C HRISTOPHER COLUMBUS was not only a brave man, he was also a very good man. I wish that I could say the same of all the Spaniards who came after him. But many of these men were cruel and deceitful and wicked. They were not kind to the Indians, and they fought and robbed and cheated, and their only thought was to grow rich.
Now, one of the most wicked of all these Spaniards was Balboa. His full name was Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, but I think I shall call him only Balboa. He was as cruel as a man could be. He liked to see people suffer, and if anyone was in trouble, Balboa would not help him, but would laugh at the poor man's misfortune. He borrowed money and promised to pay it back; but when the time came, he told the people who had lent him the money to get it back the best way they could. He quarreled with everybody, and everybody said that he was a wicked, wicked man.
This Balboa was born in Spain; but like many other Spaniards, he went to America to live. Now there was in America a great island called Hispaniola, where many Spaniards had houses. These Spaniards were very cruel to the kind, gentle Indians. They made slaves of them, and they made them work so very hard and so very long that many of the poor Indians died. And all the while the Spaniards lived without doing any work themselves. They walked about in their fine clothes, and they drank and swore and quarreled with one another, and in every way were as bad as bad could be. And of all these wicked Spaniards, Balboa was the worst. Whenever anything wicked was to be done, Balboa would do it. You see he was not only wicked, but very brave and very, very bold.
Well, after a while, Balboa grew tired of the lazy life in Hispaniola. He wanted to become rich, and it was harder to get money in Hispaniola than in other parts of America. Besides, nobody in all the island liked Balboa. He was so cruel and quarrelsome, so unkind to the Indians, that the people used to look at him coldly, and shake their heads when they passed him in the street. Then, too, those who had lent money to him began to want it back again, and some men said to Balboa, "If you do not pay back the money you owe us, we shall throw you into prison, and there you can stay in the dark with the rats and the mice until you die." For in those cruel days, a man who could not pay his debts was thrown into prison. Now, you can well believe that the wicked Balboa was only too anxious to get away from the island. But how could he do it? He could not walk away, because an island has water on all sides, and he could not go by boat, because he had no money; so he thought and thought and thought. And at last Balboa hit upon a very clever plan. One day he walked down to the sea-coast, where a ship was being loaded, and when nobody was watching he quickly crawled into a great empty wine-cask and pulled the lid on the top. There he waited and waited, hour after hour, afraid every moment that someone would miss him and look in the wine-casks on the boat. He hardly dared breathe, and even the beating of his heart seemed to him as loud as a great drum.
But no one came, and at last the boat took up its anchor and sailed away. Then Balboa was very happy, for he knew that he was free from Hispaniola and all the people who hated him and all the people to whom he owed money. He knew that he would not have to go to prison. But at first he was afraid to come out of the cask, because he was afraid of what the captain would say when he saw him. He waited a good many hours in the barrel, but at last he gave a shove to the lid, and out popped the red face and red beard of Balboa. As he did so, he heard the captain and all the sailors give a great shout, for you may be sure that they were much surprised to see a man's head come out of a barrel.
Now, the captain, whose name was Encisco, was a very disagreeable man, and he was quite angry when he saw Balboa's head come out of the barrel. He did not like to carry people on his ship for nothing, and he thought that Balboa had cheated him when he hid himself in a barrel. "What does this mean?" he shouted, and then he swore so many oaths that I am glad you and I were not there, though perhaps we could not have understood, because it was all in Spanish.
Well, when Balboa told the captain how he had to run away from the island, and how he had no money to pay for the voyage, Encisco became angrier and angrier. He stamped his foot and shook his fist; his eyes got black, and he swore and swore and swore. "I will tell you what I will do with you," roared the captain so loud that the wicked Balboa shook with fear; "I shall put you on a desert island without food or water and you can starve to death, you wicked cheater."
Now, I must say that Balboa was a brave man, but at these cruel words he became very frightened. He knew that Encisco would do as he said. In those days people did not think much about killing each other, and Balboa was so cruel himself that he would have treated the captain just as cruelly as the captain was now going to treat him; so Balboa threw himself on his knees and begged the captain to spare his life. He begged and begged, but the more he begged, the more the captain swore and the angrier he grew. But at last, he did feel a little sorry for Balboa; so he said, "Get up from your knees. This time I will spare your life." Now, you will think, perhaps, that Balboa was very grateful to the captain for sparing his life, but really he was not. He kissed the captain's hand and thanked him over and over again, and swore that he would lay down his life for Encisco whenever he wished it; but in his real secret heart he hated the captain and only waited for the chance to do him harm.
Well, the chance came sooner even than Balboa had thought. One day a great storm came up and the little ship tossed and rocked and everybody was afraid that the boat would go down. The sailors, who were wicked men, went down on their knees and tried to pray that their lives might be spared. But they had all forgotten how to say their prayers, and the storm grew worse and worse, and at last the little ship was dashed to pieces on a rocky coast. The sailors all fell into the sea, but luckily for them the water was not deep and they were able to swim ashore alive. At last the men were all on land again, but not one of them knew the name of the place or the name of the country where they had been wrecked. They looked up and down the coast, but everywhere they found only sand and rocks, and back a little way great woods of waving palm-trees.
Now the captain ought always to know where he takes his ship; so each of the sailors asked the captain the name of the country. But the captain had never been in any of that country, and he did not know the name any better than the sailors; so you may well believe that they were all very much frightened. Then up spoke the crafty Balboa. He had been very quiet and respectful on the boat, because he was still afraid of the desert island; but here on the land he was as bold as you please. "Captain," he said, "I know where we are, for I have been here before. This is the country of Darien, and a little way off is an Indian village to which I will take you."
Now, when the sailors heard these words of Balboa, they were very glad. They cheered and cheered and threw up their caps, which were still wet from the sea-water. Then they all started off for the Indian village, everybody following bold Balboa, and if you had looked on at this strange march, you would have thought that Balboa was the real captain and Encisco only a sailor. It was not easy to march through this country of Darien, because the Indians were very unfriendly. You see, before this time some other Spaniards had come to the country, and robbed and killed and tortured the Indians. Perhaps Balboa was one of these very men. Well, anyway, the Indians did not love the white men who had been so cruel, and so from behind trees they shot arrows at the ship-wrecked sailors. Many sailors were killed and more were wounded; but Balboa, though very wicked, was a brave and wise General, and he beat off the Indians and got the sailors safely to the little Indian village.
At last the time had come for Balboa to make Captain Encisco sorry for wanting to put him off on a desert island. You see Balboa could never forgive the captain for making him kneel and beg for his life. Besides, he was very proud and wanted all the glory for himself. So Balboa took the sailors aside one by one, and whispered to each of them, "Encisco is a poor captain and I am a good one. Make me your captain and I will treat you better than Encisco does." So the sailors all made Balboa their captain.
Now, at last, Balboa had his wish and was a great man in a new country. Here he could get money and become very rich; but I am sorry to say that he was always very, very cruel. He used to rob the poor Indians and murder them, and when they did not have as much gold as he wanted, he would tie them up by their thumbs until they screamed with pain. He made them hang there until they told him where more gold could be found. Sometimes the poor Indians would not know; but just to be rid of the pain, they would pretend that gold was hidden in the forest and they would take Balboa to the place. But if Balboa did not find any gold there, and often he did not, it went still worse with the poor Indians. He would burn them alive on a slow fire, so that they would suffer great pain. Indeed, he grew so cruel that the Indians called him "The White Tyrant of Darien."
One day the son of an Indian chief came to where Balboa was living and spoke to the tyrant. "You always want gold," said he, "but I will show you something still better. Come with me a few days to the West, and you may see an ocean as great as the great sea you sailed when you came from your home." Now, Balboa thought, "If I can find this great sea and be the first white man to look at it, then I shall be a famous man. Besides, there may be gold and silver and jewels in the lands beyond this new sea." So off he went, taking with him the chief's son and some of the Spanish sailors. It was not a long journey, and in a few days they came to a mountain. This the Indian told Balboa to climb. "From the top," he said, "you will see the great ocean."
Balboa told all his men to stay below, and he went up alone to the top of the mountain; and what the Indian had said came true. There lay the great sea, stretching in all directions as far as the eye could reach. The blue waters were as quiet as a little lake; but Balboa knew that this was a great ocean. And it was a great ocean—the Pacific Ocean, which is the greatest body of water in the world. So Balboa, who had run away from Hispaniola and had hidden himself in a barrel, was the first white man to see it.
Then Balboa, wicked and cruel though he was, knelt down on the top of the mountain and thanked God that he had been the first to see this great ocean. After that he called up his men. Up they ran, each trying to be the first, and when they reached the top, they all looked with wonder at the great, peaceful sea, that shone so beautifully in the noonday sun.
Then the men piled up great stones until there was a high heap, and Balboa went down the mountain and carved the name of King Ferdinand upon the bark of the trees. A few days later Balboa came down the mountain to the sea, which before he had only seen, but not touched. He walked a little way out into the ocean, and, waving his sword in the air, cried out in a loud voice that all that great sea and all the islands in it and all the lands about it belonged to Ferdinand, the King of Spain.
Now, if any one did such a foolish thing to‑day, I believe that we would all laugh at him. A great ocean cannot belong to any one man, even if he is a King, or even to any one nation, but to all the nations and all the people of the world. But King Ferdinand was very proud when he heard of what the bold Balboa had done, and so he made him the ruler of the great ocean he had found.
But the wicked Balboa did not go without punishment for all his evil deeds. Every day he became more hard and more cruel. He did not keep his promise to be kinder than Encisco, and everybody hated him, even the people who knew that he was brave. So one day the Governor of Darien had him sent to prison, and a short time after that Balboa's head was cut off.
I do not know that anybody was sorry. Balboa was a very brave, bold man, and he did find the Pacific Ocean. But the braver a man is, the more gentle and kind and good he should be; so I think Balboa deserved his death, just as he deserved the name the Indians had given him of "The White Tyrant of Darien."