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Vasco Núñez de Balboa Reaches the Pacific Ocean

Vasco Núñez de Balboa Reaches the Pacific Ocean

Overview

Unknown to the indigenous people of the New World, their destiny was being determined by political and economic forces taking place across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, thousands of daring adventurers would be crossing the ocean to conquer within a few centuries what had taken the Indians thousands to years to inhabit. This "Age of Exploration" was fostered by technological advancements in maritime practices, the belief in an economic philosophy called mercantilism, and an interest in converting the religious beliefs of native populations. Mercantilism was the idea that if a nation was not self-sufficient in its affairs, then its neighbors would dominate it. The two areas that seemed ripe for establishing this ideal were the Middle East and the Americas. Many of the Spanish conquistadors headed for the New World seeking wealth and adventure. One such man was Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519).

Background

Balboa came from the ranks of that lower nobility whose sons often sought their fortunes in the West Indies. In 1500 he was part of an expedition led by Rodrigo de Bastidas (b. 1460?), which explored the coast of present-day Colombia. Balboa then settled in Hispaniola and was given a farm to tend. Balboa did not enjoy the agrarian lifestyle and accumulated much debt. He wished to leave the country and seek his fortune elsewhere but was told he could not leave the island with outstanding debts. He decided to bribe some men getting ready to leave on an expedition so that he and his faithful dog could stowaway in a barrel. The voyage was organized in 1510 by Martín Fernández de Enciso (1470?-1528) to bring aid and reinforcements to a colony off the coast of Uraba (present-day Colombia). When they arrived, the colony was in ruins and there were few survivors. The Indians in the area were hostile and used arrows with tips that were soaked in poison. On the advice of Balboa the settlers moved across the Gulf of Uraba to an area known as Darien. This area was much less hostile, and they founded the town of Antigua. Balboa began to accumulate wealth from the Indians by befriending them or, if that was not successful, by going to war with them. Eventually Balboa was elected as the comagistrate of the settlement. He was later named by the king as interim governor and captain general of Darien.

Balboa meanwhile had organized a series of expeditions to hunt for gold and slaves. His Indian policy combined the use of barter, every kind of force, including torture, to extract information, and the tactic of divide and conquer by forming alliances with certain tribes against others. He was able to do this because of his vast knowledge of the area. The Indians of Darien were more timid that those of Uraba, so they were easily subdued.

One day, in a fit of rage over the Spanish love of gold, an angry Indian told of both a land to the south by a sea and a province infinitely rich in gold. It is thought that these references were to the Pacific Ocean and perhaps to the Inca Empire. The conquest of that land, their informants declared, would require 1,000 men. Balboa dispatched men to request reinforcements; the news they brought created much excitement, and a large expedition was promptly organized. But Balboa was not given command of the expedition because he had fallen out of favor with King Ferdinand II. Instead, that position went to an elderly, powerful nobleman, Pedrarias (1440?-1531). The expedition, numbering over 2,000 persons, left Spain in April 1514.

Balboa decided to move ahead without reinforcements and sailed on September 1, 1513, to Acla, at the narrowest part of the Panama isthmus. His troop numbered nearly 200 Spaniards and hundreds of Indian carriers. They marched across the isthmus through dense jungles, rivers, and swamps. Finally on September 27, 1513, after ascending a hill by himself, Balboa sighted the South Sea, or the Pacific Ocean. Some days later he reached the shore of the Pacific at the Gulf of San Miguel and took possession of the South Sea and the adjacent lands for his king. He then retraced his steps and returned in January of 1514. Once the king was informed of Balboa's feat, he immediately appointed Balboa the governor of the South Sea and Panama, but Balboa remained subject to the authority of Pedrarias.

When Pedrarias finally arrived in Darien in June of 1514, relations between the men were strained. As a show of good faith, Pedrarias betrothed his daughter Maria in Spain to Balboa. But the underlying causes of friction remained. Highly suspicious and jealous of Balboa, Pedrarias implemented policies that were meant to impede Balboa. After much effort, he granted Balboa permission to explore the Gulf of San Miguel. Soon thereafter, the king decided to have a judicial review of Pedrarias, as it was believed he was unfit to govern. One of the chief witnesses against Pedrarias would be Balboa. Pedrarias feared that Balboa's presence and testimony would contribute to his demise, so he decided to eliminate his rival. Summoned home, Balboa was seized and charged with rebellion, high treason, and mistreatment of Indians. After a mock trial, Balboa was found guilty, condemned to death, and decapitated in January of 1519.

Impact

Expeditions similar to those conducted by Balboa on the Isthmus of Panama served to motivate thousands of Spanish peasants to join the military. The discovery of riches and wealth enticed these peasants to travel to the New World in search of a new life. A successful colonial mission could possibly lead to a governorship or a pension for the participants. If one were extremely lucky, he could amass untold riches. Other men were drawn to the New World by promises of adventure. They looked for quick advancement in the military and for diplomatic careers. Still others came on a mission of God. These men wanted to convert the native population to Catholicism. By converting the Americas to God, they believed they would receive eternal blessings.

One legacy that Balboa tried to leave was his treatment of the indigenous people. Balboa had a reputation for treating the natives with respect, fostering relationships and keeping promises that he had made. He respected the native governments and societies and listened to them in order to increase his knowledge of the land. He helped to settle disputes between various native factions and gained the trust of most. This did not mean that he would not be swift and cruel if he felt it necessary. He often used torture to extract information not readily revealed and had numerous dogs in his command to use as executioners to tear Indian victims to pieces. One was his own Leoncico, who was such a respected warrior that he was given a soldier's full rate of pay. However, Balboa's style of governing was largely ignored by most people who came to the New World, and the native populations were treated for the most part as nonentities. Despite Balboa's treatment, many of the Indians in the New World were eventually overwhelmed with modern weaponry and unfamiliar diseases. While many natives were destroyed during confrontations with Europeans, even those under the rule of Balboa could not withstand the onslaught of disease. Entire villages were wiped out with the introduction of European diseases against which the Indians had no natural immunity. These included smallpox, measles, and the flu. Thus, one unintended legacy of Balboa is the destruction of entire populations of indigenous people by the introduction of disease.

Balboa was the first European to see the eastern shore of the great South Sea (the Pacific Ocean), on September 13, 1513. While he is often erroneously credited for naming it, it was actually named by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) during his circumnavigation of the globe. He named it as such because its waters seemed so calm. He named the body of water Pacifica (meaning peaceful). Balboa claimed the Pacific Ocean and all its shores for Spain. This one act opened the way for Spanish exploration and conquest along the western coast of South America, giving Spain a solid foothold in this region of the world. It was through Balboa's conquest of this region and the information he gained through exploration that conquests further south could be made, such as that over the Incas.

The conquistadors of Spain were generally single-minded and brutal in their obsession with gold and riches in this part of the world. Balboa was mayor of the first profitable settlement in the Americas, but his type of rule was seldom seen in the New World. Most of the conquistadors were driven by their greed and lust for gold, often turning on each other to gain a share. They quickly decimated large Indian populations and at the same time relieved them of much of their riches. At the same time, Portugal was becoming rich from its newly established sea trade routes to India. Thus Portugal and Spain had taken the early lead in the race for riches from far-away lands. The English, Dutch, and French, who argued that the seas should be open and that possession of land should depend on occupation, would soon challenge this position. Before long all five of these countries would vie for supremacy of these lands.

JAMES J. HOFFMANN

Further Reading

Berger, Josef. Discoverers of the New World. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1960.

Faber, Harold. The Discoverers of America. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

Lomask, Milton. Exploration: Great Lives. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988.

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