• Armored History


Updated: Apr 6


This entry discusses the methods the Spaniards employed to succeed in conquering the entire empire of the Incas (Tawantinsuyu). The technological advantage in tandem with biological warfare by way of Eurasian diseases is often credited to the conquistadors’ success. However, through a comparative analysis of each faction’s militaries, clashes, and tactics, this paper reevaluates the “guns, germs, and steel” narrative that many historians of the past have used to explain Europe’s military dominance and global preeminence in the early modern period, and analyzes the Spanish conquest of the Inca from the perspective of strategic diplomacy.

The advantage of guns and steel provided the Spanish with critical advantages over the Inca in the form of “shock value” especially during the earliest stages of conquest. While foreign diseases did severely affect the people of the Inca Empire over time, this article emphasizes the Spanish ability to rally indigenous/ native warriors against the Inca as well as exploit preexisting infighting within the empire allowed them to compensate for their numerical inferiority and eventually succeed. Further examples of Spanish conquests within and outside of the Americas can help demonstrate the hypothesis of this paper that, were it not for the aforementioned facts, the Spanish would have been defeated and continually repelled indefinitely.


One of the more exciting and interesting aspects of history is the interaction or collision of two civilizations. Popular examples of such face-offs can be found in the Portuguese maritime voyages across Asia and in the Spanish incursions into the Americas. However, the results of the latter’s voyages ended in disaster for the native populations whom they encountered. The Spanish, specifically the Castilians, brought war and disease and destroyed indigenous populations by nearly ninety percent. This was especially true for Tawantinsuyu—the Inca Empire. The devastation brought about by Spanish steel and gunpowder, for instance, was prominently demonstrated at the infamous battle of Cajamarca. According to the Spanish account of Pizarro’s encounter with emperor Atahualpa, a Dominican friar named Vicente de Valverde declared the Requerimiento, or “requirement” (MacQuarrie, p. 178), demanding the emperor’s submission to the Catholic Church, to God, and to the Spanish crown. A Bible was presented to Atahualpa. But having never seen a book before, he merely tossed it away, and infuriated the friar who then ordered Spanish troops to emerge from hiding to capture Atahualpa and kill all his accompanying soldiers.

The battle was completely lopsided in favor of the Spanish, with only a few soldiers injured but with thousands of emperor’s soldiers killed. It was a testament to the power of Spanish cavalry, cannons, muskets, and steel weapons and armor against a people who had never seen a horse nor have ever beheld the thunderous booms of cannon and musket fire. The sight of the oversized “llamas” on which the Spanish mounted, combined with the explosions of cannons and firearms left the Inca dazed, confused, and in a panic (D’Altroy, p. 457). This scenario had repeated itself over and over again throughout the Americas where both the Mayans and the Aztecs had already been defeated. Was the Spanish success merely attributed to the devastating effects of Eurasian diseases in lethal combination with their use of steel and gunpowder weapons never before seen by the civilizations there? This article argues that while these elements were major contributors to the successful conquest of these American civilizations, the Spanish effective use of strategic diplomacy, utilization of native auxiliaries and allies, and exploitation of pre-existing conflicts within empires ultimately “sealed the deal” in their ability to defeat major world powers and establish the great Hispanic empire in the Americas.

Role of Foreign Diseases and Comparative Military Technology

It is important to acknowledge the role and effects of foreign diseases such as malaria, measles, bubonic plague, and smallpox on the Americas as it was the biggest killer of native populations in the centuries during and following the Spanish conquests. Before Pizarro’s entrance into Cajamarca, Eurasian diseases have already made their way south from the Caribbean since Columbus’ second voyage to that area, infecting people in the far north of Tawantinsuyu. Huayna Capac had first heard of the new epidemic from his chaski messengers following his campaign to conquer what today is Ecuador, and the reports were serious enough to have the ruler seclude himself in a self-imposed quarantine for some time, but to no avail for eventually the disease took his life. By the time of his death, the diseases had already claimed the lives of many thousands of people (Hemming, p. 30) (MacQuarrie, p. 46). By the time Pizarro and the conquistadores made their way into the Andes, disease had already initiated the conquest for them.

One of the most notable aspects of this clash of civilizations was the gaps in military technology used by the Inca and the Spanish. Although they did not forge iron, the Inca had a rich heritage of sophisticated metallurgy, creating masterful pieces of gold, silver, and bronze. Their weapons however, strongly indicative of their unique martial culture and philosophy, featured little to no metals and relied mostly on fire-hardened wood and stone. Their signature weapon, a sling called the “Huaraca” or “Waraka”, was also their deadliest. According to the text by Hemming, “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.’” (Hemming, p. 187). Archers even had to be enlisted from the natives of the tropical frontier for the Inca military traditionally did not use bowmen in combat. Inca warfare relied on ritualized fights between ayllus and moieties, and existed as a form of tinku; they fought individually or in groups and did not utilize army formations or maneuvers. This is in sharp contrast to all-out warfare practiced by the Spanish and the Old World (G. Urton, lecture, November 13, 2019). In their resistance and rebellions against the Spanish however, these state of affairs change drastically as the Inca learned to adapt and evolve their warfare methods to nullify the Spanish advantages of horses and guns. Discussion of this will continue later in the paper.

When the Spanish landed in the New World, they had brought with them some of the most advanced arms and armor of the 16th century. Cuirasses of steel plate on their bodies were impervious to the bronze and stone weapons of the Inca. Their arquebus muskets and cannons—technologies adopted and improved upon from China and the Middle East, had far more range and killing power than the finest archers and slingers. The quilted armor worn by many of the Inca sinchis could not defend against Spanish swords and pikes. Finally, the use of cavalry forces granted the Spanish great levels of speed and mobility as well as a distinct “weight” advantage in the battlefield. The result of this difference in military culture and technology was most apparent in the aforementioned battle of Cajamarca.

However, even with the disastrous effects of foreign epidemics and with the serious inherent

advantages the Spanish possessed militarily, it was, according to the presented argument, not the deciding factor of their success against the Inca. In fact, the same argument applied to their exploits further in the north against the Mayans and the Aztecs or even in the kingdoms and polities in what would become the Philippine islands where Eurasian diseases were of no consequence and where the technological gap was, in fact, small enough to be irrelevant.

Adapting to Fighting the Spanish

Following the Battle of Cajamarca, the Inca continued to resist on many fronts during and after the capture and execution of their emperor Atahualpa. The Inca were keen to adapt to their fighting style in their confrontations against the Spanish, as well as exploit their home turf advantage to try to neutralize the inherent advantages the Spanish possessed in cavalry and steel weapons. Therefore, to show that the importance of native allies to the success of the Spanish conquest of the Incas, the main idea of this particular section emphasizes (through examples of their clashes) that without native help, the Inca may very well have been able to repel and resist the Spanish successfully or indefinitely.

Some examples of this were demonstrated during the siege of Cuzco during the Inca Rebellion when Manco Inca’s forces improvised their tactics to neutralize the advantages of the enemy cavalry. The Inca destroyed their own roads to nullify the cavalry. They used feigned retreats to lure cavalrymen into alleys to kill them and the horses as well. They also used another notable weapon often used for hunting called “bolos” to tangle up the horses’ legs during cavalry charges. They brought down almost all the horses, leaving none left to fight (Hemming, 1970). Furthermore, they used landscaping to enhance their tactics. “[They] dug channels to divert Cuzco’s rivers into the fields of the city, so that the horses would slip and sink into the mire.” (Ibid., p. 189). These were but a few of the many tactics the forces of Manco Inca employed against the Spanish in the siege of Cuzco.

The great general Quiso Yupanqui was famous for dealing blows against the Spanish during the rebellion. He quickly realized the advantage the Spanish possessed in their cavalry and worked to neutralize their threat by changing the playing field. He exploited their home field advantage and steep vertical landscape to use against the Spanish. Luring them into tight passes, he’d dispense barrages of rocks and arrows on the entrapped Spanish below. Quiso was successful in destroying several Spanish relief forces, and seizing their arms and armor, to the alarm of Pizarro (Hemming 1993, MacQuarrie 2007). The home field advantage coupled with the vertical landscape served to undermine and even nullify many of the advantages the Spanish enjoyed in their mounted cavalry. Through adaptation and improvisation of tactics, the Inca have proven that they were capable of waging war against the Spanish where their technology and mobility were not overwhelming factors of the outcome. Again, this illustrates the critical role native auxiliaries and allies play in the success of conquests, more so than technology or disease.

Furthermore, the success the Spanish achieved in the Aztec or Inca conquests however, did not result in the toppling of their empires. The neo-Inca state founded at Vilcabamba post-conquest for instance, shows that the Inca were willing and able to maintain a strong resistance movement to keep fighting for their land and be a constant “pain in the neck” for the Spanish. This state of affairs lasted several decades, further demonstrating that the Inca were capable of adapting their style of warfare to challenge the Spanish through the use of terrain.

Example from the Philippines and Tenochtitlan

This article’s argument for the use of “native allies” as the biggest determining factor of a successful conquest could be further reinforced or demonstrated in the Spaniards’ concurrent campaigns in the Philippine kingdoms, where differences in military tech and diseases had little to no relevance. What would later be known as “the Philippines” lay at the heart of maritime Southeast Asia and served as a converging point for trade and cultural diffusion in the Indian Ocean trade network. Influences came from many nations such as Japan, the Asian mainland, the Middle East, and the Malay archipelago.

Centuries of interactions within this crossroads of Asia brought iron, steel, and gunpowder technology for weapons to the prominent Philippine kingdoms and polities that experienced regular direct contact with the rest of the world (Patanne, p. 54-61). By the time of the Spanish conquests, the artisans of Luzon were already highly skilled in making indigenous cannons called “lantakas”, very similar to those utilized in Indonesia.

To illustrate, Filipino cannon manufacturing was found to be on an industrial level; the Spaniards found evidence of mass production in a burned down gun foundry in Manila fort. Cannon quality was so high that Spanish Governor Sande employed Filipinos to make a 4,000- kilo cannon for him and said "There is not in the castle of Milan a piece so well-made." (Scott, p. 233).

In addition, Filipino swords and spears were forged from iron and steel (Ibid. p. 147-149), although body armor of the same material or any armor at all was not commonly used. Like the Inca, Filipino warriors did not utilize mass army formations or maneuvers but fought individually or in groups. Ultimately, the gap in military technology between the Spanish and the Filipinos in direct contact with the outside world was not nearly large enough to be a significant deciding factor in the success of their conquests, and yet they were conquered anyway. Meaning to say that if this was the case, it did not matter if the Spanish were more technologically advanced in their arms (in the case of the Incas), because strategic diplomacy and the winning of allies were what allowed the Spaniards to succeed in their conquests.

The battle of Mactan in 1521 against Chief Lapu Lapu and his forces serve to show Spanish vulnerability without the overwhelming use of native allies. The Spanish were dealt a decisive blow and were defeated, even with a few hundred native allies, causing the death of Ferdinand Magellan—killed by Filipino swords and arrows. The Spanish managed to subdue and subjugate peoples immune to their diseases and who were already accustomed to the use of cannons in battles. In short summary, the Spanish exploited the rivalries and lack of unity of the Philippine kingdoms, winning to their cause thousands of fighters and indigenous allies looking to change the status quo.

A legendary Filipino warrior known by some historians as “Bangkau” was one of the few fighters who dared to resist the Spanish Castillians at the Battle of Bangkusay in 1571. The Spanish, in classic use of their strategic diplomacy, reached out a hand “of friendship”, surely as subterfuge for total control of the northern regions, but knowing better he refused to accept their offer unlike what another notable Filipino king (Lakan Dula) had done and decided to fight back. Without support from other neighboring kingdoms, Bangkau paid the ultimate price. Furthermore, many Filipino leaders of that time were accommodating to the Spanish and voluntarily signed treaty of “peace and friendship” (Patanne, p. 202). Strategic partnerships, like the one the Spanish had with Filipino king Dula were what allowed them to establish their power over the Philippines.

Similarly in the Mexico, the Spanish use of indigenous forces was especially pronounced during the conquest of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. “… The Spanish also gained large numbers of indigenous allies. Given that the Mexica outnumbered the Spanish following the Spanish expulsion from Tenochtitlan, the acquisition of indigenous allies proved to be a critical and necessary addition to the Spanish cause.” (Brinkerhoff 2016, p. 176). The Spanish gained allies from the many indigenous groups who paid tribute to the Aztec Empire, especially from the Tlaxcalans, the strongest and largest source of their support, who also resented being tributaries to the Mexica. According to historian Ross Hassig (as cited by Brinkerhoff 2016, p.178) said, “…the final Spanish capture of Tenochtitlan witnessed the aid of nearly 200,000 native allies, the majority of whom were Tlaxcalans.”

Brinkerhoff was particular to emphasize the fact that the Spanish records greatly downplayed the role of their indigenous allies or represented them inaccurately in their mentions. However, the divide-and-conquer strategy and exploitation of natives opposed to their imperial overlords was very much applied to the Spanish campaigns in the Andes against the Inca. In fact, Pizarro’s companion conquistador Diego de Almagro departed from Cuzco with five hundred other conquistadores and twelve thousand native auxiliaries to try to conquer and find more riches in the southern portions of Tawantinsuyu. He found none, however, and most of his men, including the native auxiliaries either died or abandoned the campaigns altogether after enduring nearly two years of severe cold, starvation, and constant attacks from other native groups (MacQuarrie, p. 261-262).

Likewise during the siege of Cuzco, the Spaniards holding down the fort numbered only one hundred ninety (Hemming, p. 186) however, had crucial logistical and tactical support from natives. Flickema in the 1981 issue of Revista de Historia de América, No. 92 wrote: “Meanwhile, the Spanish picked up a modest number of Indian amigos de guerra, an increase from about five hundred at the start of the siege to some four thousand at the end. Because of rivalries within the Inca royal family, three prominent nobles (including two of Manco's brothers) came over to the Spanish, along with their followers. The Indian allies provided vital support in a number of ways. Protected by horse men, they brought food to Cuzco; they also acted as spies, and even helped to rescue individual Spaniards on several occasions. In some instances the Indian allies also fought, along with the Spanish peones, in support of the horsemen.” (Flickema 1981, p. 45). While the siege of Cuzco was underway, Pizarro had been living in the City of Kings some four hundred miles away. The Spanish city was defended by only one hundred Spaniards, mostly cavalry, and relied upon at least several thousand native auxiliaries, “mostly of Chachapoyan, Canari, and former members of the yanacona Inca servant class.” (MacQuarrie, p. 251). This further demonstrates the Spanish dependency of natives on their campaigns. Pedro de Valdivia marched south in conquest of Chile, picking up where de Almagro left off, and took with him native auxiliaries, again, making up the bulk of his forces.

In Juan Pizarro’s assault on the Incan fortress of Sacsayhuaman during the siege of Cuzco, native auxiliaries played an important role in the fighting. They scaled the walls with ladders and fought in close quarters hand-to-hand (G. Urton, lecture, November 13, 2019). The native auxiliaries also contributed to the logistics of these operations as written in MaQuarrie’s text. “Juan’s cousin, Pedro, recalled how he and the rest of the cavalry had to first break through the native contingents hurling stones at them and then how they had to zigzag up the steep hillside, stopping frequently while their native auxiliaries cleared the way.” (MacQuarrie, p. 2019). In all of these examples, the natives almost always comprised the brunt majority of the fighting forces of the Spanish.

The Critical Role of Native Allies in the Siege of Lima

According to a NOVA/ National Geographic documentary aired by PBS in 2007, forensic experts and historians worked together to investigate the 1536 siege of Lima independent of the Spanish chronicles. By analyzing the skeleton remains at an Incan cemetery in Puruchuco in the suburbs of the city of Lima, they discover clues that directly challenge the Spanish accounts which claim that a few mounted Spanish cavalry fended off a force numbering in the tens of thousands. However, the investigators in the documentary find that the vast majority of the injuries sustained by the fighters were consistent with blunt force trauma inflicted by native weapons, while only a few were from Spanish soldiers.

In addition, an investigation into an 16th century court case conducted by historian Efrain Trelles also revealed clues that challenge the traditional narratives provided by the Spanish chronicles. The case, brought about by the descendants of Pizarro looking for recompense from the Spanish crown for the cost of defending against the siege as well as for the effects in had on their estate, presented a new perspective on what really took place. Disagreeing with these claims, the crown called upon the testimonies of native “Indians” who were present at the siege of Lima. They claimed that there were no major battles that took place, but rather small scale skirmishes. The references of fighting occurring during the siege took place mostly between Indians vs Indians, according to Trelles. “Witnesses also claimed that the armies of the Inca were only in the thousands, not tens of thousands” (The Great Inca Rebellion, 2007) unlike the exaggerated account in the Spanish chronicles. They claimed that Pizarro did not have any “heroic cavalry charges and that the Spanish who did fight, had large numbers of Indians protecting them.” (Ibid.).

These investigations reveal that, as previously mentioned, the Spanish chronicles greatly downplay the role of native auxiliaries in the contributing to the success of their conquests, as well falsify the events to make themselves appear heroic. Military historian Guilmartin said that the reason was simple: “they were indebted to their indigenous allies and they didn’t want to remember their debts.” (Ibid). The siege of Lima, in fact, occurred very differently than what the Spanish claim. The archeological and forensic evidence ultimately supports and corroborates the court case found and analyzed by Efrain Trelles. “It also provides the first scientific evidence for what historians have long suspected but could never prove—that the role of Indian allies consistently downplayed in the chronicles was critical to the success of the conquest.” (Ibid). Military historian John Guilmartin had this to say in the documentary: “It’s very clear, when you look at the way the conquest went down, that Pizarro’s allies were very important to his ultimate victory, not simply in the fighting line, but for logistical support, they were enormously important. It’s very clear that their role in the conquest has been minimized.” (Ibid).

Further documents discovered by historian Maria Rostworowski reveal more of the story of the siege of Lima. It shows that it was not military might that allowed Pizarro to survive the sieges, but was in fact, an alliance with a powerful chieftain. The relationship was sealed by Pizzaro’s marriage to a young girl offered by the nobility of the region (Huaylas[?]) where the chieftain reigned. This girl, Pizarro’s concubine, was present during the siege of Lima. According to the documents discovered in the archives on the Indies in Spain found by Rostworowski, the girl had sent a messenger to her mother, asking for an army of reinforcements. Neglected to be mentioned in the chronicles, her mother, a chieftain in her own right (according to the documentary), indeed sent an army. After arriving in Lima, the Inca besiegers retreated after seeing the tables had turned. Indeed, the fighting took place in skirmishes even after the Spanish and their allies pursued them, with fighters from the dispatched army fighting in favor of and in protection of the Spaniards. But the fact remains, that according to forensic, historical, and archaeological evidence, the failure of the Inca to successfully lay siege to Lima had almost nothing to do with Spanish heroics, tactics, strategy, or military prowess. Instead, most of the credit fell to the indigenous allies/ native auxiliaries who fought for and died alongside the conquistadores.

The question remains on how the Spanish were so adept at gaining indigenous support wherever they campaigned be it in Mexico or in the Andes. What made their divide-and-conquer strategy so effective? The Spanish were keen to make promises of granting the freedom and independence, and prestige they were denied under the Incas, effectively fueling or aggravating any resentment or bitterness different groups had against the Incan Empire. These promises, however, were promptly and conveniently forgotten after the Spanish had succeeded in their conquest campaigns (Ibid). Historian Efrain Trelles sums up the “Spanish” conquest of the Inca: “The conquest of Peru was a matter of Indians fighting Indians. Indians took Cuczo. Indians defended Cuzco. Indians attacked Lima. Indians defended Lima.” (Ibid).

This series of events, strategies, and methods employed by the Spanish in their conquest of the Inca paralleled those of their campaigns against the Aztec, Mayans, and even the Philippine kingdoms. The role of European fighting prowess and technology was overplayed by their own sources—sources upon which historians depended upon for many years. In Brinkerhoff’s own writings and assessment of the actual Guns, Germs, and Steel narrative by Jared Diamond (which has been a popular source for understanding the European global conquests and dominance), “Diamond's argument regarding the reasons behind Spanish victory, which can be found in the book's title, reduces the agency of all human actors (Spanish and indigenous alike) by analyzing the conquest solely through the lens of weaponry and disease. Although the Spanish did have superior military technology, it was by no means revolutionary.” (Brinkerhoff 2016, p. 174).

In summary, the Spanish would have never succeeded on guns, germs, and steel alone. From Tenochtitlan down to Cuzco, it was ultimately through the efforts of the vast indigenous fighting forces that the status quo changed—a raging fire in which the conquistadores were merely a spark. Spanish defeats in the Battle of Mactan in 1521 (Cebu, Philippines) fighting against chief Lapu Lapu, and General Quiso’s successful attacks against Spanish relief forces demonstrate just how vulnerable the Spanish truly are without overwhelming numbers of native allies, and regardless of any “gaps” in military technology. This was most strongly demonstrated in the events surrounding the siege of Lima, and shows us that forging the right alliances and winning allies numbering in the tens of thousands could mean the difference between success or failure, victory or death.

Bibliography/ Works Consulted

1) Brinkerhoff, T. (2016). Reexamining the Lore of the "Archetypal Conquistador": Hernán Cortés and the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire, 1519-1521. The History Teacher, 49(2), 169-187. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/24810472

2) DAltroy, Terence N. The Incas. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

3) Flickema, T. (1981). The Siege of Cuzco. Revista De Historia De América, (92), 17-47. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/20139433

4) Gibson, Charles. "Conquest, Capitulation, and Indian Treaties." The American Historical Review 83, no. 1 (1978): 1-15. doi:10.2307/1865900.

5) Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Incas. Boston, MA: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

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7) Patanñe E. P. (1996). The Philippines in the 6th to 16th centuries. Quezon City: LSA Press.

8) PBS . (2007). The Great Inca Rebellion . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=813PlMo0-54

9) Lee, Vincent R. Forgotten Vilcabamba Final Stronghold of the Incas. s.l.: Sixpac Manco Publications, 2000.

10) MacQuarrie, Kim. The Last Days of the Incas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

11) McEwan, Gordon Francis. The Incas: New Perspectives. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.

12) Scott, W. H. (1999). Barangay: sixteenth-century Philippine culture and society. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Univ. Press.

13) Vega, Garcilaso de la, and Karen Spalding. Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru. Indianapolis, IN: , Lancaster, 2006.

14) de, Cieza de Leun Pedro, Alexandra Parma. Cook, and Noble David. Cook. The Discovery and Conquest of Peru. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1999.

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