Gateway to the Classics: Vasco Nunez de Balboa by Frederick A. Ober
Vasco Nunez de Balboa by  Frederick A. Ober

Balboa Strengthens his Arm


Balboa stretched himself in his hammock, and looking at the delegates through half-closed eyes, as though he would resume his siesta, rejoined: "Gentlemen, I do not wish to return! But here is Don Bartolomé, who might be induced to act in my place. Let him go with you and assume the reins of government."

The delegates looked the confusion they felt, but said nothing, though Hurtado hastily exclaimed, "No, no; I care not to do so."

"Neither care I," said Balboa. "For what do I get by returning? Only the semblance of a shadow of authority. All the labors, all the insults attending the office; but never a gracias, senor—never a thank you, sir, get I. But here—ah, here I have my liberty. I ask no man whether I shall come or shall go. Here I can live free from restraint—I and my merry men. What say, companeros, shall we return?"

"Never, no never!" came in a chorus from the soldiery.

"We are content here, are we not? The forest gives us sustenance—as ye see, gentlemen; it gives us shelter. Now that I am no longer compelled to hunt the red savage, and only the wild beast when I choose, rest and happiness have come to me."

The committee consulted together for the space of five or ten minutes, then the spokesman said, with a new note in his voice and a twinkle of triumph in his eyes: "Your excellency, we have a letter for you, which I herewith deliver. We know not what it contains, for, as you may witness, the seal is still unbroken; but from what tidings we have received from some high in authority at Hispaniola, we divine it refers to the great displeasure of his majesty, the king, as respects your doings at Darien. Here is the letter, your excellency."

Balboa took the letter without remark, and broke the seal. As he read, a serious expression came over his face, and he frowned severely, seeing which the delegates nudged one another and chuckled inwardly. He had good cause, in truth, to frown, for the letter was from his friend at court, Zamudio, whom he had sent to Spain to plead his cause. It informed him of the king's indignation, kindled by the charges against him lodged at court by the lawyer Enciso, by whom he was accused of being an intruder and usurper at Darien. He was held responsible for all the disasters to the colony, and though in reality its founder, and pacificator of the savages, he was to be prosecuted on criminal charges, and might consider himself fortunate if he escaped with his life.

Such was the tenor of the letter, and such the purport of the information the committee had received before they left the settlement. This being so, it behooved Balboa to comport himself more in accordance with his changed position in the eyes of the committee, and after he had finished reading the letter he said: "This is an important communication, gentlemen, and to answer it properly I shall be compelled to return to Darien. If, then, it be your minds still to support me, we will soon set forth. But only on that understanding shall I go,"

"We shall support you," answered the spokesman. "But let it be understood, however, that our support is given only as between you and other subjects of his majesty, the king. Should there be conflict of authority, as between you, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, and his majesty, there will be no question which direction we should take."

"Nor would I, as a loyal subject of his majesty, ask more of you," rejoined Balboa, fervently. "Soldiers, companions, we will depart. Prepare for the march to town. Mozos, bring hither the wine and the chicha. Gentlemen, before we start let us drink to the health of his majesty. Long live the king!"

Then a wild scene ensued. Mingling promiscuously—cavaliers, soldiers of the ranks, and civic functionaries—the company all joined in drinking the health of their sovereign. They seized the brimming calabashes, and, lifting them to their lips, drank deeply to the toast, "Long live the king."

"Now fill again!" shouted one of the delegates. "Here's to the health of his majesty's most loyal subject, Vasco Nunez de Balboa. May he live long as governor of Darien!"

"Viva! viva!"  shouted the excited soldiery. "Long life to our governor!"

"And to his loyal supporters, these our friends," added Balboa, grimly smiling, and waving his right hand towards the delegates. "May they remain loyal—for the space of a week, and may they never have to choose between his majesty and myself, his most devoted subject and servant!"

The wine was soon gone, to the dregs, and with this as the parting toast the company broke camp and set out for town, where a new surprise awaited Balboa, in the arrival of two ships from Santo Domingo. They were laden with provisions and brought a reinforcement of two hundred soldiers and settlers, sent by the admiral, Don Diego Columbus. At the same time arrived, by the hands of the fleet's captain, a commission for Balboa as governor and captain-general. This had come from Miguel de Pasamonte, the royal treasurer of Hispaniola, a favorite of the king, sent out as a check upon the ambition of Don Diego, of whom his majesty was extremely jealous.

In this manner did fate seem to play at cross-purposes with Vasco Nunez de Balboa, sending him tidings by one messenger of the king's disfavor, and by another of his esteem; though, to tell the truth, Pasamonte had assumed his majesty's approbation of his act, without right to do so. He had received from Balboa a large sum of gold, by a previous remittance, and this was the manner in which he requited the favor.

"Gold is most powerful, of a truth," whispered Balboa to himself, smiling the while, as he thought of the title it had won from Miguel de Pasamonte. "If, now, I could get to the king the ten thousand golden castellanos which I have recovered from those robbers, Perez and Corral, methinks such a donative might purchase exemption from the penalties which his majesty seems disposed to place upon me for my presumption in setting poor old Nicuesa adrift and sending Enciso back to Spain. Ha, I have it! I will myself go to court with the gold in my hand, and beard the royal lion in his den. Ten thousand pieces I have; at least ten thousand more may be raked and scraped in the colony, and, moreover, these shall be, to the king, but an earnest of much more to come."

Full of his new project, Balboa broached it to his counsellors without delay, but to his surprise they would not hear of it, neither would any person whatever in the colony.

"No, no," they all exclaimed. "You shall not leave us, Vasco Nunez. You are not alone our governor, but our guide and leader. You, only, are respected by the soldiers, feared by the savages, and we cannot do without you. Stay here with us you must; but we will send deputies to acquaint the king with the condition of the colony, to entreat the necessary military aid, and to plead your cause as though it were yourself in person, Vasco Nunez."

They proved their sincerity by electing two deputies, one of them Juan de Caicedo, who had been inspector on the unfortunate Nicuesa expedition, and the other Rodrigo de Colmenares, "both men of weight, expert in negotiation, and held in general esteem." It was believed that they would satisfactorily execute their commission, and that both would return, since Caicedo left a wife behind him at Darien, and Colmenares had acquired much property, including a farm which he tilled with Indian labor, when not engaged in military operations. Balboa gladly relieved him from command of the fort at Tichiri, and rejoiced that he could send one who would so well represent his cause at court. By him he forwarded letters to the king, containing most extravagant accounts of the country's riches, not forgetting to mention the famed temple of Dobaybe, filled with gold, and the tales the Indians told respecting the gathering of gold in nets. He showed this precious epistle to the colonists, and they were all so greatly impressed with it that, one and all, they contributed gold to the extent of their hoardings, which, added to the amount sent by the government to the king, represented a goodly sum.

Balboa's commissioners left Darien del Antigua about the end of October, 1512, and arrived in Spain, after a long and tempestuous voyage, in the early part of 1513. Had they been the only messengers from that isolated colony on the isthmus, all might have gone well with its governor; but, unfortunately for him, as we know, his enemies had preceded them and spread broadcast the most pernicious tales respecting the doings of the gallant adventurer, Vasco Nunez de Balboa.

Leaving them for a time, while the ferment is working that eventuated in the downfall of Balboa, let us continue in his company until he has accomplished that great achievement due to his heroic efforts, and with which fame has inseparably linked his name—the discovery of the Pacific Ocean.

By the information conveyed through his friend at court, Zamudio, he was assured that lawyer Enciso had obtained a judgment against him in which he was condemned for costs and damages to a large amount. This was not all, for the king was very much incensed, and had issued a summons for him to repair to Spain without delay, there to stand trial on criminal charges respecting the outrageous treatment of Nicuesa, which had probably caused his death.

It will be admitted that Vasco Nunez was then in a terrible predicament, and that there seemed no way out of it save by a desperate venture, by which he might perhaps retrieve his fortunes, win fame, and recover the lost favor of the king. Fortunately for him, the news conveyed by Zamudio's letter had been informal, and in advance of tidings direct from the throne, so there was still time for action. When the authoritative summons should come, it would be too late; hence he could not await the reinforcements so anxiously expected from Spain, and must accomplish whatever he did before their arrival. Thus the intrepid Balboa was thrown directly upon his own resources, and resolved to set forth without the assistance from his sovereign which he had every right to expect in an undertaking so vast and venturesome as his.

Desultory and apparently aimless as had been his doings hitherto, Balboa had never for a moment lost sight of that grand scheme he had formed for exploring beyond the mountains and revealing the existence, if possible, of the great "southern sea." Cacique Comogre's son had assured him that he would need at least a thousand men to assist him, and acting upon this sage advice he had waited for reinforcements before attempting the great adventure. But now, if he waited longer, he might forever lose the opportunity, for with the reinforcements from Spain would also come the order for his arrest and transportation, or at least his dismissal from office. What he did, then, must be done quickly as well as effectually, and he lost no time in perfecting his plans.

"While another and less intrepid spirit might have been overwhelmed by the prospects before him, Balboa was animated to new daring, and impelled to yet higher enterprises. Should he permit another to profit by his toils, to discover the great South Sea, and to ravish from him the wealth and glory which were almost within his grasp? No, a thousand times no! He had won the information at risk of his life; he would realize the profit of it, even at the risk of his life. At least, no other man should avail of it, to cheat him of his dues. He did, indeed, still want the thousand men who were necessary to the projected expedition; but his enterprise, his experience, and his constancy impelled him to undertake it, even without them. He would thus, by so signal a service, blot out the original crime of his primary usurpation, and if death should overtake him in the midst of his exertions, he would die laboring for the prosperity and glory of his native land, and freed from the persecutions which then threatened him."

As he would be obliged to absent himself from the colony for a long period, he made every effort to weld the various elements into a civic body that should work harmoniously and resist the disintegrating forces from within as well as from without. His first step was to set free the ringleaders of the late insurrection, which done, and assured of their co-operation, he proceeded to select his soldiers. There was no lack of volunteers when it became noised about that Balboa was to set out on the grand expedition to which all the others had been in a sense merely preliminary, and he was at greater trouble to reject than to accept those who offered for the service. Desiring none but the most dauntless spirits, he put every man applying to the severest tests. In the first place, they must be capable of enduring fatigue and hunger; in the second, they must be unflinchingly courageous, for the route of march would lie through regions occupied by hostile Indians who were said to be cannibals and gave no quarter.

"My men," he said to them one day, when haranguing them for the last time, assembled on parade, "I shall not attempt to conceal from you the perils of this enterprise. In truth, they could not, in my opinion, be greater. And, while I shall always lead, as hitherto, asking no man to go where I would not venture in advance, yet you may not have the great incentive that moves me. So far as spoils and captives are concerned, ye shall share alike with me; but there is a greater motive than mere spoils. My ambition, as ye all have known for many months, is to achieve the discovery of that great ocean said to lie beyond the mountains. That is—that shall be—the object of my endeavors, and to that the getting of captives and the plundering of natives shall be subordinate. There will be, doubtless, vast spoil, for the country we are to enter has the reputation of being rich in gold and gems. There will be danger; there will be fatigues, deaths, wounds—but, above all, there will be glory—the glory  of accomplishing something of which men have dreamed for many years, but have never achieved!"

"We will do it! The glory shall be ours!" shouted the men, vociferously. "Where you lead, Vasco Nunez, we will go!"

They were probably as daring and reckless adventurers as had ever been gathered together since the New World was discovered, then twenty years agone, and that is saying much. There were, after Balboa had selected the most resolute and vigorous of the colony, one hundred and ninety in the band, all fighting-men of the most desperate type. They were armed with cross-bows and shields, swords, lances, and arquebuses, and there was no person in the company, not even the trumpeter or the drummer-boy, who had not been brought up in the profession of arms. Balboa looked them over proudly, and he also inspected their equipment carefully, for they were to accompany him, as he himself believed, not only on a most desperate venture, but on a veritable forlorn hope, which, if it failed, must end his campaigning, and perhaps his life.

The king must be placated and his favor recovered by no lesser gift than sovereignty over a sea which no man of his race had ever seen; and that was the impelling motive of Vasco Nunez de Balboa in this marvellous enterprise.

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