominant throughout most of South America. Today about 69 percent (255 million) of South Americans are Catholic.(1)
In 1513, Pizarro accompanied Vasco Balboa in his crossing of the Isthmus of Panama and they became the first Europeans to view the Pacific coast of the New World. By 1519, Pizarro was appointed mayor and magistrate of the then recently founded Panama City.
In 1524, he made his first expedition for the conquest of Peru. However, because of bad weather, lack of food, and skirmishes with hostile natives, his party only made it as far as Columbia before turning back. Pizarro tried again in 1526, leaving Panama with two ships, 160 men and several horses. After exploring for a year, the new governor of Panama, Pedro de los Rios ordered Pizarro’s expedition back to Panama. The governor sent two ships to bring Pizarro and his men back. When the governor’s men arrived, Pizarro refused to return, as did thirteen others, and the rest went back. Soon after the ships left, the thirteen men and Pizarro constructed a crude boat and traveled 9 miles north to La Isla Gorgona, where they would remain for seven months before the arrival of new provisions.
Pizarro then continued south to Peru and gathered enough evidence to convince him that great riches lay with the Incas. He was determined to return but the Governor of Panama refused to provide the necessary ships and equipment. In the spring of 1528, Pizarro sailed back to Spain to appeal to King Charles I for the necessary ships and provisions for a third expedition. The King was impressed by his tales of rich new lands, and Pizarro returned to the New World with a Royal Commission to establish a new Spanish colony with himself as its governor.
Pigs came to Peru with Pizarro in 1531, and pork was the first European meat to be sold in any quantity in the Lima meat market.(2) There was little competition from other European meats for some years. Pizarro was the first European to see the potato in its original environment, Peru. Although the Spaniards could never have guessed it, potatoes were to be Peru’s greatest legacy to the world.(3) Potatoes grow in Peru in a profusion of varieties and colors. It has been calculated that the world’s annual potato harvest is worth many times the value of all the treasures and precious metals taken from the Inca empire by its conquerors.(4)
Pizarro’s conquest of Peru began in 1532 and the first horses arrived with him.(5) He fought several critical battles; in the second, he took the Inca leader, Atahualpa, captive. A year later, with indigenous troops, he invaded the capital, Cusco, and sealed the conquest of Peru.
(1) Michael Paulson, “Latin America is Losing Its Catholic Identity,” New York Times, November 13, 2014.
(2) Alfred W. Crosby Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 30th Anniversary Edition (Westport, 2003), p. 79.
(3) John Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas (London, 1983), p. 59.
(4) Ibid., p. 59.
(5) Crosby, p. 83.
1. History of the Conquest of Peru by William Hickling Prescott, 1847.
2. The Conquest of the Incas, by John Hemming, 2003.