The Death of Francisco Pizarro and the Birth of Spanish Political Identity

On Sunday, June 26, 1541, Francisco Pizarro, 70-year-old governor of the Spanish colony of Peru, died on the floor of his home, minutes after learning that a group of 20 armed men had arrived to murder him. [1] The intruders had come to avenge the murder of their leader--Pizarro's old partner--Diego de Almagro, who Pizarro's brother had recently captured and executed during a brief colonial civil war. As 19th-century writer Sir Arthur Helps told the story in his The Spanish Conquest In America, the men entered Pizarro's house, encountering no opposition, and made their way to an upstairs dining hall, where Pizarro sat with some guests for lunch. Rumors of an assassination plot were circulating and might have been the reason Pizarro did not attend mass that day, but he seemed otherwise little concerned. When Pizarro's servants informed him of the armed party's approach, he, two guests, and two pages quickly grabbed some weapons and took position in a nearby room. The confusion that followed ended quickly with Pizarro's death from a throat wound and repeated bludgeoning. [2] Shortly thereafter, the assassins forced the Cuzco city council to proclaim Diego de Almagro's son Peru's new governor. [3]

In an immediate sense, the assassination of Francisco Pizarro was the result of over ten years of building events. By the late 1520s, Pizarro and Almagro had already enjoyed some success as military conquerors--conquistadors--in the New World. On his own, Pizarro had taken part in minor conflicts in Panama, was a founding citizen of Panama City, and had become fairly prosperous through his status as an encomendero--a royal title that granted him control of any land in the New World he conquered, as well as authority to conscript a labor force to service that land. Together, Pizarro and Almagro had enjoyed their first successful military campaigns against the Incan empire of South America. One fateful success was the capture of an Incan raft carrying a large collection of valuables, including numerous items of gold and silver. After gaining this evidence of riches in the Incas' possession, Pizarro returned to Spain to ask for a license from the King Charles I to venture further into the largely unknown Inca lands. Along with the license, he received the title of governor of Peru. Almagro ended up with the less significant title of governor of Tumbez. [4]

When the Spanish Crown gave Pizarro and Almagro these titles, it was important for two reasons. First, it was the first occasion where Almagro got a much smaller reward than Pizarro. Two years later, after the conquistadors had captured the Inca king Atahualpa, Pizarro’s associate suffered a further insult. Almagro was away on a mission for reinforcements when Atahualpa tried to buy his freedom by paying Pizarro a massive ransom in gold and silver. When Almagro finally returned with reinforcements, most of Atahualpa's riches had been divided amongst Pizarro and his soldiers, leaving little for Almagro. [5]

The second reason involves the dispute that arose between Pizarro and Almagro over which of the two had rightful authority over the conquered Inca capital city of Cuzco. In an attempt to ease Almagro's resentment over his smaller share of the spoils, Pizarro put him in charge of a new campaign of conquest, southward into the lands of modern Chile. Rather than finding riches to plunder, however, Almagro encountered only the hardships of perilous travel through the Andes mountains. Returning north, desperate for compensation for his troubles, Almagro claimed Cuzco as part of his royally appointed territory. This was not entirely unjustified because the Spanish Crown granted both men titles of governor but had been vague about how they were to divide their conquered regions amongst themselves. When the town council of Cuzco decided to defer his claim to arbiters back in Spain, however, Almagro simply used his army's superior numbers to take the city by force. [6]

In 1538, after a number of failed attempts at negotiation over the fate of Cuzco, Pizarro sent an army under his brother Hernando's command to bring the city under his control. In the ensuing battle, the Pizarro forces soundly defeated Almagro's and took Almagro himself prisoner. Almagro's life in his hands, Hernando Pizarro made the fateful decision to execute his brother's rival. The crime led to 23 years of imprisonment in Spain. Three years after Almagro's death, amid continued resentment between impoverished residents and Pizarro's governing forces, twenty armed men finally converged on Pizarro's home and took their revenge. [7]

In a broader sense, Francisco Pizarro’s death resulted from centuries of previous developments. Understanding Pizarro's death in this way is essential to answering an essential question these events raise: What made it possible for such violence to exist, in a land so full of foreign threats, between these people who were supposed to be countrymen? The very fact that violence exploded between Pizarro and Almagro confirms not a loss of shared national affiliation, but, ironically, a faithful continuation of it. From my research, I have found the Spanish political identity to be one that fostered contention rather than cooperation, one that saw political office as a commodity--a ticket to privilege and prestige--rather than a civic responsibility.

In his Political History of Latin America, historian Ronald Glassman contends that the modern Spanish political identity grew directly out of Christian attempts to regain possession of the Iberian Peninsula from Islamic control. This period of warfare, called the Reconquista, began in the early 8th century CE and continued intermittently until the Christians' final victory in 1492. [8] It was nearly 800 years of struggle, time enough for the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula to build shared traditions of cultural and political behavior cooperating against a common enemy.

The principle force guiding the Iberian conquest were the Visigoth overlords, whose lands the North African Muslims had conquered, and who had escaped with other Iberian groups into the Pyrenees Mountains. [9] There, the Visigoths assembled orders of knights who would become the military commanders of the Reconquista. The knights' elected king granted the first encomiendas, decrees bestowing on the recipient the title of encomendero. With an encomienda, the reward to the recipient knight for conquering Muslim land was the unqualified control of those lands, including the authority to enslave captured Muslims to service those lands and the right to keep any riches the knights plundered.

Glassman is quick to say that, unlike other parts of Medieval Europe, no true feudal system arose out of this process. First, instead of a feudal king-vassal relationship--where there is a reciprocal guarantee of security between both parties--a system arose where "the vassal was covered only by the privileges (fueros) granted by the prince." At the time of the Reconquista, the Christian king did not have the resources to provide military security for his vassals' lands. The granting of privileges was the only assistance he could give. [10] Second, Glassman points out that, "a unified, orderly, stable military protective system in the countryside never emerged." [11] The Muslim society that dominated the peninsula for eight centuries was urban-based, concerned with trade, while the countryside was left largely unattended, with only the smallest apparatus in place to collect rural tribute. This basic anarchy continued after the return of Christian control of the peninsula, leaving the urban centers isolated, essentially islands in a sea of banditry, to the point where regional trade dropped off significantly and "private knightly empires, including the cities and their incorporated surrounding areas, began acting as separate nations." [12]

Rather than a feudal system, what emerged in Spain was what Glassman terms a "semi-feudal" system, marked by the lack of a reciprocal relationship between the regional overlords and the king, as well as the physical separation of overlords on account of a persistently chaotic countryside. The most telling result of this situation, returning to the death of Francisco Pizarro, was the warfare that inevitably occurred between these regional overlords. The nature of such warfare was not in the feudal tradition, where the stronger overlord would defeat the weaker to extract a tribute from that region. Rather, the stronger overlords would directly occupy and pillage the weaker overlord's lands. The plunder mentality of the Reconquista, inspired by the king's encomiendas, was a direct influence on this behavior. Glassman explains: "Since true feudalism was basically the protective system of a rural-subsistence society, ... there really was nothing to take, whereas in Spain there were the great treasures left by the Moslem [sic] civilization wherever a conquering knight turned." [13]

Two other aspects of the encomienda system played a major role in the development of Spanish political consciousness. The first of these was, anybody with the right connections, regardless of nobility of birth, could secure an encomienda grant--as long as they were willing to rid the peninsula of Islamic presence. The second aspect was that encomiendas were hereditary: when a regional overlord died, his possessions and authority transferred to his heir, essentially making an encomienda a grant of nobility, one which was open for the taking to Spaniards of common backgrounds. Because of these aspects of the encomienda, and because the Reconquista lasted for such a long time, the Spanish people, as they eventually became, began to permanently develop a collective aristocratic sense. Glassman calls this the "spirit of hidalgo (the knightly one)," and tells how "[t]ravelers from other lands noted that the poorest Spaniard acted with the gestures and thoughts of a member of the aristocracy, dignity being key to their actions." [14]

The Spanish view of political office was much different than the traditional Greek and Roman view--a view of political station as social duty. The encomienda system, and the plunder mentality it created, fostered a view of political station as a vehicle for prestige and privilege. This view figured directly into the final important historical developments in Spain that would eventually lead to Pizarro's civil war in Latin America. As the Reconquista progressed, the Spanish Crown--which had become hereditary in the 12th Century--sought to end the violence between regional overlords by unifying the re-conquered lands under its central authority. [15] After assuming the Castillian throne in 1474, Queen Isabella attempted to diminish the power of the regional overlords by declaring all their conscripted laborers free. Rather than ending her problems, however, her act simply led to the flooding of Spanish cities by dislocated ex-serfs seeking their own nobility and privileges. Because the Iberian region of Grenada was still in Muslim hands, there remained an avenue for further rewards for military service. [16] The raising of a royal standing army to take Grenada and the unifying effects of the Inquisition--in which non-Catholic Spaniards were forced either to convert to Catholicism or to leave the kingdom--eliminated much of the old semi-feudal chaos. But Spain had become dependent on military service for social mobility.

After Columbus's landfall in 1492, the New World offered new possibilities for ambitious Spaniards seeking status and privilege. Not only did this sustain the institution of advancement through military service, but, as Glassman notes, the few remaining potentially rebellious encomienda seekers were "drained off--off to the New World to seek better fortunes. The kingship was left completely unopposed...." [18]

The encomienda system, which had prompted so much inter-violence amongst the descendants of the knights of the Reconquista, continued as the basis of the new era of Western Hemisphere conquest that was to take place. After the native populations in America proved to possess treasure in quantities that rivaled those of the Islamic Iberian cities, the plunder mentality reigned in all its old glory. At the same time, the royal control that had ended the chaos between regional overlords in Spain did not exist in the New World. Though the Crown did assign governorships to certain regions, for the most part, conquistadors were on their own in the wilderness, with no outside authority to regulate their excesses. Historian Mario Góngora puts it succinctly when he writes that "[d]iscipline among the bands of conquistadors and obedience to the governor depended, to a large degree, on the equitable distribution of the booty...." [19]

Almagro and Pizarro did not see each other as comrades in a patriotic cause--that is, they were not conquering lands in the New World out of a sense of civic duty to the Spanish Crown. Political office, especially at this point in history, when the encomienda system was still a defining feature of Spanish identity, was viewed as a commodity, one that granted the ultimate treasures of prestige and privilege. Almagro and Pizarro were business partners, in business to reap for themselves the greatest rewards that conquest could give. Any kind of solidarity against the hostile foreign terrain and the peoples who populated it disappeared when the rewards--the plunder and the political status--were at hand. Almagro received inferior plunder and political status compared to Pizarro, a wrong that centuries of Spanish tradition had taught him to resent with murderous fury.

Though Latin America's great distance from Spain facilitated the chaotic environment that led to Pizarro's death, violence between Spanish countrymen in the face of greater danger was not an unprecedented occurrence. The conquistadors were acting out of centuries of Old World tradition. Lack of means to protect the gains of the knights who retook the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim occupiers led the Spanish king to resort to the encomienda system as incentive for conquest. This led to a concept of political office as a mere gateway to status and privilege, and it also led to an ingrained Spanish identity of nobility, an identity that unified Spaniards even as it made them inter-competitive. By the 15th century, a similar inability of the Spanish Crown to protect the gains of the adventurers who fought for land in the New World led to the continuation of the encomienda system. Without central control, however, the activities of the conquistadors were able to slip back into semi-feudal chaos, so that, when Pizarro died, it was not only a linear culmination of historic events, but also a return to the beginning of the cycle.

1. Sir Arthur Helps, The Spanish Conquest in America, vol. 4, (New York: AMS Press, 196): 91.
2. Spanish Conquest: 93.
3. Mark A. Burkholder and Lyman L. Johnson, Colonial Latin America, 4th ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 57.
4. Colonial Latin America: 50-51.
5. Colonial Latin America: 54.
6. Spanish Conquest: 45-47.
7. Colonial Latin America: 56-57.
8. Ronald M. Glassman, Political History of Latin America, (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1969): 24-25.
9. Political History: 4.
10. Political History: 7.
11. Political History: 8.
12. Political History: 8.
13. Political History: 10.
14. Political History: 12.
15. Political History: 35.
16. Political History: 14-15.
17. Political History: 74.
18. Political History: 74.
19. Mario Góngora, Studies in the Colonial History of Spanish America, Trans. Richard Southern, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975): 22.