Chronicles of America 

Balboa and the Pacific

Just as from the third voyage of Columbus, renowned for its pearls, there resulted the voyage of Ojeda, bringing to the mainland of the Indies Vespucci, so in 1500 there resulted the voyage of Rodrigo de Bastidas, bringing Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Of Balboa prior to this time we know only that he was a good "swordplayer," born in 1474 or 1475 in Estremadura. Luckless at sea with Bastidas, he had resorted to farming in Espanola, and when, in November, 1509, Ojeda and Nicuesa started for their provinces, he was restless to accompany one or other. Debt kept him back, but he was resourceful, and in September, 1510, when Ojeda's lieutenant, Martin Fernández de Enciso, prepared to follow his commander with supplies, Balboa, it is said, contrived to get himself smuggled on shipboard in a provision cask.

On the Venezuelan coast, near the present Cartagena — for it was here that Enciso landed —Balboa encountered Francisco Pizarro, a dutiful soldier under Ojeda, with a boatload of Ojeda's men. From him it was learned that Ojeda, having lost De la Cosa in a fight, and being himself seriously wounded, had founded the refuge of San Sebastian, and then had departed for Espanola for succor. His colonists, meantime, desperate with hunger, were roaming hither and yon in quest of food. All straightway betook themselves to San Sebastian, but only to find it burned. The question then arose as to what should be done in circumstances so adverse.

In answer, up spoke Balboa. To the west of the Gulf of Urabá was a region (Darien) abounding in food; this he knew from having already visited it under Bastidas. There, moreover, the Indians used no poisoned arrows, missiles which had been the undoing of the headlong Ojeda. Balboa was of good stature, of knightly bearing, and of frank address, and his words took effect. Ojeda's colony transferred itself to Darien, where it founded Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien, and — being thus within the country which pertained to Nicuesa —promptly on Balboa's suggestion deposed Enciso and chose as alcaldes or judges Balboa and Martin Zamudio; and, as regidor or alderman, a young nobleman, Juan de Valdivia.

Where, though, in the meantime was Nicuesa? Ojeda had reached New Andalusia with three hundred men and four small ships. Nicuesa had appeared off Castilla del Oro with nearly seven hundred men and five ships of large size, and was now sailing to and fro looking for Columbus's Veragua, the Golden Chersonese, but to no issue except the loss of ships and the drowning and starving of his men. Marooned at length upon desert sand, Nicuesa himself and sixty half-naked followers embraced despair. Some muttered, some raved, some in fierce irony laughed aloud. "A jest it was, ha! ha! a merry jest, to adventure life for gold, for lands, and to rule one's fellows!" Nicuesa was finally found and brought back to Darien by his lieutenant. But the colony, which was originally Ojeda's, distrusted Nicuesa and in March, 1511, putting him on board a leaky brigantine, dispatched him to Spain, and that was the last that they or any one heard of this overbearing commander.

At this time Diego Columbus, elder son of Christopher Columbus, presided over the Antilles as Governor and Admiral, with residence in Espanola.

On the continent of America (Tierra Firme), which now comprised Central America and Mundus Novus (South America), no one presided. Opportunity, therefore, called for a ruler in Tierra Firme and not in vain, for there was a man to respond —by name Vasco Núñez de Balboa. All he lacked was legal authorization. To obtain this, being so far from Spain, he must do mighty deeds, make himself potent and indispensable. And this he set himself to do. First, he deported Enciso to Spain, sending with him, to offset a possible misrepresentation of his action, the alcalde Zamudio. In the same ship, but commissioned to stop in Espanola and solicit the favor of Don Diego, he sent Valdivia. Don Diego proved malleable and soon appointed Balboa his lieutenant.

Thereupon Balboa shaped a career for conquest and discovery — a career in which two points that stand out are his recognition of Pizarro and his employment of blooded dogs. Francisco Pizarro was an Estremaduran, like Balboa, and of about the same age. He was ambitious, yet peculiar from the fact that in a period of restless competition he was content to bide, to serve, and to be ever dutiful. With regard to the dogs, they were no new thing with the Spaniard. Bartholomew Columbus had used them in Espanola, though not quite as Balboa was to use them in Darien. Their breed was of the best, and their fangs were deadly, but they were sagacious and under firm discipline.

Gold was Balboa's object but the prime immediate requisite was food. Careta, cacique of Cueva, a district to the west of Santa Maria, possessed both gold and food, and he possessed, furthermore, a daughter. Balboa attacked the village of Careta and carried the cacique and his attractive daughter prisoners to Santa Maria. Here, in turn, the captor himself was made captive, for he fell in love with the daughter, and formed with Careta an alliance against that cacique's enemy, Ponca.

To the west of Careta lay a rich and populous country of the Atlantic seaboard, ruled by a cacique, Comogre, who, to the amazement of the Spaniards, occupied a house constructed of posts and stone, with carved woodwork. An understanding with Comogre became practicable through the understanding with Careta, and momentous did it prove. It made of Balboa a discoverer, a world discoverer, the discoverer of the South Sea or Pacific Ocean — an achievement which, had it only come a little sooner, would in all probability have brought with it the conquest of Peru.

Comogre had seven sons, one of whom, Panciaco, was of marked intelligence. From him Balboa learned of a cacique dwelling beyond a high sierra on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Darien and possessed withal of much gold. This gold Balboa resolved to see — the "baskets full," the "bags full," the large "vessels" out of which the people ate and drank. And he would see also the new strange waters beyond the sierra, where, according to report, were ships with sails and oars but little less in size than those of the Spaniards themselves. The difficulty confronting Balboa was that such an adventure required many men, all seasoned and well equipped — a thousand, Panciaco said, —whereas the Spaniard had but a few hundred, and these meager for lack of food.

So pressing, indeed, was the demand for food in Darien that in January, 1512, Valdivia, back from Espanola, was again sent forth, this time expressly for provisions and to carry to Diego Columbus a letter telling of the great southward-lying sea and imploring the thousand men necessary for the seizure of its golden littoral. Nor was this all, for Balboa himself made an incursion into the country most astonishing thing and without equal, that our Lord has made you the lord of this land.

Then he asked for a thousand men from Espanola; for materials for the building of small ships — "pitch, nails, ropes and sails "; for "master shipwrights" and for arms — "200 crossbows with very strong stays and fittings and with long ranges, two dozen good handguns of light metal to weigh not more than twenty-five to thirty pounds"; and for "good powder."

None of Balboa's demands, however, were to be granted. Indeed, by the time his commissioners reached Spain in May, 1513, it is probable that the decision had been made to supersede him. Of this, as we have seen, he had received intimation, and, with or without men and munitions, he must act. Upon his action depended everything: his fame, his fortune, and his life.

Balboa set forth on September 6, 1513, from Careta's country (Caledonia Bay) directly southward across the Isthmus of Darien to the Gulf of San Miguel. With him he took one hundred and ninety Spaniards. He took, also, hundreds of Indian slaves as attendants and burden bearers. Careta's daughter was still his spouse, and through this fortunate connection he obtained provisions and guides. The arms of his men were the usual swords, crossbows, and arquebuses; but more formidable than all other means of foray were the dogs, the bloodhounds.

The distance to be traversed was not great —about forty-five miles — but the obstacles were as formidable as the distance was trifling. A cacique named Quarequá proved the most redoubtable foe, and fell upon the Spaniards with a confident and yelling host. He was, however, quickly put to flight by the discharges from the crossbows and arquebuses; and after the fleeing men leaped the dogs. Then, drawing their swords, the Spaniards (according to Peter Martyr) made bloody havoc, "hewing from one an arme, from another a legge, from him a buttocke, from another a shoulder, and from some the necke from the bodie at one stroke."

The country at first was a succession of streams and swamps, screened by interlacing vines and creepers, the home of gorgeous flowers and brilliant birds, but no less the dwelling-place of countless chattering monkeys and inconvenient reptiles. Everywhere stretched forests of trees, stupendous, dark, and so festooned as to be almost impenetrable even to the ax. At length the journey was over. On the 25th of September, Balboa was at the base of an elevation which his guides told him looked upon the sea of the south — the Mar del Sur, as the Spaniards long henceforth were to call it. Some sixty-six or sixty-seven men only were equal to the ascent. With these Balboa clambered to a point near the summit. Bidding them pause, the ambitious explorer went " himselfe," says Peter Martyr, "alone to the toppe." Here he looked long and prayed; then he beckoned to his men, who gathered about him and stared at the Pacific.

Among the number thus silent upon a peak in Darien was Francisco Pizarro. To him the situation was a congenial one. Duty had been performed and there was no need for utterance. But what were his thoughts? In the "golden vessels" said to be used by Tubanamá, did he surmise anything of Peru? Quite likely not. Still, distant regions of a new civilization were now and again heard of in Darien. Once a refugee from "the great landes farre towarde the West" came upon a Spanish official reading, and, starting with surprise, exclaimed: "You, also, have books!"

But this by the way. Pizarro, the dutiful captain, was now straightway sent forward by Balboa to discover the shore of the sea they had gazed upon, and on September 29, 1513 — St. Michael's day — Balboa himself, with drawn sword and uplifted banner, advanced to meet the tide. They stood facing a gulf, and in honor of the day they named it San Miguel. And here there came to the Spaniards an unmistakable intimation of Peru. Tumaco, cacique of one of the gulf tribes, replying to questions by Balboa as to the extent of this new coast, told him that the mainland extended to the south without end, and that far in that direction dwelt a nation fabulously rich, who sailed the ocean in ships and used beasts of burden. To illustrate the beasts, he formed from clay the figure of the llama, which seemed a kind of camel. "This," says Herrera, the Spanish historian, "was the second intimation Vasco Núñez [and we may add Francisco Pizarro] had of Peru."

In 1513 Darien was still to explorers, as it had been to Columbus, the Malay Peninsula, the Golden Chersonese, the approach to India. "It is thought," notes the indefatigable Martyr, "that not far from the colony of San Miguel lies the country where the fruitfulnesse of spice beginneth." To dispel this illusion there was required the voyage of Magellan, a voyage not merely to America but through America and beyond it. Prior to the time of this voyage in 1519-1522, America was thought of only as a part of the continent of Asia. Magellan detached America and gave it an independent existence.'

But at the time of the discovery of the South Sea itself Columbus's idea of America as a land appurtenant and subsidiary to Asia prevailed, and had Balboa reached Peru or Mexico he would have believed himself in India. Even by Cortés, Mexico was thought to be the Golden Chersonese.

After discovering the Gulf of San Miguel and finding Isla Rica, rich in pearls, Balboa turned northward and reached Santa Maria on January 19, 1514. Here the whole people welcomed him and eagerly viewed his treasure. For once in the¹

Indies, however, treasure to the Spaniards was a thing of secondary account. The new sea was what these men cared about. The Mar del Sur —what of it? From Darien Balboa dispatched Pedro de Arbolancha as a special messenger to Ferdinand with the great news. And, as typical of the new sea and of the auriferous realms whereto supposedly it was tributary, he entrusted to his messenger by way of gift for the King not merely gold but two hundred lustrous pearls, the fruit of the waters of this great southern sea.

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