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

The Caciques of Darien


As Vasco Nunez burst into the circle of light shed by the flames of burning bohios, the red glare from which lighted up the steel-clad soldiers and their abject captives, he was greeted by glad exclamations from the former and cries of distress from the latter. He strode through the lines without a word, and, making for the group containing the cacique's family, he sought out an elderly female, whom he supposed to be the mother of the girl, and delivered his charge into her keeping. The cries of distress were instantly hushed as the happy mother gathered the girl in her arms, but as the minutes went by without any signs of recovery from the maiden, low moans broke from the captives, and many of them began to gash themselves and tear their hair.

The cacique had stood aloof, stoically refraining from uttering a sound; but after a while, as his daughter did not return to consciousness, he went to the side of Balboa, and, raising his manacled hands in the air, exclaimed:

"What have I done to thee, O thou terrible stranger, that thou shouldst treat me so cruelly? None of thy people ever came to my land that were not fed and sheltered and treated with loving kindness. When thou camest to my dwelling, did I meet thee with a javelin in my hand? Did I not set forth meat and drink, and welcome thee as a brother? Set me free, therefore, with my family and people, and we may yet remain as friends. We will supply thee with provisions and reveal to thee the riches of this land. But first restore to me my daughter, the light of my eyes, the pearl of my household, whom thou and that dread beast of thine have driven to the border-land of death."

During this impassioned speech by the outraged cacique, Balboa remained gazing first at the chieftain, then at his daughter, without uttering a word. The mother was chafing the wrists, bathing the forehead, and whispering tender words into the ears of the maiden, but without eliciting a response. A most pathetic spectacle mother and daughter presented, despite the savagery of the parent, her lack of clothing, and uncouth appearance, which but enhanced by contrast the beauty of the maiden.

Balboa had thought her beautiful, in the brief glimpses afforded in the moonlit forest, but now, with her form and features wrought upon radiantly by the flickering flames, he saw that she was ravishingly lovely. Touched by her beauty, then, and rendered compassionate by her helplessness, he allowed his heart to go out to her, and so far as his rough nature was susceptible to love he felt that sentiment for the cacique's daughter. Distressed by the silence with which his appeal had been received, the cacique added:

"Dost thou doubt my faith? Behold my daughter. I give her to thee, provided she shall be restored, as a pledge of friendship. Thou mayst take her for thy wife, and be thus assured of the friendship of her family and her people."

Balboa then awoke, as from a trance, and, grasping Careta's right hand, exclaimed: "I accept her, if she will but ratify thy offer, and henceforth there shall be no enmity between us. Men, cast off the chains from these people. Set them free; and bugler, order the recall, peradventure there be any in pursuit of our former enemies, now our friends."

With his own hands he removed the manacles from Careta's wrists, then, noting by the flickering of the maiden's eyelids that she was recovering, he hastened to her side. As her eyes opened, they rested in astonishment first upon the mailed cavalier, standing erect in the firelight, clad in shining armor from throat to foot, and with a smile upon his handsome features.

Then in the fullness of his manly powers, with a face and figure that would have wrought havoc among the dames of his sovereign's court, had he been favored with a presentation there, Vasco Nunez de Balboa carried this untutored maiden's heart by storm. She uttered a low cry, and, leaping from her mother's lap, darted into the cacique's dwelling, as if for the first time realizing her lack of proper raiment and desiring to conceal herself from the eyes of her lover. At a word from the cacique, whose will was law with all his family, the mother went in after her and soon reappeared, holding her daughter by one hand. During the brief time at her disposal, she had found and arrayed herself in a flowing robe of cotton, embroidered in gold, and gathered at the waist by a golden girdle. This she clutched nervously, as, with dejected mien and downcast eyes, she stood before the man in whose sight she had found favor above all other women.

The marriage ceremony was simple and brief, consisting in the cacique's joining the right hands of these two so strangely brought together, and invoking his deity to bless the union, which, at a later period, Balboa intended to have sanctioned by a priest. Whether this intention was fulfilled, we will not at this moment inquire. Balboa was a man of many good resolves and promises, most of which seem to have been made only to be broken. But, in the sight of God, who sees into the souls of men, and in the presence of more than one hundred witnesses, who looked on in vast astonishment as the ceremony was performed, Vasco Nunez de Balboa was "well and truly wedded" to the cacique's beautiful daughter. She, the simple child of nature, untaught by art, and with no moral law to guide her, knew and cared for naught except that she loved the gallant cavalier and sought no further.


Balboa and the Indian Princess.

Short and fierce had been the wooing of the fair Cacica, wild and weird the accessories of her wedding, with the accompaniment of burning dwellings and attendance of rude soldiers in armor bearing flaming torches. Brief and tempestuous was to be her life on earth thereafter. Balboa may have reckoned upon this alliance as attaching to his service one of the most powerful caciques of Darien; but by captivating the affections of the beautiful Cacica he had incurred the hatred and jealousy of certain young warriors, who were to cause him trouble in the near future. He had captured the wild beauty of the wilderness, but in so doing he enmeshed himself in troubles of far-reaching consequence. They reached, indeed, across the sea and ocean even to Spain, and in their train brought retribution, none the less certain because it was delayed for years.

Love and diplomacy went hand-in-hand, so far as Balboa could perceive, and as few men ever succeed in reconciling these two, he affected to believe that he had achieved a victory of great moment. Returning to Darien with his bride, he there entertained his friend and father-in-law with jousts and tourneys, showed him the ships, and surprised him with the thunder of artillery. Nothing delighted, as well as alarmed, the old chieftain so much as the war-horses, upon the back of one of which he was mounted, only to be thrown heavily to the sands and receive a rude awakening. He then conceived an intense admiration for the beings, like his son-in-law, who could mount and control those wonderful animals, and never tired of sounding their praises. As he had disclosed to Balboa the hiding-places of his provisions and treasure, and as the latter had lost no time in transferring them to Darien, he was instrumental in keeping starvation from the colony until supplies arrived from Spain or Santo Domingo, and also of enriching every man in the army. Two brigantines had been laden with the provisions and spoils obtained in Careta's territory, in the securing of which the lovely Cacica was largely instrumental. She induced her father to reveal to her new master the treasure-vaults amid the sepulchres of her ancestors; but when she witnessed the rapacity and brutality of the conquerors in ravaging the graves and desecrating the revered remains, she was grieved to the heart. Perhaps she then had a foreboding of the evils she was to bring upon her people, for she became pensive and sad, rarely smiling or singing during several days thereafter. Upon the warriors of the tribe the ravage had a different effect, rendering them surly and restive, so that the cacique was hardly able to restrain them from making reprisals, and avenging the indignities offered their ancestors by shedding the blood of the Spaniards.

The attachment of these people to the memory of their dead caciques and former rulers is shown by the fidelity of their wives and servants, who immolated themselves upon their graves, in order that they might continue to serve them in the next life as they had done in this on earth. They fully believed, says the old chronicler, that "the souls which omitted this act of duty either perished with their bodies or were dispersed in air. They consigned their dead to earth, though in some provinces, as soon as a chieftain died he was seated on a stone, and, a fire being kindled around him, the corpse was kept till all moisture was dried, and nothing but skin and bones remained. In this state it was placed in a retired apartment dedicated to this use, or fastened to a wall, adorned with plumes, jewels, and even robes, by the side of the father or ancestor immediately preceding. Thus, with the corpse of the warrior, was his memory preserved to his family, and if any of them perished in battle, the fame of his prowess was consigned to posterity in the songs of the areitos."

Shortly after the return of the cacique to his village, Balboa missed his mistress one day, and, setting scouts on her trail, traced her to the Indian cemetery. His emissaries had strict orders to bring her to him at once, if they found her; but they returned empty-handed, and when he rated them for disobedience one of the scouts replied: "Senor Comandante, had you seen what we have seen, you yourself would not have taken the Cacica from her people. For she and they were engaged in paying honors to the dead, whose tombs we have, in their opinion, desecrated by robbing them of their jewels. All the warriors of her father, the cacique, were gathered around the cemetery, armed with weapons and painted as if for war. Sooth, they were fierce and warlike, and it needed but a small provocation to kindle the flames of their resentment into a blaze that might sweep this colony into the sea. They had gathered the bones of their deceased rulers together and reinterred them carefully, those who were dried like mummies by heat having been affixed against the walls whence they were wrested by our soldiers. When we arrived—and, truly, we dared not enter the place, but hovered unseen on the verge of the forest—they were engaged in various ways. The women and younger folks were singing and dancing their barbarous areito, performing steps in unison to the beat of a drum made from a hollowed log with the skin of a jaguar stretched over one end of it. It was a strange, unearthly sound, and reverberated through the forest like the roll of distant thunder. The warriors, in a circle apart and enclosing the whole, were drinking deeply of fermented liquors, produced from the palm and the maize, which ever and anon they shared with the dancers. This they would do, we were told, until all had drunken themselves into a frenzy, and the dancers became exhausted from fatigue and drunkenness combined. Judge, then, O Comandante, if we should have been justified in attempting to bring away the cacique's daughter, thy mistress and spouse."

"And she was there, also? Was my Cacica there, performing in those horrid ceremonies so barbarous and so vile?"

"Truly was she, one of the foremost in ladling out the liquor and entreating the warriors to drink. But, so far as we could observe, she did not herself partake thereof. Nor did she allow, nor was there offered her, any indignity; but great respect seemed accorded her, as the daughter of the chief."

Balboa groaned in spirit, but his pride forbade him making audible comment on the strange proceedings of his bride. Another day he waited, expectant of her coming; but he did not remain idle meanwhile, since, having little faith in the friendship of the cacique, he ordered out all his men-at-arms and prepared to receive the savages with fire and sword, provided they should rouse themselves to frenzy and attack the settlement.

Nothing of a disturbing character occurred, however, and when, on the evening of that day, Balboa sought his hut, worn down with fatigue and sorely perplexed in his mind, his still beloved Cacica came forth to greet him. How she had come he knew not, nor did he ever discover, though the settlement was surrounded by sentinels specially charged to watch for and detect her presence. Like a spirit, or an invisible bird of the night, she had flitted through the cordon of sentinels and gained her house without being detected by one of them. They declared afterwards, one and all, that she must have been in league with the powers of the air and, presumably, evil—endued of the devil—to have accomplished this feat. But none durst say a word of this to their commander, for he was still infatuated with the beautiful princess—sure token, the soldiers affirmed among themselves, that she was a witch, for whom burning at the stake might be too mild a punishment.

However Vasco Nunez may have been vexed by this misadventure of his beloved, he gave no sign of it, or, if he did, was soon soothed by her blandishments into apparent forgetfulness. But in the minds of both had been begotten a distrust that was destined to work havoc with the good understanding that should ever exist between people situated as were they. Soon after, seeming confidence was restored between the settlers and the Indians, who came and went as formerly, bringing provisions from their gardens, which they exchanged for knives, beads, and toys from Spain. They gained access to the settlement as simple traffickers, intent on adding to their store of trinkets and trifles; but Balboa divined that they had other incentives, in fact, and came as spies. Still, he did not allow his suspicions to become apparent to Careta, with whom he had formed an offensive and defensive alliance for their mutual protection.

In the mountains resided a cacique already mentioned named Ponca, a rival and adversary of Careta, who wished the Spaniards to join with him in an invasion of his territory. There was no immediate necessity for the Spaniards to make war upon Cacique Ponca, as he had not offended them in any particular, nor were they in need of a further extension of territory, since the valley they had occupied, situated between the sierras and the cordillera of the Andes, was extremely fertile and capable of sustaining a great number of inhabitants. It was not only excellent for planting, with rich soil and abundant natural resources, which came early to perfection beneath the ardent sun of the tropics, but abounded in game, while its rivers and the bordering gulf teemed with fish in great variety.

But the Spaniards were less inclined to agriculture than to war, and would rather ravage their neighbors' territory for gold than extract from the fertile soil the products it so generously yielded to the cultivator. Had they been less covetous and restless, less avaricious and rapacious, they might have avoided contact with the ferocious tribes of the interior, and perhaps have prospered. There was, however, an unseen force at work constantly against them which they could not successfully combat. This was the climate, which made terrible inroads upon the health and constitutions of the Spaniards, by the great heat and humidity of the air, and the heavy, almost incessant rains, which came down at times as plunging torrents.

Nothing less than the most unquenchable ardor and the most marvellous resolution, says the historian, could support the Spaniards under so many discouragements and overcome so many difficulties. Perhaps it was because they possessed this ardor in an excessive degree that they continually panted for fresh conquests and desired to come into conflict with the savages. Their great incentive, as already remarked, was the acquisition of gold, and, learning that Cacique Ponca possessed the precious metal in abundance, they were easily induced to join with Careta in an attack upon him. Taking his troops by sea to the point nearest to Ponca's capital, Balboa marched rapidly upon the village, which, finding it deserted, he sacked and burned. He obtained considerable booty, to which his ally, Careta, laid no claim, being content with having humbled his adversary and driven him still farther into the mountains, whence Ponca sent messengers imploring a cessation of hostilities.

Having "pacified" the country, Balboa was for returning to Darien, but was persuaded by Careta to diverge to his own province, where he was royally entertained by the cacique. The latter had a neighbor, one Comogre, who was yet more powerful than himself, having about ten thousand Indians under him, three thousand of whom were warriors. His province comprised an extensive plain and beautiful valleys, situated at or near the foot of a very lofty mountain, which rose far above the general altitude of the cordillera, or backbone of the isthmus. Messengers sent by Comogre guided Balboa to this province, in the capital of which the cacique awaited his coming. As the Spaniards approached, Comogre came out to welcome them, attended by a train of sub-chiefs, and followed by a vast number of his subjects. Included in his suite were seven stalwart young men, his own sons by as many different wives, of whom he was inordinately proud. Each son had a habitation of his own, but that of the cacique surpassed anything of the sort the Spaniards had seen in the land, for it was "an edifice of an hundred and fifty paces in length and fourscore in breadth, built on stout posts, surrounded by a lofty wall, and, on the roof an attic story of beautiful and skillfully interwoven woods. It was divided into several compartments, and contained its markets, its shops, and a pantheon for the dead, where the dried corpses of the cacique's ancestors were hung in ghastly rows."

These corpses were in a retired and secret part of the structure, says the historian, set apart for that special purpose. The bodies had been dried by fire (as already narrated in the account of Careta's ancestors), so as to free then, from corruption, and afterwards wrapped in mantles richly wrought and interwoven with pearls and jewels of gold, and with certain stones considered precious by the Indians. There they hung about the hall, suspended by cords of cotton, and were regarded not only with reverence, but apparently with religious devotion. The Spaniards gazed upon them in amazement, not unmingled with a burning desire to despoil this hall of fame and secure for themselves its wonderful treasures.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Balboa Captures a Princess  |  Next: First Tidings of the Pacific
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.