The Spanish conqueror Pedrarias (ca. 1440-1531), or Pedro Arias de Avila in full, has a reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant. His positive achievements, however, included the founding of Panama City and Nicaragua.
Pedrarias was born in Segovia and in early life won distinction as a soldier in Africa. He married the aristocratic Isabel de Bobadilla y de Peñalosa, whose intelligence and influence furthered his advancement. In 1513 King Ferdinand appointed Pedrarias governor of the Isthmus of Darién to supersede Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who had governed there unofficially since 1511.
Already an elderly man, Pedrarias sailed to the Isthmus in the spring of 1514, accompanied by his wife and bearing the title Captain General and Governor of Castilla de Oro, which meant he was to govern the mainland west of the Gulf of Urabá. He took 2,000 armed men, for the King hoped Pedrarias would add substantially to the meager Spanish mainland conquests made thus far.
Reaching the town of Antígua del Darién on June 29, 1514, Pedrarias began a legal prosecution of Balboa, whom he regarded as a dangerous rival and who indeed had the support of nearly all the original settlers. The residencia, or judicial hearing, on Balboa's conduct progressed to a point and then was indefintely postponed. The rivals patched up their quarrel, and there was even a betrothal of Balboa to Pedrarias's daughter in Spain. Yet the two men remained opponents, for Balboa intended to launch ships on the Pacific and sail southward to Inca Peru, while Pedrarias awaited a chance to rid himself of a competitor and seize the ships. When Balboa's sailing time approached, Pedrarias arrested him and transferred him to the settlement of Acla, where the interrupted residencia was resumed. In January 1519 Balboa and four of his principal comrades died on the scaffold at Acla.
Pedrarias, now without a rival in the Isthmus, ordered or permitted exploring expeditions to go southward and northwestward. Pascual de Andagoya moved toward Peru, and after his return the work was taken up by Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro. Andrés Niño and Gil González, acting independently of Pedrarias, explored the Pacific coasts of Costa Rica and Nicarao (Nicaragua) and discovered Fonseca Gulf. Pedrarias, meanwhile, had founded Panama City in 1519 and moved his headquarters to the Pacific side. A new governor, Lope de Sosa, reached Darién in 1520 to relieve Pedrarias and conduct his residencia, which promised to go badly for the old governor. Luckily for Pedrarias, Sosa took sick and died in his cabin before debarking. Though a subordinate then went through the forms of a hearing, no one dared come forward to voice a complaint.
Pedrarias now transferred to Nicaragua, with which his remaining years were chiefly occupied. He returned briefly to the Isthmus in 1527 for a residencia before another governor, Pedro de los Ríos, but as he had taken to Nicaragua most of those likely to voice grievances, he had little difficulty clearing himself. In the meantime he had trouble with subordinates in Nicaragua, one of whom, Gil González, he beheaded.
Pedrarias died on May 30, 1531, in the town of León, which he had founded. He had had the satisfaction of triumphing over all his foes and rivals and of putting many of them to death.
The best biography of Pedrarias is Pablo Álvarez Rubiano, Pedrarias Dávila (1944), a straightforward account that neither condemns nor exonerates him. A contemporary of Pedrarias, Peter Martyr of Angleria, discusses Pedrarias's feud with Balboa in De orbe novo, translated and edited by Francis Augustus MacNutt (1912). Charles L. G. Anderson, Life and Letters of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1941), and Kathleen Romoli, Balboa of Darién, Discoverer of the Pacific (1953), include accounts of Pedrarias. □