Atahualpa’s Rook.

Chess and Murder during the Conquest of Peru.
‘No Captain, the Rook.’ Sapa Inca Atahualpa’s sideline advice to Hernando De Soto reconstructed by the author. Atahualpa wears his famous bat-skin cloak over a richly embroidered tunic based loosely on the All-T’oqapu Tunic. The Llawt’u and Maskapaycha are based on the contemporary description by Pedro Pizarro. Did this event seal Atahualpa’s fate?

The story of Atahualpa’s Rook is one of the many stories told about the imprisonment of the Sapa Inca Atahualpa. Chess, with it’s ancient ideals of nobility, is the game for which there is the most evidence of Atahualpa playing during his captivity, along with dice and cards. These stories quickly became common currency in Spanish America, told, retold and embellished into folktales within ten years of the real events.

Daughters of the Sun.

After the terrible massacre in the plaza at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532 the lord of Tawantinsuyu was taken to the local Temple of the Sun on the outskirts of the the town and placed under guard. [1]

The heavily built, olive skinned strangers with their strange clothes, shining armour and hairy faces, came with their terrible snorting animals, dragging the Sapa Inca with them. They secured the temple quickly, ranging through it, issuing streams of commands in a flowing, sharp, unfamiliar language.

Previous to his arrival the devastating news of the disaster of 16 November would have come to the House of the Sun in sounds and survivor’s tales. The strange noises of gunpowder weapons echoed like the crack of heavy stones against a wall, the Castilian falconets like the thump of distant thunder and the neighing of horse’s like demonic laughter. Very few would have guessed that it was the sounds of the world being turned upside down, the dreaded Pachacuti itself.

When the prisoner was brought in, the inhabitants would have dropped their eyes or prostrated themselves as soon as they caught sight of the Llawt’u and Maskapaycha on Atahualpa’s head.

Atahualpa was in a way being held captive in his own house, for the semi divine Sapa Incas were descendants of Inti, the sun, and both were worshiped in this precinct. It is interesting that one Spanish account described the place being inhabited by royal virgins who spent their time spinning and weaving fine cloth. [2] 

This indicates that ‘the house of the sun’ at Cajamarca was or included an abode for ‘chosen women’, or ‘maidens of the sun.’ An acllahuasi.

The chosen women began their lives at the age of ten, when an administrator from the provincial capital visited their village and selected the most perfectly formed and brightest children for entrance to the provincial house.

Class was not a barrier and when they entered the acllahuasi the girls became wards of the state and expected to remain chaste for life or until an appointed time.

These places were clearing-houses for girls destined to go into the higher echelons of Inca society. Here their destinies were decided, and they were instructed in skills such as weaving, sewing, brewing, cooking and taught the mysteries of the Inca religion. 

Some would be sent to marry into the nobility, the finest of the crop would become wives or concubines of the Sapa Inca. Others would remain in the house making clothes for the state. In Tawantinsuyu any labour or skill was a form of tax. Smaller numbers of girls would rise to be priestesses, and others might be called upon to give their lives in sacrifice. [3]

Their presence is significant because where it not for a particularly interesting woman this story would not have caught my eye at all.

In the course of his work the 19th century folklorist and head of the Biblioteca National de Peru, Ricardo Palma came across a document  written by Juan de Betanzos.

Betanzos was a Conquistador and Spanish chronicler who wrote a history of the Inca empire from the perspective of his wife’s people. Betanzos interviewed many Peruvians and drew also on the singular advantage of being married to one of Atahualpa’s (and Pizarro’s) widows, Doña Angelina Yupanqui who was able to furnish him with a great deal of personal information.

Doña Angelina had been in Cajamarca in 1532 as the drama continued, but she was not called Angelina then. She was born in 1522, and was a niece of Huayna Capac, a previous Sapa Inca, who apparently named her personally, Cuxirimay Ocllo, ‘Lady who speaks good fortune.’ 

As a descendant of Manco Capac, a founder of the empire, any children she bore, boy or girl, would instantly achieve the highest status in the kingdom.

Even if a boy should be born by a different wife of inferior lineage, a girl born to a Capac woman would still be ranked higher. That being said there had never been a female Sapa Inca, nor would there ever be one.

More dubiously, due to the importance of keeping the line of Capac pure, Curiximay was also related to Atahualpa. Both their mother’s were sisters. In an ‘ideal world’ only those of Capac’s line could produce the next Sapa Inca and Huayna Capac had announced at Cuxirimay’s birth that his niece would marry his son, Atahualpa.

Cuxirimay’s family unsurprisingly sided with the Cusco faction loyal to her future husband during the great fratricidal civil war that was fought immediately before the Spanish conquest. 

In 1532, after defeating his brother, Huáscar’s army in Ecuador, the 30 year old Atahualpa sent for his 10 year old Capac bride to meet him as he marched south to claim his kingdom.It was important to him and his newly won place as Sapa Inca that he solidified a line of succession. Atahualpa also intended to have his captured brother paraded before him in servile disgrace to cement his legitimacy.

They two were married soon after she was brought to him, but due to her youth and the arrival of the Spaniards, all but one year later, it didn’t go much past the perfunctory ceremony which was little more than a verbal affirmation that she would be his principle spouse, she was a wife in name only. [4]

Atahualpa and the Conquistadors.

It is a well known part of the tragedy of Atahualpa that he promised Francisco Pizarro to fill a room of the complex with gold and silver. During the agonising wait for the porters to begin arriving with the loot, tension rose for the Spanish, who felt increasingly isolated as time passed. Some began to wonder who was the prisoner, Atahualpa or Pizarro.

The Spanish held all the cards but due to a lack of troops, intelligence and allies, they were unable to make their next move. They were constantly on the alert for trouble and unable to let their guards down, fretting for their life-changing loot.

It would be easy for arguments to break out in the tense atmosphere but diversions came where they could be found: in cups of dice, packs of cards or improvised boardgames.

The majority of the men serving under Pizarro were in their twenties, and most seem to have been between 20-25. A random selection of 13 men in Lockhart’s Men From Cajamarca reflected this, and of that group only one was in his thirties. 

The Conquistadors also defy modern identification. They were both soldiers, settlers and civilians all wrapped into one. Neither application suffices to describe them properly. In 16th century Spain a man would be expected to know the use of arms, and if they were from peasant stock, work in a trade or profession, but professional soldiers, or those who bore arms as their trade, were rare in the Americas. [5]

This is revealed when one chronicler specifically mentioned that there were those in Peru who had seen armies in the field, implying this to be a special trait.

A glimpse of the kind of man that had slaughtered the Incas in the square at Cajamarca can be gained from a letter written by a ‘footman’ in the Pizarro expedition.

Gaspar Gárate (he also called himself Marquina to identify his Basque origins) was in his early twenties, an illegitimate son who was nonetheless recognised and educated. Practically the only distinguishing thing about him was that he could read and write more than his own name.

He had however not used his education to seek work as a merchant or notary but gone out to America. The only reason young men did this was because they wanted to get rich quick and return home, or else be granted an estate with slaves and move on to plunder somewhere else. However the reality was tough.

Gaspar came out to Peru with some fellow Basques. possibly under the command of Hernando de Soto. He had heard that ‘Governor Francisco Pizarro was coming to be governor of this kingdom in New Castile.’

The young man had previously been adventuring in Nicaragua, and all of his military experience stemmed from service in the Americas. Suddenly out of work and penniless he was taken on as a page to Francisco Pizarro.

Which brought him, through sweat and toil to the blood and terror of the square in Cajamarca. ‘We attacked them’ he wrote of ‘the best people that have been seen in the whole of the Indies’, and ‘seized the lord and killed many.’ [6]

When the ransom came, Gaspar was to receive a 3/4 share in gold, a life changing sum worth 3,330 pesos. Gaspar was a nobody, who had made it big overnight before his 25th birthday.

Yet he would be killed almost exactly year later during the great Inca rebellion and is remembered only because of a single letter he wrote to his family from Cajamarca in 1533. This was the short, inglorious, brutal life of a typical Conquistador. 

While they waited, those in charge of Atahualpa got to know him. The Inca had been allowed to gather his household and make himself comfortable. A clique of royal women appeared, apparently in addition to the women of the temple and they saw to his every need. 

Everything from his wardrobe, to his routines and habits became a source of fascination to the Spanish. His richly embroidered tunics of alpaca and cotton were almost as dazzling as his jewellery.

When he appeared wearing a dark brown cloak one day, the Spaniards were awed by its softer than velvet texture. In answer to their curiosity Atahualpa told them it was made out of the skins of bats.

Atahualpa was well made, though small he had a typically well developed Andean chest. Pedro Pizarro remembered that he was a ‘well disposed’ man, ‘beautiful of face and grave in his fierce eyes’.

He seemed more athletic looking than many of his subjects, though his large head and bloodshot eyes lent him the unnerving expression mentioned by Pedro. 

With his subjects and even senior lords and administrators he was clipped, formal and severe. Few people dared look him in the face, and he rarely raised his eyes to anyone. He communicated to his handmaidens with unspoken glances which they interpreted effortlessly.

This formality was not evident with the Spaniards however, indeed he ‘showed himself affable, sometimes even indulging in sallies of mirth’ wrote Pizarro’s Secretary. [7]

Much more down to earth with the Spaniards than his own people it is tempting to explore the idea that the god-king, found a refreshing comradeship with the swaggering Christian’s who naturally saw him first as a man than a deity. Indeed Hernando Pizarro and Hernando de Soto, plus a few other Spanish captains grew very fond of him. 

This was in part due to his great wisdom, intelligence and refined, princely manners which the feudal soldiers of rural Castile’s impoverished noble houses responded to instinctively. He was described by Alonso de Guzman as ‘being so intelligent that in twenty days he understood Spanish and learnt to play chess and cards …’ [8]

Atahualpa’s Rook.

Until a few days before his infamous trial, Atahualpa and several Spanish captains would regularly gather in one of the rooms of the temple and divert themselves with games of chess, dice and cards.

The chess boards had been made by the Spanish at Cajamarca and were apparently pretty rough, the pieces were made out of local clay.

At first Atahualpa did not play, and showed no sign that he understood what was going on, sitting on a low seat in customary silence until one game, when Hernando de Soto was at the critical moment of a match with Pizarro’s treasurer Riquelme.

It is significant to the story, principally retold by Ricardo Palma, who found a vague document in the archives by Betanzos, that these two Spaniards were playing the game.

Atahualpa had done his best to ensure he had some protectors in the enemy camp. He knew that some would think nothing of killing him when his usefulness wore out, one of these was the corpulent Riquelme, who seems to have despised the ‘Indian’ leader. [9]

As the game progressed, De Soto picked up a knight intending to play the piece, (unless atahualpa was a mindreader, De Soto must have at least touched it) but before he could commit himself, Atahualpa gestured and spoke to him in a low voice, ‘no captain the rook’, he said.

What was more stunning than the breach of protocol (it being bad form to coach chess players as a bystander, though it might be assumed that the Inca was copying how the Spanish both played and watched the game) was the foresight of the Inca’s observation, for de Soto reconsidered his move and played the rook, leading to an inevitable checkmate. [10]

Atahualpa had not only grasped the rules, but the strategy of one of the most complicated and culturally significant games played by the European and indeed eastern nobility. Atahualpa got so into chess that he even gave it a Quechua name, ‘taptana’, surprise attack. 

One wonders if he saw some parallel into his own situation when he thought up that name. But he did more than coach and invent names. Gaspar de Espinosa, another chronicler and Conquistador who came in the wake of the initial conquest was told that he played the game ‘very well’ and was both wise and insatiably curious.  [11]


The murder of Atahualpa reads like a big coverup in some TV mystery series where group of people conspire to get someone out of the way and, mostly ashamed of it, try to brush it under the rug. Binding each other to strict secrecy, and as each of the culprits are killed or pass away, the truth becomes more and more difficult to reveal. 

The official story is that the Sapa Inca was put on trial for apparently encouraging military action against the Spanish. He was then charged with the murder of his brother and idol worship, and found guilty by his accusers.

Atahualpa had feared for his life when Hernando Pizarro left Cajamarca to bring the King’s share of the ransom back to Spain, moodily observing that if Hernando went away Riquelme would have him killed. 

Another key objector to the trial, De Soto, was sent on a scouting expedition to find the mythical Inca army of liberation, dreamt up by the regicides. He would return too late to help his doomed chess partner. 

In Palma’s retelling, Riquelme was so angry that Atahualpa had caused his embarrassment he argued all the more forcibly for the Inca’s death during his unconscionable ‘trial’ in the summer of 1533.

Indeed he goes so far as to suggest that Atahualpa’s days were numbered as a direct result of his interference. Critically, both Atahualpa’s protectors had left Cajamarca and while they were away, he was murdered.

At the time, the action was shocking. Unlike Cortés and Moctezuma, Pizarro could not plead an accident, the trial and the garrotte are irrefutable elements of Spanish judicial execution. Pizarro and the others shielded themselves behind the pretence of law. 

Yet Hernando De Soto, observed it would have been far better to send Atahualpa to Panama, or even back to Castile. Ruefully he told Pizarro that would have taken him personally.

Even the governor of Panama, (admittedly an enemy of Pizarroj), agreed that Pizarro had crossed a line twice over, and wrote angrily to the King. King Charles V, who was lover of proper procedure and a defender of the rights of kings, listened.

Charles V censured Pizarro in tones of dignified distaste for killing Atahualpa. Curiously, as a mournful Pizarro squirmed before the forthright de Soto, he blamed none other than Father Valverde and Treasurer Riquelme for inciting the deed. [12] 

Surely the greatest crime committed during the conquest of Peru wasn’t because of a lost chess game, or was it? 


  • 1: Zarate. Discovery and Conquest of Peru, Folio Society, p88. MacQuarrie. K, Last Days of the Incas., p106.
  • 2: Zarate., p88.
  • 3: Bruhns, K.O., Stothert, K. E., Women in Ancient America., University of Oklahoma Press, pp150-51.
  • 4: Brooks, Jennifer, “Marriage, Legitimacy, and Intersectional Identities in the Sixteenth-Century Spanish Empire”. History Honors Projects. Paper 21., pp73-78. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  • 5: Lockhart. J, Men from Cajamarca., pp18 20
  • 6: Lockhart. J. Letters and People of the Spanish Indies: Sixteenth Century., p5.
  • 7: Prescott. Conquest of Peru p258., citing Xerez vol iii p203. 8: Wood. M, Conquistadors., p141.
  • 9: MacQuarrie, p126.
  • 10: Palma. R, Peruvian traditions., pp247-248.
  • 11: MacQuarrie., p106.
  • 12: Markham. C., Reports on the Discovery of Peru Footnote 3., pp102-103.

Abbreviated Sources.

  • Wood. M. Conquistadors.
  • Brooks, J., Marriage, Legitimacy.
  • Bruhns, K.O. Stothert, K. E., Women in Ancient America.
  • Lockhart J. Letters and People of the Spanish Indies.
  • Lockhart. J. Men from Cajamarca.
  • Markham. C. Reports on the Discovery of Peru.
  • MacQuarrie. K. Last Days of the Incas.
  • Palma. R. Peruvian Traditions. 
  • Prescott. Conquest of Peru.
  • Pizarro. P. (Ainsworth, Trans). Relation of the Discovery and Conquest of the Kingdoms of Peru. 
  • Zarate. Discovery and Conquest of Peru
  • Hemming. Conquest of the Incas.

See you again for another Asventured in Historyland. Josh.