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

The Man-of-the-Barrel


Sometime in the summer of the year 1501 there landed on the southern coast of Santo Domingo one of the strangest expeditions that ever visited its shores. It was commanded by one Rodrigo de Bastidas, a rich notary of Seville, in Old Spain, who had become imbued with a passion for adventure, and so set forth, with a company contained in two caravels, over the route followed by Christopher Columbus in his third voyage to America. As he was guided by the skilled pilot Juan de la Cosa, who had been with Columbus in the West Indies, his voyage was in every respect successful, save in its ending. It included the entire length of Terra Firma  (as the north coast of South America was then called), from the Gulf of Maracaibo to the Isthmus of Darien, whence, after profitable bartering with the Indians, Bastidas set sail for Spain.

He had sought traffic only, and not conquest, hence had been everywhere received with open arms by the natives, who poured out their treasures of gold and pearls most lavishly, so that he and all his comrades were enriched. Only one other venture to this region, that of Pedro Nino, the year previous, had yielded such rich returns, and it was with exultation that the members of this expedition turned the prows of their caravels homeward. When half-way across the Caribbean Sea, however, they discovered, to their great alarm, that their vessels were leaking in every part, and upon investigation found the hulls full of holes, made by the destructive teredo, or ship-worm, the existence of which they had not suspected. The nearest land was the island of Santo Domingo, then known as Hispaniola, and, bearing up for it, they found a harbor in the Bay of Ocoa. The caravels were hardly kept afloat until this haven was reached, and foundered in port before their cargoes were landed. All the arms and ammunition aboard, as well as much of the provisions, went down with the vessels; but no lives were lost, and the most precious portion of the cargoes was saved, to the last pearl and nugget of gold.

The governor of Santo Domingo at that time was Don Francisco de Bobadilla, who, though but a year or so in office, had already committed irreparable wrongs upon the natives of the island. But a few months had elapsed since he had sent Christopher Columbus and his brothers home to Spain in chains. Having sequestrated their effects, he was rapidly squandering his ill-gotten wealth, and actually living in the old admiral's castle.

One hot midsummer day, as Governor Bobadilla was enjoying his siesta, or noon-day nap, he was rudely awakened by one of his mounted scouts, who had ridden all night and all morning, coming in from the westward. Pushing aside the sentinel on duty in the lower court, he sprang up the stone stairs with jangling spurs, and, making his way to the balcony overlooking the river Ozama, where the governor's hammock was swung, he exclaimed: "Your excellency, I have dire news to report. It calls for immediate action, too, hence my intrusion upon your privacy."

"Ha! it must be pressing, indeed," replied the governor, testily, rubbing his eyes and at the same time rolling out of his hammock. "Know you not, sirrah, that I could have you swung from the battlements—yea, dashed to the pavement of the court below? Ho, it is Enrique! Pardon me, man, I thought it must be some varlet of the admiral's scurvy gang. No chances lose the Colombinos  [partisans of Columbus] to invade my castle and seek to press home their claims, perchance their rusty blades! But proceed. What is it, Enrique?"

"Your excellency, three bands of lawless adventurers, under one Bastidas and the pilot Juan de la Cosa, are marching through the country, with intent, most probably, of attacking the capital. Each band is provided with a coffer filled with gold and pearls, which they are bestowing upon the Indians in exchange for provisions. They are committing no ravage, being in the main unarmed; but I thought your excellency should be informed, and so have come, as you see, all the way from Azua, without rest."

"As a faithful retainer, Enrique, you have done well, and shall receive your reward. They can do no harm, doubtless, since we are here in force; but, laden with gold and pearls, say you?"

"Yes, your excellency, rioting in wealth, which they have obtained in Terra Firma. Not a man among them that has not great store."

"Ha! They come most opportunely, then, for this island of Hispaniola is wellnigh drained of its riches, what with the ravages of Roldan's men and the license permitted by Bartolome Colon. Their wealth is, without doubt, ill-gotten, and we must see what can be done with it. Trading without permission, whether on Terra Firma or in the isles, is a serious offence."

"But, excellency, the commander of the expedition is Rodrigo Bastidas, a lawyer of note in Seville, and he claims to have had permission from the sovereigns. He comes not with intent to trade in this island, so he says, but, his vessels having foundered, he desires only assistance to proceed home to Spain."

"And he shall get it, forsooth; but not of the sort he may crave. A lawyer, say you? Well, since I have already incarcerated an admiral, an adelantado, and the governor of this very city of Santo Domingo, it seems not reasonable that I shall be bearded by a bachelor! The dungeon awaits him, and there is a place in my treasury for his store of gold and pearls, until it shall be shown that the royal fifth is secure. Go now and call the captain of the guard. Tell it not in the town; but I shall have my soldiers ready to arrest these marauders the moment they arrive."

The avaricious Bobadilla kept his word to the letter, for when, the next night, his ship-wrecked countrymen arrived within sight of the city, they were met by an armed force and conducted, weak and famishing as they were, to the prison-pen, where they were herded like cattle. The rank and file were soon released, and allowed to wander at will about the island, but Bastidas and La Cosa were kept immured for many months. In June or July of the next year they were placed on board one of the ships comprising the large fleet collected by the governor to accompany him to Spain. Bobadilla embarked in another vessel, at the same time, but lost his life in a hurricane, which sank nearly every ship in his fleet.

The vessel containing Bastidas and La Cosa survived the tempest, and they safely arrived in Spain with the greater portion of their treasure. Both received high honors at the hands of their sovereign, and returned to the scenes of their discoveries, on the coast of Terra Firma, where the gallant pilot was killed by a poisoned arrow. Bastidas was appointed governor of Santa Marta, where, because he treated the Indians justly and took their part against his ferocious followers, he was assassinated by some of his own men. His remains were taken to Santo Domingo, and in its cathedral is a chapel dedicated to the memory of "the Adelantado Rodrigo de Bastidas," who, together with his wife and child, there sleeps his last, in a tomb elaborately carved, as attested by an inscription on the chapel wall.

While the adventures of the humane Bastidas were sufficiently interesting to attract attention at the time of their occurrence, they might, possibly, have escaped the historian were it not for the fact that they were shared by a man whose subsequent fortunes were identified with one of the greatest events in American history. This man was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who enlisted under Bastidas at Seville, and accompanied him throughout the voyage, with its consequent disasters. He was then an obscure individual, known only as a dependant of Don Pedro Puertocarrero, the mighty lord of Moguer. He was not a native of Moguer (that town near Palos so closely identified with Columbus and the discovery of America), but came from Xeres de los Caballeros, where his family was respected, though poor and untitled.

No mention is made of Balboa in the annals of the voyage, nor for years after the disbanding of the company at Santo Domingo do we find anything respecting the man who possessed those transcendent qualities that later marked him as a born leader of men. He was probably one of the unfortunates let loose upon the island when Bastidas was imprisoned by Bobadilla. At that time he was about twenty-six years of age, having been born in 1475. He was tall and robust, with a handsome, prepossessing countenance, and was one of the most expert swordsmen and archers in the island.

"His singular vigor of frame," says his Spanish biographer, Quintana, "rendered him capable of any degree of fatigue; his was the strongest lance, his was the surest arrow in the company; but his habits were loose and prodigal, though his nature was generous, his manners extremely affable."

He was, probably, just an average "soldier of fortune," and, finding Santo Domingo well suited to his tastes, took what came to him from his share in the voyage with Bastidas and spent it in riotous living. This one-time Indian Eden, or paradise, had been converted, by the passions of depraved men, into an abode fit only for the ruffian and libertine. With the farms and plantations assigned the new-coming settlers went large encomiendas, or slave-gangs, of unfortunate Indians, who belonged to their master utterly so long as they remained subject to his control. At the time of Balboa's advent the system was at its worst, for Bobadilla, knowing that his time was short, encouraged every Spaniard to make the most of his opportunities. Thus the poor Indians were worked beyond the limit of endurance, and died by thousands; thus the white men took to oppression as a matter of course, and became as fiends in human shape, with no regard for morals, for humanity, or the rights of their fellow-men.

Yet, with all the opportunities presumably given Balboa for acquiring a fortune, we find him, after several years in the island, deep in debt and seeking to avoid his creditors by flight. The first authentic notice of this former companion of Bastidas appears in a reference to him, in general terms, in the year 1510. At that time, four years after the death of Christopher Columbus, his only legitimate son, Don Diego, was governor of Santo Domingo and viceroy of the Indies. He had succeeded to the incompetent Bobadilla and the atrocious Ovando, who had left the island in such terrible condition that all his great energies were required to bring it under control.

Besides seeking to renovate the impoverished plantations and ameliorate the condition of the Indians, Don Diego also undertook the investigation of Santo Domingo's resources, and explorations in various regions of the Caribbean. He was especially interested in the development of Terra Firma, and encouraged expeditions thither, among them being the venture of Alonso de Ojeda, who, on one of his voyages, was accompanied by Francisco Pizarro, then unknown, but destined to become the conqueror of Peru. On his third voyage to Terra Firma, Ojeda left behind him in Santo Domingo one Martin Fernandez de Enciso, who was to follow after with a vessel freighted with supplies and reinforcements for a colony he had founded on the coast of Darien. It was on the occasion of Enciso's sailing that the reference, already alluded to, was made to Balboa and the class to which he then belonged: delinquent debtors who sought to evade their obligations by flight. Information having reached Don Diego, the admiral, that certain reckless men of this class meditated waylaying Enciso's ship when she called at some of the out-ports for final supplies, he issued a proclamation commanding them to desist from their purpose, and also sent an armed caravel with the vessel to escort her clear of the coast.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa was then residing on a farm, which he nominally owned, near the sea-coast town of Salvatierra, at which place Enciso was to call for provisions. Indeed, some of the provisions were to come from Balboa's farm, and his own Indians were engaged in transporting them to the sea-shore. Late one afternoon, it is said, as Balboa and his mayordomo, or chief man, were walking on the sands near the mouth of the river that flowed through his farm, they saw Enciso's vessel and her escort standing into the bay. The sun was then not far above the western hills, beyond which towered the cloud-capped mountains of the interior, where lay the rugged region known as the Goldstone Country. The craft had scarcely furled their sails and dropped their anchors ere a puff of smoke shot out from the larger vessel, followed by the report of a cannon.

"Ha! that means haste!" exclaimed Balboa. "Bachelor Enciso is desirous that we send our supplies at once, so that he may lade to-night and sail to-morrow with the morning breeze."

"Well, master," said the mayordomo, "so far as our own provisions go, we are ready for him. These barrels on the beach, with what the Indians are now bearing hither on the road, make up our contribution to the cargo."

"Yes, Miguel," answered Balboa, "as thou sayest, we are ready. But, notwithstanding, there is one more contribution I fain would make to Bachelor Enciso's complement of soldiers, as well as add to his cargo. Dost understand me, Miguel mio?"

"I have heard, master, that thou art pressed for funds of late, and threatened with imprisonment provided money be not forthcoming for thy creditors."

"That is it. And dost know, Miguel, whence I may get that money—or, what is the same to me now, how I may evade payment for a while?"

"As to the dinero, master—'sooth, I know not where to find it; for if I did, certain thou shouldst have it. As to evading the payment, there is but one way open, and that—"

"Lies yonder," added Balboa, then continued, bitterly: "Yet it is not open, after all, for how can I get aboard the vessel? Don Diego—and may the devil get his soul in keeping, say I!—Don Diego has sent the caravel to prevent the escape of poor men like me who would redeem themselves in a far country. He would keep us here, it seems, to rot in misery, rather than afford us a chance to get gold for the payment of our debts."

"Don Diego is a fool!" exclaimed the mayordomo. "Yea, and so is the Bachelor Enciso. Faith, if we cannot outwit them both, thou mayst cut off my head and stick it on a pole! When canst thou be ready, my master?"

"In an hour, Miguel. But what will it avail?"

"Say no more, my master, but go to the rancho, and return to the beach within an hour or two. It were better if after dark; but not too late for getting aboard the ship."

"Oh no, not too late for boarding the ship," rejoined Balboa, derisively. "It hath ever been that, of late. But, what is thy scheme, Miguel?"

"Let not that concern thee, master. Go thou, and remember these proverbs: 'When the iron is hot, then is the time to strike'; and 'When the fool has made up his mind, the market is over!'"

Balboa laughed lightly as he hastened away to the rancho, whence he returned, two or three hours later, accompanied by an Indian porter with a full suit of armor on his back, and another with a large basket containing articles of wearing apparel. Miguel was standing by a large cask, one end of which was open. Directing the Indians to deposit their burdens on the sand beside the cask, he sent them back to the rancho, thus leaving himself and Balboa alone. Not far away, though but dimly visible in the starlit night, a number of Indians were rolling casks of provisions into a small boat from the ship.

"They will be ready for this in about an hour," said the mayordomo, "so I fain must pack it quickly. What thinkst thou of thy quarters, master mine?"

"What? Is that thy scheme—to send me aboard packed like pork in a cask? Never, Miguel! The stigma would cling to me forever!"

"Not so closely, perhaps, as thy creditors, my master. But choose thou, and quickly, for time is no laggard. Meanwhile thou'rt making up thy mind, I'll pack this armor and clothing in the lower end of the cask. See, now, I shall secure it with braces, so the armor may not rattle; and observe thou that there are holes, which I have bored in the sides, to give thee air. Now, when quite ready, get therein, and I will head thee up, my master."

"But, Miguel, suppose the cask were to turn over? With the weight of my armor upon me, I should be suffocated, methinks."

"Nay, master, turned over thou shalt not be, for I shall give instructions to the crew to keep the top-end uppermost."

"But they may not observe them," groaned Balboa, as he clambered into the cask and settled himself in position.

"They will, master; trust me," said the faithful Miguel. "In the lading, they may roll thee about a bit, to be sure. Still, it will be better than to be squeezed by thy creditors."

"Well, as thou sayest, Miguel. In I go, perchance to a living tomb. A thousand ducats for thee, Miguel, if the venture prove successful."

"Ha! But when do I get it, master?"

"When I am lord of Terra Firma! But stay, Miguel. There is Leoncico. I cannot, must not, leave him behind."

"Truly thou sayest," replied the mayordomo; "but for the hound I have already provided. He goes aboard with Salvador Gonzalez, who, also, will have an eye on this cask, to open it at the proper time, which cannot be till to-morrow, know thou."

"Ah, well! get me aboard; and caution the men to handle me carefully. Adios, Miguel, good friend. May the Lord reward thee."


Balboa carried on shipboard.

Enciso's vessel was laden by midnight, and before dawn of the next morning was well in the offing, from the shore appearing a mere speck upon the horizon. The bachelor was now in high feather, for he had, as he thought, completely outwitted the scheming debtors of the island, who intended boarding his vessel, and had dismissed the armed caravel with a message to Don Diego to this effect. What, then, was his astonishment, about mid-forenoon of the first day out, to be confronted by a mailed apparition, in the person of the most notorious debtor that Santo Domingo had known—Vasco Nunez de Balboa!

Clad in full armor, with his good Toledo blade in one hand and the famous hound, Leoncico, by his side, the soldier-colonist strode aft to the quarter-deck where Enciso was standing. He had been released from his cramped quarters in the cask by his neighbor Gonzalez, guided by Leoncico, who picked out his master's place of imprisonment from among the freightage in the vessel's bows, and stood by solemnly until he was freed.

"Dios mio!"  exclaimed Balboa, after the head of the cask had been removed and his own head took its place. "That was an experience I would not endure again for an empire! Give me to eat, friend Salvador, and something to drink, for of a truth I am perishing of hunger and thirst. My limbs, too, are as stiff as a stake, so rub me down, amigo, and then help me on with my armor."

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