The Great Inca Rebellion – The Siege of Cuzco I

As always, the Spaniards’ first reaction to a disturbance with the Indians was to try to seize the initiative. Hernando sent his brother Juan with seventy cavalrymen – virtually every horse then in Cuzco – to disperse the Indians in the Yucay valley. While riding across the plateau of rolling grassy hills that separates the valley of Cuzco from that of Yucay, they met the two Spaniards who had been with Manco. These had been beguiled by him into leaving when he continued towards Lares, and they were now returning in all innocence to Cuzco, unaware of any native rebellion. The first sight of the magnitude of the opposition came when Pizarro’s men appeared at the brow of the plateau and looked down at the beautiful valley beneath them. This is one of the loveliest views in the Andes; the river below winds across the broad flat floor of the valley, whose rocky sides rise as abruptly as the fantastic scenery in the background of a sixteenth-century painting. The slopes are tightly contoured with neat lines of Inca terraces, and above them, in the distance, the snowy peaks of the Calca and Paucartambo hills shine brilliantly in the thin air. But now the valley was filled with native troops, Manco’s own levies from the area around Cuzco. The Spaniards had to fight their way across the river, swimming their horses. The Indians retreated on to the slopes and allowed the cavalry to occupy Calca, which they found full of a great treasure of gold, silver, native women and baggage. They occupied the town for three or four days, with the natives harassing the sentries at night but making no other attempt to drive them out. The reason for this was appreciated only when a horseman from Hernando Pizarro galloped in to recall the cavalry with all possible speed; for irresistible hordes of native troops were massing on all the hills around Cuzco itself. The cavalry force was harassed continuously on the return journey, but succeeded in entering the city, to the relief of the remaining citizens.

‘As we returned we found many squadrons of warriors continuously arriving and camping in the steepest places around Cuzco to await the assembly of all [their men]. After they had all arrived, they camped on the plain as well as on the hills. So many troops came there that they covered the fields. By day they looked like a black carpet covering everything for half a league around the city of Cuzco, and by night there were so many fires that it resembled nothing less than a very clear sky filled with stars.’ This was one of the great moments of the Inca empire. With their genius for organisation, Manco’s commanders had succeeded in assembling the country’s fighting men and in arming, feeding and marching them to the investiture of the capital. All this had been done despite the fact that the empire’s communications and supply depots were disrupted, and without giving any warning to’ the astute and suspicious foreigners occupying the land. All the Spaniards were taken by surprise by the mobilisation at their gates, and were staggered by its size. Their estimates of the numbers opposing them ranged from 50,000 to 400,000, but the accepted figure by the majority of chroniclers and eyewitnesses was between 100,000 and 200,000.

The great colourful steam-roller of native levies closed in from every horizon around Cuzco. Titu Cusi wrote with pride that ‘Curiatao, Coyllas, Taipi and many other commanders entered the city from the Carmenca side … and sealed the gate with their men. Huaman-Quilcana and Curi-Hualpa entered on the Condesuyo side from the direction of Cachicachi and closed a great gap of over half a league. All were excellently equipped and in battle array. Llicllic and many other commanders entered on the Collasuyo side with an immense contingent, the largest group that took part in the siege. Anta-Aclla, Ronpa Yupanqui and many others entered on the Antisuyo side to complete the encirclement of the Spaniards.’

The native build-up around Cuzco continued for some weeks after the return of Juan Pizarro’s cavalry. The warriors had learned to respect Spanish cavalry on level ground, and they kept to the slopes. The royal general Inquill was in charge of the encircling forces, assisted by the high priest Villac Umu and a young commander Paucar Huaman. Manco maintained his headquarters at Calca.

Villac Umu pressed for an immediate attack, but Manco told him to wait until every last contingent had arrived and the attacking forces had become irresistible. He explained that it would do the Spaniards no harm to suffer confinement just as he had done: he himself would come to finish them off in due course. Villac Umu was distressed by the delay, and even Manco’s son criticised his father for it. But Manco was applying Napoleon’s dictum that the art of generalship is to come to battle with a force vastly superior to the enemy’s. He thought that his warriors’ only hope against the Spanish cavalry lay in overwhelming numbers. Villac Umu had to content himself with occupying Cuzco’s citadel, Sacsahuaman, and with destroying the irrigation canals to flood the fields around the city.

The Spaniards inside Cuzco were suffering just as much anxiety as Manco had hoped. There were only 190 Spaniards in the city, and of these only eighty were mounted. The entire burden of the fighting fell on the cavalry, for the ‘greater part of the infantry were thin and debilitated men’. Both sides agreed that a Spanish infantryman was inferior to his native counterpart, who was far more nimble at this high altitude. Hernando Pizarro divided the horsemen into three contingents commanded by Gabriel de Rojas, Hernán Ponce de León and his brother Gonzalo. He himself was Lieutenant-Governor, his brother Juan was corregidor, and Alonso Riquelme, the royal treasurer, represented the Crown.

At the outset, while the native forces were still massing, the Spaniards tried their tactic of charging out into the thick of the enemy. This met with far less success than usual. Many Indians were killed, but the crush of fighting men stopped the onrush of the horses, and once the Indians saw that the cavalry was thoroughly embroiled they turned on it with savage determination. A group of eight horsemen fighting around Hernando Pizarro saw that it was being surrounded and decided to retreat to the city. One man, Francisco Mejia, who was then alcalde or mayor of the city, was too slow. The Indians ‘blocked his horse and grabbed at him and the horse. They dragged them about a stone’s throw away from the other Spaniards, and cut the heads off [Mejia] and off his horse, which was a very handsome white horse. The Indians thus emerged from this first engagement with a distinct gain.’

This success against cavalry on level ground greatly emboldened the attackers. They moved closer to the city until they were camped right up against the houses. In the tradition of intertribal warfare, they tried to demoralise the enemy by jeering and shouting abuse and by ‘raising their bare legs at them to show how they despised them’. Such skirmishes took place every day, with great courage shown on either side but no appreciable gains.

Finally on Saturday, 6 May, the feast of St John-ante-Portam-Latinam, Manco’s men launched their main attack. They moved down the slope from the fortress and advanced along the steep, narrow lanes between Colcampata and the main square. Many of these alleys still end in long flights of steps between whitewashed houses and form one of the most picturesque corners of modern Cuzco. ‘The Indians were supporting one another most effectively, thinking that it was all over. They charged through the streets with the greatest determination and fought hand-to-hand with the Spaniards.’ They even succeeded in capturing the ancient enclosure of Cora Cora which overlooked the northern corner of the square. Hernando Pizarro appreciated its importance and had fortified it with a palisade the day before the Indian onslaught. But his infantry garrison was driven out by a dawn attack.

If the horse was the Spaniards’ most effective weapon, the sling was undoubtedly the Indians’. Its normal missile was a smooth stone about the size of a hen’s egg, but Enriquez de Guzman claimed that ‘they can hurl a huge stone with enough force to kill a horse. Its effect is almost as great as [a shot from] an arquebus. I have seen a stone shot from a sling break a sword in two when it was held in a man’s hand thirty yards away.’ In the attack on Cuzco the natives devised a deadly new use for their slingshots. They made the stones red-hot in their camp fires, wrapped them in cotton and then shot them at the thatched roofs of the city. The straw caught fire and was burning fiercely before the Spaniards could even understand how it was being done. ‘There was a strong wind that day, and as the roofs of the houses were thatch it seemed at one moment as if the city were one great sheet of flame. The Indians were shouting loudly and there was such a dense cloud of smoke that the men could neither hear nor see one another…. They were being pressed so hard by the Indians that they could scarcely defend themselves or come to grips with the enemy.’ ‘They set fire to the whole of Cuzco simultaneously and it all burned in one day, for the roofs were thatch. The smoke was so dense that the Spaniards almost suffocated: it caused them great suffering. They would never have survived had not one side of the square contained no houses and no roofs. Had the smoke and heat come at them from all sides they would have been in extreme difficulty, for both were very intense.’ Thus ended the Inca capital: stripped for Atahualpa’s ransom, ransacked by Spanish looters, and now burned by its own people.

From the captured bastion of Cora Cora the Indian slingers kept up a withering fire across the square. No Spaniard dared venture on to it. The besieged were now cornered in two buildings facing each other at the eastern end of the square. One was the great galpón or hall of Suntur Huasi, on the site of the present cathedral, and the other was Hatun Cancha, ‘the large enclosure’, where many of the conquistadores had their plots. Hernando Pizarro was in charge of one of these structures and Hernán Ponce de León of the other. No one dared to move out of them. ‘The barrage of slingshot stones coming in through the gateways was so great that it seemed like dense hail, at a time when the heavens are hailing furiously.’ ‘The city continued to burn on that and the following day. The Indian warriors became confident at the thought that the Spaniards were no longer in a position to defend themselves.’

By extraordinary chance, the thatched roof of Suntur Huasi itself did not catch fire. An incendiary projectile landed on the roof. Pedro Pizarro said that he and many others saw this happen: the roof started to burn and then went out. Titu Cusi claimed that the Spaniards had Negroes stationed on the roof to extinguish the flames. But to other Spaniards it seemed a miracle, and by the end of the century it became established as such. The seventeenth-century writer Fernando Montesinos said that the Virgin Mary appeared in a blue cloak to extinguish the flames with white blankets, while St Michael was by her side fighting off devils. This miraculous scene became a favourite subject for religious paintings and alabaster groups, and a church called the Triunfo was built to commemorate this extraordinary escape.

The Spaniards were becoming desperate. Even Manco’s son Titu Cusi felt a touch of pity for these conquerors: ‘They secretly feared that those were to be the last days of their lives. They could see no hope of relief from any direction, and did not know what to do.’ ‘The Spaniards were extremely frightened, because there were so many Indians and so few of them.’ ‘After six days of this strenuous work and danger the enemy had captured almost all the city. The Spaniards now held only the main square and a few houses around it. Many ordinary people were showing signs of exhaustion. They advised Hernando Pizarro to abandon the city and look for some way to save their lives.’ There were frequent consultations among the weary defenders. There was desperate talk of trying to break the encirclement and reach the coast via Arequipa, to the south. Others thought that they should try to survive inside Hatun Cancha, which had only one entrance. But the leaders decided that the only thing to do was to fight back, and if necessary die fighting.

In the confused street fighting the natives were resourceful and ingenious. They evolved a series of tactics to contain and harass their terrible adversaries; but they could not produce a weapon that could kill a mounted, armoured Spanish horseman. Teams of Indians dug channels to divert Cuzco’s rivers into the fields around the city, so that the horses would slip and sink into the resulting mire. Other natives dug pits and small holes to trip the horses when they ventured on to the agricultural terraces. The besiegers consolidated their advance into the city by erecting barricades in the streets: wicker screens with small openings through which the nimble warriors could advance to attack. Hernando Pizarro decided that these must be destroyed. Pedro del Barco, Diego Méndez and Francisco de Villacastín led a detachment of Spanish infantry and fifty Cañari auxiliaries in a night attack on the barricades. Horsemen covered their flanks while they worked, but the natives maintained a steady barrage from the adjoining roofs.

The flat walls of Cuzco’s houses were exposed when the thatch was burned off in the first great conflagration. The natives found that they could run along the tops of the walls, out of reach of the horsemen charging below. Pedro Pizarro recalled an episode when Alonso de Toro was leading a group of horsemen up one of the streets towards the fortress. The natives opened fire with a bombardment of stones and adobe bricks. Some Spaniards were thrown from their horses and half buried in the rubble of a wall overturned by the natives. The Spaniards were only dragged out by some Indian auxiliaries.

With inventiveness born of desperation, the natives evolved another weapon against the Christians’ horses. This was the ayllu, or bolas: three stones tied to the ends of connected lengths of llama tendons. The twirling missile tangled itself around the horses’ legs with deadly effect. The natives brought down ‘most of the horses with this device, leaving almost no one to fight. They also entangled the riders with these cords.’ Spanish infantry had to run up to disengage the helpless cavalrymen, hacking the tough cords with great difficulty.

The besieged Spaniards survived the burning roofs, sling-shots, bolas and missiles of the Inca armies. They tried to counter each new native device. As well as destroying the street barricades, Spanish working parties smashed the flumes along which the natives were diverting the streams. Others tried to dismantle agricultural terraces so that the horses could ride up them, and they filled in the pits and traps dug by the attackers. They even began to recapture parts of the city. A force of Spanish infantry recaptured the redoubt of Cora Cora after a hard battle. In another engagement some cavalry fought its way under a hail of missiles to a square at the edge of the city, where another sharp fight took place.

The brunt of the Indian attacks came down the steep hillside below Sacsahuaman and on to the spur that forms the central part of Cuzco. Villac Umu and the other besieging generals had established their headquarters within the mighty fortress. Indians attacking from it could penetrate the heart of Cuzco without having to cross the dangerous level ground on other sides of the city. Hernando Pizarro and the besieged Spaniards deeply regretted their failure to garrison this fortress. They realised that as long as it remained in enemy hands their position in the roofless buildings of the city was untenable. They decided that Sacsahuaman must be recaptured at any cost.

Sacsahuaman – local guides have learned that they can earn a larger tip by calling it ‘saxy woman’ – lies immediately above Cuzco. But the cliff above Carmenca is so steep that the fortress needed only one curtain wall on the city side. Its main defences face away from Cuzco, beyond the brow of the cliff, where the ground slopes away to a small grassy plateau. On that side the top of the cliff is defended by three massive terrace walls. They rise above one another in forbidding grey steps, casing the hillside like the flanks of an armoured dreadnought. The three terraces are built in zigzags like the teeth of great saws, four hundred yards long, with no fewer than twenty-two salient and re-entrant angles on each level. Anyone trying to scale them would have to expose a flank to the defenders. The regular diagonal shadows thrown by these indentations add to the beauty of the terraces. But the feature that makes them so amazing is the quality of the masonry and the size of some of the blocks of stone. As with most Inca terrace walls, this is polygonal masonry: the great stones interlock in a complex and intriguing pattern. The three walls now rise for almost fifty feet, and excavations by the archaeologist Luis Valcárcel showed that ten feet more were once exposed. The largest boulders are on the lowest terrace. One great stone has a height of twenty-eight feet and is calculated to weigh 361 metric tons, which makes it one of the largest blocks ever incorporated into any structure. All this leaves an impression of masterful strength and serene invincibility. In their awe, the sixteenth-century chroniclers soon exhausted the mighty buildings of Spain with which to compare Sacsahuaman.

The ninth Inca, Pachacuti, started the fortress and his successors continued the work, recruiting the many thousands of men needed to manhandle the great stones into place. Sacsahuaman was intended to be more than a simple military fortress. Virtually the entire population of the unwalled city of Cuzco could have retreated within it during a crisis. At the time of Manco’s siege the crest of the hill behind the terrace walls was covered in buildings. Valcárcel’s excavations – made to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the Conquest – revealed the foundations of the chief structures within Sacsahuaman. These were dominated by three great towers. The first tower, called Muyu Marca, was described by Garcilaso as having been round and containing a water cistern fed by underground channels. The excavations confirmed this description: its foundations consisted of three concentric circles of wall of which the outer was seventy-five feet in diameter. The main tower, Salla Marca, stood on a rectangular base, sixty-five feet long. Pedro Sancho inspected this tower in 1534 and described it as consisting of five storeys stepped inwards. Such height would have made it the Incas’ tallest hollow structure, comparable to the so-called skyscrapers of the pre-Inca Yarivilca culture along the upper Maranon. It was built of coursed rectangular ashlars, and contained a warren of small chambers, the quarters of the garrison. Even the conscientious Sancho admitted that’ the fortress has too many rooms and towers for one person to visit them all’. He estimated that it could comfortably house a garrison of five thousand Spaniards. Garcilaso de la Vega remembered playing in the labyrinth of its corbelled subterranean galleries during his boyhood in Cuzco. He felt that the fortress of Sacsahuaman could rank among the wonders of the world – and suspected that the devil must have had a hand in its extraordinary construction.

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