Chronicles of America 


But if tales of wealth in the West had given to Balboa his rise, similar tales were to contribute to his fall. A story gained currency that in Darien the natives were accustomed "to fish for gold with nets." The prospect of such fishing appealed with special force to an elderly gentleman of Segovia —Pedro Arias de Avila; and, as Balboa was to be displaced, and Arias (or Pedrarias as he is known) had money and friends, he was made Governor with jurisdiction reaching from the Gulf of Maracaibo to Cape Gracias á Dios.

The expedition of Pedrarias set sail from San Lúcar on April 11, 1514. Prior to this time one of the greatest expeditions to leave Spain for the Indies had been the second commanded by Columbus, which had sailed from Cadiz in 1493. In point of eminence, however, the names connected with the expedition of Pedrarias outshone those of its early predecessor in high degree. There were, for example, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, who together with Las Casas had beheld the triumph of Columbus after his first voyage; Francisco Vásquez Coronado de Valdés, Quixotic and chivalric seeker after the Seven Cities of Cibola; Hernando de Soto, discoverer of the Mississippi; and Bernal Diaz del Castillo, companion-to-be of Cortés and rugged chronicler of his deeds.

Many adventurers, some two thousand men who were anxious to go, had to be left behind for want of room. Those taken numbered about fifteen hundred, and the show they made was brilliant enough. Largely they were young nobles and gentlemen who had expected to follow Gonsalvo de Córdoba to the Italian wars, and they came wearing their silks and brocades and provided with gleaming armor for which they had gone heavily into debt. "Upon the imagination of such," writes Washington Irving, "the very idea of an unknown sea and splendid empire broke with the vague wonders of an Arabian tale." Finally, Pedrarias brought with him his wife, the resolute Isabel de Bobadilla, and a bishop for Darien —the first prelate of Tierra Firme — Juan de Quevedo. Both the lady and the bishop, it is worthy to be remarked, fell under the spell of the gallantry of Vasco Núñez de Balboa.

As for Pedrarias himself, he was skillful with the lance and had fought against the Portuguese and the Moors, but was now elderly and somewhat infirm. In temper he was arbitrary and wily. Sir Arthur Helps deems him "a suspicious, fiery, arbitrary old man "; an epigrammatic American thinks he had a "swarthy soul"; and even John Fiske pronounces him "a green-eyed, pitiless, perfidious old wretch." His first business was to arrest Balboa and bring him to trial for misdeeds against Enciso and Nicuesa; but the charges fell fiat, save that Enciso, who had been given office under Pedrarias, was awarded civil damages for loss of property.

Then for a period Balboa was ignored, and the followers of Pedrarias, mad for gold, were let loose upon the Isthmus. Between June 30, 1514, and January, 1517, a dozen expeditions, sent ostensibly to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific, ravaged the country. The cruelties inflicted upon the natives were monstrous. "Some," says Oviedo, "were roasted, others were mangled by dogs, others were hanged." Driven to desperation, the Indians at length turned upon their persecutors. Spaniards when caught were not only slain but were tortured to death. Legs and arms were severed by sharp stones, or the captive was bound and gagged and molten gold was poured down his throat, the Indians meanwhile in mockery bidding the helpless Christians, "Eat, eat, and take your fill!"

On leaving his ships, Pedrarias had sought to impress the Darien settlers with his might and magnificence. But the silken and brocaded lords and gentlemen who so largely constituted his retinue had not turned out well. Disease and famine had fast laid hold upon them, forcing them to barter scarlet tunics for corn or to feed on herbage or to drop exhausted in the wilderness until "their souls deserted them" — full seven hundred of them.

Still these untoward circumstances, bad as they were, were not what exasperated Pedrarias most. At his side — inactive, but observing, cogitative, and critical — stood Balboa, whom nothing escaped. Writing to the King on October 16, 1515, Balboa, with a touch of the style of Mark Antony, describes the Governor as "an honorable man," but one who "takes little heed of the interest of your Majesty, and one in whom reigns all the envy and avarice in the world." Alluding to the cruelties to the Indians, he calls them "the greatest ever heard of in Arabian or Christian country," and says that whereas these Indians "formerly were as sheep, now they are as fierce as wolves."

Had Pedrarias been less unsuccessful in governing than he was, no single jurisdiction could have continued to hold both him and Vasco Núñez de Balboa. They were incompatible beings, of whom one must go down before the other. How true this was became apparent when, early in 1515, the full strength of Pedrarias's resentment was evoked through jealousy.

Balboa's messenger, Arbolancha, who had been sent to report to Ferdinand the discovery of the South Sea, had reached Spain but shortly after the departure of Pedrarias. With his gold, his pearls, and his magic tales of Balboa's preemption of the realms of Ophir, Arbolancha quite won over Ferdinand, especially as Balboa had cost the Crown nothing, whereas Pedrarias had cost it much. Balboa was thereupon created Adelantado of the South Sea and Captain-General of Cueva and Panama under the nominal supervision of Pedrarias as Governor of Darien. The Governor well knew that an adelantadoship, though technically a lieutenancy, was in reality a provincial governorship — a kind of proconsulship — and something which, in the hands of a Balboa, might easily be transformed into a position of independent power.

To Pedrarias two courses lay open. One was to forestall the new Adelantado by going to the Pacific seaboard himself. The other was to institute against him further public proceedings during the pendency of which his commission might be withheld. Emphasizing the first course, Pedrarias sent Gaspar de Morales and Francisco Pizarro to the west shore of the Gulf of San Miguel to seize the Pearl Islands; and he sent yet farther west an expedition which reached the peninsula of Parita. He in person founded Adá on the Atlantic coast near the site of the subsequent Caledonia Harbor, and, through Gaspar de Espinosa, alcalde mayor or chief judge of Darien, penetrated to the extreme west as far as the Gulf of Nicoya in the present Costa Rica.

The second course against Balboa, the withholding of his commission, proved wholly a failure, for the Bishop of Darien, to whom it was of necessity disclosed, denounced it roundly in public from the pulpit.

Back to: The Spanish Conquerors