Pizarro, the 13 men of Gallo Island and the fate of Peru.
As a symbolic gesture Francisco Pizarro unsheathed his sword and with its tip carved a line into sand. He was not a loquacious man, few Extremeños were, but when the situation called for it he could become deeply persuasive. For a man like Don Francisco to resort to such drama showed that this had just become very personal.
Francisco Pizarro was illiterate, illegitimate and ill bred. He was also clever, violent and resourceful. He came from an arrabal or slum in Trujilla which is in Extramdura in Western Spain. A breeding ground for Conquistadors due to the impoverished living conditions of the poor arrabalero’s, and indeed the gentry, to whom his philandering father belonged. It was a landlocked and impoverished part of Spain, covered in rocky scrubland, where walled towns rose from seas of parched grass. Scraping a living form the soil was a hard and unrewarding existence. Extrameños were much like the land they came from. Hard, uncommunicative and cruel.
It had taken half a century of toil and pain to put his past behind him. The last thing he had turned his back on was Spain, when he had left it as a young man, and he wasn’t about to restart the habit. Pizarro had left Spain as a young man, all his life many people had turned their back’s on him but that had been their folly. With no prospects he travelled to the Indies to seek his fortune at the point of a sword. Now fully grown he knew himself and he knew the world, he also knew how far he would go to get what he wanted from it.
By now in 1527 he was a fairly well to do gentleman in Panama, though still almost proudly illiterate, he was one of those dangerous men that thought the sword was mightier than the pen. His comfortable position in society was due to the fact he was a practiced Indian fighter and explorer, he had helped find the Pacific, and he had gone to great lengths to find mysterious civilisation that supposedly flourished along the coast of Peru. He had used his patent cruelty on many Indians along the way, and some of his men, seeing that his obsession with reaching Peru had brought them to rags and starvation here, and the horrible atrocities he visited on the locals were beginning to think him mad. He was now fifty years old, his usually thin greying beard was now matted and unkept, his strong frame was gaunt and thin, but his sharp calculating eyes were still bright and alive. He was far from mad, and looking back, that is the most worrying thing about Francisco Pizarro.
They were standing on the beach. Isla Gallo is a small insignificant island off Columbia’s steamy mangrove coast. It rained here for most of the time and when it didn’t, mist shrouded the Spaniards in an airless cloud. Food took the form of shellfish and snakes. They had been left there when the expedition had split up in the face of hostile Indians and impenetrable mangrove swamps, short of food Pizarro’s partner another illiterate Spaniard, who was also shorter and less good looking than Pizarro, Diego Almagro sailed back to Panama for reinforcements and supplies. Diego and Francisco were alike in many ways, and had seen so many doors shut in their faces that they probably wouldn’t know how to open one. Years later they would be bitter enemies, yet at this moment they trusted each other with their lives. The ships that returned however did not hold any reinforcements, or supplies, nor even Don Diego, instead the survivors were confronted by a lieutenant sent by the new governor Pedro de los Ríos. A message had been smuggled out from Gallo with Almagro’s crew, it pleaded with the governor not to allow any more men to go to their deaths on this profitless expedition.
Hearing of the plight of the explorers on the Isle of Gallo from their compadres the new Governor offered any man who so wished the chance to return and that nine would be forced to remain, he also detained Almagro. Pizarro, not usually emotional could not hide his frustration and anguish when he discovered that his men wanted to give up when the riches of Peru were within his grasp. Months before, their pilot Bartolomé Ruiz, had sailed out and captured a large native ship, it was laden with valuables and goods, the sailors aboard were quite unlike the other Indians they had encountered and told them of the vast empire to the south. For as much as he was brooding and silent, when it came time to speak Pizarro also did not mince words, it wasn’t how he was raised to act, and it didn’t suit him.
“Comrades and friends, on this side lies the part which represents, death, hardship, hunger, nakedness and abandonment; this side here represents comfort. Here you return to Panama – to be poor! There you may go on to Peru to be rich. You choose which best becomes you as brave Spaniards.”
“I go South”
Some who were there that day reported that the crux of his words were that it was a harder thing to return poor to Panama than facing danger and becoming rich in Peru. He reminded them that in all the hardships they had already faced he had been at the forefront and shared in them all. He begged them to reconsider and join him in discovering what lay beyond, reminding them of what the Indians had told to Ruiz and added for himself he was going south.
Every ragged, emaciated, bone hungry man watching him draw that line must have understood on some level that Pizarro was no longer asking them to continue with him for the glory of Spain, (although he did throw a bit of King and Country in for good measure) but for a much deeper reason.
However from where they stood, the men could see no treasure or riches in the lee of Gallo, just the misty beach and lipid tropical vegetation hemmed in by the rim of the wide Pacific to seaward and the dark shore of South America to landward. Their privations so far had been unbearable, their numbers were dwindling by almost two men a week. Pizarro’s opinion may have been death or glory, but many of the younger men still felt they had more to lose than to gain and they were fed up of his ravings about Peru. All but a loyal 13 who were remembered as “The men of Gallo” (Amongst which were Nicolás de Ribera, Pedro de Candia from Crete, Juan de Torre, Alonso Birceño, Cristóbal de Peralta, Alonso de Trujillo, Francisco de Cuellar and Alonso de Mólina) whose personal affection for their leader was greater than their wish to return to Panama, crossed the line. They were grudgingly shipped over to a more habitable nearby island, which due to the large amount of venomous reptiles and savage biting insects he would call, Gorgona, after Medusa the Gorgon whose hair was made of snakes. It was one of the many islands that were to be found near the mouths of the many rivers let out into the sea. Though life there was described as a living hell, there were poisonous snakes, constant rain, mist, constant Thunder storms and cloud, there was at least fresh water, abundant wildlife and the possibility of survival. The others dumped them on the beach and left them some rations, then sailed for Panama “as if fleeing from the land of the Moors”. Here they would wait for 7 wet and humid months until Ruiz’ ship arrived to rescue them.
The little drama that played out between the ragged conquistadors and their flinty commander on Isla Gallo was a pivotal moment in the history of Spanish America and Peru. Had Pizarro not had the support of the 13, he must have been forced to return to Panama, with a ruined reputation, a hostile governor and much decreased prospects. True he was not a man to give up easily and he might yet have been able to return, or perhaps another would have stumbled upon Peru, but that man would not have been Pizarro, and who knows how differently the conquest of the Inca Empire might have turned out under the control of a less ambitious, calculating and indeed cruel man.
Often great events turn on the smallest of hinges, and commonly in the conquest of Spanish America, on the point of a sword.
Thanks for reading
See you again for another adventure in Historyland.
Conquistadors by Michael Wood.
Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie.
The Discovery and Conquest of Peru. Augustíne Zárate.