The death of Atahualpa, the last emperor of the Incas

In the late afternoon of 26 July 1533, Atahualpa, last true emperor of the Incas, was led out into the public square of Cajamarca a city in the Andean highlands, now in northern Peru. His conquistador captors, led by Francisco Pizarro, had just decided he must die.

During the nine months or so of his captivity, those Spanish who had dealings with the emperor were impressed with him. “Good looking… with a fine face, handsome and fierce,” one says, perhaps thinking of Atahualpa’s bloodshot eyes. They admired his dignity, his reason, his good humour. “They knew him to be a wise man.”

But there were rumours of an army coming to free him. It was said to be 200,000 strong, with 30,000 cannibals in tow. Pizarro had challenged the emperor. “You are always making jokes when you speak to me,” he replied. “What am I, and all my people, that we should trouble such valiant men as you are.” Pizarro, unsure, ordered he be chained by the neck. But still the Spanish were scared. Death it had to be.

The first plan was to burn him, as befitted a heretic, and he was tied to a stake. When he learned that he could avoid such a death by converting, Atahualpa submitted to baptism. He was strangled instead, and a part of his body and clothing burnt. The Spanish then left his body out in the square overnight for all to see.

It is said that Atahualpa wept when he realised he was about to die. One source, perhaps less plausibly, says that Pizarro, unable to spare the emperor’s life, wept too. Later, it was written that the emperor was sentenced following a full trial. It’s hard to discern anything like that in the eye-witness accounts. They speak more to fear and panic – and the pride of small men at the humbling of a greater one.

This piece first appeared in the July 2021 Months Past column in History Today.

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