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

Dissensions in the Colony


The savages surprised by Colmenares in Tichiri were under a captain, or sub-chief, whose name has not been preserved, but who received swift punishment at the hands of his own people for the crime of rebellion against Balboa. As soon as the Spanish commander had ascertained in which direction he was to look for the captain, he sent a small body of men in search of him. One of his own followers handed Colmenares the bow and spear that he usually carried, and, having presented this to the most sagacious of the hounds for his inspection, the brute sniffed the air an instant then set off into the midst of the crowd. He and his two companions had been dragged from their victims while yet their blood-stained jaws held ghastly shreds and fragments of human flesh, and it was with his ferocious instincts roused to the highest pitch that the hound darted through the throng of Indians and leaped upon the cowering chieftain.

He was expecting death, and had calmly prepared himself to meet his fate; but such a terrible apparition as this he was unprepared for, and as the hound's fangs sank into his quivering flesh he shrieked in agony of pain and terror. It was with difficulty that the enraged animal was induced to release his hold, and suffered repeated blows from the mailed fists of his attendants before he would do so. Then the mangled savage was conducted before Colmenares, who had cleared a space in the centre of the camp and there held an impromptu court-martial upon the leaders of the insurrection. The instigator of the rebellion, Zemaco, had escaped, but four of the sub-caciques, including the captain of the band, were captured, owing to the swift and secret movements of the Spaniards.

With Colmenares acting in the capacity of judge, the proceedings of the "court" were confined to the identification of the victims as leaders and men of influence among the Indians. Their guilt was assumed from the positions they held, and as soon as their identity was established they were promptly sentenced: the captain to be shot to death with arrows by his own followers, and the caciques to be hanged. The sentence was carried out at break of dawn next morning. Scarcely had the sun gilded with his first rays the topmost branches of the forest trees, before the caciques were led out to meet their doom. A broad-based ceiba-tree, or silk-cotton, reared its huge bulk near the centre of the clearing, and up its buttressed trunk a pair of soldiers swarmed to its lower-most limb, over which they swung ropes made of grass, with nooses at their ends. These nooses were then slipped over the heads of the caciques, and soon they were suspended in the air, gasping their lives away, until they were naught but contorted corpses, upon which their former subjects gazed in speechless horror.

The extent to which the Indians had been terrorized by the Spaniards was more fully shown by what followed when the captain was brought to execution. He was placed with his back against the ceiba-tree, his arms and legs tightly pinioned, and compelled to face his slayers, who were archers selected from his body-guard. He faced them dauntlessly, and, calling upon the most skilful archer by name, directed him to shoot at his heart and end his misery without unnecessary delay.

"I blame ye not," he said to his men, "for ye are compelled, I know. Moreover, I shall the more gladly die, knowing that your weapons cause my death, and not those of the foe. Shoot straight, and trouble not thyself," he said to the foremost archer, who, as he was about to bend the bow, craved pardon for his act. The bowstring twanged, the chief's head drooped, and it was seen that the arrow had pierced his breast up to the feather. As the body fell forward several Indians sprang to catch it, and there was some confusion, during which it was perceived that the savage who had slain his chief was placing another arrow on the string. The quick eye of Colmenares caught him in the act, and fearing the shaft was intended for himself—as doubtless it was—he ordered him disarmed. One of the soldiers would have thrust him through with a lance, but the commander prevented him from doing this, perhaps realizing that he had committed atrocities enough, and had put upon this poor savage more than weak human nature could endure.

In the midst of the hubbub that ensued, there sounded the roll of a drum, followed by other noises, that proclaimed the approach of an armed force from the direction of the hills. In fact, Balboa and his men, who had been detained by the countless obstructions to a passage through a virgin forest, made their appearance shortly, and soon the two commanders met and embraced.

"Ha, Rodrigo," exclaimed Balboa, glancing at the grewsome objects hanging from the limb of the ceiba-tree, "but you have forestalled me, son, and saved me trouble. I had feared it might be necessary to swing up a savage or two, and it seems you have done it with despatch. Sorry am I that we were detained; but such is the fortune of those who seek to penetrate these forests. All the day and the night we have struggled against nature's impediments to our progress, and on my soul, Rodrigo, we are worn down and famishing."

"That I can well believe," answered Colmenares. "And we are not so fresh as we might be, nor have we had aught to eat since leaving the boats. But, if the camp-master has attended to his duty, there should be something, by this, awaiting us in shape of a breakfast. Let us seek him and see."

"A fine cavalgada  [troop or herd] of captives you have, Rodrigo, and they should be sufficiently impressed by the punishment of their chiefs to behave well in the future."

"Doubtless they will," replied Colmenares, "for it was a conspiracy of the caciques, and not of the people at large. These are spiritless wretches, most of them, and of themselves will be prone to keep the peace, I trow."

"Still, I think we will build a fort here in this wood, for it is a fine site for one, and the country at large is productive. Gold-mines there are, too, back in the hills, and while old Zemaco is at large there will be no peace for us. Santa Maria! But I wish we could find that golden temple and its idol. Perchance we may, with a strong fortress here, and a garrison in command of a good man like thyself, Rodrigo."

Leaving Colmenares to erect a fortress on a commanding bluff overlooking the gulf, and eighty soldiers to hold the Indians in check, Balboa, with fifty of his own men, returned to Darien in the canoes. He arrived none too soon, as it chanced, for, taking advantage of his absence, some seditious fellows had stirred up a disturbance. He had left in command that Bartolomé Hurtado, who had been driven from Zemaco's country after the disastrous ending of the Dobaybe expedition. He was a favorite with the governor, but a man of no particular force (as may appear from his having fled the country he was left to defend), and against him rose the most unquiet spirits of the colony, led by one Alonzo Perez de la Rua.

Hurtado may have been arrogant when he found himself invested with sole authority in the settlement, and as Alonzo Perez was a cavalier of some distinction when in Spain, he took offence at the upstart's assumptions and refused to obey him. Not content with maligning Hurtado, he proceeded to declaim against Balboa himself, denouncing him as a man of low birth whom circumstance had invested with a brief authority, and who was, he said, a creature of their own creation. "A soldier of fortune," and "absconding debtor who ought to be cooling his heels in jail," were some of the milder things he said about the absent Balboa, who, as soon as he arrived and learned what had been done, promptly arrested Alonzo Perez and confined him in the calaboose. As the testy cavalier had many friends in the colony, a party was quickly formed of considerable strength, which was opposed to Balboa, and for a time a collision seemed imminent between the rival forces.

Balboa had his soldiers at his back, and doubtless could have restrained the mutineers by resorting to force; but his penetrating mind looked beyond the present, with its temporary evils, to the future and its golden promises, so he released Alonzo Perez merely with a reprimand. This action for a time appeased the factious followers of Perez; but for a matter of hours only, and the next day they assembled anew. Taking advantage of Balboa's absence in the fields, whither he had gone to superintend the Indian laborers, they seized Hurtado, and possessed themselves of weapons, which they threatened to turn against the governor himself. Alonzo Perez was again in command, and being supported in his pretensions by a lawyer, one Bachelor Corral, he demanded that Balboa should at once deliver up for division among the colonists the ten thousand pieces of gold then in the treasury.

In the estimation of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, this hoard of gold was of small account, as he expected and intended to add to it at least ten times that amount. Whatever happened, he was not willing to risk his life in defence of it, and learning that the mutineers intended to throw him into prison, provided they could secure his person, he hastily withdrew from the scene of strife, giving out that he was going hunting in the forest.

"Friend Hurtado," he said to his lieutenant, "I foresee that when those scoundrels get possession of that bone of contention, the ten thousand castellanos in our treasury, they will so abuse one another in the division of it that the sober-minded members of our community will be only too glad to recall me to restore order. Hence, let them have it. I had hoped to send it to our lord the king—and in truth I yet shall do so; but let them first have the fingering of it. Mean while, friend Bartholomew, we will go hunting, you and I, for it is better, methinks, to slay the beasts of the forest, which may aid in sustaining us, than our own countrymen —which we shall certainly have to do if we remain."

This was the purport of a conversation the shrewd Balboa held with Hurtado and his immediate followers, and his wisdom and foresight were soon clearly shown by the manner in which his scheme worked itself out. Alonzo Perez and his rabble seized the treasury, which he had left purposely unguarded, and with great hilarity proceeded to share among themselves the ten thousand pieces of gold. The result was what the crafty Balboa had foreseen, for a furious dispute broke out at once, and from words the mutineers came to blows.

There were still many adherents of Balboa in the community, but they had been awed into silence by the rabble. When the latter began quarrelling among themselves, however, and some of them even cried out, boldly, that their self-exiled governor had always been fair in the apportionment of the spoils, while Perez was extremely partial to himself, the friends of Balboa ventured to proclaim their own opinions.

"Who won this gold," they said, "but our own Vasco Nunez by his enterprise and valor? Knowing him as we do, we say he would have shared it with the brave and deserving. [Probably meaning themselves.] But these men have seized upon it by unfair and factious means, and would squander it upon their minions. Out upon them, say we! Let us seize the ringleaders of this foul conspiracy and cast them into prison. Then we will send for our gallant governor and reinstate him in authority."

As most of the soldiers were absent with Balboa and Colmenares, and the mutineers were really in the minority, the temperate members of the community easily accomplished their purpose by seizing Perez, Corral, and other ringleaders and placing them in irons. They were confined in the fortress, where they had leisure to reflect upon their intemperate behavior, while a special committee of reputable citizens, appointed amid loud acclamations, was sent in search of the fugitive governor.

As may be supposed, they did not have great difficulty in finding him, for he had kept in touch with the proceedings through his scouts, and had not penetrated the forest so far that he could not be readily recalled. He was discovered in camp, surrounded by his faithful soldiers, and the whole company seemed in high spirits over their success in the chase. Wigwams had been built beneath the wide-spreading branches of umbrageous trees, and hammocks swung in which Balboa and Hurtado were lazily reclining—the time being in the heat of the day, when the delegates approached them with the proffer of reinstatement.

They had travelled fast and far, since early morning, and, having provided no refreshments for the journey, were faint, thirsty, and hungry. They looked longingly at the rude table made of palm-leaves spread upon the ground, and supplied with every kind of food and drink known to the colony. Indian cooks were busy at a barbecue over a camp-fire, the savory odors from which were simply maddening to the hungry delegates. They saw other Indians engaged in tapping the wild palms and ladling out calabashes full of palm-wine, while others still were preparing foaming chicha for their masters.

Now, the throat of the committee's spokesman was dry, and his tongue also, so that when he essayed to speak his voice entirely failed him, and he looked helplessly at his companions. Perceiving the condition of the delegates, Balboa, who had been watching them narrowly from the corner of his eye, hastily leaped from his hammock and exclaimed: "Not a word, Don Pedro, not a word, until you and your friends have slaked your thirst with draughts of our native wine. Cruel it was of me to keep you standing there, while this desayuno  [breakfast] was being prepared, at which you must sit down, though it be so humble and poor of quality. Nay, I insist," he added, as the committee hesitated. "I know not your mission, caballeros;  but, certes, you are faint and hungry, perchance thirsty also, so sit down, and answer not. Hither, mozos, with the calabashes of chicha and wine. Give my companeros  to drink, without delay."

The delegates gratefully accepted the food and drink so liberally proferred, and when they were refreshed the spokesman began his speech again: "Your excellency, we have come to ask you to return. The government goes ill without you—in truth, there is no government at all."

"Ha? But what of Don Alonzo and the Bachelor Corral?"

"They are in the calaboose, your excellency, and in irons."

"So? But how long will they remain, if I return. And what of the gold?"

"They will remain there at your excellency's pleasure; and the gold shall be collected and returned to the treasury."

"Bueno—good, very good. But how long, think ye, gentlemen, will ye continue in this chastened frame of mind? Not a month, not a week, before some low-born sons of Belial will provoke an outbreak against the authority of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, and declare he hath no authority to govern. If I go, gentlemen, to Darien, then it must be under a pledge that ye all will unitedly stand by me, and sustain me in every effort for the public weal. What say ye?"

"We will, we will, your excellency. Only return!"

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