The Great Inca Rebellion – The Siege of Cuzco II

Manco Inca and other 3 soldiers with Spanish weapons during the rebellion.

The beleaguered Spaniards now decided that their immediate survival depended on the recapture of the fortress on the cliff above them. According to Murua, Manco’s relative and rival Pascac, who had sided with the Spaniards, gave advice about the plan of attack. It was decided that Juan Pizarro would lead fifty horsemen – the greater part of the Spaniards’ cavalry-in a desperate attempt to break through the besiegers and attack their fortress. Observers from the Indian side remembered the scene as follows:’ They spent the whole of that night on their knees and with their hands clasped [in prayer] at their mouths – for many Indians saw them. Even those on guard in the square did the same, as did many Indians who were on their side and had accompanied them from Cajamarca. On the following morning, very early, they all emerged from the church [Suntur Huasi] and mounted their horses as if they were going to fight. They started to look from side to side. While they were looking about in this way, they suddenly put spurs to their horses and at full gallop, despite the enemy, broke through the opening which had been sealed like a wall, and charged off up the hillside at breakneck speed.’ They broke through the northern Chinchaysuyo contingent under the generals Curiatao and Pusca. Juan Pizarro’s horsemen then galloped up the Jauja road, climbing the hill through Carmenca. They somehow broke and fought their way through the native barricades. Pedro Pizarro was in that contingent and recalled the dangerous ride, zigzagging up the hillside. The Indians had mined the road with pits, and the Spaniards’ native auxiliaries had to fill these in with adobes while the horsemen waited under fire from the hillside. But the Spaniards eventually struggled up on to the plateau and rode off to the north-west. The natives thought that they were making a dash for freedom, and sent runners across country to order the destruction of the Apurímac suspension bridge. But at the village of Jicatica the horsemen left the road and wheeled to the right, fought through the gullies behind the hills of Queancalla and Zenca, and reached the level plain below the terraces of Sacsahuaman. Only by this broad flanking movement were the Spaniards able to avoid the mass of obstacles that the Indians had erected on the direct routes between the city and its fortress.

The Indians had also used the few weeks since the start of the siege to defend the level ‘parade ground’ beyond Sacsahuaman with an earth barrier that the Spaniards described as a barbican. Gonzalo Pizarro and Hernán Ponce de León led one troop in repeated attacks on these outer enclosures. Some of the horses were wounded, and two Spaniards were thrown from their mounts and almost captured in the maze of rocky outcrops. ‘It was a moment when much was at stake.’ Juan Pizarro therefore attacked with all his men in support of his brother. Together they succeeded in forcing the barricades and riding into the space before the massive terrace walls. Whenever the Spaniards approached these they were greeted by a withering fire of slingshots and javelins. One of Juan Pizarro’s pages was killed by a heavy stone. It was late afternoon, and the attackers were exhausted by the day’s fierce fighting. But Juan Pizarro attempted one last charge, a frontal attack on the main gate into the fortress. This gate was defended by side walls projecting on either side, and the natives had dug a defensive pit between them. The passage leading to the gate was crowded with Indians defending the entrance or attempting to retreat from the barbican into the main fortress.

Juan Pizarro had been struck on the jaw during the previous day’s fighting in Cuzco and was unable to wear his steel helmet. As he charged towards the gate in the setting sun, he was struck on the head by a stone hurled from the salient walls. It was a mortal blow. The Governor’s younger brother, corregidor of Cuzco and tormentor of Inca Manco, was carried down to Cuzco that night in great secrecy, to prevent the natives learning of their success. He lived long enough to dictate a will, on 16 May 1536, ‘being sick in body but sound of mind’. He made his younger brother Gonzalo heir to his vast fortune, in the hope that he would found an entail, and left bequests to religious foundations and to the poor in Panama and his birthplace Trujillo. He made no mention of the native siege, and left nothing to the Indian woman from whom ‘I have received services’ and ‘who has given birth to a girl whom I do not recognise as my daughter.’ Francisco de Pancorvo recalled that ‘they buried him by night so that the Indians should not know he was dead, for he was a very brave man and the Indians were very frightened of him. But although the death of Juan Pizarro was [supposed to be] a secret, the Indians used to say “Now that Juan Pizarro is dead” just as one would say “Now that the brave are dead”. And he was indeed dead.’ Alonso Enríquez de Guzman gave a more materialistic epitaph: ‘They killed our Captain Juan Pizarro, a brother of the Governor and a young man of twenty-five who possessed a fortune of 200,000 ducats.’

On the following day the natives counter-attacked repeatedly. Large numbers of warriors tried to dislodge Gonzalo Pizarro from the hillock opposite the terraces of Sacsahuaman. ‘There was terrible confusion. Everyone was shouting and they were all entangled together, fighting for the hilltop the Spaniards had won. It looked as though the whole world was up there grappling in close combat.’ Hernando Pizarro sent twelve of his remaining horsemen up to join the critical battle – to the dismay of the few Spaniards left in Cuzco. Manco Inca sent five thousand reinforcements, and ‘the Spaniards were in a very tight situation with their arrival, for the Indians were fresh and attacked with determination.’ Below ‘in the city, the Indians mounted such a fierce attack that the Spaniards thought themselves lost a thousand times’.

But the Spaniards were about to apply European methods of siege warfare: throughout the day they had been making scaling ladders. As night fell, Hernando Pizarro himself led an infantry force to the top of the hill. Using the scaling ladders in a night assault, the Spaniards succeeded in taking the mighty terrace walls of the fortress. The natives retreated into the complex of buildings and the three great towers.

There were two individual acts of great bravery during this final stage of the assault. On the Spanish side Hernán’Sánchez of Badajoz, one of the twelve brought up by Hernando Pizarro as additional reinforcements, performed feats of prodigious panache worthy of a silent-screen hero. He climbed one of the scaling ladders under a hail of stones which he parried with his buckler, and squeezed into a window of one of the buildings. He hurled himself at the Indians inside and sent them retreating up some stairs towards the roof. He now found himself at the foot of the highest tower. Fighting round its base he came upon a thick rope that had been left dangling from the top. Commending himself to God, he sheathed his sword and started clambering up, heaving up the rope with his hands and stepping off from the smooth Inca ashlars with his feet. Half way up the Indians threw a stone ‘as big as a wine jar’ down on him, but it simply glanced off the buckler he was wearing on his back. He threw himself into one of the higher levels of the tower, suddenly appearing in the midst of its startled defenders, showed himself to the other Spaniards and encouraged them to assault the other tower.

The battle for the terraces and buildings of Sacsahuaman was hard fought. ‘When dawn came, we spent the whole of that day and the next fighting the Indians who had retreated into the two tall towers. These could only be taken through thirst, when their water supply became exhausted.’ ‘They fought hard that day and throughout the night. When the following day dawned, the Indians on the inside began to weaken, for they had exhausted their entire store of stones and arrows.’ The native commanders, Paucar Huaman and the high priest Villac Umu, felt that there were too many defenders inside the citadel, whose supplies of food and water were rapidly being exhausted. ‘After dinner one evening, almost at the hour of vespers, they emerged from the fortress with great élan, attacked their enemies and broke through them. They rushed with their men down the slope towards Zapi and climbed to Carmenca.’ Escaping through the ravine of the Tullumayo, they hurried to Manco’s camp at Calca to plead for reinforcements. If the remaining two thousand defenders could hold Sacsahuaman, a native counter-attack might trap the Spaniards against its mighty walls.

Villac Umu left the defence of Sacsahuaman to an Inca noble, an orejón who had sworn to fight to the death against the Spaniards. This officer now rallied the defenders almost single-handed, performing feats of bravery ‘worthy of any Roman’. ‘The orejón strode about like a lion from side to side of the tower on its topmost level. He repulsed any Spaniards who tried to mount with scaling ladders. And he killed any Indians who tried to surrender. He smashed their heads with the battle-axe he was carrying and hurled them from the top of the tower.’ Alone of the defenders, he possessed European steel weapons that made him the match of the attackers in hand-to-hand fighting. ‘He carried a buckler on his arm, a sword in one hand and a battle-axe in the shield hand, and wore a Spanish morrión helmet on his head.’ ‘Whenever his men told him that a Spaniard was climbing up somewhere, he rushed upon him like a lion with the sword in his hand and the shield on his arm.’ ‘He received two arrow wounds but ignored them as if he had not been touched.’ Hernando Pizarro arranged for the towers to be attacked simultaneously by three or four scaling ladders. But he ordered that the brave orejón should be captured alive. The Spaniards pressed home their attack, assisted by large contingents of native auxiliaries. As Manco’s son wrote, ‘the battle was a bloody affair for both sides, because of the many natives who were supporting the Spaniards. Among these were two of my father’s brothers called Inquill and Huaspar with many of their followers, and many Chachapoyas and Cañari Indians.’ As the native resistance crumbled, the orejón hurled his weapons down on to the attackers in a frenzy of despair. He grabbed handfuls of earth, stuffed them into his mouth and scoured his face in anguish, then covered his head with his cloak and leaped to his death from the top of the fortress, in fulfilment of his pledge to the Inca.

‘With his death the remainder of the Indians gave way, so that Hernando Pizarro and all his men were able to enter. They put all those inside the fortress to the sword-there were 1,500 of them.’ Many others flung themselves from the walls. ‘Since these were high the men who fell first died. But some of those who fell later survived because they landed on top of a great heap of dead men.’ The mass of corpses lay unburied, a prey for vultures and giant condors. The coat of arms of the city of Cuzco, granted in 1540, had ‘an orle of eight condors, which are great birds like vultures that exist in the province of Peru, in memory of the fact that when the castle was taken these birds descended to eat the natives who had died in it’.

Hernando Pizarro immediately garrisoned Sacsahuaman with a force of fifty foot-soldiers supported by Cañari auxiliaries. Pots of water and food were hurried up from the city. The high priest Villac Umu returned with reinforcements, just too late to save the citadel. He counter-attacked vigorously, and the battle for Sacsahuaman continued fiercely for three more days, but the Spaniards were not dislodged, and the battle was won by the end of May.

Both sides appreciated that the recapture of Sacsahuaman could be a turning point in the siege. The natives now had no secure base from which to invest the city, and they abandoned some of the outlying districts they had occupied. When the counter-attack on Sacsahuaman failed, the Spaniards advanced out of the citadel and pursued the demoralised natives as far as Calca. Manco and his military commanders could not understand why their vast levies had failed to capture Cuzco. His son Titu Cusi imagined a dialogue between the Inca and his commanders. Manco:’ You have disappointed me. There were so many of you and so few of them, and yet they have eluded your grasp.’ To which the generals replied, ‘We are so ashamed that we dare not look you in the face…. We do not know the reason, except that it was our mistake not to have attacked in time and yours for not giving us permission to do so.’

The generals might possibly have been right. Manco’s insistence on waiting for the entire army to assemble meant that the Indians lost the element of surprise they had preserved so brilliantly during the early mobilisation. It also meant that the professional commanders could not attack while the Spaniards had sent much of their best cavalry to investigate the Yucay valley. The hordes of native militia did not necessarily add much to the effectiveness of the native army. But Manco had clearly felt that as long as his men suffered a terrible handicap in weapons, armour and mobility, their only hope of defeating the Spaniards was by weight of numbers. The heavy, determined fighting of the first month of the siege showed that the Spaniards had no monopoly of personal bravery. Once again, it was their crushing superiority in hand-to-hand fighting and the mobility of their horses that won the day. The only arms in which the natives had parity were projectiles – slingshots, arrows, javelins and bolas – and prepared defences such as breastworks, terraces, flooding and pits. But projectiles and defences rarely succeeded in killing an armoured Spaniard, and the siege of Cuzco was a fight to the death.

Manco could also be criticised for not directing the attack on Cuzco in person. He apparently remained at his headquarters at Calca throughout the critical first month of the siege. He was using his authority and energies to effect the almost impossible feat of a simultaneous uprising throughout Peru, together with the feeding and supply of an enormous army. But the Inca’s presence was needed at Cuzco. Although there were plenty of imposing fighting men in the various contingents, the army lacked the inspiration of a leader of the stature of Chalcuchima, Quisquis or Rumiñavi.

The fall of Sacsahuaman at the end of May was by no means the end of the siege. Manco’s great army remained in close investiture of the city for a further three months. The Spaniards soon learned that the native attacks ceased for religious celebrations at every new moon. They took full advantage of each lull to destroy roofless houses, fill in enemy pits, and repair their own defences. There was fighting throughout this period, with great bravery displayed on either side.

One episode will illustrate the typical daily skirmishes. Pedro Pizarro was on guard duty with two other horsemen on one of the large agricultural terraces at the edge of Cuzco. At midday his commander, Hernán Ponce de León, came out with food and asked Pedro Pizarro to undertake another tour of duty as he had no one else to send. Pizarro duly grabbed some mouthfuls of food and rode out to another terrace to join Diego Maldonado, Juan Clemente and Francisco de la Puente on guard.

While they were chatting together, some Indian warriors approached. Maldonado rode off after them. But he had failed to see some pits the natives had prepared, and his horse fell into one. Pedro Pizarro dashed off against the Indians, avoiding the pits, and gave Maldonado and his horse, both badly injured, a chance to return to Cuzco. The Indians re-appeared to taunt the three remaining horsemen. Pizarro suggested ‘Come on, let’s drive these Indians away and try to catch some of them. Their pits are now behind us.’ The three charged off. His two companions turned half way along the terrace, and returned to their post, but Pizarro galloped on ‘impetuously lancing Indians’. At the end of the terrace the natives had prepared small holes to catch the horses’ hooves. When he tried to wheel, Pizarro’s horse caught its leg and threw him. One Indian rushed up and started to lead off the horse, but Pizarro got to his feet, went after the man and killed him with a thrust through the chest. The horse bolted, running off to join the other Spaniards. Pizarro now defended himself with his shield and sword, holding off any Indians who drew near. His companions saw his riderless horse and hurried to help him. They charged through the Indians, ‘caught me between their horses, told me to grab the stirrups, and took off at full speed for some distance. But there were so many Indians crowding around that it was useless. Wearied from all my armour and from fighting, I could not go on running. I shouted to my companions to stop as I was being throttled. I preferred to die fighting than be choked to death. So I stopped and turned to fight the Indians, and the two on their horses did the same. We could not drive off the Indians, who had become very bold at the thought that they had taken me prisoner. They all gave a great shout from every side, which was their normal practice when they captured a Spaniard or a horse. Gabriel de Rojas, who was returning to his quarters with ten horsemen, heard this shout and looked in the direction of the disturbance and the fighting. He hurried there with his men, and I was saved by his arrival, although badly wounded by the stone and spear blows inflicted by the Indians. I and my horse were saved in this way, with the help of our Lord God who gave me strength to fight and to endure the strain.’

Gabriel de Rojas received an arrow wound in one of these skirmishes: it went through his nose as far as his palate. Garcia Martin had his eye knocked out by a stone. One Cisneros dismounted, and the Indians caught him and cut off his hands and feet. ‘I can bear witness’, wrote Alonso Enriquez de Guzman, ‘ that this was the most dreadful and cruel war in the world. For between Christians and Moors there is some fellow-feeling, and it is in the interests of both sides to spare those they take alive because of their ransoms. But in this Indian war there is no such feeling on either side. They give each other the cruellest deaths they can imagine.’ Cieza de Leon echoed this. The war was ‘fierce and horrible. Some Spaniards tell that a great many Indians were burned and impaled…. But God save us from the fury of the Indians, which is something to be feared when they can give vent to it!’ The natives had no monopoly of cruelty. Hernando Pizarro ordered his men to kill any women they caught during the fighting. The idea was to deprive the fighting men of the women who did so much to serve and carry for them. ‘This was done from then onwards, and the stratagem worked admirably and caused much terror. The Indians feared to lose their wives, and the latter feared to die.’ This war on the women was thought to have been one of the chief reasons for the slackening of the siege in August 1536. On one sortie Gonzalo Pizarro encountered a contingent from the Chinchaysuyo and captured two hundred of them. ‘The right hands were cut off all these men in the middle of the square. They were then released so that they would go off. This acted as a dreadful warning to the rest.’

Such tactics added to the demoralisation of Manco’s army. The vast majority of the horde that massed on the hills around Cuzco were ordinary Indian farmers with their wives and camp followers – with few exceptions a thoroughly militia army, most of whose men had received only the rudimentary arms drill that was part of the upbringing of every Inca subject. Only part of this rabble was militarily effective, although the entire mass had to be fed. By August the farmers began drifting away to sow their crops. Their departure added to the attrition of heavy losses in every battle against the Spaniards. Weight of numbers was Manco’s only effective strategy, so the reduction of his great army meant that further operations against Cuzco might have to wait until the following year. But Cuzco was only one theatre of the national uprising. In other areas the natives were far more successful.

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