The Spaniards besieged far away in Cuzco at this same time had two urgent objectives. One was to attempt to advise their compatriots on the coast that they were still alive. The other was to strike boldly at the Inca’s headquarters in a bid to destroy the men who were directing the siege. A group of citizens persuaded Hernando Pizarro to send fifteen of his finest horsemen towards the coast, riding an unexpected route, southwards to the altiplano and then west through Arequipa. The fifteen included ‘the flower of the men’, dashing young horsemen such as Pedro Pizarro, Alonso de Mesa, Hernando de Aldana, Alonso de Toro and Tomás Vásquez. The selected men regarded the mission as certain suicide. Alonso Enríquez de Guzman thought that he was included because Hernando Pizarro had a personal grudge against him and wanted him killed. In the end, a delegation headed by the royal treasurer Riquelme persuaded Pizarro that the departure of these fine men would seriously weaken the city’s defences. Hernando wisely reversed the order and the fifteen were spared from annihilation by native ambush.
Hernando Pizarro now attempted to strike at the Inca himself. He had learned that Manco had moved from Calca to Ollantaytambo, a remoter stronghold some thirty miles downstream on the Vilcanota-Yucay-Urubamba river. Pizarro assembled all his best men: seventy horse, thirty foot and a large contingent of native auxiliaries. Gabriel de Rojas was left in Cuzco with the remaining weaker Spaniards. Hernando Pizarro marched his force down the Yucay with great difficulty, for the meandering river often ran against the steep rocky hills that enclose its valley. ‘It had to be crossed five or six times, and each ford was defended.’ The Spaniards finally reached Ollantaytambo after continuous fighting, but they were appalled when they came in sight of its massive pale grey wails. ‘When we reached Tambo we found it so well fortified that it was a horrifying sight.’
The great ruin still stands to this day with its superb Inca masonry almost completely intact. Below the citadel is the town of Ollantaytambo in the bed of a small tributary valley. It is one of the few surviving examples of Inca town planning, with the wall foundations and grid of streets intact. Each town block contained two plots with entrances on to the longitudinal streets, and the original Inca houses are still occupied. Even the Inca names of the blocks survive, as do the houses that once contained the acllas or chosen holy women. The town consisted of five terraced enclosures, all contained in a symmetrical trapezoidal outline, the same tapering quadrangular shape so beloved of Inca architects. The Patacancha stream runs towards the Vilcanota beside the town, and beyond it a great cliff juts out towards the main river. The prow of this hillside contained the fortress-temple of Ollantaytambo. Undulating granite terrace-walls encase the steep slope at the end of the spur, while the hillside overlooking the town is lined with a great flight of seventeen broad terraces. At the top are walled fortifications – a rarity in Inca architecture – and within this sanctuary a platform faced with seven vast monoliths of pale porphyry, each some eleven feet wide. From below, the entire hillside seems to be embellished with the regular rows of polygonal Inca masonry.
Hernando Pizarro’s men occupied the flat stretch of plain between the town and the Yucay river. Because Ollantaytambo lies close to the forested country of the upper Amazon basin, Manco had recruited archers from jungle tribes into his army. One of Pizarro’s troops described the bravery of these terrifying savages: ‘They do not know what is meant by flight – for they continue to fight with their arrows even when they are dying.’
The town was full of these archers, firing from every terrace, and so was the citadel. Across the stream were Inca slingers.’ The Indians were thus fighting them from three sides: some from the hillside, others from the far bank of the river, and the rest from the town…. The Inca was in the fortress itself with many well-armed warriors.’ ‘They amassed such a quantity of men against us that they could not crowd on to the hillsides and plains.’ A single flight of steps led up to the citadel. The gate at its foot had been sealed with a fieldstone wall through which an Indian could pass only on all fours. Two of the older conquistadores bravely rode their horses up against the walls of the town, but ‘it was amazing to see the arrows that rained down on them as they returned, and to hear the shouting’. Another group of horsemen tried to attack the terraces below the citadel. But the defenders ‘hurled down so many boulders and fired so many slingshots that, even had we been many more Spaniards than we were, we would all have been killed’. A missile broke the haunch of the leading horse, which rolled over, kicking, rearing and falling, and dispersed the horses trying to follow. Hernando Pizarro tried sending a party of foot-soldiers to seize the heights above the fortress, but the Europeans were driven back by a hail of rocks. As the Spaniards wavered, the natives attacked. They charged out on to the plain ‘with such a tremendous shout that it seemed as if the mountain was crashing down. So many men suddenly appeared on every side that every visible stretch of wall was covered in Indians. The enemy locked in a fierce struggle with [Pizarro’s men] – more savage than had ever been seen by either side.’ The natives had acquired many Spanish weapons and were learning to employ them effectively. ‘It was impressive to see some of them emerge ferociously with Castilian swords, bucklers and morrión helmets. There was one Indian who, armed in this manner, dared to attack a horse, priding himself on death from a lance to win fame as a hero. The Inca himself appeared among his men on horseback with a lance in his hand, keeping his army under control.’ The natives even attempted to use captured culverins and arquebuses for which powder had been prepared by Spanish prisoners. Manco now released his other secret weapon. Unobserved by the Spaniards, native engineers diverted the Patacancha river along prepared channels to flood the plain. The Spanish horsemen soon found themselves trying to manoeuvre in rising water that eventually reached the horses’ girths. ‘ The ground became so sodden that the horses could not skirmish.’ ‘Hernando Pizarro realised that it was impossible to take that town and ordered a retreat.’
Night fell, and the Spaniards tried to slide away under cover of darkness, leaving their tents pitched beneath Ollantaytambo. But the column of defeated horsemen was observed ‘and the Indians came down upon them with a great cry … grabbing the horses’ tails’. ‘They attacked us with great fury at a river crossing, carrying burning torches….There is one thing about these Indians: when they are victorious they are demons in pressing it home, but when they are fleeing they are like wet hens. Since they were now following up a victory, seeing us retire, they pursued with great spirit.’ The Indians had littered the road back with thorny agave spines which crippled the horses. But the Spaniards succeeded in riding out of the Yucay valley that night, and they fought their way back into Cuzco the following day. Titu Cusi said that the natives laughed heartily at the Spanish failure, and the Spaniards knew that native morale had been raised by the defeat of this powerful expedition. ‘The Inca was extremely sad that Hernando Pizarro had gone, for he was sure that had he delayed another day no single Spaniard would have escaped. In truth, anyone who saw the appearance of the fortress could have believed nothing else…. For … on such occasions, where horses cannot fight, the Indians are the most active people in the world.’
The Indians now provided an unexpected boost to the morale of the men besieged in Cuzco. The relief expeditions sent by Francisco Pizarro had been carrying a quantity of dispatches and letters. These were brought to Manco, who was going to burn them. But a cunning Spaniard who was a prisoner in the Inca’s camp suggested that the letters could be used more effectively: Manco should have them torn up and conveyed to the besieged to show the fate that had befallen their compatriots. A group of Indians therefore appeared on top of Carmenca hill on the morning of 8 September. Hernando Pizarro and other horsemen duly rode out to chase them into the hills. On their return they found that the Indians had left two sacks containing the dried heads of six Spaniards and the torn remnants of a thousand letters. Manco had failed to appreciate the importance of written communication. The arrival of these letters – even in this macabre manner – enormously heartened the besieged. They learned that the Spaniards still held Lima and were trying to relieve them. They also learned from one letter ‘ almost intact, from our Lady the Empress’ that Charles V had won a victory against the infidel in Tunis. Alonso Enriquez de Guzman received a personal letter from Francisco Pizarro, dated 4 May, in which the old Governor admitted that the Inca’s rebellion ‘has caused me much concern, both on account of the detriment … to the service of the Emperor, of the dangers in which you are placed, and of the trouble it will cause me in my old age’. The receipt of these letters put an end to any attempt to communicate with the coast. The Spaniards in Cuzco could only hope that their compatriots would survive the rebellion and would eventually relieve them.
Manco Inca, encouraged by the defeat of the Ollantaytambo mission, attempted to reassemble the army that had almost captured Cuzco four months earlier. The farmers who had returned to their villages were recalled for a fresh attempt on the city, before the start of the rainy season. The Spaniards were now living more normally in the ravaged city. They had mended the roofs of some houses, replacing the original thatch with less inflammable flat roofs of peat and wooden beams. At the height of the siege they had had their horses constantly saddled and bridled, and each man stood watch for one quarter every night. Now his guard duty was only on alternate nights, and the besieged knew that they need fear night attacks only during a full moon – the natives were occupied with religious ceremonies at the advent of each new moon.
The most acute problem for the besieged was food. ‘The greatest hardship endured by the Christians was incredible hunger, from which some died. For the Indians had, with great foresight, set fire to any buildings that contained supplies or stores.’ Hernando Pizarro was able to harvest some maize planted by the natives near Sacsahuana, a few miles north-west of Cuzco. Detachments of cavalry escorted the columns of native auxiliaries carrying the maize towards the city, and fought off Manco’s warriors who tried to intercept the operation. But this maize was not enough. It could be months before rescue arrived from the coast, and the Spaniards, unable to undertake intensive farming, needed immediate supplies to avoid starvation during this period. The Inca quipocamayos were interrogated by the Spanish authorities after the siege. They reported that some important native commanders passed to the Spanish side with large contingents of Indians. These included Pascac, Manco’s cousin and enemy, whom Hernando Pizarro praised as “captain-general of the Indians who were with me in the defence of Cuzco”. These traitors revealed that ‘Manco Inca’s men had brought over a thousand head of cattle, maize and other provisions’, and that this was delayed not far from Cuzco. Hernando Pizarro immediately sent Gabriel de Rojas with seventy horse to seize these llamas and to raid in the Canchas country along the Collao road. Pedro Pizarro wrote of this raid: ‘We went and remained there for some twenty-five or thirty days, rounded up almost two thousand head of cattle [llamas], and returned with them to Cuzco without having had any serious engagement.’ The capture of this food emboldened the besieged. Hernando at once sent another six-day raiding and punitive mission into the Condesuyo, south-west of Cuzco. It was intended to avenge the murders there of Simon Suárez and other encomenderos at the start of the rebellion. ‘But we could catch no one on whom to inflict punishment. So we collected some food and returned.’
These audacious raids saved the besieged from starvation. Although highly successful, they were a calculated risk and were very nearly disastrous. As soon as he learned that many of the best horsemen had left the city, Manco accelerated his mobilisation. The Spaniards left in Cuzco were anxious to learn about the natives’ movements. Gonzalo Pizarro was sent on a night reconnaissance to capture some prisoners who could be tortured for information. He led eighteen horse on to the plateau to the north of the city, and in the darkness passed, without knowing it, between two large contingents of Manco’s army. The Spaniards spent the night on their mission, divided into two small contingents under Gonzalo Pizarro and Alonso de Toro. When dawn came, they found themselves confronted by the enemy, Toro facing men from the northern part of the empire, and Pizarro a force of Manco’s own levies, the finest men in the Inca army. In a running battle, the Spanish cavalry soon found themselves trying to escape to Cuzco, but the natives for once had the advantage. They had Pizarro’s men exhausted. Valiant Indians succeeded in grabbing the tails of the horses while the riders tried to hack them off. The Spaniards were advancing only step by step through the crush of Indians, and were on the point of collapse. The situation was saved by native auxiliaries, some of whom had run back to the city to warn Hernando Pizarro of his brother’s desperate plight. Hernando rang the bells to summon the citizens, and rode out with every remaining horse in Cuzco: eight in all. These trotted and galloped for three or four miles before coming to the scene of the engagement. They dispersed the native troops in a thundering charge. Toro’s men rode up at the same time, and the Spaniards were able to make their way back to the city, exhausted and battered.
All agreed that this was the city’s darkest hour. In another day the natives would renew their attack and would find the defenders with little food, their horses wounded, and many of their effectives away in the Condesuyo. The Spaniards’ answer to this crisis was characteristic: they decided to take every horse capable of fighting and to attack the assembling native forces that very night. The attack was launched on Manco’s own contingent, the best of the native troops. It achieved complete surprise. Gonzalo Pizarro caught a mass of Indians crossing a plain between two mountains and massacred them in ‘ one of the most beautiful skirmishes that was ever seen’. His charge ended with the horsemen riding out into the lake of Chincheros spearing swimming natives like fish. Hernando Pizarro encountered the Inca’s guard of jungle archers and decimated them, despite arrow wounds to his own and other horses. The Spaniards had regained the initiative, and by demoralising Manco’s own troops they emasculated the native attack. To heighten their psychological victory, they again cut the hands off hundreds of prisoners in the square of Cuzco.
The siege had now reached stalemate. The defenders had enough food to survive the rainy season but were too weak to break out of their encirclement. Manco’s men had become convinced that they could not capture Cuzco by direct assault. They apparently hoped to trap the defenders during some sortie and ‘ they were waiting for the spring [of 1537] to assemble a more powerful army and complete the expulsion of the Spaniards’. But they had failed in the main purpose of the rebellion: the annihilation of the invaders in the Inca capital.
While events in the mountains had reached a temporary stalemate, the balance of power in Peru was being altered by the arrival of seaborne Spanish reinforcements. Pizarro’s first emissary had delayed for three months in assembling men and ships at Panama. The desperate Governor therefore sent Juan de Berrio in late September carrying letters of credit from himself and further appeals for assistance. The crusty old Francisco de Barrionuevo wrote to Spain from Panama that ‘ Berrio says that there are plenty of useless men in the city of Lima: some wounded, others fevered, others delicate and effeminate – but no men to go out against the Indians…. What’s needed are men who will suffer hardships and hunger! There are plenty of effeminates down there!’ More virile men began to reach Pizarro towards the end of 1536. Pizarro’s own men returned from the Ecuadorean coast, and Alonso de Alvarado rode in with eighty men of his Chachapoyas expedition. The other Spanish governors also began to respond. ‘Pedro de los Rios, brother of the Governor of Nicaragua, came in a large galleon with men, arms and horses.’ The great Hernán Cortés in Mexico sent ‘many weapons, shot, harnesses, trappings, silk cloth and a coat of marten fur in one of his ships under Rodrigo de Grijalva’. Licenciate Gaspar de Espinosa, Governor of Panama, sent men from Panama, Nombre de Dios and the Isthmus. In September the President of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo on the island of Española sent his brother Alonso de Fuenmayor with four ships containing a hundred cavalry and two hundred foot-soldiers.
When Pizarro’s second appeal reached the Caribbean in November, two more ships went from Española, and its President wrote that ‘the help from here now totals almost 400 [Spanish] men, 200 Spanish-speaking Negroes who are very good at fighting, and 300 horses’. But this proud force wasted three months trying to obtain ships on the Pacific, and did not reach Peru until the middle of the following year.* Juan de Berrio finally recruited four shiploads of men, but did not reach Peru until February 1537. Even the Spanish Crown responded to Pizarro’s appeals: in November the Queen sent Captain Peranzures with fifty arquebusiers and fifty crossbowmen. Manco Inca was trying to expel an invader supported by the resources of a huge empire: he could not hope to succeed against its united determination.