The Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa (ca. 1475-1519) explored Central America and discovered the Pacific Ocean. He was the first Spanish explorer to gain a permanent foothold on the American mainland.
Vasco Núñez de Balboa was born at Jerez de los Caballeros in the province of Estremadura. He was descended from an old and noble Galician family. To improve his meager fortune, Balboa went to the new Spanish colonies in America. In 1500 he sailed with Rodrigo de Bastidas on a preliminary reconnaissance of the Colombian and northern Panamanian coasts. He then settled in Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and tried farming but failed and fell heavily into debt.
Meanwhile, two would-be conquistadores, Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa, received crown licenses to settle the regions explored by Bastidas. Ojeda headed for the northern Colombian coast late in 1509 with 300 men, while Nicuesa sailed toward the Panamanian Isthmus with a force numbering over 700. Within a few months hostile Native Americans, disease, and starvation had reduced their combined forces to less than 100. Ojeda returned to Hispaniola, leaving his remnant under Francisco Pizarro to wait for the relief expedition of Martin Fernández de Encisco.
One of Encisco's provision casks contained an unusual cargo: Balboa had stowed away to escape his creditors in Hispaniola. At 35 the intelligent and willful Balboa was at the height of his physical powers. With these qualities and his knowledge of the area he soon became the group's leader. He convinced the men to leave the inhospitable site of Ojeda's camp at San Sebastián and to cross the Gulf of Urabá (now the Gulf of Darién) to a new location on the Isthmus (Santa Maria la Antigua, commonly called Darién).
There Balboa dispensed with the nominal authority of Encisco, sending him back to Spain. Nicuesa, another potential rival, was picked up with survivors and brought to Darién. They were soon returned to the mercies of the sea in a leaky, meagerly supplied ship.
By the end of 1510 Balboa's authority was certified by King Ferdinand, who commissioned him captain general and interim governor of Darién. Balboa extended his conquest westward along the Central American coast and into the interior, subjugating the Native Americans or allying with them by a combination of terror and diplomacy. Strengthened by reinforcements form Spain and Hispanola, the group accumulated hoards of gold ornaments; they also learned about a sea to the south, bordered (so the Native Americans said) by fabulously gold-rich kingdoms.
While Balboa foraged the countryside, Encisco was undermining him at the court in Spain. Eventually, he persuaded the King to replace Balboa with the elderly Pedrarias (Pedro Arias de á vila), who was sent off with a company of 1,500 men. Getting wind of this development, Balboa hastened to redeem himself by discovering the "South Sea." With a small band of Spaniards and a larger number of Native American allies, he journeyed to the narrowest part of the Isthmus, fought his way across the hilly, swampy country, and on Sept. 25, 1513, ascended the summit of Darién. From that point he saw the vast expanse of the Pacific to the south. Balboa then marched down to the coast of the Gulf of San Miguel, waded into the water, and claimed the "South Sea" and all its adjacent territories for Spain. A nearby pearl fishery provided more material rewards.
King Ferdinand did not rescind his appointment of Pedrarias but made Balboa governor of the South Sea province and two bordering ones. The king was greatly pleased by the pearls and gold Balboa had sent him, and for the next 5 years a jealous Pedrarias was forced to share his authority with the conquistador. During that time Balboa sent back complaints about his rival's mistreatment of friendly Native Americans, while Pedrarias attempted to win over Balboa by offering his daughter in marriage.
At last Balboa decided to strike out once more on his own. On the southern Panamanian coast he constructed four brigantines and was about to sail off on another voyage of conquest when he was summoned to confer with Pedrarias. On his way to the meeting Pizarro arrested him. Balboa was accused of plotting treason and condemned, and in January 1519 he was beheaded.
Balboa's career is explored in detail in Kathleen Romoli, Balboa of Darién (1953). Charles L.G. Anderson Life and Letters of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1941), may also be consulted. There is a short account of Balboa in F. A. Kirkpatrick, The Spanish Conquistadores (1946). See also C. H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (1947), and J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (1963). □
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