Vasco Núñez de Balboa came from a Spanish family of limited means. This bit of information contrasts him with some explorers/entrepreneurs who operated at least partly from a reserve of family wealth. But Balboa had an agile mind and enterprising spirit, and soon learned to work events to his advantage. He heard of unlimited opportunity in the New World for anyone with some ingenuity and an inventive mind, and at age twenty-five (c.1500) Balboa accompanied a Captain Bastidas on a ship bound for the northeast coast of South America on a gold-seeking voyage and then on to the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic are now on this island). En route the ship passed the coastline of Darien (now a province of Panama), and Balboa noted an interest in the potential of the area.
By 1505 he acquired enough land in Hispaniola, using his share of gold from the voyage, to become a planter, producing crops for local consumption and export. This was a very good idea and could have made him wealthy, but Balboa was seriously underfunded for such an enterprise. Soon creditors were hounding him and threatening to seize his holdings and put him in jail.
Balboa’s ingenuity saved the day. He had himself packed into a provisioning cask, along with his sword and a change of clothing, to be loaded with a shipment of products from his own farm. We have no information on the size of the cask nor on Balboa’s height and girth...presumably he was smallish. The ship was bound for San Sebastian, a new colony in Darien.
Once at sea Balboa freed himself from the cask and immediately encountered the ship’s owner, Martin de Enciso, who was at first very hostile toward stowaways. The versatile Balboa must have had a charming manner for he soon befriended Enciso.
Upon arrival at San Sebastian the travelers found the colony deserted. Balboa persuaded Enciso to start a new colony on the western shore across the Gulf of Darien. Enciso agreed and founded Santa Maria de l’Antigua del Darien in 1509. Balboa recommended this site because on his prior voyage along this coast he had been told the natives on the west shore of the Gulf of Darien had no poison on their arrows. That would be a positive feature for anyplace, I think. It happens that Santa Maria de l’Antigua del Darien was the first successful settlement on the mainland of the new continent.
The success of Santa Maria, however, brought problems for Balboa. Enciso returned to Spain, leaving Balboa in charge. Diego Columbus, son of the great discoverer, was now governor of the region. He sent official authorization for Balboa to continue as administrator of Santa Maria, with the strict provision that Balboa should produce some achievement to prove himself or be recalled to Spain to account for himself.
Unlike Pizarro and numerous others, Balboa was a conquistador who made an effort to be friendly and considerate of the native people. His humane treatment of the natives caused trouble for him with the other European colonists, who avoided labor and thought the Indians should be enslaved to do the heavy work. Balboa even became a blood brother with the local cacique (tribal chief), Comaco, married one of the cacique’s daughters, and assisted the local natives in their intertribal wars. In return for good treatment, the tribes were willing to provide many needed provisions and act as guides in the area.
A contemporary Italian historian, Peter Martyr, told of an incident in which the cacique gave Balboa a large quantity of gold ornaments, which Balboa proceeded to divide among his men according to rank.The son of the cacique became disgusted with their greediness and dashed the scale from their hands, scattering the gold. “What is the matter with you Christian men,” the son shouted, “that you so greatly esteem a little portion of gold more than your own quietness. If your hunger for gold be so insatiable that your desire thereto disquiets so many nations, I shall show you a region flowing with gold where you may satisfy your ravening appetites. When you are passing over these mountains you shall see another sea where they sail with ships as big as yours, though the men be as naked as we are.”
This outburst by the cacique’s son ignited Balboa’s imagination, not to mention his lust for gold. Such a discovery would be just the thing to convince the powers in Spain that he was worthy of his post and make him a wealthy man at last. Thus began his expedition to cross one of the most impenetrable rain forests in the world. The distance was short and the mountains not high, but the forests and swamps had never been crossed. His success, therefore, was not assured, but he was undaunted...perhaps through ignorance about the extent of danger involved.
Balboa began his trek September 1, 1513 from a point on the coast about fifty miles west of Santa Maria. The isthmus there is only about 45 miles wide, and the peaks are no more than 1,000 feet high, but the dense forests require machetes to clear a path. Balboa began his nearly impossible trek along with 100 Spaniards and several native guides and porters, and a pack of dogs. In 1853 an explorer named Prevost was in the same area and said he could not see the sky for eleven days because the forest was so thick and heavy. Also, when a nineteenth-century German botanical expedition tried to retrace Balboa’s route, not one of them survived.
In addition to dense forests, the expedition had to cross frequent swamps and lakes, which the Balboa party managed by stripping off their clothing and wading or swimming while carrying the clothes in a bundle over their heads. Each such crossing would take hours to complete, and they were faced with such crossings day after day.
At one point they had to fight a battle with a native tribe under a cacique named Quaraqua. Balboa reported that Quaraqua’s retinue was “soiled by the infamous vice” of homosexuality. Balboa captured 40 members of the cacique’s male harem and had them torn apart alive by the pack of dogs. Apparently, Balboa’s compassion for the natives had limits.
At last his native guides told Balboa that from the mountains ahead he would be able to see the waters of the Mar del Sur. The next day, September 25, Balboa climbed to the summit alone and became the first European to view the Pacific Ocean. When the rest of his party arrived they gave thanks to God, erected stone monuments and carved crosses on nearby trees to mark the historic spot. The onlooking natives showed amazement that the Europeans would show such excitement at seeing the ocean.
After four more days of travel the expedition reached the ocean at a bay he named San Miguel because it was the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel. Balboa waded into the breakers and claimed the waters of this vast ocean and all its adjacent lands for Spain and God. Of course he had no idea of the extent of this claim, which was reasonable and legitimate then, but seems preposterous to us now.
Balboa had gathered gold from tribes he encountered along the way and found abundant gold among the natives on the Pacific shore...but not big ships. He returned to Santa Maria by a different route in the expectation of encountering additional tribes with gold for the taking.
Alas, no good deed goes unpunished! Before news of Balboa’s great discovery reached Spain, his replacement was already en route to take command of the Santa Maria colony. The new man, Pedro Arias de Avila, known as Pedrarias, was not a navigator, explorer, nor administrator. In fact his only qualification was his marriage to a lady-in-waiting of Queen Isabella. He arrived with a contingent of twenty ships and 1500 men, and immediately took full command. He turned out to be a cruel and tough administrator, reversing all Balboa’s good relations with the natives. He enslaved them and forced them to bring their provisions to the settlement.
For some time Balboa managed to befriend Pedrarias, but eventually he offended Pedrarias and his luck began to decline. The unfortunate Balboa was once again looking for a way to make something of himself. He spoke of again crossing to the Pacific shore and building boats to explore the west coast as far south as Peru (Pizarro had not yet been there). But before Balboa had a chance to begin his project, Pedrarias caught wind of it and had him arrested on the charge that Balboa intended to ignore Spanish authority and establish himself as emperor of Peru. He was tried, found guilty and condemned to death for treason. Balboa was beheaded in the public square and his body thrown out for vultures to eat. Not long afterward, Pedrarias moved the settlement to a new location and the site of Balboa’s Santa Maria reverted to jungle.
Monuments and Balboa namesakes abound in Panama, Spain, and the U.S.A. He became a hero among the people despite his ignoble end. I’m often incredulous that our knowledge of these events so often consists of a one-sentence summary, e.g. “Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean.” The backstory is sometimes a stunner.
Martyr D'Anghiera, Peter. De Orbe Novo, Volume 1, (1912, written ca.1504–1526).
Morison, Samuel E. The European Discovery of America, The Southern Voyages, New York: Oxford University Press, 1974