Vasco Núñez de Balboa

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Vasco Núñez de Balboa

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.

Further Reading

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). □

Vasco Núñez de Balboa

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Vasco Núñez de Balboa


Spanish Conquistador

Vasco Núñez de Balboa was a Spanish conquistador who explored Central America, was the first to establish a permanent settlement in Central America, and was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.

Balboa was a descendent of the Galician family of nobles in Castile; he began his life at Jerez de los Caballeros in the province of Estremadura. He grew up in a time when many from his social class were sailing to the New World to seek their fortune; he set out on his own in 1500. He sailed to present-day Colombia with Rodrigo de Bastidas (b. 1460?) but eventually moved to Hispaniola (present-day Haiti) to try his hand at pioneer farming. Unfortunately, Balboa experienced financial troubles, and in an effort to evade his creditors, he stowed away in a provisions cask aboard an expedition headed by Martín Fernández de Enciso (1470?-1528). This expedition took Balboa to a struggling Spanish colony in present-day Colombia. There, using his knowledge of the area along with his intelligence and sheer willpower, he persuaded the remaining members of the colony to relocate across the Gulf of Uraba to Darien on the Isthmus of present-day Panama. Once there, he established the town of Santa Maria de la Antigua, the first permanent settlement in Central America. The town elected two magistrates, one of whom was Balboa. With the departure of Enciso to Hispanola, Balboa quickly moved to become the leader of the settlement. King Ferdinand of Spain declared Balboa the interim governor and captain general of the area in December of 1511; Balboa was 36.

Balboa began to explore and ultimately dominate the area, subjugating the Indians to slavery and sometimes torture to extract information about other Indian tribes. His treatment of the Indians was marked by force and by a policy designed to make the tribes war with themselves, making Balboa's task of domination all the easier.

Balboa and the Spaniards were told by the Indians of a sea that was to the south and of a gold-rich culture of Indians; he set about immediately to gain support for the expedition. Unknown to Balboa, an expedition was set out from Spain, but he ultimately was not to be the commander. Pedro Arias Davila, an aging nobleman, with 2,000 personnel, left Spain in April of 1514 with the objective of taking over for Balboa.

Balboa, impatient with waiting for the support from Spain, moved on from the settlement in Santa Maria de la Antigua to the narrowest part of the isthmus with 190 Spaniards and Indian support. On September 25 (or 27), 1513, Balboa became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean, which they called the South Sea. Balboa claimed the land and the sea in the name of the king of Spain; he was made governor of the Mar del Sur (South Sea) and the provinces of Panama but was to be under the authority of Pedro Arias Dávila.

Balboa and Dávila had a relationship marked by distrust and jealousy. Even under these conditions, Balboa was given authority to explore the South Sea, or the Pacific Ocean. Balboa oversaw the tremendous effort to build a fleet of ships on the Atlantic Ocean side, disassemble them, and then transport them across the isthmus, over mountains and through swamps, to the Pacific side where they were reassembled and used to explore the Gulf of San Miguel. During this time, Balboa's claims of incompetence leveled at Dávila succeeded—the king replaced Dávila with another governor. Dávila, in an effort to save his career and possibly his life, ordered Balboa home to discuss matters of mutual concern. Once Balboa arrived, he was charged with rebellion and after a mock trial was beheaded along with four accomplices in January 1519.


Balboa, Vasco Núñez de

views updated May 21 2018

Balboa, Vasco Núñez de (1475–1519) Spanish conquistador, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. He went to Hispaniola in 1500, and to Darién (Panama) ten years later. In September 1513, accompanied by a group of locals, he crossed the isthmus and saw the Pacific, which he called the South Sea. He was later executed on a false charge by the governor.

de Balboa, Vasco Núñez

views updated May 09 2018

de Balboa, Vasco Núñez (1475–1519), Spanish explorer. In 1511 Balboa joined an expedition to Darien (in Panama) as a stowaway, but rose to command it after a mutiny. In 1513 he reached the western coast of the isthmus of Darien (Panama), thereby becoming the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.

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