I am (intermittently) hard at work on a book about people who came to these parts and why, and what they did when they got here. Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a fit and fearless, conniving and bloodthirsty gold thief, is one of my personal favourites. If his name was truncated and modified slightly to Babba, I think he would be better known. But of course it won’t be. Anyway, it’s the anniversary of his Big Day today . . . sort of.
V N de Balboa was born in Extremadura, Spain. (Anyone who has been there might understand the appeal of sailor or New World explorer as a career choice in an old place that is predominately dry and flat). His career didn’t start well (or end well – more of that later), and after some low key exploration, he washed up in Hispaniola where he got into debt. His fortunes changed by a fluke of fate when he hopped aboard a ship bound for San Sebastian, one of Spain’s first colonies, discovered the few remaining survivors half-starved and largely insane (evidence of cannibalism – say no more), transferred them to a new spot they called Santa Maria la Antigua de Darien, in what’s now Panama. He acted as temporary governor until the court-appointed official, Pedro Arias, (‘the cruel’) was sent out to take up his post.
Obviously at this point he had to find some other way of making his name and fortune, and, at the start of September 1513, decided to go inland, and up into the mountains in search of gold, taking with him a mob of leftover settlers and sailors. He didn’t find the gold, but he did find the Pacific Ocean, which, given the limitations of cartography at that point, was quite a surprise.
So Balboa goes down in history as the first European to spot the Pacific, 500 years ago today . . . or maybe tomorrow, or next week. The momentous event is said to have taken place on September 25th by some, and September 26th by others, and in the contemporary account below, on the ‘7th day of the calends of October’.
Regardless of when exactly he did it, he described his adventures in letters to Peter Martyr, Europe’s answer to a press agency. Martyr, the Apostolic Pronotary and Royal Counsellor to the Sovereign Pontiff Leo X, both paraphrased and embellished Balboa’s news in his riveting letter to his master.
“We have received letters both from him and from several of his companions,” Martyr informed the Pope, “written in military style, and informing us that he had crossed the mountain-chain dividing our ocean from the hitherto unknown south sea. No letter from Capri concerning Sejanus was ever written in prouder language. I shall only report the events related in that correspondence which are worthy of mention.”
He continues, explaining how Balboa, demoted from the position of governor, determined instead to be the first to find gold: “Vasco Nuñez ill endured inaction, for his is an ardent nature, impatient of repose, and perhaps he feared that another might rob him of the honour of the discovery . . . He summoned around him some veterans of Darien and the majority of those who had come from Hispaniola in the hope of finding gold, thus forming a small troop of a hundred and ninety men, with whom he set out on the calends of September of the past year, 1513.”
Martyr describes how Balboa negotiated the support of a powerful tribal leader, or Cacique, called Poncha, who provided men to guide the Spaniards. Just as well, because the journey was fraught with danger:
“They passed through inaccessible defiles inhabited by ferocious beasts, and they climbed steep mountains . . . Thanks to Poncha’s men and the labours of the bearers, Vasco scaled rugged mountains, crossed several large rivers, either by means of improvised bridges or by throwing beams from one bank to another, and always succeeded in keeping his men in health.”
Those of a sensitive nature should skip this next bits.
“Before reaching the summit of the mountain-chain, the Spaniards traversed the province of Quarequa, of which the ruler, who bears the same name, came to meet them; as is customary in that country, he was armed with bows and arrows, and heavy, two-handed swords of wood. They also carry sticks with burnt points, which they throw with great skill. Quarequa’s reception was haughty and hostile, his disposition being to oppose the advance of such a numerous army. He asked where the Spaniards were going and what they wanted, and in reply to the interpreter’s answer, he responded: “Let them retrace their steps, if they do not wish to be killed to the last man.” He stepped out in front of his men, dressed, as were all his chiefs, while the rest of his people were naked. He attacked the Spaniards who did not yield; nor was the battle prolonged, for their musket-fire convinced the natives that they commanded the thunder and lightning. Unable to face the arrows of our archers, they turned and fled, and the Spaniards cut off the arm of one, the leg or hip of another, and from some their heads at one stroke, like butchers cutting up beef and mutton for market. Six hundred, including the cacique, were thus slain like brute beasts.
“Vasco discovered that the village of Quarequa was stained by the foulest vice. The king’s brother and a number of other courtiers were dressed as women, and according to the accounts of the neighbours shared the same passion. Vasco ordered forty of them to be torn to pieces by dogs. The Spaniards commonly used their dogs in fighting against these naked people, and the dogs threw themselves upon them as though they were wild boars or timid deer. ”
Back to the ‘discovery’ of the Pacific:
“Leaving some of his companions who had fallen ill from the incessant fatigue and hardships to which they were not inured, at Quarequa, Vasco, led by native guides, marched towards the summit of the mountain-chain.
“From the village of Poncha to the spot where the southern ocean is visible is a six days’ ordinary march, but he only covered the distance in twenty-five days, after many adventures and great privations. On the seventh day of the calends of October, a Quarequa guide showed him a peak from the summit of which the southern ocean is visible. Vasco looked longingly at it. He commanded a halt, and went alone to scale the peak, being the first to reach its top. Kneeling upon the ground, he raised his hands to heaven and saluted the south sea; according to his account, he gave thanks to God and to all the saints for having reserved this glory for him, an ordinary man, devoid alike of experience and authority. Concluding his prayers in military fashion, he waved his hand to some of his companions, and showed them the object of their desires. Kneeling again, he prayed the Heavenly Mediator, and especially the Virgin Mother of God, to favour his expedition and to allow him to explore the region that stretched below him. All his companions, shouting for joy, did likewise. Prouder than Hannibal showing Italy and the Alps to his soldiers, Vasco Nuñez promised great riches to his men. ‘Behold the much-desired ocean! Behold! all ye men, who have shared such efforts, behold the country of which the son of Comogre and other natives told us such wonders!’ ”
“As a symbol of possession he built a heap of stones in the form of an altar, and that posterity might not accuse them of falsehood, they inscribed the name of the King of Castile here and there on the tree trunks on both slopes of that summit, erecting several heaps of stones.”
“Not only is Vasco Nuñez reconciled to the Catholic King, [Ferdinand]who was formerly vexed with him, but he now enjoys the highest favour. For the King has loaded him and the majority of his men with privileges and honours, and has rewarded their daring exploits.”
Yes well, that sort of honour-loading seldom ends well. Pedro Arias, Governor of Darien, didn’t appreciate having to take all matters of importance to Balboa, the new Adelantado of the South Sea, and the regions of Panama and Coiba, and in January 1519 set him up and had him beheaded for treason.
The letters from Martyr to the Pope are compiled in the most excellent De Orbe Novo. I also found an account of Balboa in a school book under the headings ‘Early Life and Exploration’, ‘Seeing the Pacific Ocean’, and ‘Death’. The picture is borrowed from Fine Art America (available as cards, prints, etc), and chosen because that’s what you’d do if you discovered an ocean, isn’t it? You’d run into it with all your clothes on.