A golden sun mask depicting Inca sun god, Inti

How Spain’s lust for gold doomed the Inca Empire

Obsessed with a treasure city, conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa. To spare his life, the emperor offered up the largest cache of gold the Spanish ever acquired in the Americas.

Golden God

Inca artisans used their exquisite metalworking skills to create breathtaking works of art, like this golden mask of Inti, the sun god. The mask can be seen today at the National Museum, Quito, Ecuador.
Album/AKG-Images/Fototeca Gilardi

When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain from his first voyage to the Americas, he brought news of a people adorned with gold. It sparked a Spanish gold rush, which would run like a glittering seam through the whole history of Spain’s exploration and conquest of the Americas. But reality often belied the wild imaginings of the Spanish conquistadores. 

Hernán Cortés, having overthrown Aztec Mexico, seized a cache of gold, silver, and precious stones valued at two billion pesos. Expectations soared for what the rest of Americas could hold, but then suddenly sources of Mexican gold and silver seemed to dry up until the Viceroyalty of New Spain, established in 1535 to govern the lands Spain conquered in the Americas. The Spanish then sought new territory for mining.

Even before the arrival of Cortés, the search for gold was directed south, to the equatorial regions that according to some legends of the time were believed to be especially rich in gold. News reached the Spanish explorers in what came to be known as Tierra Firme, the coastal region including the Isthmus of Panama and northern Colombia and Venezuela, that gold had been found. They diverted their expeditions to the towns mentioned but did not find the treasure they had been dreaming of. In one gold hunt to the Darién Gap, near the border of modern-day Colombia and Panama, the Spaniards were met not with gold but by local residents who attacked them with deadly poisoned arrows.

In 1513 Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered what he called the Mar del Sur, the South Sea (the Pacific Ocean), which opened up a new route for exploration. Balboa had an encouraging experience traveling along the southern coast of the isthmus. When he made peace with a town in the area, the curaca or chief gave him small pieces of gold. By the time he returned to Santa María, Balboa had collected more than 2,000 pesos worth of gold. 

Subsequent forays along the same coast, between 1515 and 1517, secured more than 30,000 pesos of gold. The precious metal was also found in expeditions in the Bay of San Miguel and to the west on the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama. The Spaniards believed they were back on track in their hunt for unlimited golden treasure.

(Archaeologists search for answers to the lost Inca gold of Atahualpa.)

On the trail to Birú

As they made their way along the South Sea coast, Spanish expeditions encountered local people who told them that an opulent kingdom lay to the south. The idea of reaching it piqued their curiosity, but it wasn’t until 1523, when Pascual de Andagoya led an expedition along the southern coast of Panama, that they actually arrived. The rich kingdom they had been told about was called Birú, in the west of what is now Colombia. 

When Andagoya returned to Panama, news of his exciting discovery reached a veteran conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, who by then was enjoying a comfortable colonial life.Pizarro owned several mines and oversaw two encomiendas in Panama where indigenous people labored as part of a colonial tribute system. In return, he gave them nominal security and taught them about Christianity; although not considered slavery in the strictest definition, historians consider it a system of forced labor. But Pizarro had not yet satisfied his ambition and did not hesitate to leave Panama so he could embark on a new conquest that promised such a glittering prize.

In November 1524, Pizarro set out in search of the kingdom of Birú with 112 Spaniards and a group of indigenous people (historians still debate their exact identity) from what is now Nicaragua. The first phase of exploration, along the South Sea coast, lasted several years. By the time they reached Isla Gallo (today part of Colombia) in 1527, many members of Pizarro’s expedition were disillusioned. Birú and its fabled riches had not materialized, and scores of men had died along the way. Most of those who survived mutinied and returned to Panama. Pizarro was forced to continue with just 13 men.

The “famous 13” (los trece de la fama) reached the great city of Tumbes, in modern-day Peru, in 1528. They then continued along the coast, where they came upon other impressive native cities. Pizarro was convinced he had indeed reached the kingdom that the indigenous people of the Panamanian coast had described. He decided to return to Panama, inform the authorities, and ask for reinforcements to help colonize the territories.

Having still not received the support he’d hoped for, Pizarro traveled to Spain in spring 1528. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Spain’s King Charles I), endorsed the colonization project. After signing an agreement with Isabella of Portugal, Charles’s wife, Pizarro returned to Panama to launch a campaign, not just of exploration, but of conquest.

On January 31, 1531, Pizarro and 180 men set out along the north coast of what is now Ecuador. When they reached Tumbes, the city that Pizarro already knew, they saw that it had been destroyed. Its inhabitants had fled. One man who remained pleaded for his house not to be looted. 

Through the Tumbic interpreters, he explained that he knew of a large and densely populated city with large houses, covered in gold. It was Cusco, the capital of Tahuantinsuyu, the kingdom of the Inca, which Andagoya had called Birú. Spurred on by the man’s story, Pizarro immediately ordered that they resume their search for Birú.

(These remote Inca ruins rival Machu Picchu.)

Atahualpa, ruler of the Inca

The Inca emperor Atahualpa received warning that Spanish invaders were on their way. Because there were so few Spanish and Atahualpa commanded an army of 5,000, the Inca did not seem to consider the Europeans a serious threat. Atahualpa boldly invited Pizarro’s men to Cajamarca, but he’d made a serious miscalculation. The conquistadores exploited local conflicts to recruit allies from among Atahualpa’s enemies. Together, on November 16, 1532, this alliance managed to take Atahualpa prisoner. According to chronicler Agustín de Zárate, Pizarro attributed the victory to divine intervention: “I give thanks to our Lord God, and all of you gentlemen should do the same, for this great miracle He has granted us today.” 

That same day, Pizarro took Atahualpa to his estate and invited him to dinner. The Inca emperor was given his own quarters and allowed to move around freely there, although a soldier stood guard outside. Atahualpa knew that Pizarro had recruited troops from among his enemies, including backers of his brother Huáscar, who had fought him for the throne of Tahuantinsuyu and lost. Atahualpa had imprisoned his brother and knew how his supporters sought vengeance. Things did not bode well for the Inca leader.

Fearing for his life, the next morning Atahualpa made a proposal to Pizarro that appealed to the conquistador’s greed. Atahualpa promised that within 40 days he would amass so much gold that it would fill the room the size of the one he was being held in, and twice that volume in silver. Some historians have estimated that the space could have been as big as 2,900 square feet. The gold would be heaped to the height of a man with his arms stretched above his head. A line was drawn to record this promise.

If Pizarro would only spare the Inca emperor’s life, all the treasure would be his. Pizarro accepted, a scribe witnessed the agreement, and Atahualpa began sending out emissaries to bring back the promised treasure. Soon the gold and silver began to flood in. In addition to jewelry and small decorative items, the treasure included pitchers, pots, and other vessels, some large enough to be worth 50,000 or 60,000 pesos. 

After 40 days, the treasure pile did not been reach the lines. The soldiers believed that Atahualpa had tricked them and began to turn against him, demanding he should die. When Atahualpa found out, he explained to Pizarro that the gold and silver was taking time to arrive because it had to be brought long distances across the empire from Pachacamac, Cusco, and Quito. He urged Pizarro to send some of his own men to verify that the treasures were on their way. So Pizarro sent his brother Hernando to Pachacamac and several of his captains to Cusco.

(Explore Inca life beyond Machu Picchu on this South American trail.)

On May 23, 1533, one of the captains arrived back from Cusco with news that descriptions of the city had not been exaggerated and that it was, indeed, teeming with treasure: They had found two houses plated with gold. According to the Spanish chronicle of events, which is biased toward the conquistadores, the captain explained that his two companions were moving all the gold plating, along with another load of gold that the curaca of Jauja had delivered. 

The treasure was being transported on stretchers, each carried on the shoulders of four Incas. The weight of this gold was said to be so great that it would take a month to arrive all the way from Cusco. Meanwhile, Hernando Pizarro was heading back from Pachacamac with 27 loads of gold and 2,000 silver marks.

Dividing the spoils

The Spaniards and their allies in Inca lands had reason to feel pleased with themselves: After all, they now had a huge stash of treasure. But they also knew that Atahualpa’s generals were preparing a great army to liberate the Inca. On April 14, they were relieved to see the arrival of Diego de Almagro, a close friend of Pizarro’s and later credited as the first European to set foot in what is now Chile. He was accompanied by a large group of reinforcements recruited from what is now Panama and Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, although the rooms were still filling with gold and silver, the levels were still not high enough. The atmosphere became more fraught daily. The Spaniards knew that if Atahualpa’s general Quisquis led his army against them, they would have little chance of survival. According to López de Caravantes, who kept accounts for the Spaniards, Pizarro’s men demanded their portion of the treasure. Meanwhile, the men who had just arrived with Almagro thought they merited a share, too, though they had no part in overthrowing Atahualpa.

Finally, Pizarro decided to honor the demands of his own men so he could get on with the march toward Cusco. On June 17, he ordered all the gold and silver collected to be melted down, weighed, and shared, which was carried out with scrupulous attention to the rules of Castilian warfare.

(Centuries-old Inca offering discovered in sacred lake.)

First, 20 percent of the total (more than 264,000 pesos) had to be set aside as royal tribute (quinto real) for the Spanish king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The remaining 80 percent was distributed among the 168 men who had participated in the capture of Atahualpa. The largest share (2,350 silver marks and 31,800 gold pesos) was assigned to “the Governor [Pizarro] for his standing, languages and horses.” Hernando de Soto received 624 silver marks and 17,700 gold pesos; Juan Pizarro, 407 silver marks and 11,100 gold pesos; Gonzalo Pizarro, 384 silver marks and 9,909 gold pesos; Martín de Alcántara (Pizarro’s half brother), 135 silver marks and 3,330 gold pesos; and the translator Martín Pizarro, 135 silver marks and 2,330 gold pesos. Some estimates of the weight of the 22.5-carat gold total more than 13,000 pounds. At a time when a conquistador infantryman’s annual pay might have been half a pound of gold, he then received 44 pounds; a cavalryman received 90 pounds.

Almagro and his men saw little of this bounty and had to make do with 20,000 pesos that did not even cover their expenses. To soothe their resentment and offer some recompense, two years later Pizarro helped Almagro organize an expedition to what is today Chile, which was rumored to hold great riches. But all the Almagro expedition met with there was starvation, which caused an irreparable break between the two former friends.

Fate of the treasure

On July 17, 1533, the scribe Pedro Sancho de la Hoz recorded the total amount of gold that had been melted down as “one million, three hundred and twenty-six thousand, five hundred and thirty nine pesos of fine gold” (roughly more than $387 million today). The next day, Pizarro issued a proclamation to the sound of trumpets from Cajamarca’s main square: Atahualpa had fulfilled his part of the agreement, but would remain a prisoner, as a security measure.

A few days later, the Spaniards received news that Quisquis was approaching Cajamarca with 50,000 Inca warriors. Pizarro and his men decided that Atahualpa’s death would increase their own chances of survival. They put the Inca leader on trial, convicted him, and sentenced him to death. Atahualpa was executed on July 26, 1533.

(Meet Peru’s first women porters.)

For a while, Cajamarca became the Spanish promised land. With Atahualpa’s treasure distributed among the conquistadores, there was gold and silver in abundance. Imported goods commanded outrageously high prices, with payments made in gold. Francisco de Jerez, Pizarro’s chronicler, recorded that a horse was worth 3,500 pesos, a jar of wine 40 pesos (the same as a pair of stockings), and a cape 100 pesos. The conquistadores settled their debts easily, handing over gold without even bothering to weigh it. Some returned to Spain to start a new life with the help of their newly acquired Peruvian riches, but most stayed on, using the gold to build houses and create businesses in the new cities.

A man with elongated ears mimics Inca nobles whose earrings stretched their lobes in this 15th-16th centuries figurine.
A man with elongated ears mimics Inca nobles whose earrings stretched their lobes in this 15th-16th centuries figurine.

Hernando Pizarro was to deliver the quinto real, Emperor Charles V’s 20 percent, in person. He assembled more than 100,000 pesos, gold jewelry and gold pieces valued at 164,411 pesos, plus 5,048 silver marks and sailed for Seville, arriving in January 1534. The workers of the Casa de Contratación (the department that dealt with the Spanish crown’s trade with its American imperial holdings) spent a day unloading and stacking them onto carts to be moved to the royal coffers at the rear of the Royal Alcázar.

For days, the people of Seville went to gawk at the Inca treasure. Among the gold bars and silver pieces were several large ornate objects: a golden seat, and the golden statue of a child, perhaps the god Inti of the rising sun. Spain valued them  only for their gold and melted them down after a month. Charles V used a large chunk to pay off his debts to German bankers, and the rest to fight Süleyman the Magnificent in Turkey. So the greatest treasure ever amassed was extracted from one ruler to pay for another’s war on a distant shore.

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