In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conquest of Peru

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Monographs
  • Biographies
  • Indigenous Perspectives
  • The Conquest of Colombia

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Latin American Studies Conquest of Peru
Kris Lane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0007


On 16 November 1532, the Inca emperor Atahuallpa (or Atawallpa) received 168 Spanish visitors and at least one indigenous interpreter in the highland city of Cajamarca, in today’s northern Peru. At the head of the Spanish contingent, which included sixty-two men on horseback, was Francisco Pizarro, a 54-year-old veteran Indies hand who had been searching for a South American empire for nearly a decade. Pizarro was joined by several younger half-brothers, all natives of the Extremaduran city of Trujillo, and a priest named Vicente de Valverde. According to eyewitness sources, Valverde and the interpreter, baptized Felipe, presented Atahuallpa with a breviary, which he examined but discarded. At this, the priest called upon his fellow Spaniards to attack the emperor and his unarmed followers. Francisco Pizarro led the charge, making certain that Atahuallpa was captured alive. Hundreds, if not thousands, of his soldiers, were cut down, shot, or crushed against the stone walls that enclosed them. Atahuallpa was held prisoner for nearly a year while his subjects collected a huge ransom in gold and silver. Despite its delivery, Pizarro ordered the Sapa Inca, or “unique emperor,” throttled in July 1533. Thus began the fabled conquest of Peru. It would rumble on in what are today Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, along with northern Chile and Argentina, for another three years, although a rump Inca state emerged in the hot lowlands north of Cusco that survived until 1572. The conquest of New Granada, today’s Colombia and part of Venezuela—but then part of Spanish “Peru”—was separately accomplished between 1537 and 1539, led by the Andalusian lawyer Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada. The Mapuche peoples of central Chile fell to Pedro de Valdivia and his followers in the 1540s, only to rise up in rebellion in the 1550s, a rebellion they sustained for much of the colonial period. Dozens of other unconquered peoples survived for centuries in forest and swamplands all over the Andes region, but the bulk of South America’s native population, the ten or twelve million former subjects of the Incas, were under Spanish domination within a few years of Atahuallpa’s capture in 1532.

General Overviews

Historians have long been fascinated by the fall of the Inca state of Tawantinsuyu, a vast land of legendary mineral treasure, colossal stone structures, and roads and bridges connecting impossibly steep landscapes. They have also remained puzzled by the relative speed and ease of the Spanish conquest of both Inca Peru and Muisca New Granada (roughly today’s northern Colombia). How did these great civilizations fall so quickly to such a small number of foreign attackers? In English, the first comprehensive narrative account of the conquest of the Incas based on primary sources, including many manuscripts housed in Spanish archives, was written by the Boston Brahmin William Hickling Prescott. This work, History of the Conquest of Peru (Prescott 1847), was a huge success, following quick on the heels of the author’s best-selling History of the Conquest of Mexico. Both remain in print, and both still win the respect of professional historians, including Peruvian and Spanish ones. A more recent and more pro-indigenous narrative that draws directly from Spanish eyewitness accounts is Hemming 1970. An earlier account based on similar sources by the anthropologist Philip Ainsworth Means runs to the Great Andean Revolt of 1780 (see Means 1932). Other works on the conquistadors have followed in the Prescott vein, minus the archival rigor; see, for example, Macquarrie 2007 and Wood 2002. For a more Inca-oriented narrative, see D’Altroy 2002, which traces Tawantinsuyu’s rise and fall. A useful general history of the colonial Andes that places the conquest in perspective is Andrien 2001, and a superb analytical approach to the Spanish conquest generally is Restall 2003. Livi-Bacci 2008 stresses the demographic catastrophe caused by the unwitting introduction of epidemic diseases.

  • Andrien, Kenneth J. Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture, and Consciousness under Spanish Rule, 1532–1825. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

    A superb synthesis of scholarship on the core Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia that places the conquest in context.

  • D’Altroy, Terence N. The Incas. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    The best concise overview of the Inca rise and fall by a veteran archaeologist, with concluding chapters on the conquest.

  • Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Incas. London: Macmillan, 1970.

    A gripping narrative account of the principal conquest wars that, like Prescott’s classic, draws mostly from published Spanish chronicles.

  • Livi-Bacci, Massimo. Conquest: The Destruction of the American Indios. Translated by Carl Ipsen. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2008.

    A summary of this Italian demographer’s work on population decline throughout the Americas, including the Andes and other parts of Spanish Peru.

  • Macquarrie, Kim. The Last Days of the Incas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

    A popular treatment of the Inca fall by a veteran filmmaker and explorer, with good coverage of the Hiram Bingham story.

  • Means, Philip Ainsworth. The Fall of the Inca Empire and the Spanish Rule in Peru, 1530–1780. New York: Scribner, 1932.

    A resilient narrative of the conquest of the Incas and its long aftermath by a long-term specialist who also translated several Spanish conquest chronicles.

  • Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of Peru. New York: Harper, 1847.

    Based on Prescott’s reading of the chroniclers in comparison with hundreds of original documents, Prescott’s follow-up to the 1843 History of the Conquest of Mexico was an instant bestseller, and it has remained the most popular account of these events.

  • Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A bold reassessment of the Spanish conquests of Mexico, Central America, and Peru in light of new evidence on indigenous participation, disease epidemics, communication difficulties, and other factors.

  • Wood, Michael. Conquistadors. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

    A handsome volume accompanied by a four-part documentary retracing the conquistadors’ steps. Two sections treat Spanish Peru.

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