The End of Vasco Nunez de Balboa
We are compelled, in this chapter, to narrate the details of a horrible crime, to commit which the name of justice was invoked by its perpetrator, Pedro Arias de Avila, the one-time governor of Darien. We have followed the hero of this story, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, through the various stages of his career: a penniless adventurer, self-elected governor of Darien, savior of the settlement when on the point of dissolution, subjugator of the caciques, discoverer of the Pacific, faithful servant of the king, builder of the first brigantines that ploughed the waters of the great Southern Ocean. We are now to behold him led forth from his prison cell as a criminal, a traitor to his sovereign, and executed in the very town which was founded, through his unwearied efforts, in chief Careta's province.
He was then scarcely forty-two years of age, in the prime of life, seven long years of which had been passed in the wilderness of Darien. He had labored, he had fought, he had committed crimes against humanity—all that his sovereign might acquire a realm beyond the sea—and this was his reward: to perish as a felon, to die as a traitor, "in the full career of his glory, one of the most deserving of the Spanish discoverers—a victim to the basest and most perfidious envy." He had, indeed, deserved well of his king, for of all the Spaniards who explored the regions of America, he was one of the greatest, the most persistent in carrying the flag of his country into unknown lands, in compelling the inhabitants to accept his religion and acknowledge the sovereignty of Spain.
He was not the first of the Spanish explorers and conquistadores to experience that king's ingratitude, nor the last to meet a violent death. Columbus and CortÚs died in their beds, but they were victims of their sovereign's neglect. De Soto, worn out by his toils, perished on the bank of the Mississippi, which became his grave. Ponce de Leon, returning to Florida, the land he had discovered, received his death-wound from an Indian arrow. Pizarro was assassinated, by men he had reduced to poverty and exasperated by his taunts.
The reward, then, of exploration and discovery mainly inheres in the accomplishment itself, for few of the world's great explorers have lived to receive the fruits of their labors, as witness Magellan and Hudson and Cook. Of them all, however, perhaps there was none who was so basely requited as Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Were it not for the fact that there was in Darien, at the time Pedrarias wreaked his vengeance upon Balboa, a veracious chronicler of events, whose name has survived as author of a great history, we should be loath to accept as true this story of revenge, ingratitude, and crime. But we have it from Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, a contemporary of the chief characters in this tragedy, who was sent out by King Ferdinand as inspector of mines, and who subsequently, as historiographer of the Indies, wrote a great work, which first appeared in 1526. He was intimate with both Pedrarias and Balboa, and after the death of the latter had access to his private papers, from the perusal of which, and from his knowledge of our hero, he drew conclusions as to his merits, which were long since sanctioned by the voice of posterity.
The day arrived in which the sentence of death was to be carried out, and found the little town of Acla overspread with gloom. The horrified inhabitants moved about as in a dream, unable to wholly comprehend the nature of their dread surroundings, hardly daring to allow their tears to flow, much less their voices to be raised in protest. For they realized that in Pedrarias, the governor, they had a man to deal with not in his right mind, warped by envy, malice, jealousy, until he had become a frenzied maniac. They dared not provoke his wrath by protest, even in a whisper, for they were cowards all, rendered so by their subserviency to the crown, which might commit any atrocity and yet be accounted blameless.
Pedrarias had sentenced his prisoner to death in the name of the king, yet he allowed him no appeal, either to the king or to the Council of the Indies; for he knew that sentence would be reversed and the discoverer set free should his voice reach the throne. It never reached it, save as wafted across the sea and ocean in the indignant outcry of the people—after the deed was done by which Balboa lost his head. Then it did not avail to redress Balboa's wrongs nor to bring Pedrarias to justice, for he continued in his crimes for years, and at the last died in his bed, like many another wretch of lesser note.
But the day had arrived, Balboa's last on earth. The hot afternoon wore away, and the sun sank towards the mountains which the prisoner had been the first to explore, and touched with its rays the roofs of the dwellings he himself had erected. The dungeon door was thrown open, and forth came Balboa, preceded by his jailer and loaded with clanking chains. But the burden of the chains was as naught to the armor he had carried in the days of his great deeds, and he bore himself erect, dauntless in mien as of yore.
He searched the village square with flashing eye, sweeping his glance over the assembled crowd of cowards, held back by mailed soldiers under the command of his former comrade and lieutenant, Francisco Pizarro. He was no coward—that Balboa knew; but he had his own reasons for serving Pedrarias, as already narrated. If Pizarro had but weakened, if he had allowed his sense of justice to prevail over his lust for power and lucre, and said one word for Balboa, all the men under him would have joined in an effort to save the man they loved from him they loathed and hated. But Pizarro was a clump, a stick, a stone—anything inanimate, or, in other words, a soldier—and when Balboa's piercing glance fell on him he looked to the ground and remained immovable.
Preceding the prisoner walked the public crier, who announced: "This is the punishment inflicted by command of the king and his lieutenant, Don Pedrarias de Avila, governor of this colony, upon this man, as a traitor, and usurper of lands belonging to the crown."
"Nay, nay," exclaimed the still loyal Balboa when he heard this lie proclaimed; "it is false! You, my former comrades, know it is false. Never hath thought of such a crime entered my mind. I have ever served my king with truth and loyalty, and ever sought to augment his dominions!"
He raised his eyes to heaven and stretched forth his manacled hands, while a murmur of compassion went around the throng in the square of Ada. But there was no demonstration in his favor, for there was no man left in Darien, apparently, with a heart in his breast. The best of Balboa's followers, the original conquerors of the territory, were awaiting his return to Isla Rica, where lay the brigantines ready for exploration, where were gathered the men for a voyage Balboa was never to make, for a conquest he was never to achieve.
There was no man present capable of leading an uprising against the tyrant, save Pizarro, and he was unready. There was no man in authority who could resist the tyrant's authority, for Bishop Quevedo had returned to Spain; but a priest was present, who offered Balboa the sacrament as he ascended the scaffold, and whispered words of consolation. It is doubtful if Balboa heeded them, for, coming from such a source, from a man in the hire of Pedrarias, his words must have seemed meaningless and a mockery.
The rude scaffold stood in the centre of the square, a platform erected on posts, reached by a ladder, which, manacled as he was, Balboa climbed with difficulty. Why he should have climbed at all, and why he so tamely submitted to his fate, seems strange to those acquainted with his courageous nature. But probably the spell of authority was on him, for the magician who had enthralled him had invoked the name of a monster, living afar, but held to be omnipotent. That monster was the king, at mention of whose dread name the most valiant of fighters became servile and abject.
So Vasco Nunez de Balboa, mistakenly supposing himself bound by the will of a dastard king, went meekly to the scaffold. With a firm step he ascended to the platform, without a tremor viewed the block on which he was to lose his head, and looked calmly on while the grim headsman made it ready. "Now haste," growled the man with the axe, "for there are others, and the sun is low in the sky." Then Balboa gave a start—remembering the others. But it was too late now to save them, and, with a pang at his heart for those he had involved in deadly perils, he sank to the platform and laid his neck on the block. The headsman raised his axe—a thrill of horror ran through the spectators; it fell, and, as the blood spurted from the headless trunk, their groans and lamentations rent the air.
The executioner's work was not finished with Balboa, whose head was held aloft, and then, by orders of the implacable Pedrarias, stuck on a pole, where all might view the gory trophy. The three officers followed, and the head of each was taken off at a stroke. The dusk of evening gathered as the last one was beheaded, But there yet remained another victim, one Arguello, whose sole offence lay in the writing of a letter to Balboa warning him of what Pedrarias intended. The people assembled about the scaffold had witnessed—with what feelings of grief and horror may be imagined!—the execution of four gallant soldiers whose offences were such Pedrarias would not pardon them. But now, overcome by their sympathies, they entreated, with sighs and with tears, that this life might be spared, "inasmuch as God had not given daylight for the execution of his sentence." The stony-hearted governor, resentful and relentless, replied: "Never! Rather would I die myself than permit one of those traitors to escape unpunished!"
Chilled with horror, the people returned to the square, where the scaffold was but dimly visible in the gloom of approaching night, and where the last act of the horrible drama was being performed in darkness. They heard the clank of Arguello's chains as he fell across the block, and then, after an interval of breathless silence, the thud of the axe, proclaiming all was over.
Pedrarias had witnessed all, hidden behind a palisade of reeds, through the crevices of which he watched the doings on the scaffold, less than twenty feet away. There he crouched, a demon in human semblance, gloating over the anguish of the people, the groans of his victims, and counting the strokes of the headsman's axe.
Beneath a tree on the verge of the forest cowered a fearsome watcher, the Cacica, formerly beloved of Balboa. Peering through the screen of leaves, she witnessed the dreadful ending of him whom she had both loved and hated. But she did not exult, like the man-fiend Pedrarias. Believing that her testimony had sealed Balboa's fate, by the reproaches of conscience she was driven into the forest, where (as nothing more was ever heard of her) she probably perished, an outcast from her tribe, and forgotten by her family.
In Antigua del Darien, a broken-hearted woman mourned the gallant Vasco Nunez de Balboa; for he had been betrothed to her daughter, who, through her father's vengeful deed, was widowed ere she had been made a bride.