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

Building the Brigantines


The life led by Vasco Nunez de Balboa in the New World, accustomed as he had been to scenes of rapine and to the indulgence of the baser passions, was not conducive to the upbuilding of an elevated character. But that he had a shred of manliness remaining, was shown when, in response to the command of Pedrarias, he presented himself before that worthy at his official residence. When he learned of the compact that had been proposed by the bishop and sanctioned by the governor, he at first seemed stunned by the intelligence; but recovering himself with an effort, he exclaimed: "And this is to be the purchase of my freedom? Bound by pledges which cannot be broken, I am to be delivered into the hands of mine enemy! Never! never will I consent to such a compromise. It is disgraceful, humiliating!"

"Tut, tut," said the bishop. "You forget, my son, in whose presence thou art speaking: the head of thy Church, the head of the government—not only—but before a lady of a rank the equal of, if not exceeding, thine own."

"I crave her pardon," said Balboa, now for the first time allowing his gaze to rest upon Dona Isabel. "But do you, my lady, approve this alliance? As the mother of your daughter, and knowing me for what I am—what I have been in this wild land—do you consent to such a sacrifice?"

"She is my eldest, and dear to my heart," responded the Lady Isabel; "but I not only consent to—I approve of this arrangement."

"Then so be it," rejoined Balboa, with a sigh. "Never have I seen the maiden; but if she be like her gracious mother, then truly shall I be the most fortunate of men." He advanced, and bowing low before her, with courtly dignity, pressed his lips to the hand which she extended.

"Most fortunate of men, indeed," exclaimed Pedrarias, with a sneer; "not only in what you gain, but what escape. Dost hear, Isabel? he condescends to marry our daughter! We will make note of that; but, inasmuch as I have decided, we will for the moment overlook it. Now the notary, and the marriage compact. These, our signatures, you witness, notary. Enough. It is done; it is affirmed. Maria shall be sent for, and when she arrives the marriage shall be solemnized. Now, son-in-law, what is it thou desirest most of all—saving, of course, to be my son-in-law?"

"Your excellency," responded Balboa, ignoring the sneering tone and look, "when you came hither it was my intention soon to build some ships, and, after transporting them to the coast of the new sea, to explore its shores and islands."

"Then proceed. It is a good intention, and should be carried out at once. But how, son-in-law, wilt transport the ships across the mountains? The way is long and rugged—impossible."

"Nay, not impossible. After what has been achieved, it is feasible. At the port of Acla, in Careta's country, I would fain cut the timbers, collect the material for fittings, and thence have them taken by carriers to the southern sea-coast."

"Good! In the province of Careta, another father-in-law of thine, by the way, thy relations with whom thou must sever! Thou canst not but understand what I mean?"

"I understand," rejoined Balboa, "and your law is my will."

"Certes, thou shouldst have no other, henceforth, as thou'lt find!"

This allusion to Cacique Careta had reference, of course, to the fact—which was well known in Darien—that his daughter, the Cacica, was still held in regard by Balboa, and had not yet returned to her father. Perhaps Dona Isabel had not been aware of the circumstances, for she looked inquiringly at Balboa, who avoided her gaze, and retired in confusion from her presence.

Then ensued scenes of activity at Antigua del Darien to which it had long been a stranger. When it became known that Pedrarias and Balboa were again in accord, the settlers took heart and began to improve their condition. Establishing himself at Acla, a port in Careta's province, to the west of Antigua, where he had already erected a fortress, Balboa began the construction of four brigantines. Timber for two of them was already hewn and shaped, when it was discovered that, having been cut near the sea-coast, it was subject to the ravages of destructive worms, and all the work had to be done over again.

During long weeks and months, troops of negroes and Indians trudged painfully over the rugged trails of the mountains, from the north coast to the south, bearing heavy loads comprised of rigging, anchors, and iron-work for the brigantines, arms, ammunition, and provisions, a distance of fifty or sixty miles. Timber for the second pair of brigantines was felled on the banks of a river called the Balsa, which flowed into the South Sea; but hardly had it been cut and shaped before a flood came down from the mountains and swept it nearly all away. Then, a third time, did the indefatigable Balboa set his men an example by Herculean labors, and after almost incredible toil, exposure, suffering from famine and sickness, two brigantines were finally constructed and floated on the river. They drifted down to the sea-coast, and there, while timber for the other two was being prepared and their fittings brought from Acla, Balboa equipped them with sails and set forth upon the bosom of the ocean he had discovered three years before. This, he thought, was the consummation of his labors and the triumph of his genius; but before him yet lay the country in which he hoped to round out his career by a grand and startling conquest.

A trial trip was made to the islands of pearls, on one of which, called Isla Rica, or the Rich Island, he established a base of supplies, and then, with one hundred men aboard his clumsy brigantines, he set sail for the coast of the mainland, where it stretched away to the west and the southward. He was then, if he had but known it, on the watery highway to Peru, but which another was to traverse, to its ending at the gateway of the golden empire. He had found the way, however, and was content, for, with four brigantines soon to be under his orders, and three hundred men in his command, it seemed to him that the treasures of Peru now lay open before him. He could exploit them at his leisure, he thought, and when a school of whales appeared ahead of his vessel—which he mistook for reefs—and a contrary wind assailed him, he abandoned his cruise to the southward and returned to Isla Rica.

Balboa was a careful commander, and he had been three years dreaming of and preparing for the invasion of Peru. He would not, then, jeopardize his chances by starting out half equipped, with less than one-third the number of men he desired and in all probability needed. So he returned to Isla Rica, which, having reduced its people to subjection and investigated its resources, he planned to make his headquarters.

With what exultation he found himself at last free from the domination of Pedrarias! With what delight he rambled over his island realm and thought upon the freedom that would be his, the glorious opportunities unfolded, the treasure he would obtain, when, at last afloat, with armament complete, he would bear down for the land that then lay dim and shadowy upon the horizon!

But, even while indulging in these dreams of future conquest, sinister rumors reached him from the northern shores of the isthmus. At least, viewed in the light that Pedrarias was now his friend, they seemed so, for they related to the arrival of a new governor, who might not look with favor on his schemes, and indeed supplant him with favorites of his own. After consulting with the most trusty of his officers, he resolved to send a messenger to Acla, in order to ascertain the exact condition of affairs in Antigua, for reports were conflicting, and he knew not what to do. The man selected for this important mission was none other than Andres Garabito, who had brought the contingent of armed men from Cuba. Balboa thought he could trust him, as they had campaigned together, passed through perils together, and existed in close comradeship for years; but he had not taken into the account a recent occurrence which had changed Garabito's friendship into bitter hatred.

His enmity was secret, but was none the less vindictive, and it was occasioned by his fondness for Careta's daughter, of whom Balboa claimed sole proprietorship. When, therefore, he one day discovered Garabito paying her attentions—which she seemed not to receive unwillingly—he rebuked his subordinate severely, and sent him away in anger. The occurrence faded quickly from Balboa's mind, for his generous nature did not harbor resentment long; but not so with Garabito, who felt he had been unjustly treated, and meditated revenge.

Before setting out with Balboa on this very expedition, he wrote to Pedrarias that his prospective son-in-law was so completely enamored of the Indian girl Cacica that, rather than give her up, he would fly with her to the wilds and abandon the settlement forever. This poisoned missive had done its dastardly work most effectually during Balboa's absence on the southern coast, and when, by a sinister coincidence, Garabito was chosen to return to Darien to spy upon the Spaniards there, he found the mind of Pedrarias ripe to receive any accusation whatever against the man he hated yet had so highly honored. He was furious from wounded pride and jealousy. His former suspicions revived, and were augmented by the arrival of the malignant Garabito at Acla. This despicable wretch allowed himself to be arrested as a spy, and when threatened with punishment pretended to reveal what he knew and suspected of Balboa's intentions. He declared that his chief intended, as soon as the brigantines were ready for sea, provisioned and equipped, to embark upon the southern ocean. As an independent commander, said Garabito, he proposed to sever all relations with the government of Darien, and cast off his allegiance to the king. Thus was Balboa accused of the crime of treason by this dastard scoundrel, a crime which, as he well knew, was punishable with death!

As the new governor had died in the very harbor of Antigua before he could take up the burden of government, Pedrarias was not only undisturbed, but at liberty now to proceed unrestrained with his persecution of Balboa. In his blind fury, he cast all considerations of justice or fairness to the winds, and listened to the accusations of Balboa's enemies, who now rose up on all sides to condemn him. The colony was again thrown into a ferment by the several factions, for Balboa still had many friends besides those who were with him on the coast; and every advantage which had been gained by the alliance between the governor and the discoverer was thus thrown away. The interests of the colony were subordinated by Pedrarias to the gratification of his malice, and all enterprises halted while he pursued his enemy to the last extremity.

Garabito had, as though unintentionally, let drop that his chief had sent for Cacica, who was instructed to join him in his camp at Isla Rica, he said, without delay. But this was an untruth, for Balboa had broken with her from the day he had promised Pedrarias to do so. As an honorable man—according to the code of honor at that time—he felt himself constrained to abide by the letter of his marriage agreement with the governor's daughter, and had held himself aloof from all temptations. His deep regard for Dona Isabel constrained him also; for, though she had condoned his past, she expected him to comport himself like a true knight in the future. As the mother of his bride in prospective, and as the first pure woman he had met in many years, he regarded her with worshipful reverence. For her sake he had resolved to crucify his lusts and purge himself of all iniquities.

But Balboa's righteous resolve had been made too late, for the Cacica, though she had long since steeled her heart against her master, was piqued at his coldness, and it was that which had caused her to receive the attentions of Garabito, who failed not to tell her of the marriage contract with the governor's daughter. Balboa had, then, at least two enemies who, with a desire for revenge, though from different motives, aided Pedrarias in fastening the fetters upon him.

If this were but a story of love and revenge, rather than the simple biography of a historical character, we should find the material at hand for a most fascinating romance; and if the reader will recall the leading features of chapters V. and IX., in this connection, perhaps such a story may be woven, after all! For we have all the essentials for a plot: valiant hero, beautiful heroine, despicable villain; love, intrigue, the deadly enmity of a base tyrant; and finally, a tragic ending. This final tragedy we are leading up to now, and we shall attempt to show how Vasco Nunez de Balboa's crimes in the early part of his career came to be visited upon him when at the height of apparent prosperity and power, and brought him to the headsman's block!

When Pedrarias heard from Garabito that the Cacica had been ordered by Balboa to join him on his expedition, he sent an officer to bring her before him. She came tremblingly, having in mind the tortures to which her brother had been subjected when summoned before a similar council by the magistrates. She was waylaid by Garabito, who whispered in her ear: "You have only to say that your master sent for you, but that you refused to go. If you testify otherwise, you are lost, for the governor will put you to the torture!"

The power of Garabito was in the ascendent, over that of Balboa, and the girl testified as he commanded, greatly to the satisfaction of the governor, who grimly regarded this rival of his daughter with something like approval. Her evidence was the last link in the chain he was forging to connect his enemy with treason towards the king. The fact that he had sent for her proved his intention of making the southern coast his base of operations and place of permanent abode. It also showed, the governor argued, that Balboa had no thought of fulfilling his obligations to his daughter, whom he thus virtually repudiated. This thought enraged him to the verge of frenzy. That he should have meditated an alliance with this base-born adventurer (as he styled him then) was exasperating; but that the graceless fellow should have spurned that alliance, and preferred an Indian female to his high-born daughter, stirred his malignant nature to its depths.

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