The Ransom Room

Feb 9, 2024 0 comments

In the northern highlands of Peru lies the historic city of Cajamarca, where the great Inca empire met its demise. It was on this soil that Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro orchestrated the downfall of Inca ruler Atahualpa, capturing him and confining him to a modest chamber adjacent to the grand plaza. In a desperate bid for freedom, Atahualpa promised to fill the chamber once with gold and twice with silver, stacked as high as his outstretched hand could reach. This exorbitant ransom is one of the highest ever paid in human history. Despite his efforts, Atahualpa was executed after a mock trial by his captors. The room where all this happened is known as the Ransom Room or “Cuarto de Rescate" (Rescue Room), and can still be visited in the city of Cajamarca.

The Ransom Room. Photo credit: A.Davey/Flickr

In the early 16th century, the Inca Empire stood as one of the largest civilizations in the Americas, stretching from the northern border of modern Ecuador to the Maule River in central Chile, encompassing the Pacific coast and Andean highlands. In 1532, Atahualpa ascended to the throne of this expansive realm, having decisively defeated his half-brother and incumbent emperor, Huáscar, following three years of brutal civil conflict. However, Atahualpa's reign proved to be fleeting.

Amidst the internal strife within the Inca Empire, a Spanish expedition led by Francisco Pizarro embarked on a quest to conquer South America. Landing on Puna Island in January 1531 with a modest force comprising 168 soldiers and approximately two dozen horses, they ventured southward towards the heart of the Inca domain. Positioned atop the heights of Cajamarca with a formidable army of nearly 80,000 battle-hardened troops, victorious from the recent civil war against Huáscar, the Inca perceived little threat from Pizarro's meager contingent, notwithstanding its foreign attire and advanced weaponry.

In a gesture seemingly friendly, Atahualpa welcomed the adventurers deep into his mountainous empire, intending to ensnare them in an ambush. Unbeknownst to him, Pizarro had orchestrated a counteroffensive with a smaller yet significantly more powerful force equipped with steel weaponry and long swords, far superior to the wooden, stone, copper, and bronze arms wielded by the Inca. In a brief and brutal encounter, the Inca forces were decimated, and Atahualpa found himself captured.

It didn't take Atahualpa long to realize the true intentions of the Spanish invaders: they coveted gold and silver. He observed their plundering of Inca encampments and temples in Cajamarca, witnessing the looting of precious treasures. Atahualpa grasped the stark reality that his freedom hinged upon his ability to pay a ransom. Thus, he proposed to Pizarro a transaction for his release: he would fill his confined chamber with gold once and twice with silver, extending up to the level of his outstretched arm. The room was 22 feet long and 17 feet wide. Atahualpa, being a tall man, could reach his hand to over eight feet. This height is now marked by a red line.

The capture of Atahualpa by John Everett Millais  (1829–1896)

Over the ensuing two months, porters converged from all corners of the empire, delivering vast fortunes to appease the invaders. Among the riches were not only gold coins but also invaluable works of art crafted from gold and silver, alongside myriad tons of precious metals in the form of jewelry and temple adornments. To expedite the process, the Spaniards pulverized bulkier items, ensuring a slower accumulation within the chamber. This amassed treasure was then melted down, refined into 22-karat gold, and meticulously tallied. Atahualpa's ransom amounted to over 6,000 kilograms of gold and double that in silver, equating to nearly half a billion dollars by today's standards. Twenty percent of the spoils were allocated to the King of Spain, while the remainder was distributed among the soldiers based on their ranks. Legend has it that even the most humble among the troops received a share, totaling 20 kilograms of gold and 40 kilograms of silver.

In the meantime, Atahualpa's three royal generals, Quisquis, Chalcuchima, and Rumiñahui, had already begun to mobilize a large army. After several months in fear of an imminent attack, the outnumbered Spanish considered Atahualpa to be too much of a liability and decided to execute him. Pizarro orchestrated a sham trial, indicting Atahualpa on charges of rebellion against the Spanish, idolatry, and fratricide against his brother, Huáscar. Atahualpa was sentenced to death by burning at the stake. When Atahualpa expressed concerns that his soul would not be able to go on to the afterlife if the body were burned, Friar Vincente de Valverde offered to commute the sentence to death by garrote but only if he agreed to convert to Catholicism. Faced with a dire ultimatum, Atahualpa agreed to be baptized into the Catholic faith and assumed the name Francisco Atahualpa in honor of Francisco Pizarro. He was executed by strangling with a garrote on July 26, 1533.

The execution of Atahualpa.

The Ransom Room still stands at the grand plaza in a small courtyard, sandwiched between commercial establishments on the street and accessible through a porch. Made of volcanic stone, its condition is said to be spalling, “aggravated by pollution and weather fluctuations.” Archeologists have excavated the floors but the building’s walls are still largely intact, right up to the red line indicating the height to which Atahualpa promised to fill the room with treasures.

Photo credit: zug55/Flickr

# About the Ransom of Atahualpa, ThoughtCo
# The Capture of Inca Atahualpa, ThoughtCo
# Ransom Room, World Monuments Fund


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