The Conquistador

Francisco Pizarro (d. 1541)

Francisco Pizarro (d. 1541)

No one is quite sure when the great conquistador Francisco Pizarro was born. As he was a bastard, no one noted such niceties. He was raised to be a soldier—and he was a good one. But he was also illiterate, because no one took care that he learn to read and write, or to act the part of a gentleman. So he grew up a litle on the wild side, a man of great talents and a great destiny. With a handful of men, he destroyed an empire.

On this Columbus Day—a holiday which we are growing ever more abashed about celebrating without twinges of guilt—it is interesting to note the career of this man, who took on the mighty Inca empire, killed Atahuallpa, its leader, and sent vast treasures of gold and silver to his monarch across the Atlantic.

Pizarro founded cities, most especially Lima, enslaved the native Incas, acted at times with condign cruelty, and at other times with lightness and gentility. But, in the end, all was thrown into chaos by a partnership that failed. At the outset, he formed a compact with his fellow conquistador (and fellow bastard) Diego de Almagro. It was Pizarro, however, who seemed to get all the credit for the conquest from Charles V in Spain, who only belatedly recognized the one-eyed Almagro for his role in the conquest. In the meantime, envy had taken control; and Almagro wrested Cuzco from his partner. Francisco Pizarro’s brother Hernando defeated the rebel at Las Salinas, after which he had him tried, convicted, and executed by garroting.

The brief civil war did not have a clear victor, as, within three years, Francisco Pizarro, was assassinated by remnants of the Almagro faction in Lima. Finally, the Spanish had to step in to restore order.

In his magisterial History of the Conquest of Peru, William H. Prescott waxes lyrical about all the might-have-beens in the late conquistador’s life:

Nor can we fairly omit to notice, in extenuation of his errors, the circumstances of his early life; for, like Almagro, he was the son of sin and sorrow, early cast upon the world to seek his fortunes as he might. In his young and tender age he was to take the impression of those into whose society he was thrown. And when was it the lot of the needy outcast to fall into that of the wise and virtuous? His lot was cast among the licentious inmates of a camp, the school of rapine, whose only law was the sword, and who looked upon the wretched Indian as their rightful spoil.

Who does not shudder at the thought of what his own fate might have been, trained in such a school? The amount of crime does not necessarily show the criminality of the agent. History, indeed, is concerned with the former, that it may be recorded as a warning to mankind; but it is He alone who knoweth the heart, the strength of the temptation, and the means of resisting it, that can determine the measure of the guilt.

Contrast Pizarro with Cortés, who knew how to read and write and who was able to protect his own place in history with his writings after the conquest of the Aztecs. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that in neither Mexico or Peru are there any monuments to the conquistadores who secured those lands for Spain.