In 1532 Francisco Pizarro and 167 other Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru. Their goal was simple: find enough wealth to never have to work again. Obtaining gold and silver could help accomplish that, but so too could overthrowing an empire. Just how much gold did the Incas have?
It’s with that in mind that the Spanish landed in the territory of the Inca Empire. They had heard rumors of a vast and fabulously wealthy kingdom in South America, but no one truly knew just how big or wealthy the Incas really were. Pizarro visited a northern city of the empire (Tumbez) just 4 years before and seen how opulent it was. He had to investigate further.
Pizarro’s plan was simple: follow the blueprint of Hernan Cortes when he conquered the Aztec empire just years before. The Spanish would utilize their military superiority with cavalry, steel weapons and gunpowder as well as align with local natives that were subjugated by the ruling Inca.
Using information obtained from natives, Pizarro learned where the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, was located and began marching towards him. Capturing or killing the emperor would move them closer to their goals.
The Spaniards had arrived at the perfect time. The Incan empire was in a weakened state at this moment in history. Four years earlier one of its greatest rulers, Huayna Capac, had perished with countless others in a bout of disease (likely smallpox) brought by European travelers. In some areas, the disease may have killed up to 90% of the population.
This set off a dynastic struggle and a brutal civil war for control of the throne. Atahualpa had just won this struggle against his brother mere days before the Spaniards arrived. Atahualpa did not even have time to consolidate his power over the unified kingdom before confronting the Spanish.
How Much Gold did the Incas Have?
The two sides met in the town of Cajamarca. Atahualpa’s soldiers were camped on the hillside, numbering some 80,000 strong. The Spaniards took residence in the town square. Inviting the emperor into the city, Pizarro hoped to bottleneck the Inca forces and capture Atahualpa. Due to their superior numbers and unfamiliarity with European military technology and tactics, the Inca severely underestimated the Spanish.
The battle at Cajamarca was a slaughter, with the Spanish suffering no casualties, yet killing thousands of Incans and capturing Atahualpa. Seeing that the Spanish seemed interested in acquiring gold objects, the emperor famously negotiated his release in exchange for a “room full of gold”.
This room was about 17 feet wide, 22 feet long, and the height was about as high as Atahualpa could reach at 9 feet. Over the coming months, gold and silver from all over the empire flooded into Cajamarca fulfilling the terms of the deal.2
When it was all counted up, each horseman received 90 lbs of gold while each foot soldier received 45 lbs of gold. This was the cut after the king of Spain received 20% of the treasure, and Pizarro as the leader received much more than even the horseman.3
To put this in comparison, at the time a Spanish soldier could expect to be paid 0.5 lbs of gold for an entire year of service. To buy an entire caravel (ship), it would cost 4 lbs of gold. Simply put, each conquistador became fabulously wealthy from this one venture, and that’s not even counting the silver they also received.
Despite holding up his end of the deal, Pizarro and the Spaniards reneged on their promise of freedom and executed Atahualpa. The Inca empire never fully recovered though years of resistance remained.
1) Castro-Klarén, Sara. “‘May We Not Perish’: The Incas and Spain.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), vol. 4, no. 3, 1980, pp. 166–75. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40255983.
2) HAMMOND, MARY K. “ATAHUALPA: THE INCA.” Current History, vol. 26, no. 151, 1954, pp. 129–36. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45308609.
3) MacQuarrie, Kim. The Last Days of the Incas. 1st Simon & Schuster trade pbk ed. New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.