The reputations of Pizarro and other conquistadores left a legacy for the mother of an extremeño to worry about
MY youngest son is Extremeño – that is, he was born under the unforgiving blue skies of Extremadura. He therefore shares a legacy (by accident of location of birth rather than ancestral blood) with a horde of ruthless conquistadors. Extremadura was the birthplace of those heroes or villains – depending on your viewpoint – who left Iberia for the Americas in the fifteenth century; raped, pillaged and murdered their way across a continent and returned to Spain as heroes with all the exotic riches of the New World.
Much of Extremadura remains preserved as an insight into those who abandoned their lives for the Americas, deflecting the cultural trajectory of a continent in the process.
The first time you visit Extremadura, your tyres rolling over parched dust while vacant swine eye your arrival, imagine the rocky landscape six centuries ago – it can barely have changed since. These are the vast frontier lands nestling Portuguese terrain over which vultures hang menacingly and storks patrol in infinite numbers. The sun beats relentlessly down from an endless blue sky across which a cloud barely floats – making for a desert-like climate, scorching on summer days and freezing on winter nights. As James Mitchener noted about Extremadura: “The only thing that moved in nature was the sun, terrible and metallic as it inched its way across that indifferent sky.”
And with the barest amount of rainfall, working the rocky plains would have been a test of survival in itself. Little wonder then that the region’s inhabitants had both the yearning to leave and the balls to survive once they reached the new frontier lands of the Americas.
Birthplace of a nation
Ambling over Cáceres province, the town Trujillo eventually comes into view. Elipsed by the flattest of plains, Trujillo rises on approach like a medieval dome frozen in time. Peaked by a Moorish castle, the town boasts (arguably) the most beautiful Plaza Mayor in Spain, from which a multitude of towers rise, each populated by armies of storks in their haphazard nests.
The town’s most celebrated export is the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, “that fearless bastard who, if one listens to loose tongues, once herded pigs in Spain and ended up as the marques gobernador of Peru, but was crushed by his ambition and multiple betrayals,” such is the view of Peruvian writer Isabel Allende in Inés de Alma Mía.
The story goes that a distinguished military man, Gonzalo Pizarro Rodríguez de Aguilar (or “Pizarro the Long” as he was known due to his manifold infidelities) had a fleeting ‘conquest’ of his own with an impoverished local woman. Through this union he fathered Francisco Pizarro González, one of seven illegitimate children, with various mothers.
Born in the 1470s, Pizarro’s neglected, impecunious childhood left him illiterate, herding pigs across the dehesas extremeñas; therefore he left for the New World shortly after the turn of the 16th century without a second thought.
Pizarro forged his new life on the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and then took posts in Central America fighting ‘hostile natives’ all the way to Panama, where he became one of the first Europeans to view the Pacific Ocean.
Pizarro worked his way up to the position of mayor and magistrate of Panama City but legends of gold-rich countries to the south seduced him into pursuing further conquests.
After a number of failed attempts, Pizarro finally “led his pitiful little army to the conquest of Peru, the first 37 positions were occupied by men from Trujillo, and the five top positions were held by himself, his legitimate brother, his two bastard brothers and a half brother who was the son of his mother but not of the old colonel.”
Pizarro and his band of brothers led 160 or so assembled extremeños on a mission to conquer the rich territories of South America in 1532. The last emperor of the Incas, Atahualpa refused to give in to Pizarro, trusting that his 80,000-strong army would not be dented by less than 200 Spaniards.
But, in the Battle of Cajamarca, Pizarro’s men attacked the Incas and held Atahualpa captive, using him to bring the population under Spanish control before executing him in 1533.
Therefore the illegitimate, illiterate Pizarro rogues became the rulers of Peru and in this way, Spain, or more importantly Extremadura, left its legacy all over the Americas. Just as Hernán Cortés from Medellín defeated the Aztecs and conquered Mexico, Hernando de Soto “discovered” the Mississippi river and Vasco Núñez De Balboa, another extremeño, led the first European expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Mitchener’s conclusion was this: “To conquer a land so vast and a civilisation so advanced; perhaps only men trained in the hardness of Extremadura could have done it”.
Pizarro went on to marry an Inca princess, Inés Yupanqui, and become ruler of Peru. But by 1538, infighting between Pizarro and the Spanish governors of nearby territories caused divisions and Pizarro’s palace was stormed by rivals in 1541, who stabbed him to death.
If his reputation is dubious globally, Pizarro still retains an element of heroism in his home town – with his former home dedicated to a museum and his figure astride an iron steed in the Plaza Mayor.
Although the story goes that the statue was one of a number of ‘generic’ conquistador statues refused by the Mexicans as a tribute to Hernán Cortés (who is none too popular there) and passed off to Trujillo as Pizarro instead.
The riches Pizarro returned with from the new world furnished Trujillo with the stone palaces which remain today, rotting in various stages. Reminders of the golden age of Extremadura – a breath in time which saw the dusty farm lands elaborated with imperial buildings, weighted on the rape of the Americas.
Perhaps I should have named my son Pizarro or Hernán as a testament to his place of birth. Then again, perhaps not.