Vasco Nuñez de Balboa  (Part 3)

Río Grande de San Juan (Atrato)

Tree-Dwelling Indians In The Lowlands of Panama (By De Bry, India Occid., plate xxiii, 1595)

In June, 1512, Balboa set out with a large force to explore a large river that was about 30 leagues south of Antigua. This force consisted of 160 men, 2 brigantines, and several canoes and some Indians, used as guides. Since they arrived in Antigua, the Spaniards had been hearing of the great Cacique Dabaibe, that had a great temple in his village, full of gold and pearls. This Golden Temple of Dabaibe, was the first reference to "El Dorado", that became a great sought after location since. Balboa described this campaign in a letter he sent to the King of Spain, dated January 20, 1513. He said that the large river was bordered by swamps and lagoons and was subject to great floods during the rainy season. He said that all of the gold of the area, passed through the hands of Dabaibe, and that he had a very large smelter, for the processing of the gold, and crafting of gold objects.

On June 24, 1512, el dia de San Juan (St. John's Day), going to the land where the Cacique Dabaibe resided, they discovered the great river, and named it El Río Grande de San Juan. This river emptied into the Gulf of Urabá at its southern end. This river was seen by Bastides, in 1502, but they never landed in the area to explored it. This great river has about 8 mouths, from which it empties into the gulf; but, the Spaniards believed that these were all separate rivers.

Balboa sent Rodrigo de Colmenares, with 1/3 of the force and one of the brigantines to go up the main branch of the river. He took the rest of the force and proceeded up one of the other branches. He found a large number of fishing nets in the water, and therefore named this branch, Río de las Redes. After going up river a short distance, they came upon an abandoned town, that was owned by the Cacique Cémaco, the powerful ruler of Darien. When the Indians saw the Spaniards approaching, the fled into the jungles. Balboa was able to capture 2 large canoes, a large quantity of bows and arrows, and 7,000 pesos of gold.

From here, they returned to the gulf, where they encountered a storm that swamped the canoes, and they lost all of the captured gold and the men on board. After this, Balboa, entered the Río Grande, with the remaining canoes. brigantine and survivors, following Colmenares. They were able to overtake Colmenares, joined forces, and proceeded up the river. About 12 leagues from the mouth, they discovered an island, which they named Cañafístola, because of the large number of these trees on the island. The Spaniards feasted on a great number of this fruit, only to discover that it had a great laxative effect and they became incapacitated for a while.

When able, they proceeded up the right branch of the river, coming to a tributary, they named Río Negro, because of the dark color of the water. Continuing up the Río Negro about 5 or 6 leagues, they arrived at a town, owned by the Cacique Abenameche. This town had about 500 houses. The Indians made an attempt to defend them selves, but their spears, wooden swords and clubs were no match compared to the iron weapons, firearms, cannons, and dogs, on the Spanish side. The town was quickly overrun and looted. One of the Spaniards, cut off the arm of the Cacique, with one blow of his sword. 

Leaving Colmenares there with 1/2 the men, Balboa continued up the Río Negro to a point about 20 leagues from Cañafístola, where another river emptied into the Río Negro. Continuing up this new branch, the reached to land of the Cacique Abibeiba. Here, the natives lived in the trees, since the area was by a lagoon that was prone to frequent flooding. Some of the trees were so large, that it required up to 8 men, with outstretched arms, to go around the circumference of the trunk. High up in the trees, the constructed their homes of canes, woven to from stable platforms, with walls, and thatch roofs. Inside each house there were smaller compartments for the different families. On high mounds, the natives buried their Chicha to ferment, since the swaying of the trees, hindered the fermentation process. The natives would get to their homes, by climbing ropes suspended from the trees, or ladders, that were constructed of long bamboo poles, that were spilt down the center, using the nodes as stairs. At night, and times of danger, the ropes and ladders were pulled up into the trees, as defense. 

When Balboa and his men approached the village, Cacique Abibeiba was at home, and at the sight of the Spaniards, they quickly pulled up their ladders and ropes. Balboa asked Abibeiba to come down, and he refused, telling the Spaniards to go away, that he had done nothing to them, so leave him alone. With his refusal, the Spaniards started to chop the tree down, with their iron axes. When Abibeiba saw that they were making progress in cutting down the tree, he came down. He came down with his wife and two sons, and the Spaniards asked him for gold. He said that he did not have any, since he had no use for it. They were fishermen, and they used the fish to barter for what ever they needed. He did tell the Spaniards that there was much gold in one of the near by mountains, and if they allowed him, he would go and get it. Leaving his wife and sons, as hostages, he took off and never returned.

Continuing their explorations, they discovered many villages, all abandoned as the Spaniards approached. They were not able to find gold, but they did find much food, which was confiscated. Balboa waited for Abibeiba to return for several days, and when he realized that he would not come back, he abandoned the town and went back down the Río Negro, to meet with Colmenares, who was waiting at the town of Cacique Abenameche, on the river. Colmenares was had been instructed to wait for Balboa, but decided to do some exploration on his own. He sent Lieutenant Raya with 9 men on a raiding party, in the country side. They attacked the town of Cacique Abraiba, and were pushed back by Abraiba, and Raya and two of his men were killed. The survivors fled back to the town of Abenameche.

Cacique Abenameche did not die after his arm was severed, but survived and with his arm healing, planned revenge on the Spaniards. He allied himself with Caciques Abibaiba and Abraiba and with a force of over 500 warriors, attacked the Spaniards in Abenameche.  They would have succeeded, had it not been for a force of 30 men, that Balboa had sent ahead to reinforce Colmenares. Many of the natives were killed and taken prisoners. 

Balboa and Colmenares returned to Antigua with the captives and provisions, but left a force of 30 soldiers under the command of Bartolomé Hurtado, (Balboa's friend) at Abenameche, so that they could continue seeking the location of the Cacique Dabaibe, and his gold temple. Hurtado made some forays into the country side, capturing some prisoners and provisions, but soon, his men became ill. The 21 of the sick men and 24 native prisoners, set out in a large canoe, going down the Río Negro, back to Antigua. Traveling only 3 leagues down the river, they were attacked by 4 canoes, with 100 warriors, under Cacique Cémaco.

Cacique Cémaco's attack, with the help of some of the prisoners, that the Spaniards had captured, were able to kill or drown 19 of the Spaniards. Two of the Spaniards, were able to escape the massacre, and returned to Hurtado, informing him of what had happened. Some of the friendly natives, that were part of the expedition, informed Hurtado, that the native Caciques were all joining forces with Cacique Cémaco, to attack the Spaniards and drive them from Darien. Hurtado abandoned his post at Abenameche, and with his remaining men, hastily retreated to Antigua, to bring the news of the native uprising and the eminent attack.

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November 7, 2002