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Rodrigo de Bastidas set sailed from Cádiz in October, 1500, with two
ships, the San Antón and the Santa Maria de Gracia. He had been with Columbus on
his 2nd voyage. Accompanying him was Vasco
Nuñez de Balboa. By 1501, they were exploring the northern coast of
South America (Venezuela and Colombia), moving westward as they went. When they
Gulf of Urabá (now Darién), they first thought it might be a
passage to another sea but realized it was a bay because the water was not
salty. Bastidas sailed his two ships along the coast of Panamá,
perhaps as far as the site of Nombre de Díos. Because his ships were being
eaten by sea worms who bored into the hull, he left the area, trying to reach
Española to get repairs.
Because of foul weather, they landed in Jamaica. He eventually made it to Española
but was arrested by the governor, Francisco de Bobadilla, who previously had
arrested Columbus. Bobadilla charged that Bastidas had traded with natives
without a license and was only allowed to trade in lands that he had
discovered. Bastidas was imprisoned and his goods confiscated. He was to be
sent to Spain for trial on the next fleet. On April 15, 1502, Nicolás de
Ovando, the new governor of Española, arrived. This was the fleet that was
to carry Bastidas, Bobabilla, and other Spaniards, natives, and treasure
to Spain. Before they set sail, Christopher Columbus had arrived on his 4th
voyage. Ovando would not let him land in Santo Domingo, so he harbored down
the coast. He warned that a hurricane was imminent and that the fleet should
take shelter. It did not and most of it was lost. Bobadilla was one of those who
died. Rodrigo de Bastidas was on a ship
that survived the hurricane, along with his gold and pearls. In Spain he was
acquitted by the Crown in 1503, and he paid a large share of this treasures to
the government. He would eventually return to the New World.
Columbus touched several points in Panamá in 1502. One was a horseshoe-shaped harbor that he named Puerto Bello (beautiful port), later renamed Portobelo. He coasted along the Caribbean coast of Central America without finding a passage to Asia.
Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was born Jerez de los Caballeros around 1475 of minor nobility; he had sailed with Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1501 and learned much about northern South America. In 1502, he settled in Española, receiving land and an allotment (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. He became restless, for his debts meant that he could not get ahead in the world, the reason he had come to the Caribbean. He tried to leave in 1509 but his creditors wouldn't let him. In 1510, he stowed away in a cask and was taken on board a ship commanded by Bachiller Enciso. At sea as the expedition sailed to South America, he was discovered and convinced Enciso not to throw him overboard. Instead, Balboa charmed Enciso to change course for the Gulf of Urabá and the colony of San Sebastian. Before they arrived, Enciso lost a ship containing all the horses and pigs. When they got to San Sebastian, they found it gone. The natives had burned it and the Spaniards had scattered. Balboa persuaded Enciso to head to the western shore of the gulf. There they founded the town of Santa María la Antigua del Darién after defeating the local native chief.
Life in Antigua was horrible. The 800 Spaniards became 60 through death, mostly from yellow fever and malaria . Worse, the Crown sent word that they were not to traffic in gold with the natives. The colonists, despairing of Enciso's leadership, revolted and elected Balboa and Martin Zamudio co-mayors but it was Balboa who was in charge. Martín Fernández de Enciso was sent back to Spain. As we shall see, Enciso would get his revenge on Balboa.
The Castilla del Oro, as this region was erroneously called, was now under Balboa's command. Balboa was a good administrator. The colonist began planting crops instead of relying only on supply ships. He launched expeditions and raids. He sent Francisco Pizarro, the future conqueror of Peru, on an expedition to explore the interior. He sent out a company of men to collect the survivors of the ill-fated town of Nombre de Díos. He conquered the various Indian tribes in the region, and acquired their wealth. Gold and female slaves were ample reward for what he was doing. He heard tales from the Indians of ships with sails, a man who covered himself with gold and jumped into a lake to his death, and a temple of gold. He returned to Antigua to outfit an expedition to find El Dorado and the temple. No European could resist such a temptation. Balboa and friends had chased after the legend, but it proved false. They did conquer more people. We don't know if these native people, having figured out that the Spanish had the gold disease and told them stories to get them to leave or if their stories were distorted information about the Inca Empire or, perhaps, both.
His luck held because reinforcements arrived from Spain bringing to him the title of the Captain-General de la Antigua. On September 1, 1513, he sailed from Antigua with 190 Spaniards, 1,000 native slaves, and war dogs to find out what was on the other side of the mountains. Pizarro was with him. Seven days later when he had marched overland to a village of a chief he had defeated previously, he learned that there was a great sea to the south. On the 26th of September, they espied the Pacific Ocean from atop a mountain. Balboa, clad in full armor, waded into the water and claimed the sea and all the shores on which it washed for his God and his king.
He and his men continued searching the Pacific coast of Panamá and received treasures from natives. Balboa returned to Antigua in January 1514 with all 190 soldiers and with cotton cloth, pearls, and 40,000 pesos in gold. As soon as he could, he sent an emissary and treasure to the king. The treasure he sent was all that they had. If an explorer-conqueror could produce wealth for the Crown, all was forgiven.
Meanwhile, Enciso, who had been booted out of Panama by Balboa, had been making all kinds of accusations against Balboa at the king's court while claiming that it was he who had made Antigua successful. He neglected to tell the king that the colony was in Castilla del Oro where he had no legal authority. King Ferdinand, believing Enciso, ordered that Balboa removed from the office. He also appointed Pedro Arias Ávila (also called Pedrarias) on July 27, 1513, as governor of Darien in Castilla del Oro. Pedro Arias Dávila (1447-1531) or Pedrarias Dávila, was 72 years old and well-connected at court. His large expedition of more than 20 ships and 1,200 men and women was outfitted at Sevilla in 1514. He was made governor of an indeterminate territory. With him were Francisco de Coronado, Hernando de Soto, and Diego de Almagro.
On June 30, 1514, he arrived at Darién where Balboa's company of men were. The Balboa settlement was not doing very well when Pedrárias arrived to take command. They were not finding anything the Crown or anyone else wanted; they were living in mud huts (bohíos) which were surrounded by a wooden palisade; and there was not enough food. The rustic settlement could barely support the Balboa party much less the Pedrarias influx.
Pedrárias decided to eliminate his rival Balboa. King Ferdinand, upon learning the truth about Balboa, appointed him the governor of the South Sea and the lands that touched. It was too late. Before a ship could reach Panamá with the news, Pedrarias had acted. Although he acted as if he were friendly to Balboa, he secretly plotted against him and trumped-up charges. He then held a " trial" in 1519 after which Balboa was beheaded.
They had to have enough Spaniards die so they could the abandon settlement, to disobey the Crown's orders. So, they sat and watched each other die until enough had died to justify moving. These men (and the few women brought by Pedrárias) were tough-minded and callous. They had to be to survive in this unknown and hostile land. When enough of Balboa's men had died, the two groups were combined.
We know something about how they amused themselves during this dying time because they left notarial records. A group got into a debate as to whether or not their war dogs could tell the difference between a friendly Indian and an unfriendly one. Eventually, they decided to put the question to the test and bet on the outcome. They had a notary create a document (which survives) outlining the terms of the wager and how much each bet. They called an old Indian woman to them, gave her an errand, and sent her own her way. Then they unleashed a dog, who ran after her. She fell to her knees, begging the dog not to kill her. The dog stopped and sniffed. No doubt the bettors were going nuts by this time. Then the dog lifted his leg, urinated on her, and walked away. The record does not show which side won the bet but no doubt they argued over the meaning of the dog’s action.
When enough died to justify obeying the Crown's orders, the expedition finally left Darién and moved the Pacific side of the isthmus that year, founding the settlement of Panama, which became the center of exploration towards the south. Pedrárias became a partner with Francisco Pizarro, Diego de Almagro, and Father Hernando de Luque to mount expeditions southward but never went himself. Instead, his partners bought him out for a small sum in 1526. He returned to Spain, but died in the city of León, Nicaragua, on March 6, 1531, at the age of 91.
The "Men of Panamá" went on to conquer the Inca Empire. The Isthmus of Panama became important as the transit point between Spain and the West Indies, on the one hand, and the Viceroyalty of Peru, on the other.