Chronicles of America 


Balboa had fallen before Pedrarias, but the search for some passageway to the provinces and islands of the South Sea, rich in spices, pearls, and gold, was continued by not unworthy successors in the persons of Andres Niño — a sea-dog not to be confounded with Pero Alonso Niño, pilot under Columbus and Ojeda — and Gil Gonzalez Dávila. Columbus himself had sought this passageway or strait, between 1502 and 1504, (see: Columbus Subsequent Voyages) and others had followed him. This Niño, too, had explored the coast of Darien in behalf of Balboa. In 1519, the year of Balboa's death, Niño entered into a partnership with Gil Gonzalez, treasury agent for Española, a man of great practicality and excellent judgment. The partners were empowered by the Crown to take over the ships built by Balboa and to make exploration one thousand leagues to the west. Pedrarias — seventy years old, drier, harder, more inflexible than ever — refused to deliver the vessels. Gonzalez, whose rank in the partnership was that of Captain-General, thereupon dismantled his own ships, and, repeating the feat of Balboa, carried the materials over the mountains to the river Balsas. In the end, after delays and discouragements comparable to those of Balboa, he managed to build and equip four small vessels and with them to sail westward on January 21, 1522.

This expedition, which took a double form — a coasting voyage by Niño and a march overland by Gonzalez — came first to the lands of the cacique Nicoya, from whom Gonzalez learned that fifty leagues to the northward there dwelt a greater cacique whose name was Nicaragua. Gonzalez abhorred strife as much as Pedrarias delighted in it, and the naïve wisdom of Nicaragua had therefore a chance to unfold itself unhindered. Whence, asked the cacique, after listening to a detailed account of the Mosaic scheme of creation, did the sun and moon obtain their light and how would they lose it? Why did not the God of the Christians make a better physical world, one more comfortable to dwell in? And finally, speaking in the ear of the interpreter, he asked: "Came these men from the sky ? " Being assured that they did, his next query was: "But how? Came they directly down like a spent arrow, or riding a cloud, or in a circuit like a bent bow?"

The Indian community over which Nicaragua ruled was situated on a large freshwater sea, the present Lake Nicaragua, and, striding into it, Gonzalez drank of the water and took possession in the name of the King of Spain. "It is by situation," he wrote, "barely three leagues from the South Sea, and, according to the pilots, connected with the North Sea. If so, it is a great discovery." Here Gonzalez repelled an Indian attack under a picturesque cacique named Diriangen, and, having satisfied himself that as yet the Spaniards of Mexico, Cortés and his followers, had made no southerly advance, returned to Panamá. As for Andrés Niño, he had coasted as far northwestward as the Bay of Fonseca on the shores of the later Central American provinces of Salvador and Honduras.

But what meanwhile of the doings of Pedrarias? It was in January, 1519, that Balboa had been got rid of, and by the 15th of August Pedrarias and Espinosa — Gaspar de Espinosa, now Captain-General of the South Sea — had crossed the Isthmus from Adá and had founded Panamá to serve as a southern terminal for the long contemplated chain of posts to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific side of the Isthmus until the ardently desired interoceanic strait should be discovered. Later the same year a northern terminal was provided through the founding of Nombre de Dios.

With the rise of Panamá, now created by royal decree a city and the capital of Darien, Santa Maria la Antigua, forever ill-famed as the place of execution of Balboa, sank rapidly to decay and in September, 1524, was burned by the Indians. Henceforth, in the old Tierra Firme, Panamá and Nombre de Dios are the names wherewith to conjure. About these cities, more than about any others of the Indies, does romance cling. A wide road, says Peter Martyr, was built from one to the other "through mountains overgrown with thick woods never touched from all eternity, " to the intent that "two carts side by side might pass over with ease to search ye secrets of either spacious Sea." And "ye secrets" were "searched" well, for at Panamá, by the middle of the century, not only did there ride at anchor "ships from the South and far western East, laden with the wealth of half a world," but "in the sun-beaten streets gold and silver lay stacked in bricks," waiting, "along with spices and precious merchandise," transportation to Nombre de Dios.

Pedrarias had made headway also both to the west and east of his new capital. To the west, as far as the nation of the Chiriqui, famed as potters, he had sent Espinosa and Francisco Pizarro, the latter dutiful as ever. To the south he had likewise sent a faithful retainer and honest man, Pascual de Andagoya, who, following the Isthmus of Darien to where it broadens into the continent of South America (Mundus Novus), became the explorer of Birú, whence very possibly the name Pirú and ultimately that of Perú. At any rate, out of the Andagoya expedition grew, as we shall see, the subsequent and ever memorable enterprise of Pizarro.

Pedrarias's next step was to send Hernández de Córdoba to forestall Gonzalez in the occupation of Nicaragua, a country claimed by him as within the confines of Darien.

Gonzalez appeared at Panama just when Pedrarias was prepared to appropriate his conquests, and so Balboa-like had fairly thrust his head between the jaws of the lion; but he was quick enough to withdraw it, for he spread sail from Nombre de Dios as Pedrarias rode up in hot haste to intercept him. When Gonzalez returned, he approached Nicaragua from the Honduras coast. He thus avoided Pedrarias himself but encountered instead Hernando de Soto, lieutenant to Córdoba. Gonzalez defeated Córdoba, but only to succumb to the superior force of Francisco de las Casas, one of Cortés's lieutenants, who carried him to Mexico as a prisoner.

Córdoba meantime, thinking the occasion opportune, sought to set up an independent government in Nicaragua and Honduras. This act of treachery to Pedrarias was reported to him at Panamá by De Soto, and in January, 1526, Pedrarias set sail for Nicaragua in person. With characteristic energy mad ruthlessness, he arrested Córdoba, put him to death, and took control of the province. The death of Córdoba may be regarded as marking the end of the long-standing duel between Pedrarias and the successors of Balboa, and its conclusion was not unfavorable to the "swarthy-souled" Governor.

Upon Pedrarias — cunning, indomitable, vindictive — Fortune seemed ever to smile. When, for example, in May, 1520, Lope de Sosa came to Antigua to supersede him in office, that unhappy man was mortally stricken in the cabin of his ship as he prepared to disembark for his inauguration. Again, when in 1526 the Governor was recalled posthaste to Panamá for trial, just as he was on the point of seizing from Cortés himself Honduras as part of Nicaragua, what should befall but, though superseded as to Darien by Pedro de los Rios, his authority over Nicaragua was confirmed! But the fact is not to be overlooked that he was ably and zealously seconded at Court by his wife, Isabel de Bobadilla, whom he had seasonably dispatched to Spain with his pearls and gold.

The last years of his life, despite the fact that they were the years of an octogenarian, were active and marked by bloodshed. On the caciques of the country who rose in revolt, he wreaked diabolical vengeance by his bloodhounds. But he had withal an eye for trade and transportation. He projected a transcontinental route between Lake Nicaragua and the present Greytown, and afterwards one between León and the north coast by way of Salvador. He became interested in the expedition of Pizarro to Peru, but in this matter he for once suffered bafflement, and died at Leon, in 1530, as he was nearing his ninetieth year.

If the adventure of Gil Gonzalez to Lake Nicaragua, in 1522-23, was prompted by fear of southward encroachment by Cortés, Cortés himself was not blind to the chance of northward encroachment by the Spaniards of the Isthmus. In other words, the conqueror of Mexico and founder of New Spain sought success also to the south, and for two reasons. There lay the districts of Guatemala and Honduras — districts which, it was said, must "far exceed Mexico in riches, while equaling her in the size of towns, in the number of inhabitants, and in culture." And there, in Castilian fancy, figured that long-sought interoceanic strait upon which every one counted to reach the vast Pacific with its isles of mystery and gold.

Back to: The Spanish Conquerors