The Darien Gap is the "saddle," or ridge, in the Serranía del Darién over which, in September 1513, the expedition led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama en route to the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. In 1510, Balboa had set out from Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the strategic base founded on the mainland of Central America, so that he would "pass to the other sea on the side of the south" which native informants told him "is very good to navigate in canoes, being always pacific, and does not turn wild as it does on this [Atlantic] coast" (letter to the king, January 1513). Like all conquistadors, Balboa was driven (and deluded) by the prospect not only of discovering new lands and peoples but of finding gold and, in this case, pearls as well. Indian leaders, with whom Balboa is said to have enjoyed less hostile relations than his counterparts elsewhere, assured him that gold was present in quantity in all the rivers of the other coast sufficient motivation to endure extreme hardship and privation, lack of food and unhealthy conditions above all. Balboa understood the necessity of native collaboration for the goals of Spanish conquest better than most of his more shortsighted contemporaries, especially his father-in-law, Pedro Arias (Pedrarias) de Ávila, who beheaded Balboa in 1519 to assert his authority as "Captain and Governor of Tierra Firme." The treatment that Pedrarias meted out to his son-in-law was replicated time and again in his dealings with native inhabitants, so much so that Darién soon was lost and desolate, causing the Spanish base in the region to be relocated, in 1524, to Panama City.
An intrepid explorer who processed information relayed to him assiduously, Balboa took pains to document his deeds, even if others failed to record them properly. His sighting, "silent, upon a peak in Darien," of the Pacific Ocean was attributed by the English poet John Keats, famously but erroneously, to "stout Cortez." Balboa choreographed his trek into history to ensure that, following native counsel, he alone walked to the vantage point where he became the first European to contemplate the Pacific on either September 25 or 27, 1513. Two days later Balboa was among the first Christians wading in the South Sea, all trying the water with their hands and proving that it was salt. A ceremony of possession was performed. Balboa's party, after a four-month reconnaissance, returned to Santa María del Darién in early 1514.
Though native communities were able to furnish their Spanish masters with impressive amounts of gold and pearls, geographical setting was the chief reward for all those who sought to profit from establishing a presence in Darién. Realizing the wealth that could accrue by controlling transoceanic trade across the isthmus, an ill-fated colonization scheme in the late seventeenth century saw Scottish investors ruined, and naive countrymen of theirs fall sick and perish, in the Darién tropics. Scotland's disastrous endeavor is enshrined in Panamanian place names such as Cerro Caledonia and Punta Escocés. It would take the building of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century, at considerable expense of money and men, for the vision of William Paterson, the Scottish merchant who attempted to transport cargoes overland at this site, to materialize. The environs of Darién may still be "door of the seas, and the key of the universe," but taking advantage of the location for entrepreneurial gain has always come at a price.
Mena García, Carmen. "La frontera del hambre: Construyendo el espacio histórico del Darién." Mesoamérica 45 (2003): 35-65.
Parsons, James J. "Santa María la Antigua del Darién." Geographical Review 50, no. 2 (April 1960): 274-276.
Prebble, John. The Darien Disaster. London: Secker & Warburg, 1968.
Romoli, Kathleen. Balboa of Darien: Discoverer of the Pacific Ocean. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953.
Sauer, Carl O. The Early Spanish Main. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
W. George Lovell