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For Pizarro’s conquistadors, Peru was not a pushover. It took a long, bloody struggle, with the outcome often in doubt.

For the first time since he had become emperor, Manco was now in 1536 free to issue orders without the presence or control of the Spaniards. He began: “Let’s all join together and unite as one and send our messengers throughout the land so that in 20 days’ time everyone will arrive in this town, without the bearded ones knowing anything about it. I will send my captain, Quizo Yupanqui, to Lima, so that the day we attack the Spaniards here, he and his men will attack those [Francisco Pizarro and his men] who are there. And together, with [General Quizo] there and ourselves here, we will finish them off to the last man, and thus we will end this nightmare that has been hanging over us. I am determined to leave no Christian alive in all this land.”

In Cuzco, meanwhile, Hernando Pizarro had also called for a meeting. Hernando now finally admitted that Manco Inca had deceived him and was most likely organizing a rebellion. Reports had been coming in, Hernando told the assembled Spaniards, of large movements of native troops in the Yucay Valley, only 15 miles to the north. The renegade emperor was said now to be headquartered in the town of Calca, overseeing the gathering of native forces. Obviously, Hernando said, he had made an error in judgment in allowing Manco and Villac Umu to leave. Yet there was no time to waste in recriminations, for their very lives were in danger. The most important thing they needed to do was to try to disperse the gathering forces and, if possible, to recapture the emperor.

Wanting to find out if the reports of nearby troop movements were accurate, Hernando decided to send 70 cavalrymen, led by his 23-year-old brother, Juan, to ride to the town of Calca in the Yucay Valley. Juan’s orders were to scout the area, to search for and to try to recapture Manco Inca, and to disrupt any native forces they happened to find.

After a ride of a dozen miles, Juan and his men came to the edge of the plateau and looked out over the bluegreen Yucay (Vilcanota) River in the valley below. The Spaniards reined in their horses, looking down upon a scene they had often gazed at before, but now scarcely believing their eyes: The valley floor that was normally green had somehow turned a beige color— the color of Inca tunics. Masses of native soldiers had appeared seemingly from nowhere, gathering in the valley until they were so numerous that it looked like swarms of tiny toy soldiers had been poured out upon the ground. If there had been any question in the Spaniards’ minds that Manco Inca had indeed rebelled, the proof now lay directly before their eyes.

Juan Pizarro led his cavalry boldly down into the valley toward the town of Calca, which lay on the other side of the Yucay River. Hordes of Manco’s warriors stood yelling and taunting the Spaniards from the opposite bank, waving their axes and clubs and daring them to cross. The Spaniards splashed their horses into the river and began to swim against the frigid, snow-and-glacier-fed current. As the horses struggled across, a hail of stone missiles shot plumes of water into the air or slammed into the Spaniards’ armor.

Emerging on the opposite side, the Spaniards immediately spurred their mounts toward the sling throwers, who began running, the Spaniards spearing them with their lances or slicing at them with their swords. After a series of charges and feints, Juan broke off the attack and galloped with his men toward Calca, where they began a door-to-door search for Manco Inca. Frightened native women and children stood outside their homes as the Spaniards searched the dark interiors. Manco, however, had already escaped.

For the next three days, the Spaniards remained in Calca, debating what to do, while the Inca army maintained its position on the hillsides, taunting the Spaniards with insults. Given the warriors’ great numbers, the Spaniards were surprised that the natives didn’t attack.

Four days after their arrival, however, the Spaniards learned why no attack had occurred. A lone Spanish rider from Cuzco arrived in a great hurry and bearing a message from Hernando: Juan’s forces were to return to Cuzco with all speed. Massive numbers of native troops had suddenly appeared on the hillsides surrounding the capital. If Juan and his cavalry didn’t return at once, Hernando and his remaining Spaniards would be unable to hold the city. Juan lost no time gathering up his men and galloping out of town, and when the Spaniards reached the fortress of Saqsaywaman and caught their first glimpse of the round, bowl-like valley of Cuzco again, many of them no doubt swore out loud. On the hills around the city, countless native troops had appeared. So numerous were they, in fact, that there were scarcely any unencumbered paths back down into the capital.

The returning conquistadors made a dash down into the city, rejoining the relieved Spanish citizens they had left behind along with a mere 10 horses. Since Spaniards on foot were much less effective than were cavalrymen, Hernando and the 126 men who had remained in the capital would probably have been overwhelmed if Manco’s troops had attacked. Even with a total cavalry force of 86 horsemen, the odds against them were still enormous.

In the days that followed, the Spaniards watched with growing anxiety as more and more native troops continued to gather on the hills around them. Clearly, the Spaniards had been caught off guard by the immense size and scope of the rebellion. Indeed, neither the Spaniards nor their native spies had even been aware that a massive rebellion had been brewing. That Manco Inca wielded enormous and unsuspected powers was evident by the vast numbers of troops he had assembled in secret. A headcount revealed that the Spanish force trapped in Cuzco was comprised of 196 Spaniards. According to Pedro Pizarro, of the 110 Spanish foot soldiers, the “greater part [of the infantry] was thin and scrawny men.” The Spaniards also counted upon a handful of African and Morisco slaves, a number of native concubines and some 500 native allies from the Chachapoya and Cañari tribes.

As Manco Inca continued to build his forces, Hernando led several cavalry sorties into the hills surrounding the city, in order to probe the strength of Manco’s forces. Each time, however, the Spaniards were met by a virtual blizzard of stones, flung from slings by an enemy that showed increasing confidence and whose sheer numbers severely hampered the cavalry’s movements. During one of their sorties, Hernando and a group of eight horsemen suddenly found themselves cut off and surrounded, pressed in on all sides by legions of emboldened warriors. As Hernando and the others tried to force a breach in the enemy’s ranks, one of the men, Francisco Mejía, suddenly found himself surrounded by a sea of clubs and grasping hands. Swinging his sword in desperation, Mejía struggled to remain in his saddle, but “[they] pulled him off his horse with their hands,” wrote one of the survivors, “and a stone’s throw away from the Spaniards, they cut off his head and also the head of his horse, which was white and very beautiful.” The rest of the Spaniards managed to force an opening in the warriors’ ranks and galloped back down to the city.

As Manco busied himself with coordinating the logistics of war, Villac Umu urged the young emperor to attack Cuzco immediately. Manco, however, did not want to attack until every last possible contingent had been assembled. Manco had, after all, fought with Spanish troops against General Quisquis’s army; thus he was well aware of the devastating effects of the Spaniards’ weaponry and cavalry. Following the classic Inca military principle of attacking one’s enemies with overwhelming force, Manco was determined to make his assault on the capital so overwhelming that neither the Spaniards’ horses nor their superior weapons would be able to save them. Once the Spanish forces in Cuzco had been wiped out, Manco would take control of central Peru. He could then attack and smash Francisco Pizarro’s forces in Lima, which would break the backbone of the Spanish military occupation of Peru.

As the weeks continued, Manco gradually assembled a force of between 100,000 and 200,000 warriors—a stupendous feat of logistical organization. Soldiers in the Inca Empire were, after all, only temporary warriors—they were normally farmers or herders who were conscripted for martial duties. Most warriors were married men between the ages of 25 and 50 and were assembled from their native provinces in units of 10, 100, and 1,000.

Each native group carried weapons appropriate to their overall military function. Formations of jungle archers, sling throwers or javelin hurlers, for example—each capable of striking the enemy from a distance—normally marched in front of the phalanxes of club-and-axewielding Inca shock troops.

Wrote Father Bernabé Cobo:

Their principal weapon…[is] a sling…with which they can hurl a big stone that will kill a horse and sometimes even its rider….In truth, its effect is almost equal to that of a harquebus. I have seen a stone hurled from a sling break an old sword in two pieces, which was held in a man’s hand some 30 yards away.

As native troops continued to arrive and reinforce the Incas’ siege of Cuzco, the individual formations on the hillsides grew to such an extent that soon the troops were camping right on the city’s outskirts. Day and night, the warriors kept up a deafening roar, shouting taunts and insults in their various languages. The sound barrage was the equivalent of a modern psyops campaign and had the same purpose: to keep the Spaniards off balance, unnerved and afraid.

Finally, on what the Spaniards called Saturday, May 6, 1536, Manco Inca launched his all-out attack. As natives blew on single-note conch shells and clay trumpets, legions of javelin hurlers, sling throwers and jungle archers unleashed a violent barrage of stones, javelins and arrows upon the city below. Spaniards caught outside on the streets ran for cover. Legions of native shock troops, meanwhile, began to move slowly in unison down the hillsides, penetrating into the city and heading toward the capital’s central square.

Manco’s native infantry marched in close formation, carrying an assortment of 3-foot-long clubs, battle-axes and shields and all the while keeping up a deafening roar. Native military officers traveled with them, carried aloft in resplendent litters. Most of the warriors wore wicker helmets adorned with exotic plumes of scarlet, yellow, green and cobalt-blue bird feathers. Similar native legions had carved out and conquered the Incas’ 2,500-mile-long empire. Now their descendants—having lost control of the very valley from which the Inca juggernaut had exploded—marched with the determination of crushing the invaders who had so disturbed the equilibrium of their land. Manco’s strategy was a simple one: first, force the Spaniards toward the center of the city, shrinking the area that the Spaniards currently occupied; then overwhelm and crush them with their vastly superior forces.

With natives from every direction now entering the city, the conquistadors suddenly found themselves caught in the center of a rapidly tightening noose. The barrage of arrows and missiles had already forced the Spaniards into hiding. On the hillside just above the city, native troops seized and occupied the fortress of Saqsaywaman, along with its supply rooms of weapons. From here, Villac Umu and his commanders would oversee the battle and would send messages to Manco Inca in Calca, some two hours away by chaski runner.

Under a withering hail of stones and other projectiles, the Spaniards who had been caught elsewhere in the city retreated to the main square, which was lined with the Inca palaces the Spaniards had seized and occupied some two years earlier. If the Incas’ strategy was to encircle, squeeze, and then crush their adversaries, the Spaniards’ strategy was to hold on to two massive stone buildings—Suntur Huasi and Hatun Cancha.

Taking charge of one of the buildings, Hernando Pizarro placed the other under the command of Hernán Ponce de León. So fierce was the native bombardment directed at them that the frightened Spaniards were now unable even to venture out from either building. Within the dim interiors, many now kneeled and prayed while, outside, rocks continued to thud fiercely against the streets, walls and roofs. “There were so many slingshot stones coming in through the entryways of the doors,” remembered one survivor, “that it seemed like a dense hail at a time when the heavens are hailing furiously.” Before Hernando Pizarro could even decide between being trapped in the two buildings and clubbed like guinea pigs or trying to make a run for it, a new and even more frightening problem suddenly reared its head: the roofs of many of the houses in the city had now abruptly begun to burst into flames.

Manco Inca and his war council had decided to set fire to the city, hoping to smoke the Spaniards out of their hiding places or else to burn them to death. Manco’s warriors had presumably lit a number of fires on the city’s outskirts and had then laid sling stones upon them, waiting patiently until the stones had turned the color of rubies. The warriors wrapped the glowing stones in flammable cotton, loaded them into slings, then fired the hot stones at the city. Jungle archers also let loose volley after volley of fire-tipped arrows. It wasn’t long before tendrils of smoke began to curl downward from the ceiling of Hatun Cancha, where the Spaniards were trapped. As those inside gazed up in horror, all realized that their own rooftop had now caught on fire.

Wrote Cristóbal de Molina: “There was so much smoke that the Spaniards almost choked to death. They suffered greatly because…the smoke and heat…were so intense.

Various sources now describe what happened next. According to some Spaniards, while the rest of Cuzco burned, the flames on the roof of Hatun Cancha mysteriously went out. Apparently, the Spaniards owed their temporary reprieve to African slaves they had stationed on the roof. Despite the arrows and the unceasing hail of hot sling stones, the Africans had been able to put out the fire.

Hernando Pizarro decided that he and his men had no other choice but to counterattack.

“It seemed to them that it would be better to go out than to perish there,” wrote Cieza de León, “and as dense and continuous as the hail of rocks was, they suddenly came out together with their Indian friends, and they went charging into their enemies in the lower streets, destroying their entrenchment.”

As flaming roofs began to collapse and crash throughout the city, native warriors were now able to run along the tops of the newly exposed walls, thus gaining the advantage of height over the Spaniards and also allowing the natives to protect themselves from cavalry charges. Other warriors fought on foot in the narrow alleyways, swinging their battle-axes and mace clubs and slinging stones at the Spanish foot soldiers, at the Spaniards’ native allies and slaves, and at the metal-clad demons on horses. “The Indians were supporting one another so well,” wrote one eyewitness, “that they charged through the streets with the greatest determination and fought hand-to-hand with the Spaniards.”

All day, as smoke poured from the city, the battle raged fiercely; only with the greatest difficulty, in fact, were the Spaniards able to prevent the tiny portion of Cuzco that they presently held from being overrun.

As the seemingly endless day drew to a close, however, the Spaniards were granted a slight reprieve: The Incas were reluctant to fight at night. Thus, as the sun god, Inti, finally began to sink behind the hills, the natives gradually ceased their attack. Manco’s warriors seemed content to consolidate their advance into the city by building barricades across the streets and alleys they had captured.

The next day, soon after dawn, a great roar went up from the hundreds of thousands of native warriors on the hillsides as well as from the blasts of countless conch shells and clay trumpets. Once again, hordes of native troops descended upon the city, filling the streets and marching toward the main square, where they expected the Spaniards to make their final stand. In and around that same square, the Spanish cavalry and foot soldiers waited, along with their African slaves and their native auxiliaries. Manco’s warriors ran along the tops of the house walls, hurling javelins and slinging stones down at their enemies. In the narrow streets below, the two opposing forces met and grappled with each other in fierce and mortal combat.

With their military options severely reduced, the Spaniards relied upon a simple strategy: Their three cavalry units repeatedly charged the native warriors to disrupt their attacks. It was better, all agreed, to meet one’s end fighting on the open square or upon the narrow streets than to be caught cowering in one of their bunkers and be burned or clubbed to death. Thus the Spaniards also fought savagely, butchering native after native and leaving them on the ground in pools of blood and gore. Amid the cramped streets, however, choked as they now were with barricades, dead bodies, and with Manco’s attacking troops, maneuverability for the cavalry had become difficult. The force of the cavalry was soon even further blunted by a number of native innovations.

When 23-year-old Alonso de Toro led a cavalry charge down one of Cuzco’s narrow streets, for example—which even in the best of circumstances were only wide enough for two horses to ride abreast—a group of Manco’s warriors suddenly pushed a high wall over on top of Toro and his men. Knocked from their horses and stunned by the impact, Toro and his companions would have been annihilated if their own native auxiliaries had not now rushed forward, fought off their attackers, and pulled the Spaniards to safety.

Meanwhile, on the hillsides around the city, Manco’s troops had been implementing additional strategies to neutralize the Spaniards’ powerful horses. On the flat agricultural terraces the Incas called andenes, native warriors now dug pits in the ground to prevent a cavalry charge. Others disrupted the aqueducts leading into the city, flooding the flatlands above the rim of the valley and making it impossible for horses to gallop on the marshy ground. Within Cuzco, Manco’s troops continued building more wicker barricades to block off entire streets.

Manco’s warriors now unleashed another weapon, one previously used only when hunting deer and other large game. Wrote one of the siege’s survivors:

They have many offensive weapons… [such as] lances, arrows, clubs, axes, halberds, darts and slings and another type of weapon that they call ayllus, which are made from three round stones placed and sewn up in leather bags and attached to a cord…a yard long….They throw these at the horses and [thus] bind their legs together, and sometimes they will hit the rider and will bind a man’s arms to his body. These Indians are so good at this that they can bring down a deer in the countryside.

The Spaniards soon began calling the Incas’ strange weapon bolas, or “balls.”

All day in Cuzco the fighting continued, again with hundreds of native warriors being slaughtered due to the Spaniards’ better armor, horses and weaponry. Nevertheless, Manco’s warriors continued pressing forward, seemingly undaunted. Piles of dead bodies littered the streets of what had once been a glorious Inca capital but that had now been transformed into a smoking, burned-out shell.

That night—exhausted, wounded and desperate—the Spaniards were nevertheless ready with a new plan. They decided to mount a night assault on the Saqsaywaman fortress. The Spaniards knew that Manco’s troops would never expect such an attack. Thus, despite the day’s fierce fighting, the Spaniards had been able to supervise the building of assault ladders, probably by their native auxiliaries. Under the cover of darkness, Hernando Pizarro and many Spanish soldiers from the city now secretly climbed the steep hill to join those above. Quietly, the Spaniards and their auxiliaries began carrying their assault ladders across the plain, seeking the darkest sections of the walls against which to attack.

Pulling themselves onto the top of the first wall, the Spaniards attacked the first startled sentries before the natives understood how the armored invaders had miraculously appeared in their midst. The Spaniards quickly gained the terrace alongside the top of the first wall. Their native auxiliaries climbed up after them, pulling the ladders up from behind. Soon, an alert was sounded and stones began to pelt down, the conquistadors nevertheless throwing their ladders up against the next giant wall and climbing up.

Caught by surprise, Manco’s troops were soon forced to abandon the two lower terraces but rallied on top of the third. Directly behind rose the complex of buildings and the three towers that loomed overhead in the night. With only a single wall remaining, the defenders had no other choice than to make a final stand. According to one of the attacking Spaniards:

I am able to certify that it…[was] the most fearful and cruel war in the world, for between the Christians and Moors there is some mercy, and those whom they take alive can take some consolation because of the ever-present interest in ransoms. But here among these Indians there is neither love nor reason, nor fear of God…and they kill us as cruelly as they can.

Throughout the long night, the two sides grappled, and when dawn broke, the Spaniards and Manco’s troops were still locked together in a desperate embrace, neither side having slept now for a day and a night. Despite the Spaniards’ best efforts, the native defenders still held the three towers and most of the buildings while the Spaniards and their native auxiliaries held the terraced walls below. Villac Umu, and his general, Paucar Huaman, continued to direct the defenders from deep within the complex.

Saqsaywaman had one glaring weakness, however: It had no source of water. Further, the piles of stones, darts and arrows that had once filled its storessshouses were now beginning to run low. “They fought hard that day and throughout the night,” remembered one eyewitness. “When the following day dawned, the Indians on the inside began to weaken, for they had exhausted their entire store of stones and arrows.” With the situation beginning to deteriorate, Villac Umu and his general decided that there was not enough water and weapons to supply his defenders. Placing a sub-commander in charge, the high priest ordered the defenders to break through the Spaniards’ ranks, thus allowing him and General Paucar Huaman to escape. Making their way to Calca, the two leaders urged Manco to send additional troops, hoping that with a fresh counterattack the Spaniards could be routed and destroyed.

Hernando Pizarro now ordered that the scaling ladders be set against all three towers and that his men storm them simultaneously. With the native defenders out of weapons, their heroic commander dead and Spaniards clambering into all three towers, the rout soon became a slaughter. Countless natives, rather than face death at the hands of the Spaniards, chose instead to leap from the high walls and towers.

As was usual in the lopsided battles between natives and Spaniards, thousands died on the Inca side while the Spaniards suffered relatively few losses. Thus far in Manco’s rebellion, the mortality score had risen to perhaps 2,000 to 4,000 dead native troops versus roughly 35 dead Spaniards, two African slaves and an unknown number of dead auxiliaries. That lopsided ratio, however—and indeed nearly three years of almost uninterrupted Spanish victories—was soon to change.


All text excerpted from The Last Days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie. Copyright ©2007 by Kim MacQuarrie. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, New York. $30.

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.