Vasco Nuñez de Balboa  (Part 1)

Early history and Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was a Spanish Conquistador and Explorer who was the first European to see (in September 13,  1513) the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean by an arduous trip through the jungles of the Isthmus of Panama.. His discovery stimulated exploration and settlement throughout South America. Balboa, gave the ocean he discovered the name of "Mar del Sur" (South Sea), because he had traveled south, across the isthmus to find it. He claimed the Mar del Sur and all it shores and lands it touched, for Spain. Ironically, it was the Portuguese explorer, Magellan, who gave it the name of "Mar Pacifica" because, after crossing the very rough waters of the Straights of Magellan, the sea was very calm. The discovery of the Pacific Ocean, opened the way for the exploration and conquest of Central and South America, along its coast.
We know very little of Balboa's life in Spain. The little we know, come from the early historians of the Indies, Pedro Mártir de Anglería, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo and Bartolomé de las Casas. We know that Balboa was born in the Spanish city of Jerez de los Caballeros, a province of Badajoz, in 1475. He was from a Hidalgo family and that he had three brothers, Alvaro, Juan, and Gonzalo Nuñez de Balboa. Since his family was not wealthy and there was little future for him at home, Vasco was sent at a young age, to learn the art of arms. He went to the castle of Don Pedro Portocarrero (el Sordo), the Lord of Moguer. As a page, he learned the art of war, and how to master all weapons of war. He excelled in the use of the sword and became the best student of all of the young men sent there for education. Don Pedro Portocarrero, was a very decorated war hero and had distinguished himself in battle. His reputation, attracted many families to send their sons there for an education. Besides military training, (horseback riding, hunting and fighting with the lance and sword) the pages were instructed in history, mathematics, science, religion, and the fine art of being Hidalgos (gentlemen). When he graduated, there were few jobs available for officers in the army, since the Catholic Majesties had already defeated the Moors in Granada, in 1492 and had already disbanded the Army. He was able support himself by teaching young men, the use of the sword, and taking jobs as a security guard for merchants. He realized that his future lay in the Indies, and he tried to become a member of any expedition, going there.

In 1501, at the age of 26, he joined the expedition of Rodrigo de Bastidas which was going from Spain to explore the Tierra Firme. He was the officer in charge of five other  soldiers assigned to the expedition, for protection. They were to explore the lands, not yet visited by Columbus and Alonso de Ojeda, on earlier voyages along the southern waters of the Indies. When they reached South America, they continued sailing west along the coast. They eventually reached a cape that Juan de la Cosa recognized as the furthest he had gone with Ojeda, on an earlier voyage. From this point, they searched for treasures (pearls, gold and Indian slaves) along the coast of the country now known as Colombia. Although they were able to collect some treasures, they had a difficult time. The natives were very aggressive, and possessed poison arrows and darts, that killed several of the men. They were only able to trade or steal from along the coast. They were fearful of going inland, because of the natives. They sailed in the Gulf of Urabá (Gulf of Darien) and then continued in a north west direction, along the coast of what is now known as Panama. They sailed past the Atrato River to the site of where Nombre de Dios is today. While in the area of Panama, they noted that the natives were friendly, and very willing to trade their gold and food, for trinkets. More important, they did not have poison arrows or darts. In all, the traveled about 200 miles along the coast, over a 4 month period. 

While on the coast of Panama, the realized that they were in danger of sinking and had to cut their explorations short. Their two ships, the Santa Maria and San Anton, were taking on water, faster than they could pump it out. This was due to the teredo worms, sea worms that are the plague of wooden boats in the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean. They will bore through the wood and cause the boat to leak, like a sieve. Since their charter, specifically prohibited them from landing in Española, they sailed to Jamaica to repair their ships. The teredo had done so much damage to the ships, that there was nothing they could do, other than patch it up the best they. On the worst of the ships, they took one of the sails, and wrapped it under the hull, to keep it from leaking. They realized that they could not make it back to Spain, in those ships, so they returned to Española in 1503. Off the south western coast of Española, in what today is Haiti, Bastidas, the notary from Seville, ordered that they sail close to land, incase they started to sink. A storm quickly developed and pushed the ships into the reefs and they did sink. Part of the treasures gathered by the expedition was lost at sea; but, Bastidas was able to save some, which would go to the him and the Spanish Crown.  

Bastidas, had been ordered to stay away from Española, and they were worried that they would be arrested for landing there without permission. They took the risk and divided the party into three groups, because it was easier for small groups of men, to acquired enough food to feed themselves. They had to march 200 miles to get to Santo Domingo, the capitol of Española. As expected, they were all arrested by the governor, Francisco de Bobadilla, (the same governor that arrested Columbus and sent him back to Spain in chains) and spent a month in jail. At their trial, Bobadilla, decided to let the Crown, handle the problem. He knew that he was already on bad footing with the King, for his handling of Columbus) When they were released, Bastidas, returned to Spain with all of the treasure, but Balboa decided to stay in Espanola and become a settler and farmer.

The new governor of the Indies and Española, Nicolás de Ovando, granted him 30 acres of land on the western side of the island, in the newly formed villa of Salvatierra de la Sabana, which was almost 300 miles from Santo Domingo. He was also given 20 Indian slaves to work the land. He tried to raise pigs and plant corn, tobacco and cassava. During his attempt at farming, he had the opportunity to use his military skills, when he joined Juan Ponce de Leon (who would later become the Governor of Borinquen (Puerto Rico) and discover Florida) on expeditions against the natives. The governor had declared way on the Taino Indians, in the area of Higuey, for refusing to work in the mines and rebelling against their Spanish masters. Balboa was given a commission of lieutenant in the army and was away from his farm for 2 years, until all the Tainos were defeated. During this time, Balboa met Francisco Pizarro, Hernan Cortes and Bartolomé Hurtado. Hurtado would become Balboa's best friend for the next 10 years. In gratitude for his service, Ponce de Leon gave Balboa, a puppy, son of his prized Spanish Mastiff dog. Balboa name the puppy Leoncito (little Lion), in honor of Ponce.  

On the 9th of June, 1508, Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa, were awarded by King Fernando, charters to explore and settle the lands discovered by Bastidas, Juan de las Cosa (Balboa was a member of the expedition) and Christopher Columbus on his 4th voyage. They were appointed governors for a period of 4 years the areas of Urabá and Veragua. The territory granted Alonso de Ojeda, named Nueva Andalucía, started from Cabo de la Vela, in the Peninsula of Guajira, to the eastern half of the Gulf of Urabá. The territory granted Diego de Nicuesa, named Castilla del Oro, extended from the western half of the Gulf of Urabá (Darien) to Cape Gracias a Dios, on the coast of Panamá.

Since Ojeda lacked sufficient funds, he had to join forces with Juan de la Cosa, and the lawyer, Martín Fernández de Enciso, who invested most of his funds. Because of this, Ojeda named Enciso the Alcalde Mayor (Major Mayor) of the colony. On November 12, 1509, Alonso de Ojeda, left Española with 2 large ships, 2 brigantines, 12 horses and 300 Spaniards to settle and explore Nueva Andalucía. Accompanying him were Juan de la Cosa and Francisco Pizarro. On November 20, 1509, eight days later, Diego de Nicuesa sailed from Española with 7 ships and approximately 800 men, to settle and explore Castilla del Oro. 

Left behind in Española, was Enciso, who was to follow Ojeda as soon as he could get more men and supplies for the expedition. Rodrigo Enríquez de Colmenares, one of Nicuesa's lieutenants, also remained behind for the same purpose. 

The penniless Balboa tried, unsuccessfully, to farm for a living and was deeply in debt. Balboa tired to join one of the expeditions. He preferred the one by Ojeda, since he knew some of the people on that expedition. He had sailed with Juan de la Cosa and his best friend on Española, Bartolomé Hurtado.  When the expedition headed by Ojeda, left Espanola to colonize the mainland of South America. Balboa tried, unsuccessfully to join the expedition; but, his creditors prevented him from leaving. His friend Bartolomé Hurtado remained behind with Balboa. To escape his creditors, Balboa and his dog Leoncico, with the help of Bartolomé Hurtado, stowed away in an empty barrel, on one of the 2 ship that  was part of the relief expedition, organized by Enciso, to carry a more men and supplies to the Spanish settlement of San Sebastian , that was struggling to survive. Enciso sailed on September 1, 1510 with 2 ships, a caravel and a brigantine, and 2 stowaways, to join Ojeda. He had 150 men, 12 mares, some stallions, pigs to breed, plenty of food and clothes, and weapons. Once they were far out to sea, away from Española, Balboa left his hiding place and presented himself to Enciso.  Concerned the governor of Española would be upset that he had an escaped debtor on board, Enciso ordered that Balboa be put in chains; but, Balboa's friends convinced him that Balboa knew the land where they were going, and was an excellent soldier. Enciso realized that Balboa had much to offer and allowed him to join the expedition.

They first arrived in the Bay of Cartagena, where the saw a brigantine, heading back to Española. On board, there were 35 colonist, and they were commanded by Francisco Pizarro. He informed Enciso that they were the only survivors of the settlement of San Sebastián, and were headed back home. That it was impossible to support oneself on Tierra Firme and the area was very inhospitable and the natives were very belligerent. Enciso did not believe Pizarro, and thought that they were lying and had just abandoned the settlers. Pizarro had to show a document, signed by Ojeda, ordering the settlers back to Española.

Not wanting to lose his investment, Enciso, the Major Mayor, ordered Pizzaro to turn around, and head back to the Gulf of Urabá or Darien. As they approached the Caribana point, against the recommendations of Balboa and the pilot, Enciso, sure that he could do noting wrong, ordered the ships to move in close to the point. The caravel on which we was on (and Balboa), hit a reef and started to sink very rapidly. The passengers were able to save themselves with the help of the other two ships, and their row boat. They lost all of the horses, pigs, and most of the provisions, since they were mostly on the caravel. 

Enciso then continued on to San Sebastián, where they discovered that the settlement it had been burned to the ground by the natives. Lacking provision, the had to live off the land, hunting peccary and eating fruits. Wanting to get food from the natives, Enciso, ordered and led his party inland, hoping to capture a native village, and take their food. But the natives were prepared, and would attack the Spaniards as they approached with poison arrows forcing them to retreat. 

Enciso became very discouraged because they had lost all of their food, clothes and weapons. His settlers were divided in what they wanted to do and were rebelling against him. To resolve the problem, he held a town meeting amongst all of his men. There options were to either go back to Española in defeat, join the expedition of Diego de Nicuesa that was trying to establish a settlement in Veraguas, or remain in San Sebastián and try to rebuild the community. Every man (Catholic, Spaniard) was asked to give his opinion on what they should do. When it came to Balboa's turn, he suggested that they move the settlement to the western side of the gulf. 

"I remember that in past years, we came by this coast with Rodrigo de Bastidas to explorer, we found in this gulf, and on the western part, on the right side, as I recall, we came upon this land and saw a town of on the other side of a great river (Atrato River), very fresh and the land was abundant with food, and the people there did not anoint their arrows with grass (poison)."

After all were done discussing their recourses, the alternatives were voted on. The majority of those casting votes, wanted to take Balboa's advice, and cross the Bay.  Enciso, the Alcalde Mayor, was very happy with the outcome, since it meant that he would have another opportunity to recoup his loses from the expedition.


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September 12, 2002