End of the Incas

Atahualpa, thirteenth and last ruler of the Incan Empire, was executed on this day in 1533 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. The storied details of Atahualpa’s captivity and death — his failed attempts to save his life with rooms of gold, and then with a conversion to Christianity — and the subsequent decline of the Incas have inspired both treasure hunters and adventure seekers. Also city seekers: the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham discovered the famous city-fortress of Machu Picchu a century ago this year. Bingham described his first glimpse of Machu Picchu in his 1948 bestseller, Lost City of the Incas; his account below is excerpted from Kim MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas (2007):

Hardly had we left the hut and rounded the promontory than we were confronted by an unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone-faced terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and ten feet high. Suddenly, I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality Inca stone work. It was hard to see them for they were partly covered with trees and moss, the growth of centuries, but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and tangled vines, appeared here and there walls of white granite carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together.… The sight held me spellbound…. Would anyone believe what I had found?

Atahualpa and the demise of Incan civilization have also inspired anti-colonialists and poets. Hart Crane wrote “Imperator Victus” while living in Mexico, and as the Spanish Civil War loomed:   

    Big guns again

    No speakee well

    But plain.

Again, again —
And they shall tell
The Spanish Main

The Dollar from the Cross.

Big guns again.
But peace to thee,
Andean brain.

Again, again —
Peace from his Mystery
The King of Spain,

That defunct boss.

Big guns again,
Imperator Inca —


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.