It would be a terrible injustice not just to the memory of the Incas, but to the English language, to refer to the events of August 29, 1533 in Cajamarca, Peru as a "trial", at least by bwith modern expectations of that process.

Of course, most contemporary legal thinkers could propose that there never really was any justice in the 1500s anywhere, as it were, until the first statutes were pronounced declaring the rights of the individual, such as the 1689: The English Bill of Rights or the 1789: Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Be that as it may, there was a formal record of the trial, as the Spaniards called it, of the last real, free emperor of the Incas, held in Peru on August 29, 1533. That record, the original of which is now lost, was written and endorsed for the record by the prosecutors, judges and executioners all of whom were Spaniards, and conquistadors. Even the date is uncertain with some historians referring to the date of his trial and death as July 26, 1533.

The capture of AtahualpaThe Spaniards, still in the heyday of the Inquisition on the European continent, were oddly fastidious about the appearance and use of the legal words such as justice and "trial". For example, at the first settlement the Spanish expedition leader Fransisco Pizarro started in South America, now Piura in present-day Peru, one of the first three buidings to go up was a court of justice.

The Accused

The accused in the 1533 mock trial was one Atahualpa, probably born in 1497, and then 36 years old. Even his name is uncertain since it has no authentic English or even Spanish equivalent, but was merely a convenient phonetic facsimile of the Emperor's name. Other renderings of his name include Atahuallpa, Atawallpa and Ata Wallpa.

Atahualpa was on his way to claim the Inca throne at the capital Cuzco after having defeated his brother in battle. The grand Emperor of the Indians was called the Sapa Inca. This was a phenomenal civilization and stretched from modern-day Peru to include Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia.

Atahualpa was soon to become the last true Emperor of the Incas and his brutal murder by the Spaniards under the guise of a show trial ended a fascinating civilization, one which pioneered farming, civilization, and specific areas of science such as medicine and astronomy. Like any many thousand-year-old civilizations that predated Jesus Christ, it was far from perfect and had some barbaric if not horrific elements to its criminal justice system of which is written elsewhere (Law and Justice in the Mayan and Aztec Empires (2,600 BC-1,500 AD).

Meeting With Destiny

At the town of Cajamarca, the Sapa Inca's path and that of his 20,000 soldiers intersected with Francisco Pizarro and 168 Spanish soldiers, the latter on horseback. Aolthough they had lamas, the Incas had never seen horses before and believed that man and horese were one almost like the minotaurs of ancient Greek mythology.

Nor had the Incas ever experieneced another little something the Spaniards carried - short range cannons and firearms.

The Spaniards took advantage of initial friendly communications to get close to Atahualpa. They then used their firearms and horses to ambush and awe the Incas. Surprising Atahualpa's entourage, the Spaniards quickly dragged him away into an easily defended building. The Spaniards then manipulated their hostage and his people to start a gold collection.

Captured by the Spaniards in this daring commando-style event, Atahualpa then bided his time as a hostage. He reassurede his people not to attack the Spaniards because he felt that once they had received the ransoms, they would leave. The Incas, presumably, had a system of honor amongst thieves; something the Spaniards did not.


Death of AtahualpaThis travesty of justice stains the history and legacy of Spain, one already well-drenched in the blood of the Spanish Inquisition. The trial of Atahualpa is related in the very well written book, The Last of the Incas.

This proud king, better known as an Emperor, was firmly a captive of the Spaniards and was calling-in at the blade of a knife on his throat, the numerous gold reserves of his empire. Once the first returns from the locations identified by Atahualpa returned with phenomenal stores of gold, the Spaniards were confident that the other locations suggested by the Emperor were accurate and his usefulness had ended - a few more boatful of soldiers, horses and guns and they were confident they could get the gold themselves.

Atahualpa had outdone his usefulness. The solution was the presentation of a 12-charge indictment including one especially farcical charge of raising an insurrection against the invaders of his land. He was also charged with abiding with un-Roman Catholic law such as incest (the Sapa Inca could only marry their sisters) and adultery which was also expected of the Sapa Inca.

Atahualpa was also charged with practicing idolatry charge we can now look back with some humor since the Roman Catholic Church is nothing if not the worship of paper, metal and porcelain idols. But the ominous feature of the charge of idoltry was that if found guilty, the accused was subject to being burnt alive.

There were many Spaniards in Cajamarca and so Pizzaro, the leader of the Spanish forces knew that there would be many reports of this trial made back to Spain. Rumors that had been returned to him were to the effect that many Spanish soldiers had come to like this proud but graceful emperor and were against the persecution of him because he had been so compliant and had done as requested: led the Spaniards to his empire's gold reserves and gold mines. Reports made back to friends and family of some of the Spanish soldiers were that Atahualpa was both intelligent and witty.

The Trial

To increase the appearance of legitimacy, Pizarro assigned a Spanish soldier to make the case against the prisoner and another was assigned to be the Devil's advocate. The official translator was an individual known as Felipillo, who disliked Atahualpa, and apparently took many opportunities to twist his answers against him. The small jury was comprised of Pizarro and other Spanish men that reported to him.

The account of the trial of Atahualpa can now only be reconstructed, often with reference to a Spanish military historian Oviedo who did not fail to comment on the indictment against Atahualpa in these words: that it was:

"… a badly contrived and worse written document devised by a factious and unprincipled priest (Valverde), a comes a notary without conscience, and others of like Stanton, who are all concerned in this villainy."

This peculiar trial ended in a vote as to whether or not the death sentence should be imposed before they rendered a verdict. The vote on the death penalty was unanimous following which, the accused was declared guilty on all counts, and referred immediately to be burnt alive in the public square.

When the sentence was explained to him, this proud Emperor for the first and only time broke down and pleaded for his life:

"What have I done that I should meet with such an end? And at your hands, who have met with nothing but friendship and kindness from my people, with whom I've shared my treasures, and who have received nothing but benefits from me."

The next affront was a proposal made to him even while he was bound to a cross and placed in the middle of a pile of wood. The Spanish priest Valverde whispered into his ear that if he agreed to be baptized a Christian, he would avoid being burnt at the state and instead would be hung.

As Hyams and Ordish suggest, it is likely that Atahualpa could hardly believe his luck in that he would receive a less painful death if he merely uttered a series of meaningless words. By contrast, however, when the great Aztec emperor Montezuma II met with a similar last-minute offer at his execution thousands of miles to the North and some thirteen years earlier, he had declined, telling his Spanish murderers:

"I have but a few moments to live. I will not at this hour desert the faith of my fathers."

The disrobed and humiliated Atahualpa, the last King of the Incas, and a bogus Roman Catholic at the end, met his end with great dignity pleading lastly for the safety of his family even up to the moment that a rope was placed around his neck and tightened until he died.

"With him died the … the independent existence of a noble race of men."

Goes Around Comes Around

What should also be mentioned is that the Inca Empire generally, and Atahualpa specifically, were no strangers to injustices. Atahualpa had ordered the drowning of his own brother Huascar. During the civil war he waged with Huascar, which he ultimately won, there are several instances of absolutely horrific massacres of civilian populations, all under Atahualpa's command.

Atahualpa was succeeded by his nephew Tupac Huallpa, but Huallpa was but a puppet Sapa Inca for the Spaniards and indeed, the Inca Empire never did recover from the capture, trial and execution of Atahualpa with which, also, was executed the Inca Empire.

He is not completely forgotten to history for in Quinto, the capital of Ecuador, is the Atahualpa Olympic Stadium.

Dead is Dead

Shortly after his death, a number of women bewailed at the Spaniards, begging to give their dead Emperor the proper Inca funeral rites. When the Spaniards refused, some of the women promptly killed themselves.

An amazing although not perfect civilization had come to an end as the Spaniards spread out rapidly to ravage all the gold that could be found. In 1543, a silver mine was found at Potosi that was so rich, that it subsidized the Spanish state for over a century.

When the sudden affluence of the Spanish court manifested itself to the rest of Europe, there appeared all along the coast of South America, ships bearing different European flags and all looking for the same thing and not justice, respect or asistance to an aboriginal people.


  • Hyams, Edward, and Ordish, George, The Last of the Incas (New York: Dorset Books, 1963)
  • Pratt-Chadwick, M. L., Francisco Pizarro: The Conquest of Peru (Boston: Educational Publishing Company, 1890)
  • Royal Hunt of the Sun (1970),  Cinema Center Films. Director, Irving Lerner.