Men of Panamá
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
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.