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by Matthew Biggers
Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was born in Jerez de los Caballeros around 1475. His family was noble but poor, and Balboa sought his fortune as a swordsman. He joined the expedition of Don Rodrigo de Bastidas to the Pearl Coast of Tierra Firme (Venezuela, Colombia, Panama) in 1501. Balboa learned many important things about the lands and natives of Darien, where he would later settle. The expedition landed on Hispaniola in order to avoid sinking in their leaky ships. Bastidas returned to Spain, but Balboa and some of the others settled on Hispaniola in 1502. He received land and a repartimiento of Indians to work it on the southwestern corner of the island. During the next seven years, Balboa lived quietly, raising pigs and incurring large debts. Under the law, debtors could not leave Hispaniola, but Balboa enlisted the help of friends to join the expedition of Alonso de Ojeda under Ojeda's deputy, Martín Fernández de Enciso, in 1510. Upon arriving at the Gulf of Uraba (Darien), Balboa drew upon his knowledge of the area to save the expedition by attacking natives who did not poison their weapons and who farmed. In this way, Balboa saved the expedition by providing it with a ready-made settlement, but he also encroached upon land granted to Rodrigo de Nicuesa. The settlement was named Santa María de la Antigua del Darién, but was called simply La Antigua. The colonists tired of Enciso's ineffectual leadership and turned to the man who had saved them from starvation and death by poison arrows. Governor Nicuesa heard of this ready-made capital and sought to take it from its settlers, but was exiled by them. Balboa subsequently expelled Enciso from the colony, and sent Martín de Zamudio along with him as the colony's procurador, or lawyer, in case the lawyer Enciso sought legal redress.
Balboa was named acting governor of Darién and began exploring into the mainland for more food and riches. He paid a visit to the people of Cacique Careta. Balboa surprised the natives at night and captured Careta. Careta offered his daughter Caretita in pledge of friendship, and Balboa returned his captives and made peace, a trait that was not distinctive among the other conquistadors. Caretita used her position as Balboa's wife to influence friendly relations between her people and the Spaniards. Balboa next moved on the lands of Cacique Comogre, a chief who ruled ten thousand subjects. Comogre gave the Spaniards gifts of gold, and one of his sons informed the Spaniards of a land populated by fierce people who had large quantities of gold. This son, Panquiaco, also told the Spaniards about another sea beyond the mountains where people possessed large amounts of gold and sailed the seas in ships little smaller than those of the Spaniards. This news shaped the future of Spanish exploration in South America. Balboa was well pleased by this expedition into the interior and returned to La Antigua to inform Admiral Diego Colón on Hispaniola and King Ferdinand.
Upon his return to Darién, Balboa faced the problem of subsistence along with the usual jealousy and greed. To acquire provisions, Balboa personally led forays to surrounding native settlements and returned laden with food and gold. His skillful negotiating left most caciques feeling friendly toward the Spaniards. Some Amerinds also came to La Antigua to trade, but the Spaniards realized trading was a pretense for spying on the white men. This helped Balboa realize the precariousness of being surrounded by hostile natives ruled by the overlord Cacique Cemaco. In June 1512, Balboa led a group of one hundred sixty men against the fabled Cacique Dabaibe, whose lands were far to the south of La Antigua. The Spaniards had been hearing stories of this rich chief who lived up a great river to the south since they had landed in Darién. The golden temple of Dabaiba was the first of the el dorados encountered in the Americas. The Amerinds effectively used these stories to appeal to the gold lust of the Spaniards and to lure them to areas that were less desirable. Meanwhile, Cacique Cemaco had ordered all the caciques living along the Atrato River, or the Rio Grande de San Juan as the Spaniards named it, to abandon their homes and take their supplies and valuables. Balboa found little gold and only succeeded in incurring the ire of these caciques and influencing them to band together for cooperative defense. With inside knowledge from an Amerind girl who loved him, Balboa thwarted an attack by this confederation on La Antigua.
It was about this time that Enciso and Zamudio reenter the picture. In Spain, Enciso had turned the king and the court against Balboa. King Ferdinand decided to name another governor for Darién. Balboa decided that he would not allow another to gain the glory for discovering the sea beyond the mountains. In 1513, Balboa gathered approximately 190 Spaniards and 800 Amerinds and outfitted them as best he could to seek out the Pacific Ocean. Balboa traveled to Cacique Careta's settlement for supplies and guides. On September 6, the expedition set out. Two days later, they marched into the land of Cacique Ponca that had been looted at the request of Careta two years before. Balboa made peace with Ponca, who then gave directions to the expedition and supplied warriors and guides to help the Spaniards to the lands of Cacique Quarequa. The Spaniards found Quarequa at the head of an army. The Spaniards easily destroyed this army and established Spanish supremacy over the natives. On September 25, guides from Quarequa's tribe led Balboa to the top of a mountain from which he could see the Pacific Ocean, which he named the South Sea. After thanking God, Balboa led the expedition down from the mountains into the lands of Cacique Chiapes with whom Balboa made peace in his usual manner. On September 29, Balboa reached the ocean and claimed the Bay of San Miguel and all the waters adjoining it for Spain. Chiapes told him of the people of Cacique Cuquera who have pearls and gold and who were enemies of Chiapes's people. Balboa made peace in his usual way of threatening destruction or offering friendship. Cuquera told of an island abounding with pearls in the nearby gulf. In early October, Chiapes traveled with Balboa for this island, but a storm forced them to return to the mainland. The group drove the people of Cacique Tumaco from their village, and the ravenous men feasted on the food there. Balboa sent some captives to persuade Tumaco to return and make peace. Tumaco told Balboa that his pearls came from a group of islands to the west ruled by Dites, an enemy of Tumaco and Cuquera. Balboa also questioned them about a rich empire to the south and was told of the Incas. Among this expedition was Francisco Pizarro who eventually took the Pearl Islands and Peru. On October 29, Balboa committed a third act of possession on the Gulf of Panama. For his return to La Antigua, Balboa decided to take a different route in order to increase his knowledge of the land and to meet more cacique s. On November 3, he set out with guides and supplies given by Tumaco and Cuquera. The expedition traveled up a nearby river into the lands of Cacique Teoca, who made peace and gave gold and pearls to the Spaniards. On November 5, Balboa and his men left the Amerinds and set out over land after sending word to the remaining Spaniards to meet up with the main body at the next village, the seat of Cacique Pacra, where Balboa would be waiting. Pacra refused the Spaniards' demands to know where his gold mines were and was fed to the war dogs. The surrounding chiefs hastened to Balboa with gifts of gold. The other soldiers arrived in late November, the expedition left Pacra on December 1. They quickly ran out of food and plundered their way to the village of Cacique Pocorosa who had abandoned his home. The Spaniards found abundant food and settled for a while. On December 13, Pocorosa returned and sued for peace. Other chiefs came in the next few days to make peace with the great white Tiba. On December 18, Balboa captured cacique Tubanama, a chief feared by all the tribes of the northern isthmus, and received vast amounts of gold, slaves, 80 young women from the chief's harem, and the son of Tubanama as a hostage. The expedition reunited in the village of Pocorosa and departed once more. The expedition reached the lands of Comogre, now ruled by that chief's son, on January 1. Upon reaching Ponca's lands on January 14, Balboa received news of reinforcements and supplies. He left the main body behind and hastened with 20 soldiers, 200 slaves, and 2000 pesos of gold to Careta to take ship to La Antigua. On the 19th, Balboa triumphantly returned to La Antigua and began dividing the spoils.
Meanwhile, Ferdinand had already named Pedrarias Dávila governor and sent him to Darién. Pedrarias, as he is referred to, had not yet arrived in Darién. The court's sour attitude toward Balboa was drastically changed with the receipt of his letters describing the expedition to the South Sea. Balboa's letters in the spring of 1514 passed the armada headed for Castilla del Oro, as Darién was now called, that had embarked also in the spring of 1514. This armada arrived at La Antigua on June 29, 1514. The influx of 2000 new settlers into the small village of La Antigua which already relied upon help from the natives was destined to be disastrous. The newcomers were ill prepared for life in the tropical climate. These newcomers also arrived full of jealousy for Balboa because he had already discovered the South Sea and claimed most of the surrounding land for Spain. They had also been poisoned by the words of Enciso regarding Balboa. Pedrarias named new officials and promptly arrested Balboa. He was found guilty of the death of Nicuesa after Nicuesa's expulsion. He was also forced to pay damages to Enciso. Pedrarias decided against sending Balboa back to Spain where he would have been a hero after his discoveries. He instead decided to retain Balboa in Darién and to harass him constantly with lawsuits. Famine and disease soon took hold, and Balboa once again was called upon to save the colony. At about this time, Ferdinand recognized Balboa's services and named him adelantado of the South Sea coast. Balboa was to serve as a lieutenant to Pedrarias.
In 1517, Balboa contracted with Pedrarias to build a fleet to explore the South Sea. Balboa and his supporters planned to use these ships to sail for Peru away from Pedrarias. The plot was uncovered, and Balboa was arrested. Several trumped up charges were presented, and evidence regularly disappeared. On January 12, 1519, Balboa and some of his supporters were executed.
Balboa was an anomaly among the conquistadors. He generally treated the natives much better than the others. Balboa made peace more often than war. The only crime that Balboa committed was being first to discover the Pacific, thus earning the ire of his superior, Pedrarias.
Anderson, Charles Loftus Grant. Life and Letters of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.062503