Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Balboa and the Discovery of the Pacific

It was a splendid road to fortune which Columbus opened to the adventurers of Spain, and hundreds of them soon took that promising path. Among these was one Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a man poor in gold or land, but rich in courage and ambition, and weary enough of trying to live at home like a gentleman with the means of a peasant. In the year 1501 he crossed the seas to Hispaniola, where, like Cortez, he took up land and began to till the soil for a living. But he had not the skill or good luck of Cortez, and after years of labor he found himself poorer than when he commenced. He began to see that nature had not meant him for a farmer, and that if he wanted a fortune he must seek it in other fields.

Balboa was not alone in this. There were others, with better-filled pockets than he, who were ripe for adventure and eager for gold. A famous one of these was Alonso de Ojeda, one of the companions of Columbus and the hero of the adventure with the Carib chief already described, who in 1509 sailed for South America and founded a settlement named by him San Sebastian. He left orders with Enciso, a lawyer of the town of San Domingo, to fit out two more vessels and follow him with provisions for his new settlement.

Enciso sailed in 1510, his vessels well laden with casks of bread and other food-stuffs. There was more in them, indeed, than Enciso dreamed of, for when far from land there crept out of one of these casks a haggard, woe-begone, half-starved stowaway, who looked as if he had not many ounces of life left in him. It was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who had taken this way to join the expedition and escape from his creditors, since they would not have permitted him to go openly. The cask in which he snugly lay had been carried from his farm to the ship among others containing provisions.

Enciso was furious when he saw this unwelcome addition to his crew. He threatened to throw him overboard, and on second thought vowed to leave him to starve on a desert island. The poor fellow fell on his knees and tearfully begged for mercy. Others joined him in entreaties, and Encino at length softened and spared him his life. He was to pay bitterly for his kindness before many days.

The expedition had its adventures on the seas, ending in a wreck, and when San Sebastian was reached Ojeda was not to be found, and the settlement was a ruin. Enciso was in a quandary what to do, but Balboa had been on that coast before, on his first voyage out from Spain, and knew of an Indian village on the Darien River where they might find food and shelter. He advised Enciso to go thither, and a journey was made overland, among hostile Indians and with little food. The adventurers were half-starved when at length they reached their goal.

Here they founded a new settlement named Santa Maria, no doubt first disposing of the Indians in the usual Spanish fashion,—killing some and making slaves of others. But it was not long before there were bitter quarrels among themselves. Enciso had forbidden them to have any private trade for gold with the natives, a ukase which they strongly resented. The result was that a party rose against him, with Balboa at its head. Enciso was deprived of his authority, but when they tried to elect another in his place it did not prove easy. Diego do Nicuesa, who had made a settlement near there, was sent for by some of the settlers, but when he came, Balboa's party would not receive him, and he, with seventeen companions, was placed in a crazy old barque and left to find their way back to Hispaniola as best they could.

Balboa had by this time shown himself the ablest and boldest man in Darien, and his influence and power grew steadily until the settlers voted him their governor. Enciso was seized and imprisoned, and finally was sent to Spain. With him went one of Balboa's chief supporters, in order to gain for him from the king the royal right to his new office.

Balboa lost no time in showing that he was worthy of the dignity given him. He made many incursions into the surrounding country, and succeeded in collecting much gold, the yellow metal being more plentiful there than in the West India islands. In those expeditions he showed a wise spirit of conciliation and won the friendship of several of the Indian chiefs. In one of their excursions a quarrel arose among the Spaniards about the division of the gold they had obtained. They were almost at sword's-point when a young Indian chief, surprised to find them so hot about what seemed to him a useless substance, upset the gold out of the balance, and turned to Balboa, saying,

"Why do you quarrel about such stuff as this? If you value it so highly, I could take you to a country where it is so common that it is used for the meanest utensils."

These significant words filled the Spaniards with hope and desire, and they eagerly asked where that rich land lay, and how it might be reached.

"At the distance of six suns [six days' journey] from here," said the cacique, "lies another ocean as great as the one before you. Near its shores is the kingdom I spoke of. But it is very powerful, and if you wish to attack it you will need far more men than you have here."

This was the first the Spaniards had heard of the great southern ocean or of the rich land of Peru. This must be the ocean, thought Balboa, which Columbus sought for without success, the waters which border the East Indies, and the great and rich nation on its shores must be one of the famous countries of Asia, At once the desire arose in his mind to gaze on that unknown sea.

Balboa felt it necessary to do something striking and do it quickly, He had received letters from Zamudio, the agent he had sent to Spain, which were very discouraging. Enciso had complained to King Ferdinand of the way in which he had been treated, and the king had not only refused to support Balboa with a royal warrant for his actions, but had condemned his course and ordered him to return to Spain. His hopes of fortune and greatness were at an end unless he could win the favor of the king by some great enterprise. Such would be the discovery of that great ocean, and this he determined to attempt.

The Isthmus of Darien, which he would have to cross, is not over sixty miles wide. But many of these are miles of mountain, on which grow forests so dense as to be almost impassable. There, too, where it rains for more than half the year, the valleys are converted into marshes, and are so often overflowed that in many places the natives have to dwell in the trees, while from the high grounds rush swollen rivers, fierce and threatening. To march across an unknown and perilous country like this, led by treacherous Indian guides, was a bold and desperate enterprise, surpassing any which the Spaniards had yet attempted. But Balboa was one of the most daring and intrepid of them all, and to win the favor of his sovereign there was no danger he was not ready to face.

For the perilous expedition he could muster only one hundred and ninety men. But these were veterans, hardened to the climate of the isthmus, and ready to follow him whatever the peril. They had good reason to trust his courage and readiness in emergencies, for they had found him always brave and alert. A thousand Indians were taken with them, to carry their provisions, and they added to their force a number of the fierce bloodhounds which were dreaded by the natives as much as the fire-arms of the Spaniards.

Thus equipped, the expedition set out on the 1st of September, 1513, sailing along the coast to Coyba, where dwelt a friendly chief. Here half the men were left to guard their vessels and canoes. With the remainder the terrible journey across the rock-ribbed and forest-covered isthmus was begun.

No sooner had the Spaniards left the coast than troubles and perils thickened around them. The country was difficult to traverse, the people were bold and hostile. With their poisoned arrows they proved no feeble antagonists. As the adventurers left the plain and toiled up the mountains, a war-like cacique, with a large body of followers, met them in a narrow pass and boldly disputed the way. A fierce battle ensued, ending in favor of the Spaniards, who cut their way through the savages, leaving hundreds of them dead on the ground.

Thus, fighting nature and fighting men, they toiled onward and upward, until the six days fixed for their journey had stretched out to twenty-five. But now hope burned fresh in their hearts, for their guides assured them that from the top of the next mountain they could see the ocean they so ardently sought. Up the steep pass they toiled, until near the lofty summit, when Balboa bade them halt and went on alone, that he might be the first to gaze on the wonderful spectacle.

Soon he stood on the mountain-top, and there, to his infinite delight, sparkled and spread before his eyes the mightiest ocean of the earth, stretching away to the north, south, and west as far as human eye could see. Overwhelmed by the stupendous vision, he fell prostrate on the ground, like a worshipper before the object of his adoration. Then, rising to his knees, he thanked God for the great boon vouchsafed to him.

His men, gazing eagerly upward, saw him rise and beckon them, while with his other hand he pointed wildly westward. With springing steps they rushed to his side, and joined in his delight and his thanks to God as the marvellous spectacle met their eyes. Heaps of stones were piled up to show that they had taken possession of this spot for his sovereign, and as they went down the farther slope they carved on many trees the name of King Ferdinand of Castile, as the lord of this new land.

Let us repeat here the closing lines of Keats's famous sonnet to Homer, in which a great poet has admirably depicted the scene, though, by a strange error, giving the credit to Cortez instead of Balboa:

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific—and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise

Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

Twelve men were sent on in advance to seek the easiest and shortest path to the sea, one of them a man destined to become still more famous than Balboa,—Francisco Pizarro, the future conqueror of Peru. Reaching the shore, they found on it two stranded canoes, into which stepped two of the men, Blaze de Atienza and Alousa Martine, calling on their comrades to witness that they were the first to embark on that sea.

For three days the remaining men waited advices from their pioneers, and then followed the guides sent them to the shore, Balboa, armed with his sword and buckler, rushing into the water to his middle, and claiming possession of that vast sea and all its shores in the name of his king, for whom he pledged himself to defend it against all comers.

Such was the discovery of the great South Sea, as Balboa named it, the Pacific Ocean, as Magellan soon after called it. The people of the coast told the Spaniards of a rich and mighty kingdom that lay to the south, and whose people had tame animals to carry their burdens. The form of these they drew on the sand, their long necks convincing Balboa that they were camels, and that the land indicated must be Asia. They really represented the llama of Peru, an animal resembling the camel in form.

After remaining for some time on the coast, gathering all the information he could obtain, Balboa led his travel-worn men back to Darien, resolved to return with a stronger force next year and seek that distant land of gold. But this exploit was left for Pizarro, one of the ablest and bravest of the men who took part in this pioneer expedition.

It was the 18th of January, 1514, when the adventurers reached their starting-point at Santa Maria, when the people heard of his discovery with the utmost joy. Messengers were at once sent to Spain, with an account of the remarkable exploit, which was received with an enthusiasm little less than had been the news of the discovery of the New World. If Columbus had discovered a new land, Balboa had matched it with the discovery of a new ocean, added to which was the story of a land of gold, for whose conquest Balboa asked for a reinforcement of a thousand men.

Unfortunate as Columbus had been, the new discovery was destined to still greater ill-fortune, as we shall soon see. Before his messengers reached Spain a new governor, Pedrarias de Avila, had been appointed and had set sail, with fifteen vessels and fifteen hundred men. Balboa had nearly five hundred men under his command, but he at once submitted to the decision of his king and accepted Pedrarias as his superior. The fifteen hundred new men landed in that pestilential climate, in the unhealthy season, paid bitterly for their imprudence. A violent disease attacked them; scarcity of provisions made it worse; and within a month more than six hundred of them had died, while others hastened away from that noxious spot.

At length news came that the king fully appreciated the splendid discovery of Balboa; letters of high praise were received, and he was appointed Adelantado, or admiral of the South Sea, Pedrarias being ordered to support him in all his operations. The rivals now became reconciled, their union being made firmer by Pedrarias giving his daughter in marriage to Balboa.

The adventurer now began active preparations for an exploration of the South Sea, materials for ship-building being conveyed, with the greatest labor, across the isthmus, and two brigantines constructed. There was no lack of volunteers for the expedition, and the vessels were launched and sailed to the Pearl Islands, the inclement weather alone preventing them from going on to the coast of Peru.

Thus there seemed a great career opening before Balboa at the very moment when adverse fate was gathering darkly around him. Pedrarias had grown jealous of his daring exploits and the fame that seemed his coming meed, and, cherishing treacherous designs, by a crafty message induced him to return to Acla, his new capital.

On arriving there, Balboa was at once seized by order of the governor, thrown into prison, and put on trial on a charge of disloyalty to the king and an intention to revolt against his superior. The judge was forced to condemn him to death, and the fatal sentence was at once carried into effect, the great discoverer being beheaded on the public square of Acla. Thus, in blood and treachery, ended the career of one of the ablest of the bold adventurers of Spain.