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

In the Domain of the Dragons


Balboa faithfully complied with his promise to render the governor an accurate account of the land's resources, giving him, within a few days' time, a list of the mountains, rivers, and ravines where he had found gold in the virgin state; a statement of the colony as he had governed it; his discovery of the South Sea and the route thither; a description of the pearl islands and their wealth; and, finally, the names of the caciques, more than twenty in number, with whom, through force of arms or diplomacy, he had made treaties of peace.

Having obtained this invaluable information from his rival, Pedrarias threw off the mask of friendship which he had assumed for the purpose, and immediately ordered a judicial investigation into his conduct as the self-elected governor of Darien without sanction of royal authority. This scrutiny was conducted by Espinosa, as the only lawyer in the colony, and as he was completely dominated by Pedrarias, his findings were exactly in accordance with his desires. Very soon the unfortunate Balboa was involved in a legal net from which he could not extricate himself until he had parted with more than ten thousand ounces of gold—the greater part of his fortune. Much of his wealth, however, was absorbed by the wily Quevedo, who, as bishop, exerted his influence in favor of the accused, after having received from him a share in his enterprises, considerable gold, and a drove of Indian slaves.

The scope of the inquiry, too, did not satisfy Pedrarias, for the inexperienced lawyer went too largely into the discoveries and invaluable services of Balboa to the crown, instead of confining himself to his arbitrary acts in expelling Enciso and indirectly causing the death of Nicuesa. The result was that through the remonstrances of the bishop and the intercession of Dona Isabel—"upon whom the discoverer never ceased to lavish costly presents, which he mingled with all the politeness and attentions of the most refined courtier"—the governor was induced to cease his persecutions for a while. It had been his intention to send his rival to Spain, loaded with chains and charged with crimes that would compel his conviction before the highest court; but the bishop represented to him that to do so would be the surest way to advance Balboa's interests instead of defeating his ambitions. The king was already aware of his great discoveries, for the world was ringing with the fame of his achievements, so he could not but be rewarded and received with highest honors.

Pedrarias reluctantly abandoned the prosecution openly, but in secret gathered much information from Balboa's enemies which he later used to his injury, and set afloat reports which destroyed his effectiveness and impaired his popularity. He was, in reality, digging the ground from beneath his own feet, as well as undermining Balboa's reputation, for a condition of affairs had developed which demanded all the energies of both leaders in its correction. It was brought about by the governor's recklessness and inexperience, which, combined, had plunged the colony into dreadful calamities.

In the fleet with Pedrarias a vast amount of provisions had been brought to Darien, which with economy would have lasted many months. At first the colonists revelled in abundance; then it was discovered that one ship-load of supplies had been spoiled by sea-water, and soon after another, which had been deposited in a hut on shore, was destroyed by fire. In a short time, in fact, the colonists found themselves face to face with famine, the ravages of which, combined with the evils of the tropical climate, produced a pestilence. In the course of a month no less than seven hundred persons perished, all of them cavaliers who had come with Pedrarias from Spain. A ship-load of the survivors fled the colony, going to Cuba, and a few broken-hearted adventurers reached their homes in Spain, which they had mortgaged for arms and equipments they never had occasion to use. Those who remained at Darien were soon reduced to the last extremity of hunger and despair. They wandered through the streets of Antigua begging for food, and once-wealthy cavaliers of proudest lineage might have been seen bartering their rich ornaments and vestments for a few mouthfuls of cassava bread. Some, who had never before labored with their hands, hired themselves out as wood-cutters or burden-bearers, merely to sustain existence, while others, in the pangs of starvation, fed on grass and the leaves of trees.

One day, says the historian, "a noble knight rushed into the main street of Antigua crying aloud that he was dying of hunger, and, in sight of the whole population, fell, and rendered up his soul. So many perished daily that it was impossible to give them Christian burial, and carts were used for carrying away the dead, as in times of pestilence."

Pedrarias himself was taken with a fever, and, with his wife, was carried to a salubrious spot among the hills, where he soon recovered. Thence he sent orders for the old soldiers to set out, under his second in command, Juan de Ayora, to visit the caciques with whom Balboa had negotiated treaties when on his journey to the sea. This he did with an eye to the occupation of the territory, in order to represent at court that, while his rival might have discovered certain provinces, with their inhabitants, he was the first to occupy and colonize beyond the region of the coast. But Ayora, though he had with him a greater number of soldiers than Balboa had ever commanded in one body, conducted himself with such a reckless disregard for the rights of the natives—seizing the women and children, and putting many Indians to the torture—that the caciques united against and drove him from their territory; so the expedition ended in disaster.

Balboa, meanwhile, was kept inactive at Antigua, and his adherents—for he still had many favorably disposed towards him, who would gladly have followed wherever he led—were not slow in pointing out to Pedrarias the contrast between the old times and the new. "Before you and your minions came," said they, "Antigua del Darien was tranquil within and without. Under the command and control of Vasco Nunez, she reigned as queen of the isthmus, and gave laws to twenty Indian nations. Our town was well ordered, more than two hundred huts had been erected, the people were cheerful and happy, amusing themselves on their feast-days by jousting with reeds, the soil was cultivated, and all the caciques so pacific that a single Castilian might cross from sea to sea, fearless of violence or insult; whereas at present many Spaniards are dead, the rest dismayed and broken-spirited, and the Indians in insurrection. All this has been caused by the process against Vasco Nunez. Had he been allowed to proceed in his discoveries, the truth respecting the promised treasures of Dobaybe would ere this have been revealed; the Indians would still have been peaceful, the soil yielding its abundance, and the Castilians content. Give us again Vasco Nunez as a leader, for he alone can pacify the Indians; he alone knows the secrets of the land."

The jealous and irritable Pedrarias was greatly incensed by the sneers and reproaches of Balboa's friends. "So they want that rebel and that assassin to lead them against Dobaybe? Inasmuch as there could not be another expedition so likely to be defeated as one against that province, thither shall he go—and may the devil catch him by the way, say I."

This the crafty old governor said to himself, by-the-way, and not to others; nor did he reveal his intentions until after the expedition had departed, when it was found to be badly equipped and lacking in many particulars which the careful Balboa, had he been unhampered, would have supplied. He was rejoiced to be actively employed once more, and especially in the search for that mysterious temple and its golden treasure, which had, so far, eluded the Spaniards; but he was disappointed in having to share the command with Luis Carillo, a friend of the governor and a man of small capacity. His veterans also were outnumbered by the recent arrivals, who were more enthusiastic than prudent, and knew nothing of Indian warfare.

Having ascertained that in his former enterprise in search of Dobaybe he had made a mistake in advancing by land, Balboa resolved to approach it by water, and, embarking his force in canoes, entered a large and unexplored river at the head of the gulf. It ran through a swamp infested with vampires and alligators, and also—according to reports of the Indians—the abode of a monstrous dragon which, with its progeny, had been brought there by a hurricane. From what the Indians told the Spaniards they inferred that these monsters were harpies, for they had the faces of men or women, the claws of vultures or eagles, and huge, leathery wings. They were so monstrous that only the largest trees could support them when they alighted, and so fierce and powerful that whenever they espied a man on the ground they would swoop down like a hawk, and, seizing him in their claws, bear him off to their dens in the mountains. Those who had been there affirmed that these dens were littered with the bones of such unfortunates as had been torn to pieces and devoured by the dragons, who seemed to have established themselves as the self-constituted guardians of the golden temple and its idol.

It is doubtful if Balboa believed this tale of the dragons; but if so he did not let it daunt him, and pushed on through the dismal morass by means of the noisome stream that traversed it. Suddenly, on turning a bend of the river, the Spaniards found themselves face to face with an immense swarm of savages in canoes, who proceeded, with howls and yells, to surround them. At the same time they let fly clouds of darts and arrows, by which many soldiers were killed or wounded, while many more were drowned by the vicious savages plunging into the water and overturning the canoes. The two commanders were wounded: Balboa slightly, and Carillo, who was pierced through the breast by a lance, so badly that he shortly died.

The Indians forced Balboa to retreat to shore, where he beat them back, but was compelled to return to Darien through the inundated forests swarming with noxious reptiles, and without having obtained even a glimpse of Dobaybe. The dangers and horrors of that retreat exceeded anything that the brave soldier had previously experienced; and it was his first defeat! His partisans attributed it to the fact that he had not been given absolute command; but those of Pedrarias taunted him with cowardice and weakness, two qualities which, as those acquainted with his life know full well, were not a part of his nature. But he began to fear his evil star had risen above the horizon, and he was downcast, if not dispirited, while in proportion as he was depressed rose the spirits of the rancorous old governor. He exulted greatly in the misfortunes of Balboa, even at the expense of his soldiers, the loss of life being as nothing, in his eyes, compared with the pleasure he experienced by his enemy's downfall.

His rejoicing, however, was of short duration, for soon after Balboa's return Pedrarias received a letter from King Ferdinand, commanding him to consult with his "faithful servant, Vasco Nunez de Balboa," on all affairs of importance, for, as he would see by the enclosed credentials, he had constituted him adelantado of the great South Sea, and governor of the provinces of Coyba and Panama. He was, however, to be subordinate in authority to Pedrarias, "who, on his part, was charged so to favor and advance the pretensions and enterprises of that chief as might prove to him the esteem in which the king held his person. The court doubtless intended thus to reconcile the respect due to the character and authority of the governor with the gratitude and rewards earned by Balboa; however, that which seemed so easy at court, was impossible in the Darien, where so many passions were constantly in collision."

Pedrarias, in fact, should never have been appointed to control the territory of Darien, which so manifestly belonged to Balboa as supreme executive; but, having made that appointment—unfit and ill-advised as it was—in order to "save face," the king thought to reward the discoverer, and at the same time placate the usurper with the honors of a captain-generalcy. That they were empty and valueless, Pedrarias knew full well, for the rich regions lay within the boundaries of Balboa's territory, while his own government included only the country contiguous to the gulf, which was devoid of intrinsic riches, unhealthy, and impoverished.

For these reasons the choleric Pedrarias, when he received the royal order, fumed and raved, declaring to this wife that never should that rebel and assassin, Vasco Nunez, be so highly honored at cost to himself. He would withhold the letter, and if possible keep the intelligence secret; but he found this to be impossible, for Balboa's friends at court communicated to him what had been ordered by the king, and he forthwith demanded his rights. In this demand he was joined by the bishop, who denounced this interference with the evident intention of the king as an outrage upon the rights of his friend, and the rebellious governor was quickly brought to terms.

At a council of officials called by Pedrarias sometime in the latter part of the year 1515, Balboa was invested with his titles and dignities, and thenceforth was always addressed as "Adelantado." But the wily old governor had neatly turned the tables on his rival by bestowing upon him, in fact; the empty honors, and reserving to himself the substantial emoluments of office, since he had forced from him a stipulation that he would not enter upon the actual government of his provinces without his permission!

Even the concession he was compelled to make sufficed to fan the smouldering fires of the governor's jealousies to a flame, and he was more than ever convinced that in the person of Balboa he had a deadly rival and insidious foe, who should be removed from his path at whatever cost. It was at this juncture, while the friends of the discoverer were flocking about him with rejoicings, and he himself was openly exultant, that there arrived in the gulf a vessel consigned to him, freighted with arms and ammunition, and containing seventy adventurers, evidently intended for a secret expedition. It was, in fact, commanded by one of his former comrades, Andres Garabito, who had been sent by him to Cuba, several months before, with orders to raise a force and procure an armament for a projected expedition to the Pacific coast.

It may have been Balboa's intention to proceed over the mountains with this armed band and seize upon the government of which he had been deprived by stratagem; but this is unlikely, as the movement was made before he had received the royal title to it. The mere fact, however, that a mysterious ship was off the coast and holding secret communication with the adelantado, was sufficient to rouse the old governor's passions, and in a transport of fury he ordered him to be seized and imprisoned in a wooden cage.

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