El Cuarto del Rescate (aka The Ransom Room)

Room; Cajamarca, Peru
AD 1532-1533


(El Cuarto del Rescate; courtesy of turismoi.pe)

In Cajamarca, Peru, there is a room known as El Cuarto del Rescate (which translates  roughly to “The Ransom Room” in English). It measures about 22 feet by 18 feet, and the room is about 15 feet high. The room was used as a measuring device to tell exactly how much gold and silver was needed to take the Inca Emperor Atahualpa back after being captured by the Spanish. Marks on the walls of the room act as guidelines to how much the room was to be filled, as the tick marks on a measuring cup show how much water it holds. The event that occurred surrounding the room is often referenced as the place where the Inca Empire fell due to the capture of Emperor Atahualpa.


(Cajamarca, Peru; courtesy of Wikipedia)

Emperor Atahualpa led the Inca people after a civil war took place between him and his brother Huascar. When Huascar was defeated, he was also put in prison, and Atahualpa became the sole Emperor of the Inca Empire. Because Atahualpa’s power came from a war, there was still a lot of tension between groups in the empire, as well as some animosity from Huascar’s supporters.

Biography of Atahualpa, Last King of the Inca
(Emperor Atahualpa; courtesy of  About.com)

Meanwhile, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro was getting ready to lead an expedition from Spain to Peru, his sole purpose to conquer an area yet to be conquered in the Americas. After hearing all about Hernán Cortés and his success in Mexico, Pizarro traveled to the coast of northern Peru. Nearby was Cajamarca, where Atahualpa ruled. Soon, Pizarro and his small army (less than 200 people) went to Cajamarca to talk to Atahualpa. Atahualpa eventually agreed to meet with Pizarro the day after.

(Francisco Pizarro; courtesy of biography.com)

The next day, Atahualpa is approached by a Spanish man who turns out to be Pizarro’s priest, Friar Vicente de Valverde. He began to start talking about how Christianity is the truth, which is necessary if there is potential for imminent violence as a way of justifying the action. At this point, Atahualpa asked to see the bible the priest has, and when he had it in his possession, he threw it on the ground. This caused utter chaos, and Atahualpa was taken as a hostage by the Spanish. The battle was known as The Massacre of Cajamarca or The Battle of Cajamarca.

The Spanish treated him well; the ulterior motive Pizarro had was that by treating Atahualpa well, the Spanish could manipulate Atahualpa into leading the Inca to be the empire the Spanish wanted it to be. In a way, Pizarro was basically copying Cortés’s methods in taking over Mexico. Once he was captured, the Inca officials were too afraid to try and take Atahualpa back and Atahualpa didn’t want to risk it either; however, he could see how badly the Spanish wanted gold and silver. Because of this, the Inca made a deal with Pizarro: if Atahualpa was let free, there would be a large ransom given to the Spanish. Of course, this is where El Cuarto del Rescate shows up in the story.

The ransom was to be half the room filled with gold once and the entire room filled with silver twice, all over the course of two months. The Inca filled the room with the proper amount of treasure (when melted down, approximately 6 tons of gold and 12 tons of silver), and they assumed that Atahualpa would be returned to the empire. They were wrong, though, and Atahualpa was not let go. Instead, the Spanish tried to take even more goods, and Atahualpa was accused of organizing an army that would try to save him. He was put to death. The already-divided native people (from the civil war mentioned earlier) were easily taken over by Pizarro.

Illustration  Illustration
(depictions of  Atahualpa’s interactions with the Spanish; courtesy of “Incas & Conquistadors”)

El Cuarto del Rescate is an object that well represents how the Spanish conquistadors operated during that time. One of the main goals of the conquistadors was to convert the natives to Christianity. In fact, right before Atahualpa was put to death, the Spanish converted him to Christianity, with the incentive that if he did convert, his death would be less painful (a slow burning at the stake versus a quick snapping of the neck). Not only that, but it’s obvious the conquistadors wanted money and power. When it came time to divide the ransom between the conquistadors, it’s worth noting that Pizarro ended up getting the “king’s share” of one-fifth of all the treasure. It’s also worth taking note that the conquistadors didn’t really care what they had to do to get power; they would’ve tried to rule by capturing and manipulating Atahualpa if that’s what it took. In the end, they just killed him once they finished getting what they wanted, completely backing out of the deal they had made with the Inca Empire. Everything that happened surrounding the room also foreshadowed the conflicts that would arise between the Inca and the Spanish in the future.

Today, El Cuarto del Rescate is open to the public, and people are allowed to go inside to see it. The Cajamarca government has spent quite a bit of money and effort in attempts over the years to restore the room. It is one of the last, standing ruins of the Inca Empire, and therefore an extremely important artifact from that time long ago.

(Cuarto del Rescate today; courtesy of rpp.com.pe)

From this single room, the way of the Spanish Conquistadors can be seen quite clearly in how they did whatever was necessary to gain wealth and power in the New World. It also illustrates one of the turning points for the Inca Empire and its decline. The story the room tells is of one of the most important events in the history of the Inca Empire.

“1532 – A Ransom Fit for a King.” Incas and Conquistadors. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.
Link: http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/road/hc09/incas/conquest-1532c.html

“Biography of Atahualpa, Last King of The Inca.” About.com Latin American History. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.
Link: http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/theconquestofperu/p/08Atahualpa.htm

“Cuarto Del Rescate to Be Restored in Cajamarca.” Peru This Week. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.
Link: http://www.peruthisweek.com/news-2385-Cuarto-del-Rescate-to-be-restored-in-Cajamarca/

“History Of Latin America.” History World. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.
Link: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?groupid=853

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