“Balboa Taking Possession of the Pacific Ocean,” The Spanish Conqueror: A Chronicle of the Dawn of Empire Overseas, 1921, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E123.R53.1921.

Vasco Nunes de Balboa

1475 CE - 1519 CE

Spain

Primary Goal:

Opening up new, profitable land for Spanish settlers to exploit. He also wanted the distinction of finding a quick overland route to the ocean, in hopes of being rewarded by King Ferdinand with more responsibility.

Achievement:

Being the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from the American continent.


Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was born sometime around the year 1475 in the town of Jerez de los Caballeros in the Spanish province of Extremadura, near the border with Portugal. Little is known of Balboa’s youth in Spain; his father, Don Nuño Arias de Balboa, was an impoverished knight, and his mother’s name isn’t even recorded. Balboa had three brothers: Gonzalo, who was the eldest, and two younger brothers, Juan and Alvar. The family had once been quite wealthy and powerful, but by the late fifteenth century, they had lost much of their land, money and influence in western Spain.

Like most children born into poor, but noble families, Balboa was sent to serve as a page in a wealthier household. At the age of six or so, he ended up answering to nobleman Don Pedro Puertocarrero, who was very influential in the Spanish port town of Moguer. Pages were expected to work for their patron until adulthood, and by 1500, Balboa was grown and ready to move on. Don Pedro was rather elderly and quite infirm, and as such, rarely joined his comrades in the near-constant wars and campaigns that provide wealth to noblemen and adventure to their young pages. The newly discovered lands across the Atlantic served as an excellent outlet for Spain’s young fighting men, and Balboa wanted a piece of the action.

The Spanish crown tightly controlled movement in and out of the New World; expeditions had to be approved by numerous underlings of the king and be prepared to succeed. In June of the year 1500, an adventurer named Rodrigo de Bastidas was granted a license to explore the coast of the South American mainland, at the time generically called Venezuela by the Spanish. Young Balboa signed onto the expedition as an escudero, one of a dozen or so warriors who would accompany the voyage and provide security and offensive firepower.

Bastidas’ license to go to the New World was rather vague and open-ended; he was allowed to go anywhere he fancied, as long as another explorer was not already exploiting the region, and trade with the natives for anything he pleased. As long as he saved a portion of the profits for the king, the Spanish government was happy. This portion was often called a quinto, the Spanish word for one-fifth, as the king’s accountants often took roughly 20% of what was earned on profitable trading expeditions. Needless to say, smuggling was quite rampant in colonial Spain.

The expedition set sail in early 1501 and consisted of a nao named Santa Maria de Gracia and a caravel named San Anton. There were roughly 50 or so men with Bastidas, including his partner, Juan de la Cosa, and some of the Spanish crown's clerks, or escribanos. The expedition also included an unknown number of women. Once arriving in the New World, Bastidas became the first European to land on the island now known as Barbados; he was not interested in this land that was uninhabited and did not offer a fortune in pearls, the precious commodity he hoped to find, so he quickly moved on.

The ships sailed along the northern coast of the South American continent, trading with local native Americans (and occasionally getting into fights with them) before finally settling down in the eastern portion of the gulf of Urabá, on the Isthmus of Panama, near the present-day border with Colombia. The locals were dubbed Urabaes by the Spanish and, while willing to trade for knickknacks, remained wary and sometimes hostile. On the western side of the gulf was an area the Spanish called Darién, where the locals were friendlier than their neighbors.

Upon leaving the Isthmus, the expedition realized their two vessels were infested with shipworms, parasites that ate through the wooden hulls of ships, and might not make it back to Spain. They instead set sail for the island of Hispaniola, hoping to make it to the capital city of Santo Domingo, before their worm-riddled ships sank underneath them. This is exactly what happened, however, and in February of 1502, the expedition fled to shore near present day Port-au-Prince, Haiti as the Santa Maria de Gracia and San Anton slid beneath the waves. The governor of the province accused Bastidas of trading in the New World illegally and confiscated what was left of the expedition's goods and money, which left everyone involved bankrupt and stranded in the Americas.

“The Stowaway- Balboa,” The History of Our Country: From the Discovery of America to the Present Time, 1900, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E178.E48.

Balboa, his dreams of fast money and captured native American slaves quickly extinguished, tried his hand at fighting the local native population of Hispaniola, and finally settled down as a hog farmer near a newly-founded town named Salvatierra de la Sabana. Several years of this show Balboa to be a much better soldier than a farmer; by 1509, Balboa was spending more time dodging his creditors than feeding his hogs. While Balboa did not have a plan to get out of debt, he did come up with a plan to get out of Santo Domingo. According to legend, he secreted himself aboard a ship in the harbor, hiding in a floor barrel with his dog Leoncico. As luck would have it, becoming a stowaway was actually quite a good career move for Vasco Nuñez de Balboa.

The vessel that Balboa hitched a ride on was a nao under the command of Martín Fernández de Enciso, who was being sent to the Gulf of Urabá by the Spanish government to relieve the town of San Sebastian. The colony was under near constant attack by hostile Native Americans, and Enciso set sail in late 1510, to bring soldiers and supplies. While Enciso was apparently quite upset by the sudden and illegal appearance of Balboa on board his vessel (legend has it that Balboa had nothing with him but the clothes on his back, a sword on his belt and the ferocious Leoncico by his side), he soon came to rely on the forceful stowaway. Balboa was a good leader, the men appreciated his prior experience as a soldier, and he had a working knowledge of the area where they were sailing.

San Sebastian was a fortified town built by the Spanish near the Gulf of Urabá in a province they had since named Nueva Andalucía, which stretched along the coast from modern day Colombia to Panama. The governor of the province, Alonso de Ojeda, had abandoned San Sebastian after a terrific battle with the local native population, leaving the town in the hands of Francisco Pizarro and a terrified band of settlers. Pizarro also abandoned the place, taking all his men with him, and met Enciso and Balboa's small fleet near Cartegena, a Spanish settlement in modern-day Colombia. Enciso, who does not seem to have had an easy time getting along with people, alienated Pizarro and his band of survivors by accusing them of cowardice and treason, but decided to take them back to Panama with him anyway. The expedition found San Sebastian in ruins, burned by the natives after the Spanish had fled. Balboa, starting to show his excellent leadership skills, convinced Enciso and Pizarro to relocate the colony to Darién, where the native Americans were friendlier and did not use the poison arrows that had killed so many of San Sebastian's original inhabitants.

G160B27-vol1-p89.jpg

“The Indians Flying in Confusion as a shot Discharges from the ship,” A Collection of Authentic, Useful, and Entertaining Voyages and Discoveries: Digested in a Chronological Series, 1765, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G160.B27 rare.

The Native Americans living in the area, under a chief named Cemaco, abandoned their village upon seeing the Spanish marching towards it. The Spanish, never ones to look a gift village in the mouth, took over the empty houses and captured whomever Cemaco had left behind. Enciso named the settlement El Guardia, literally meaning "the garrison," but Balboa, by now much more respected by the settlers than the weak-willed and capricious Enciso, decided instead to rename the town Santa Maria del Antigua del Darién. Santa Marta, as it was normally called, was on the Rio Darién, a sluggish trickle of a river that emptied out into the Gulf of Urabá. Enciso, in a move of questionable legality, declared himself the leader of Santa Marta, despite the fact that Francisco Pizarro had been left in charge by the fleeing Ojeda, and that Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was considered to be a much better leader by the colonists. Enciso did little to help his popularity by issuing a decree that the Spanish found intolerable: he outlawed private trade between the Spanish settlers and the natives for gold or pearls. Technically, this already was illegal, as all profits made by the settlers had to be shared with the Spanish Crown. But Enciso added his own twist to the law; instead of a fine or imprisonment (which was the Crown's penalty against personal trading), Enciso threatened to hang any man who traded for gold.

Outraged, the settlers did not invite Enciso to the town meeting where the colony's officers would be chosen. Balboa and a man named Benito Palazuelos were elected as Santa Marta's alcalde, a rank similar to modern day justices of the peace or mayors, and a man named Bartolomé Hurtado was made alguacil, or sheriff. All were squarely against Enciso, who was losing more and more control of the running of Santa Marta. He accused Balboa and the other town leaders of treason and of rebelling against his authority. Balboa responded that since Enciso had no authority in the first place, there was no rebellion. In the spring of 1511, the people of Santa Marta had had enough and arrested Martín Fernandez de Enciso for a list of crimes that included attempting to usurp authority from the council and attempting to steal from the town's treasury. How many of the charges are actually true is unknown, and it is suspected that the town's intense personal dislike of Enciso drove his prosecutors, rather than any idea of justice. Enciso was shipped back to the island of Hispaniola, where he eventually made his way back to Spain.

Balboa, the obvious choice for leader of the Spanish settlement, declared himself the Captain-General and Governor. He was now, more or less, the dictator of Darién. As a ruler, Balboa proved to be rather levelheaded. While he did not allow much in the way of opposition, he did turn a blind eye to the small scale, personal (and illegal) trade with the local native population. While it would be inaccurate to call Balboa's interactions with the natives particularly enlightened, he did his best to maintain peaceful relations with them. In May of 1511, Balboa struck out with an expedition of 100 men to explore the area to the north known as Careta, after the supposed name of the local native chieftain (his name was actually Chima).

Chima was presently engaged in a war with Ponca, another native chief, whom he considered an utter barbarian. Too busy to deal with Balboa's expedition, the Spanish quickly moved into Chima's village and demanded to be fed. Balboa was surprised to discover several Spaniards already living with Chima's people; they had been stranded in Careta during an earlier, non-Balboa related expedition. Touched by Chima's kindness to his countrymen, Balboa quickly befriended the chief and forged an alliance with the Careta inhabitants. Chima further ingratiated himself with the Spanish by converting to Christianity, taking the baptismal name Don Fernando, the name Balboa ended up calling him. The agreement between the two sides stipulated that the Careta would clear land and farm for the Spanish, while the militarily advanced Spaniards (by native American standards) would aid Chima in his war against Ponca. The deal was further sealed when Balboa wed Chima's daughter. The marriage was more a pact to keep good relations between the Spanish and the Careta; Balboa seems to have enjoyed her company, but he never even recorded her name.

Chima, eager to show off his new ally, Balboa, led the Spanish to a province north of his known as Comogra. Confusingly enough, the chief of Comogra was a man named Comogre. With one of Chima's Spanish translators, Balboa and Comogre met in the late summer of 1511. Comogre hosted a large feast for Balboa and his men, and the ornately decorated stone palace and the quality and amount of food impressed the Spanish. Comogre, sensing that the Spanish would make useful allies, consented to be baptized like his friend Chief Chima, and so became Don Carlos, Christian chieftain of Comogra. His son Ponquiaco, an astute observer of the Spaniards' actions, chided Balboa for his evident love of gold.

“Balboa Taking Possession of the Pacific Ocean,” The Spanish Conqueror: A Chronicle of the Dawn of Empire Overseas, 1921, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E123.R53.1921.

The explorers had marveled over every piece of golden jewelry they managed to get their hands on, and that had not escaped Ponquiaco's notice. He mentioned to the Spanish that the source of Comogra's gold was to the west, far to the west, and that maybe the Spaniards should go visit this land, which he called Tubanamá (one of the supposed origins of the name "Panamá"). What Ponquiaco did not mention to Balboa was that the residents of Tubanamá, and the next door province of Pocorosa, were sworn enemies of the Comogra, and that they would probably put up a great deal of resistance to any Spanish movements within their borders. Historians have theorized that Ponquiaco was shrewdly trying to push the Spanish, whom he did not entirely trust, into conflict with the natives of Tubanamá in hopes that he could wipe out one or both of them. The Spanish were also told of a land to the south that the natives called Birú, which was quickly turned into "Peru" by the Spaniards. There was also a large body of water to the south; what we today call the Pacific Ocean was then referred to by the Spanish as Mar del Sur: the Southern Sea.

Balboa returned to Santa Marta with high hopes for a future expedition and a small fortune in gold. Besides the gifts that Chima and Comogre had bestowed upon him, Balboa had gifts from other native villages he had visited on his journey. There was also quite a bit of gold forcefully taken from less-friendly natives, whose villages Balboa burned when they refused to welcome the Spanish with open arms. In Santa Marta he found a fleet that had arrived from Spain via the island of Hispaniola. A royal representative named Juan de Valdivia was there to collect the Crown's quinto and take back any news the settlers wanted to forward. He also brought the happy news that Balboa had been officially approved as the leader of the fledgling Spanish colony in Panamá. Balboa requested that Valdivia deliver a message to Spain's King Ferdinand, asking the king for 1,000 men and enough supplies and weapons to make a voyage to the supposed "Southern Ocean" possible. He no doubt assumed that the quinto, which amounted to several hundred pounds of gold, would assure Ferdinand's acceptance of his plan, and even win Balboa a position of greater authority once he laid eyes on the ocean that would give the Spanish a shorter route to the spices of the Indies.

But the gold never made it to Spain. Neither, for that matter, did Juan de Valdivia, whose ship wrecked somewhere off the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. The gold sank to the bottom of the sea, while Valdivia and his crew were picked up by local Mayan Indians. Legend has it that Valdivia did not impress his Mayan hosts, and was later sacrificed to their gods. Meanwhile, while awaiting word from Spanish authorities, Balboa had his hands full with a plot by local natives to burn Santa Marta (it was brutally crushed) and a near rebellion by a group of discontented residents of Santa Marta, who accused Balboa of being a bullying, despotic leader. Fearing that they'd never hear back from Spain, the people of Santa Marta sent a delegation led by Juan de Quicedo and Rodrigo de Colmenares (who was on bad terms with Balboa) to Hispaniola. As traffic started to increase in and out of Santa Marta, Balboa caught the rumor that he was going to have to answer to his treatment of Martín Fernandez de Enciso. With a solid faction of settlers in Santa Marta against him, and with Quicedo and Colmenares most likely on their way back with orders to arrest him, Balboa drew up hasty plans to set out for the Southern Sea on his own. He picked 190 loyal soldiers from those he had under his command, and set out in September 1513.

The route he chose had some advantages. Chief Chima provided guides, as well as some native canoes. Along with a Spanish brigantine, they sailed and rowed along the coast of Darién up to the land of Ponca. As luck would have it, this was the narrowest part of the Isthmus of Panama. The going was slow; it sometimes took five days to go barely thirty miles in the dense jungle. Hostile Native Americans barred their way, but each conquered native village meant more gold for the Spanish. Legend says that Balboa (and his ever faithful dog Leoncico) first sited the Pacific on September 27, 1513 from atop a mountain ridge. He was the first European to gaze upon the Southern Sea (a name the Pacific would be called, off and on, for centuries) from North America. The expedition was then broken into three groups (Balboa's loyal friend Pizarro commanded one leg of the attempt to reach the shore of the ocean. When the combined Spanish made it down onto the beach, Balboa, with sword and banner in hand, tread out into the water and claimed Mar del Sur (and all the land contained in it) for Spain.

The march back to Santa Marta was just as treacherous as the one out to the ocean. Many of Balboa's men preferred to carry their golden loot rather than their provisions; hunger was rampant. In spite of that, Balboa kept his promise to Ponquiaco and picked a fight with the chief of Tubanamá. The victorious Spanish then ransomed the chief back to his people for a huge amount of gold, which only slowed them down further. Balboa himself came down with a fever, and had to be carried into Santa Marta by his healthier men.

Balboa was shocked to learn that, in his absence of roughly five months, King Ferdinand had been moved by the opinions of Quicedo and Colmenares and the governor of Hispaniola, all of whom came out against Balboa's leadership skills. He was accused of usurping command of the colony, and of being disloyal to the Crown. The king therefore appointed Pedro Arias Dávila, often called Pedrarias, as leader of the Darién colony in July of 1513. Pedrarias, in a calculated show of loyalty to the Crown, pledged his fealty to Ferdinand, in effect promising not to do what Balboa had supposedly done. Along with his new governor, Ferdinand was sure to send along new judges, a bishop and other royal functionaries, who would run the colony in an efficient, profitable way.

At first, Balboa tried to work with Pedrarias (who was shocked to learn that the dog Leoncico had drawn the same pay as a regular soldier of Balboa's army), but the two found it impossible to get along. While the anti-Balboa forces in Darién banded together, Balboa hit upon an audacious plan to exploit the resources of the Southern Ocean. He and some financial backers built two small brigantines (which killed several hundred natives who had been forced into slavery) and sailed along the Pacific coast of Panama, hunting for pearls and more gold. Pedrarias, who found it difficult to raise much ire against the very popular Balboa in Santa Marta, became convinced that Balboa and his followers were planning to establish a new Spanish colony somewhere on the coast of the Southern Sea and reap the financial benefits of it. Pizarro, a friend of Balboa’s but also a loyal Spanish subject, was sent to find Balboa and arrest him. The two met in the jungles of Darién and Balboa willingly gave up to Pizarro's superior armed force.

Charged with treason and inciting a rebellion, Balboa was put on trial in late 1513. He and most of his loyal supporters were quickly found guilty by the sitting alcalde mayor, Gaspar de Espinosa. Although Balboa had enormous popular support among the people of Santa Marta and the other small towns now dotting Darién, Pedrarias moved quickly to carry out the standard punishment for treason against the king: death by beheading. Balboa, ever insistent of his innocence, willingly accepted the sentence handed down to him. Proclaiming himself a good and loyal Spaniard (not to mention profitable; Darién was producing a fortune in gold and pearls for the Spanish treasury), he was led to the public square of Santa Marta, the town he had founded, and was executed by a swift sword stroke on January 21, 1514.

Balboa may have died as a criminal and a rebel, but history has not judged him as harshly as other Spanish conquerors. Though he was merciless with native groups that failed to bend to his demands, he was rather friendly to those who put up with his men and their love for gold. As a leader, he inspired his soldiers through example, always willing to be at the forefront of a battle. As alcalde of Santa Marta, he cultivated good relations with surrounding native Americans in hopes of trading for food and jewels. His arduous trip to see the Southern Ocean (later named the Pacific Ocean by explorer Ferdinand Magellan) and open it up to Spanish exploration and trade assured Spain's dominance of Central America for generations.