Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Spanish Main (Continued)

In quest of the sea on the other side of the mountains of Darien, Balboa sailed from Santa Maria del Antigua on the 1st of September (old calendar reckoning), 1513, taking with him 190 of his own men, some Indians and some dogs. Five days later the expedition landed, and, with Indian guides to lead the way, plunged into the Bush to head for the mountains. On the 8th of September they arrived at the camp of an Indian chief who cheered them with the assurance that there was a big ocean on the other side of the mountains, gave them some magnificent gold ornaments which he said came from places on that ocean, and offered to see them well on their way towards their goal.

The Spaniards continued their march on the 10th of September, and so rough was the road that in four days they only advanced thirty miles. Then they reached a large Indian camp, whose chief showed fight; in the battle that took place the Spaniards were hard pressed before they gained the victory. From the conquered foe they learnt that they were at the foot of the last mountain to be climbed before they would behold the sea for which they were searching—we can imagine how eagerly they must have set forth to scale the slope. As they gained the summit, on the morning of the 26th of September, there were joyous cries of "The sea"—the white man had discovered the Pacific Ocean. When they reached the coast Balboa, carrying the Spanish flag, waded knee-deep into the water and proclaimed the ocean, together with the countries bounded by it, the property of his King. The gulf in which this ceremony took place was called after San Miguel; the name of "South Sea" was given to the newly-discovered waters as a whole because they lay to the south of the Isthmus of Panama, and it was a long time before the name was changed to Pacific Ocean.

Hoisting Spanish flag


Balboa sent off a small company of his men in canoes to explore the coast. He led a party which embarked for a voyage on the open sea; this bold little band of explorers discovered a group of islands where pearls were so plentiful that the oars used in the native canoes were encrusted with them. Balboa gave the name of "Pearl Archipelago" to these islands. After collecting a rich store of pearls and as much gold as he could plunder, the discoverer of the South Sea made his way back to Darien.

The next year there arrived at Santa Maria del Antigua one Pedrarias, who had been sent out by the King of Spain as Governor of Darien. With him came a body of 2,000 picked Spaniards to uphold his authority. Soon after Pedrarias took the reins Balboa set forth once more to look for the Temple of Gold; after a long and fruitless search he returned to Darien and obtained the Governor's consent to another South Sea expedition. But all the time Pedrarias was helping to equip that expedition he was plotting to ruin Balboa. The Spaniards had now heard several rumours as to the existence of a great Indian Empire, which was said to be flourishing in a country that bordered on the recently discovered sea. Pedrarias felt sure that Balboa was bent on discovering that Empire, and jealousy made him anxious that the explorer should not win fresh laurels. The expedition got away before Pedrarias was able to perfect his scheme for bringing about its commander's downfall. For the second time Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama, and visited the Pearl Islands. But misfortune drove him back to San Miguel. Here the expedition received orders from the Governor to return; it was to escort Balboa back as a prisoner, who was charged with being a traitor to his King and country.

Balboa was given a trial, but only, apparently, for the sake of appearances. He defiantly denied the charges brought against him, but was allowed neither time nor opportunity to prove his innocence. By the evidence of the Governor's allies he was sent to the scaffold, in 1517.

Two years later Pedrarias founded the city of old Panama, on the Pacific coast, and in 1521 he made that city his headquarters, taking with him a large number of the Darien colonists.

About this time Cortes completed his conquest of the "golden" Mexico, thereby breaking up and despoiling the great New World Empire of the Aztec Indians. His countrymen in Panama were anxious to outrival him in fame and wealth—and was it not said that there was a flourishing Indian Empire in a country to the south? In 1525 Pizarro, who had been one of Balboa's lieutenants, sailed from Old Panama in search of another Mexico, and discovered the "golden" Peru.

The conquest of Peru by Pizarro rapidly made the city of Old Panama one of the most important places on the Spanish Main. It became the treasure depot for all the wealth of the West coast—gold and other valuables were poured into that depot to be sorted for shipment. To facilitate the transport of the treasure to the Atlantic coast a road was made between Old Panama and Nombre de Dios, then the principal port on the Atlantic coast of the Isthmus. The road crossed the Chagres River at Cruces, and for part of the way, at any rate, was paved, as is shown by present-day remains.

A little later, traffic was carried on by pack-mule-train between Panama and Cruces, and small vessels sailed between that river-port and Nombre de Dios by way of the Chagres River. Towards the close of the sixteenth century Portobello became the chief port on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, owing to its superiority as a haven.

Onwards to the middle of the nineteenth century the Isthmus was the scene of a series of exciting fights; we will talk of the influence of arms on the history of Panama when we visit the sites of the principal engagements. The opening up of some gold-mines in the Darien district, and the provision of primitive facilities for transporting treasure across country were the chief activities making for Isthmian development until Panama and Colon were connected by railway in 1855.