Francisco Pizarro’s “Misery, Deliverance and Contact” Episode

The epic saga of Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almalgro’s effort to find the possibly imaginary land of the mysterious Inca people includes dozens of pivotal moments when the leadership of these men was challenged. The chapter posted below highlights several of them. I hope you will enjoy following in their footsteps as you read. And, please note that tomorrow, May 6, marks the 478th anniversary of the first entry of Pizarro’s plucky band of men finally entering the “center of the universe”, Cusco! A triumphant day for for the Castilian’s while a tragedy of monumental proportions for the Inca nation.

                                                Book Three


                                              Chapter Ten                                                 


                                    Misery, Deliverance, Contact


Pizarro’s Camp near the River San Juan (1526 – 1527)


Almalgro had returned to Pizarro’s exhausted cadre on board two larger caravels bringing 40 new recruits, supplies, some horses and the hard-won permission of the new Governor of Castilla del Oro, Pedro de los Ríos, who had arrived at Nombre de Dios from Castile on July 31, 1526. The governor was a courtier – earnest, honest, with a bland personality and meager military experience. Alarmed by the events of the previous year and a half, the Emperor also directed the Council for the Indies to install new leadership in the territory called Honduras.

Diego López de Salcedo was dispatched. The goal was to protect the bulging revenue stream coming from the Indies. In 1525-26, the average receipts to the Imperial Treasury had ballooned to one hundred million marvedis per year. When combined with the enormous dowry that Isabella brought, Charles, Gattinara and Los Cobos believed they might finally stabilize the Emperor’s strained finances.

Almalgro and Pizarro brought each other up to date on what had transpired since their last reunion. Francisco listened carefully to his partner and was delighted with the sacking of Pedrarias, even more so by the news that Almalgro had bought out the governor’s participation in their partnership for 3,000 pesos – even though the funds for his buyout and for this resupply were borrowed. For the first time, they were financially stressed.

With Pedrarias eliminated from the picture, Almalgro, Fray Luque and Pizarro entered into a new contract for their enterprise on March 10, 1526.  This historic agreement for the division of all lands and spoils to be found in the lands of Biru (later Peru) was simple: all would be divided equally into thirds. Luque’s contribution, besides his influence with the authorities in Castilla del Oro, was 20,000 gold pesos. Neither Diego nor Francisco knew exactly how this priest had acquired this princely sum, though they suspected that he could be a straw man for the wily Pedrarias. In fact, it was more probable that he was a straw man for Gaspar de Espinosa, Alcade (Mayor) of Darien. It didn’t really matter; that was between Fray Luque and his confessor.

Diego recounted how difficult it had been to secure Ríos’ license to take more men and supplies to the wretched place, given so much loss of life. Luque’s support had proved to be pivotal to secure the reluctant governor’s agreement. His insiders’ contacts were proving to be priceless. With the new recruits, the expeditionary force now numbered 160 men, a number that the frustrated Francisco Pizarro still believed was inadequate to their challenge.

Out of earshot of the explorer soldiers, Francisco, de Ribera and Ruiz went over their experiences, with Ruiz’s tale of southern exploration by sea giving Almalgro a renewed hope. Together, they agreed to retrace Ruiz’s journey at once.

Isla del Gallo (Rooster Island) at the entrance to San Mateo Bay was their initial stop, Almalgro’s furthest venture down the coast to date. They anchored there on the two ships, explored the island – a disappointing excursion – and used canoes to attempt an exploration on the river that emptied into the bay. One canoe capsized in the unexpectedly strong current, drowning five men, weak veterans who simply did not have the stamina to stay afloat as the other canoers attempted rescue. Five men already lost! The episode left Almalgro shaken. He was a newcomer to the harsh conditions Francisco and his men had endured now for almost three years.

With horses this time, they undertook exploration on the lands around San Mateo Bay. Dark clouds of large mosquitoes tormented man and horse – bitten until their skin was dimpled like a plucked chicken. Men screaming in complete horror would bury themselves in the sand for relief. Despite the torment of these pests, which left many men feverish, some to the point of death, they pressed on.

Based on the sign language of four captured natives, they found a settlement of astounding size, upwards of 2,000 structures (Tacamez or Atatcames). The “treasure” they found when they explored the place was maize, bushels of it. Since the natives had abandoned the place, they remained for nine days, eating and sleeping, relieved for now of the infernal pestilence of the mosquitoes. However, being inland, they had to take care not to step onto anthills, where armies of ants could cover a man in a minute with stinging bites.

Such unrelenting natural onslaughts wore down the fortitude of many. The constant assaults on their bodies and their inability to have sustained relaxation raised anxieties and testiness. The one combat encounter with the displaced villagers, who crumbled in their defense due to their astonishment over the horses, was actually a welcome distraction.

One evening toward the end of their stay, the leadership – Pizarro, Almalgro, Ruiz and de Ribera – conferred privately, as they had almost every night while at Atatcames. What Pizarro had to say to Almalgro had a visible impact on the other men present.

“I do not complain for me or for the men, Diego, but this enterprise is not big enough to do what we wish. We must leave men behind to protect the ships, which leaves us with too few men to go deep inland, where we are told the great people live. We are told they number in the tens of thousands. We have 155 survivors here now. I think there are only ten from the original group of soldiers left! Too few horses. Not enough harquebuses. The men are weak or sick. And we know there are a few who would run us through so they could to go home. I’m tired, Diego. I could sleep for a week without eating, if I had the chance to do so.”

For the first time, Francisco Pizarro spoke as a beaten-down man. De Ribera, surprised by what he was hearing, gave Ruiz a quick glance, looking to gauge his reaction, since it was the long voyage of Ruiz, months earlier, that had fueled this long enterprise thereafter. He had his interest in his ship on the line as well, and was therefore compelled to speak.

“It has been hard to have the strength – the courage, really – to get to this place. Francisco, your example has sustained the men. If they were to hear your thoughts now, they would carry you off to the ship this very moment and return.”

Taking mild umbrage with both men, Almalgro weighed in.

My struggles have been great as well, my friends. You should realize the jokes made about me … ‘the man is blind to reality,’ people say. The ‘one-eyed one’ is crazy. I have pledged just about everything I have to get us this far. And recently, with Governor Ríos, I have had to beg him on my word of honor that we will see success in this endeavor. I will be a laughingstock if we abandon this.”

“Laughingstock?” Francisco blurted out, as he stood up, standing close by Diego. “Your honor! Do you understand what you are saying? How many nights have we sat in the shelter of only palm trees, rain dripping down on us, ants and odd spiders crawling up our miserable, rotting clothes as the heavens poured down torrents? Look at the bottom of my feet, Diego.”

Francisco dramatically pulled off a boot, a new one brought by Diego on this trip. They were the most prized of new supplies. After Francisco quickly pulled off his sock, Diego could see the sole of Francisco’s foot was rippled with skin patches hanging loosely, white crinkles of skin flayed away due to constant moisture and friction. As Francisco carefully drew his sock and boot back on, Francisco continued, his voice constricted by a rising temper.

“Trying to sleep in trees in the swamps, wondering if these giant constrictors will seize us by the necks, or if these savages will surprise us!  Always wet. With rain. With the dampness. With these miserable swamps … while you sleep back in Panama in a clean bed, dry, clean and cozy, maybe with one of your Indian women, your belly full with wine and roast pig, and we chew on maybe a few pieces of fish or think that coconut milk is a treat!”

None of his listeners had ever heard Francisco so agitated, nor were they comfortable with Diego’s smoldering reaction. But Francisco was not done.

“You have had the easiest of our burdens, Diego. You have no idea … no idea how awful this has been. Men have died in our arms … mumbling their last thoughts, out of their minds with fever … or festering wounds, as we lie to them that they will sleep and get better, knowing the best thing for them is … for the hand of death to make their eyes go into the blank stare of the end.” Now Francisco was breathing shallowly with anger, his face showing a rose hue. “Diego, you have suffered not at all! You should be in our boots before you complain of some idiot’s jokes about you!”

These last words were spit out in an insulting snarl. Diego was now on his feet. He poked Francisco on his chest, knocking him back a half step, saying, “You chose to remain in these places. You could have gone back to do what I have done! I risked what Pedrarias might do … prison … who knows what the crazy old man might have done?”

Shoving Diego back forcefully, Francisco pounced to where his sword was lying. as Diego drew a dagger from his belt. Jumping up between the men, Ruiz grabbed Francisco from behind, spinning him away from Diego. as Ribera took hold of Diego’s hands, shouting, “STOP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

All four were now breathing rapidly, stunned by the eruption. Others, sitting not far away, came rushing over to assist. Ruiz motioned them away, trying to avoid a larger circle of witnesses to this embarrassing flare of tempers and frustrations. Ruiz’s hold on Francisco was broken as he pulled away from his pilot. As Diego sheathed his knife, he spoke, short of breath, with just a hint of understanding.

“If you need rest, you take the ship back to Panama. This strain has been too much for you. I can see. I will stay here.” De Ribera’s concern was to restore calm, certain that these longtime partners could not have torn their friendship into shreds over passing expressions of fatigue-driven frustration. However, still sensitive about their co-captaincy on this mission, Francisco responded tartly to Almalgro.

“You would not last a week here … and the men follow me, by my example.”

“Francisco, you believe …. that I could not replace you?”

As soon as he had said this, Diego felt regret. Strained as this moment was, Diego still harbored deep respect for the tenacity of his friend.

“Wait, Francisco. I did not mean that …. the way I said that. But, you do deserve the rest from this, if you wish. You have earned the respect of the men, and I add my respect.”

There was a part of Ruiz that felt the enterprise was over, but a stronger impulse told him that Francisco was fundamentally correct in stating that their resources were short of what was required. So, he spoke, before de Ribera could.

“Diego, the Captain is right. More men are needed. You are the best one to get what is needed. And, we must find a way to rest all of the men, perhaps here. I don’t know.” Ruiz’s strategy was simple: to push these friends to looking into the future, not back toward the past.

De Ribera was close enough to the mood of the soldiers to know that a return of all of the men to Panama could raise many questions. Each man had his own tale of suffering, and each soldier could be counted on to have his own version of what had transpired during these months. Governor Ríos, so new to these parts, would be deluged with conflicting views – unflattering ones – from the embittered elements of the cadre. He would be tempted to shut the enterprise down, leaving the way open to rivals of the partners to attempt to jump in with competing voyages, leaving these partners near broke, but unable to capitalize on Diego’s and Francisco’s trailblazing. De Ribera seized the moment to remind them why they were here.

“Gentlemen, you are both men of honor, and both of you have served this cause honorably. Consider, please, the sacrifices of all of the men. What way is there to see profit by what has been done so far? All we have done is for profit, no?”

The simple word profit drew them all back to the crux of their mission. They all knew they were far short of expectations, far short of recouping what the partners had expended. They were so short, in fact, that they all broke into a hearty laugh, the kind of raucous laughter that is sparked by nervous exhaustion, laughter giving release. Francisco, now feeling embarrassed about his emotional outburst , closed the drama out with a simple proposition. “Let us plan for profit.”

After further strategizing, they all agreed that Pizarro would continue exploring around Gallo with one ship, while Almalgro would yet again return to Panama for more men and supplies.


Isla del Gallo


A month after Almalgro departed, Francisco dispatched Ruiz’s ship back to Panama. Repairs were needed, especially with the rigging, which was rotting away. Many of the men left behind with the Captain were openly upset that they all had not decamped. What were they doing here? What was the point? The natives who had dwelled on the scruffy, frankly inhospitable island had fled to the mainland when Pizarro’s cadre had arrived, despite the fact that the mainlanders were frequent marauders. Stories of the Castilian brutalities, especially those laid onto women and children, sparked a union of necessity between the otherwise hostile native camps. As for the soldiers who had been told to remain with the Captain, their sullen silence when in the presence of Pizarro left him isolated, relying on an ever-dwindling group of loyalists.

Four soldiers were bitterly grumbling over their exclusion from the small group of soldiers, all of whom were sick, who would be departing in the morning on Ruiz’s ship for Panama. They all had angry words to describe their plight.

“It is now July. The rains will drown us for another summer, and Pizarro refuses to let us go. Only the sick. Every time Almalgro leaves for Panama, Pizzaro says the same thing – many more men, better ships, more food. The Devil he is, to think we are so stupid. ‘Oh, you are here by order of the Crown, by the license of the Governor,’ he says. Well, that Governor is gone. There is a new Governor. He should be told what these Captains have done to us.”  Another disgruntled man chimed in.

“These months we have tramped around Tempula and its river. It is a sickness that we keep this up. Death seems to stalk us, just like these natives.” His friend from Hispaniola nodded his head in agreement, before leaning into the foursome as they sat facing each other on opposite logs. With eyebrows raised, speaking so softly that his conspirators could barely hear him, he recounted a story he had heard from one of the grommets (young deck hands)on Almalgro’s ship.

“He told me that three soldiers were captured once somewhere … Guatemala or Nicaragua. The Indians wanted to show their hatred for us. So, they staked these poor devils down on the ground, and they held the head of one so he could not move it. They put a stick across his mouth to keep it open. And since we always look for gold, they melted some and poured it down this poor devil’s throat … such a horrible death … as the other two watched. Then they did the same to the other two, one by one. They hung the three men from trees, so their friends would find them.”

The four soldiers imagined, each in his own way, what it must have felt like – molten gold, burning through the tongue, mouth and throat. How much did they pour? How deep down inside did it burn? How long did they live as the liquid fire disintegrated their organs, cooled in time by their own internal hemorrhaging?

“We seek nothing but gold or silver. It could happen to us” the narrator said.
“And Pizarro would cut our bodies open to find every drop of it!”

“I am sick of this place … these animals who would kill us. Even the women … they are probably not as good as the whores in Nombre de Dios … or Seville! Oh, to kiss the thighs of a good Castilian whore … ”

“Look, perhaps we can slip a message back … to the new Governor. The fine wool we captured last month. It is going to be given to the Governor’s wife. Inspector Carvallo told me. We can slip a letter to the Governor in the bale.”  (It was general knowledge that the Inspector, a career bureaucrat, was not enamored of Francisco Pizzaro, whose assignment to this mission the Inspector considered a blunder in judgment.)

When Carvallo departed on Ruiz’s ship, he secretly carried back several letters from soldiers angered by their virtual imprisonment on this venture. Since only one of the soldiers could write, and he was loyal to the Captain, Carvallo secretly took dictation from the dissidents for delivery to Governor Ríos.

One enterprising soldier had dictated a couplet, which Carvallo buried deep into the bundle of material being delivered to the Governor’s hacienda.

The message was sinister:

“To the Lord Governor,

look it well over.

There goes the herder,

while here remains the butcher.”




Governor Ríos eventually was presented with these complaints as well as those from another miscreant, Loboto, who had embarked with Almalgro. About 60 Castilians still camped on Isla del Gallo, and the cautious Ríos had just recently been virtually ignored by Captain Diego López de Salcedo in his attempt to draw Nicaragua back into his scope of authority. Predictably, Ríos refused permission to Almalgro to take more men to Gallo to aid Pizarro. Almalgro’s alarm at this setback was extreme. He knew the men on Isla del Gallo could not survive there indefinitely.

Ríos’ self-assurance had further eroded when he was shocked to learn, along with all of the more senior Castilians such as Hernando de Soto, Ponce de León and Sebastian Benalcazar, that the Council for the Indies, with the Emperor’s agreement, had named the irrepressible Pedro Arias de Avila – Pedrarias – the first Governor of  Nicaragua! His wife, the daughter of Beatriz de Bobadilla, had succeeded in her relentless campaign to rehabilitate her husband’s reputation. Her success, based on gifts, outright bribes, and the brilliant manipulation of her revered aunt’s supporting role in Queen Isabella’s legend, was construed by people such as Hernando de Soto as astounding proof of their imperial government’s ignorance of the realities in the Indies or, as Pedrarias believed, their desperation.

In fact, his resurrection blossomed from cynicism – the old man was useful, he could not live forever, and no established grandee of Castile wanted to confront the nasty, unpredictable chaos in the Indies. Why bother, when there were fortunes and titles to be won by getting close to the Imperial orbit of Charles V, the new Empress Isabella, or the rising star Duke Henry of Nassau or even Chancellor Gattinara, despite his waning influence on the Emperor. Hernán Cortés had returned to Castile recently, where his ego-driven self-superiority had convinced the noble ranks that only a low breed of leaders would succeed in the Indies. One’s heritage, connections, guile or wealth stood for little, once one landed in Hispaniola, Nombre de Dios, Veracruz, or mangy settlements such as León, where Pedrarias now held forth. The upside for the risks was ephemeral, while the risk of death from disease or miscalculation (perhaps hardly noticed by the powerful at court) was high.

A summons to Fray Luque and Diego Almalgro for a mid-morning meeting with Governor Ríos had been a pleasant surprise for both men. The former’s persistent praise for Pizarro’s prospects seemed to be chipping away the resistance the Governor had thrown up, while the latter’s days had been consumed by partial payments to old creditors while selling off slaves or expendable encomiendas for new cash.

The Governor extended polite and correct greetings to the two when they arrived at his courtyard, shaded by a dozen medium-sized orange trees, vestiges of the early years of Catalina de Saavedra, the former Governor’s wife. The trees were bearing fruit, bathing the yard in their subtle scent. The air was dry today, a rarity in August. It was the kind of sunny day when low spirits were banished by the spectacle of nature, the type of day when belief in God seemed self-evident.

“Gentlemen, I have considered your request to resupply Pizarro. It is true that your efforts have revealed encouraging facts, and I have confirmed your words personally by speaking to your three captive natives, who, by the way, are quick in learning the language. However, you are aware as well of disturbing messages from some of the soldiers with Pizarro.”

Speaking unemotionally, Ríos seemed to invite a discussion, which Diego was about to begin, when the Governor abruptly continued.

“Gentlemen, there is no justice when any Castilian is brought into hostile lands under arms and has his time of service extended without procuring his consent to continue. Some of these men have been gone almost a year, at least those who are still alive. Far too many have died. The responsibility for most of the deaths rests on the shoulders of Governor Pedro Arias de Avila, but I am resolved, firmly resolved, not to allow new casualties to stain my record here.”

Restraining himself from interrupting Ríos, Almalgro was beside himself with such talk. This man is a clerk, he thought, but I must have him hear me out.

“Governor, I protest this plan. My partner and I have done no injustice to any man who signed onto this business. We have shared the gold we have found, and I have even tried to find relatives in these parts to share any wealth belonging to those poor souls who have died. Just when we gather believable confirmation of a great Capac, and living evidence whom you have met, you would close our business down, based on the lies of a few malcontents? Where is the justice?”

Having been caught off guard by Rios’ sudden display of spine, Fray Luque believed Ríos could be turned around with some historical perspective.

“Governor, I have never seen the Crown stop such an enterprise before it is finished by those who have taken all the risks. You only have to look at Diego Almalgro to understand the costs, the great sacrifices that have been made.”

A black eye patch covered Diego’s useless eye today, something which he detested wearing, but which observers found less disconcerting than seeing the milky eye hidden behind the patch. Fray Luque continued his argument.

“Governor, I think of the great Admiral of the Ocean Seas, who was permitted four attempts to find and to explore this New World. He was never denied until his patron, the blessed Isabella, left us for her reward. Yes, some expeditioners abandoned their missions, but that was their own decision. These brave Captains have only asked for the chance to complete what they started at their own expense, which has been great.”

  Ríos listened, then asked Fray Luque and Almalgro to accompany him inside to his office. Ríos entered the building through a courtyard door, his two supplicants following. When they reached his office, without further words, he handed them an order, already signed, that had been lying on his worktable. Luque read it, then quietly informed the illiterate Almalgro of its contents.

“The Governor has ordered Juan Tafur to take a ship to Isla del Gallo, where he will make an offer to anyone who wishes to sail back to Panama. For those who choose to stay, Pizarro has six months to finish his exploration. Six months.”

Anxious to conclude the interview, Rios added, “This is final. I wish you success.”

That evening, a dismayed Almalgro confirmed the strategy to try to salvage their enterprise. Either Pizarro or he would travel as soon as possible to the Court in Castile to try to gain a license directly from the Crown. Almalgro would also attempt to at least bring supplies to those soldiers who freely decided to stay with Pizarro. He assumed that many would.


Isla del Gallo


When the two caravels under Tafur’s command were first sighted, the rejoicing among the starving men remaining under Pizarro was exuberant. Men clasped each other on the beach, some wading into the sea as if to try to hasten the ships’ arrival. Pizarro noticed that the ships flew the official pennant of the Governor. That was ominous. Were they coming to arrest him? He recognized Ruiz’s caravel as one of the two ships, an observation that calmed him a bit.

It required several anxious hours before the ships reached the island, anchored, and disgorged two rowboats of passengers led by Tafur, a confidant of Ríos but an unknown to the Captain. As Francisco and his soldiers approached the beach, Francisco could see, to his relief, only two of the Crown’s soldiers, hardly enough to try to accomplish an arrest. The greeting Tafur received from dozens of haggard soldiers, men whose emaciated, bare chests were so thin he could see their hearts beating with their excitement, almost physically overwhelmed the Governor’s functionary. Pizarro and a few men held back from the raucous display until Tafur had made his way over to the Captain’s vantage point, at the top of the beach. After stilted introductions, Tafur explained why he was there.

Disbelief and utter shock swept over the exhausted Captain. Six months to finish. No more men. Anyone could leave. Francisco also received a note from Diego, urging him not to come back – the implication being that a jail cell could be waiting for him. After Tafur read the order aloud to all of the men, the Pizarro loyalists were embarrassed by the boisterous reaction of so many of the men – and  embarrassed for Francisco, who had been such a stalwart, if taciturn, mentor and confidant of the men during their long, essentially fruitless stay on the island.

Francisco stepped ten paces away from the group and turned to face them, with his left hand on the pommel of his sword and his  right hand grasping his buckler.  His face, a deep brown from the sun, his beard spotted by gray in the black, his demeanor calm, he addressed the group of 60 men.

“Men of Castile, you have heard the order from the Governor. It is your choice to make. We have stayed in these parts with the belief that we all would share in the discovery of rich lands and treasure such as no man has ever seen. It has never been my intention to deny you your rights as free men, nor is it my intention to give up the pursuit of good land to make our home. Yes, we have together faced hunger and hardship and more difficulties than I could have imagined when we left. We have not yet found the riches that would allow us to have the comforts and peace we deserve. You are rich in courage and suffering, but you will not return to Panama as rich men if you go now. I ask you to consider your choices here. To continue on with me by sea to find what we seek, or to return to Panama with only what you are wearing – with honor, but poor.”

Nothing motivated the type of men who signed onto these journeys more than the notion of riches gained and what riches could secure, including an honored place on the seats of power. He paused, calculating that the majority of these men would choose the quest over the indignity of poverty, then continued.

“The trials we have suffered may have been fiercer than the trials we have faced all of our lives, but trials and sickness are things we will face until we all die. Yet, remember what we have seen and heard already. The villages grow larger and richer. Remember the reed boat we captured and the amazing ornaments of good gold and the beauty of the clothes and fabrics on that boat. We are close to a great discovery. I beg you: stand with me in what will be the discovery of your time.”

He drew his sword and cut a line in the sand between his men and himself.

“Those who have the strength of spirit to continue this mission should cross this line to stand with me. I pledge to deliver the leadership you deserve, as I have done until this time.”

Throughout Francisco’s address, his men’s hushed, silent attention moved him. His reading of their expressions, of their eyes, was one of respect; he was encouraged as he drew the line and stood back to see who would follow.

Without the slightest hesitation, Treasurer Nicolas de Ribera crossed over, solemnly taking a place next to Francisco, followed immediately thereafter by Gonzolo Martín de Trujillo. After a pause, the giant from Crete, Pedro de Candia, walked over; then the hidalgo from Baeza, Cristobal de Peralta. Then, no one else crossed over. Only four? Pizarro’s face hardened as he looked each man in the face.      Three stepped across together – Domingo de Soraluce, Francisco de Cuellar, and Alonso de Molina. Molina motioned to two friends whom he knew admired the Captain – Pedro Halcón and Juan de la Torre; they strolled over. Four more crossed the line – Garcia de Jaren, the young hidalgo Alonso Briceno from Benevente, Martín de Paz, and Antón de Carrion.

Thirteen men had just cast their lot – and their lives – with Pizarro, who felt great gratitude for their loyal courage. He dismissed completely from his mind how few had elected to remain. If he had done otherwise, he might have felt self-pity.

Pizarro then quarreled bitterly with Tafur over his refusal to leave him a vessel with which to explore. “What good is a license to explore for six months without a ship?” he argued vehemently, but the Governor’s representative was adamant. He would only transport Pizarro, his band of thirteen, the three translators from Isla del Gallo, and six native men and women, to nearby Isla Gorgona. This transfer had been requested by Francisco. As far as he knew, Gorgona was uninhabited, and almost 15 miles from the mainland; thus, possibly a safer location.

In spite of all the disappointments, as two caravels hastily left the island with the soldiers who had given up, Pizarro’s much smaller force felt a burst of renewal. Possibly excluding the three native translators, they were all on Gorgona by choice at end of September 1527: a small but grounded, allied, and committed group.

Having no idea when Almalgro would return, the members of this remotest Castilian outpost in the New World set about building better-than-subsistence shelters, carving a canoe from a ceiba tree for fishing, and killing large sea turtles, while thoroughly surveying the resources of the island jungles. For a change, they did not live in peril from the giant caymans (alligators), which could be 20 to 25 feet long. Instead, they found delectable crabs in plentiful supply, though they were unable to kill a single seal that occasionally could be seen sunning on the rocks near the beach. Cabybaras (large South American rodents) were abundant and tasty; monkeys roasted also afforded good protein, as did the sea turtles. Vines with small grapes trailed down from the jungle palm trees to offer a diversionary taste. Aside from the ever-present mosquitoes and rain, the place may have been the most hospitable and most secure location they had enjoyed in many months.

It took hard work to provide what their bodies required to subsist, but their souls thrived on the camaraderie. Each man – even the increasingly acclimated native translators – believed it was his personal mission to do whatever he could to help the others. Hardships dissipate, even fade away completely sometimes, when the challenges and the pain are shared. Francisco had a talent for pulling disparate people into a unified whole, as he did on Gorgona while they waited for Almalgro.

The Castilians also shared their Catholic faith and the daily rhythm of  prayers: every morning, at vespers, a Salve Regina before every supper, and, of course, extensive supplications to the Almighty on Sunday mornings. Francisco Pizarro’s participation was more a matter of good leadership than an expression of profound or mystical faith. Cristóforo Colombo he was not, but he enjoyed the peace that the times of prayer afforded him. Introspection was not a trait that many people saw in him, yet the times of prayer on Gorgona found Francisco reflecting on the characteristics and skills of every man in his small cadre. His intuition as leader made him ready to inspire these men into action when their talents were required.


On the Southern Sea           


Nearly six months passed before Ríos finally allowed Almalgro to lease a ship to bring supplies. By the time he arrived a month later on Gorgona Island, Pizarro was even thinner, his cheeks sunken. His grizzled cadre all said fervent prayers of joy and thanksgiving for their delivery from their primitive home. De Ribera had repeatedly reminded these resourceful souls that Colombo had spent six months marooned on an island (Jamaica) before help arrived, also due to deliberate delays imposed by the authorities in Hispaniola.

There would be no delay by the Captains in setting sail to the south, with Ruiz acting as pilot. The six-month deadline had gone into effect when Diego left Panama. Two men were too ill to take on board. The Captains reluctantly left them on Gorgona, along with the six native men and women who had accompanied them from Isla del Gallo. Almalgro delivered tearful promises to return for them on the homeward-bound voyage, leaving them food supplies as generous as he could. As the ship slipped away from the place, the shipmates were lost in their own thoughts on the brutal decision, and many a silent prayer was raised for the duo.

Working against the prevailing ocean currents, the Captains required 20 days of arduous, coast-hugging sailing before they reached Tumbez. Not far from shore, they encountered a small island, unexplored on Ruiz’s previous foray. They decided to examine it on foot this time, taking two of the translators with them. Before rowing in, they named the place Santa Clara.           

Not far from the shoreline, in a wide clearing, Diego, Francisco and seven of their men came upon what they called an idol, shaped as a man. It was carved from stone with what appeared to be an engraving of the sun etched on it. Diego and Francisco approached it cautiously to examine it. Several shelters, also fashioned from flat stones, were arrayed around it.

“Francisco, look! Look at this!” Diego exclaimed as he picked up a gold and silver hand inside one of the shelters. It was half life-sized, heavy, and burnished. Francisco pulled out a golden head, perhaps a quarter life-sized. Alonso de Molina held up two globes of gold with silver tits, and blurting, “Such breasts. I have never seen better!” Everyone joined in the examination now. There were also egg-sized gold nuggets, a silver jug of elegant design, and stacks of intricately woven yellow mantles. Diego asked an interpreter what this place was.

“You have found what the mountain people call a huaca, a place of worship. Since these mantles are yellow, this is a place where the people who live in Tumbez worship their dead.”

“Are there more like this one, perhaps, on the mainland?” Francisco inquired.

“Many more can be found, far inland.” All three interpreters, who had been captured during Ruiz’s first visit here, were from this general area. So, Diego and Francisco asked  them detailed questions about the local inhabitants. The Captains, whose spirits soared with this rich discovery and its promise of greater things, congratulated each other on their find, while each privately rejoiced on the timing. Francisco’s reflection: Finally, finally, we may be on the verge of relief. Perhaps our gamble will reap rewards.

After so much uncertainty, suffering and loss, both men felt vindicated as well as renewed – but still cautious, however, over exactly what lay ahead.

After another 20 days of sailing, every man aboard had seen a gradual, but marked, change in the topography of the shoreline.Moving steadily past the places they named – Punta Tacumez, Punta Pasado, Punta St. Helena, the great Gulf of Guayaquil – they tentatively claimed them all for the Crown.  The seemingly endless jungles faded to rugged, rocky slopes, then to sandy plains. The coastal villages spotted from the ship gradually increased in size and numbers, while in the distance, beyond them, great mountain ranges rose up in purple majesty. Smoke, presumably from the villages, could be seen lazily drifting in the gentle breezes.

The abundant evidence of human habitation mesmerized the sojourners as they watched from the ship railing. Of course, tensions elevated, too. One did not need to be a scholar to understand that the numbers of natives that were living on the lands that slipped by dwarfed the ship’s crew count. The further the Castilians traveled, the more distant their escape to safety would be – unless they went miles out to sea.

Ruiz consulted with Diego and Francisco on strategy.

“You know that we are being watched from the shore as we sail along. Our translators have been clear that many, many people, including warriors, live in these parts. They must be planning as we advance down the coast. We know they have large reed boats. Perhaps we should sail out further where we will be more difficult to see.” 

As both leaders were confronted with unmistakable evidence that a large population did, indeed, reside here, their mood became more sober, more defensive.

“Diego, so, we have found a nation of people, as we have believed for so long that we would. Are we prepared to land somewhere to come in contact? Our interpreters have told us that these people, these tribes, often war with each other. How do you think will they react to us?”

“Perhaps we will be lucky like Cortés. You know he was able, by his beautiful mistress, to get two nations to join with him to make war on the Aztecs. Bitter enemies will sometimes ally with the Devil for revenge. If there is a beautiful woman who might be a mistress, I should take that duty, my friend.”

A strong belly laugh from Francisco prompted Diego to gently push on his partner’s shoulder. Smiling at Francisco, he prolonged the mirthful moment.

 “I am not jesting, Francisco. I am the good-looking, mysterious one, ready to do my duty.” Diego stroked his beard, and both men chuckled anew with amusement before Diego got down to business.

“Francisco, we must land with a few horses when we go in. We know they have never seen such animals. They will be amazed. Perhaps our translators can convince them that we are gods, too.”

The native translators from Tumbez had told the Captains during their months together that the great rulers of these lands, whom they called Incas, had a legend almost identical to that of the Aztec nation. The Inca legend had it that their founder had walked away, out over the sea, many generations ago – and that he would return someday.

“Hmm. That would be the luck of God, Diego, if these savages mistook one of us for their founder! Well, somewhere here, we must land. You are right, though. When we do, we will take horses, we will be in full armor, and we will take two harquebuses. That we know they are afraid of. And then we will see what we do.”

Ruiz coaxed their ship carefully into the Gulf of Guayaquil, passing the island they named Isla Puna, as his passengers gazed at the enormous mountain range before them, rising up not more than four or five miles away.  A volcano (Cotopaxi) loomed, its sides barren, with sporadic wisps of steam thinly drifting, and closer to them, an enormous mountain (Chimborazo), its peak hidden by clouds that seemed anchored to it. Nothing in their memory compared.

Here, close to the shores of Tumbez, they anchored. Pizarro and a dozen soldiers made a quick trip to shore to do rapid reconnaissance. Finding a stone column and a few gold offerings, one translator said this place was used by the people who lived on Isla Puna for worship, adding that their home of Tumbez was a large place with many people who they thought would be friendly to the foreigners. With this comforting news, they made a hasty return to their ship for the night. The ship’s lookouts who were posted that evening reported seeing the light from many fires deeper inland, and an uneasy sleep settled over the other men on board.

The following morning, before the cadre had finished their preparations, several large reed boats, 40 to 50 feet in length, with one large sail each and rowers on each side, appeared from the far side of the bay. Filled with men – warriors, they surmised — the three vessels appeared to be heading out to Puna when they changed direction to head toward the Castilians’ caravel. Ruiz promptly raised anchor and set half sails in order to approach the rafts obliquely. Everyone was fully armed, harquebusiers at the ready. Diego asked the interpreters to stand on the poop deck in an effort to open communications.

When they were within shouting range, the interpreters in clear sight, there was a back-and- forth exchange between the leader of the reed convoy and the interpreters, which concluded with the flotilla leader directing his reed boat to come alongside the caravel. On orders by Ruiz to pull in sail – but not drop anchor – a rope ladder was dropped over the side of the caravel for the flotilla leader to climb on board. The soldiers on the ship all watched anxiously as the three reed boats pulled close, their warriors at the ready with bows, arrows, and clubs.

Floating in the Bay of Guayaquil, representatives of two radically different cultures were about to meet. Could it be that the first formal, verbal exchange between a dominion people of the Incas and subjects of Charles V was about to unfold? The year was 1527, some 35 years after the epic first voyage of Colombo.



One Response to Francisco Pizarro’s “Misery, Deliverance and Contact” Episode

  1. paul-kochis says:

    Thank you very much.

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