Balboa, Vasco Núñez de (c. 1475–1519)

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Balboa, Vasco Núñez de (c. 1475–1519)

Vasco Núñez de Balboa (b. ca. 1475; d. January 1519), a Spanish conquistador from Jerez de los Caballeros in Estremadura, and the first known European to see the Pacific Ocean. A poor, illiterate hidalgo, he sailed for the New World in 1501 with the expedition of Rodrigo de Bastidas, exploring the northern coast of modern Colombia. After settling on Hispaniola, he failed as a farmer, and in 1510 he escaped his creditors by stowing away on a vessel bound for the coast of Urabá (Colombia). The expedition, led by Martín Fernández de Enciso, sailed to relieve the settlement founded near Cartagena by Alonso de Ojeda, and now led by Francisco Pizarro, which was in desperate straits. Balboa, accepted as a common soldier, advised moving the colony west across the Gulf of Urabá, a region he had visited with Bastidas. The wretched settlers took the advice and found a plentiful supply of food, much gold, and Indians without poisoned arrows.

Seen as the savior of the colony, Balboa quickly gained popularity and respect among the men. The settlement of Santa María de la Antigua del Darién was founded in 1510 in Panama (then called Darién and, later, Castilla del Oro) under the jurisdiction of Diego de Nicuesa. Therefore, Balboa noted, Enciso had no authority. When Nicuesa appeared, the colonists of Antigua forced him aboard an unseaworthy ship, and he disappeared at sea. The pompous Enciso was then charged with usurping the authority of Nicuesa and was expelled from the colony. He returned to Spain, where he leveled charges of usurpation against Balboa, who realized that he needed to counter them with a spectacular achievement. In late 1511 the king had named Balboa interim governor of Darién, and in 1513 he was appointed supreme commander of the colony. He also received word of an impending order directing him to return to Spain to face charges. Instead, Balboa moved with some urgency to find the great body of water south of the isthmus, of which a friendly cacique had spoken.

On 1 September 1513, Balboa set out with 190 Spaniards, 1,000 Indian porters, and some bloodhounds. After extreme hardships—cutting through dense jungle and swamps, crossing rough mountains, and fending off hostile natives—the expedition finally reached its objective. Advancing alone to a peak on 25 (or 27) September, Balboa gazed upon the vast "South Sea," subsequently called the Pacific. Four days later he waded into the surf, claiming for Spain the ocean and the shores washed by it. The enterprise succeeded brilliantly for Balboa because he had subjugated many tribes without the loss of a single Spaniard, and he returned triumphantly to Antigua in January 1514 with a fortune in gold, pearls, and slaves.

Balboa is often portrayed as having treated the Indians humanely, but this is true only in a relative sense. More than most conquistadores, he befriended Indians, enjoying good relations with some thirty caciques. He also kept various mistresses. Yet he did not hesitate to fight those whom he considered obstinate. He was a man of his time and circumstances, sometimes enslaving Indians and punishing them severely. Among other atrocities, he ordered Indian homosexuals burned at the stake, and dogs were set upon recalcitrant caciques.

Meanwhile, the king—ignorant of Balboa's great achievement, and persuaded by Enciso and others of his culpability—appointed a new governor of Darién. He was Pedro Arias de Ávila (Pedrarias Dávila), the aging scion of a prominent family. Sailing for Panama with a large fleet in April 1514, Pedrarias carried orders to suspend Balboa's authority and bring him to justice. Initial inquiry acquitted Balboa, and Pedrarias came to resent his popularity, especially after Balboa's deeds became known in Spain. Though still subject to Pedrarias, Balboa was appointed adelantado of the Southern Sea and captain-general of the provinces of Coiba and Panama in 1515. Relations between the two rivals appeared to improve when Pedrarias's daughter María was betrothed to Balboa in 1516. In fact, the rancorous old man nursed a grudge. While the "son-in-law" made plans to explore the Pacific coast of Panama on his own, he was betrayed by a friend, who accused him of ignoring Pedrarias's authority. Balboa was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason. Found guilty, and denied an appeal to Spain, he was decapitated at Acla.

See alsoÁvila, Pedro Arias de; Colombia, Pacific Coast.


The best biography of Balboa in English is Kathleen Romoli, Balboa of Darien: Discoverer of the Pacific Ocean (1953). In Spanish, the standard work is Angel De Altolaguirre y Duvale, Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1914). Very useful are Carl Ortwin Sauer, The Early Spanish Main (1966), and Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Central America, vol. 1 (1882), both of which have good maps. See also the work of the official chronicler and contemporary of Balboa, Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés, Historia general y natural de las Indias, 5 vols. (1959).

Additional Bibliography

Lucena Salmoral, Manuel. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa: Descubridor de la Mar del Sur. Madrid: Ediciones Anaya, 1988.

Martínez Rivas, J. R. Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Madrid: Historia 16, 1987.

                                  William L. Sherman

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Balboa, Vasco Núñez de (c. 1475–1519)

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