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

A Compact with the Enemy


Fortunately for Balboa, his friend the bishop interposed before the governor carried out his intention, and persuaded him, not only to release the prisoner, but to give him the benefit of an impartial inquiry. The inquiry was entered into, but was conducted by the lawyer Espinosa, and so protracted that, though the accused was acquitted of any evil intentions in importing the men and armament, yet he was harassed to the verge of desperation and completely impoverished. Lawyer Espinosa was enjoying a monopoly of all legal processes, owing to the king's prohibition against others of his class, and had already involved nearly every man in the colony in some sort of entanglement, from which he could extricate himself only by paying to the licentiate a good fat fee.

The good offices of the bishop did not cease with a single effort in behalf of his friend, for he recommended him to Pedrarias as the proper person to conduct an expedition across the mountains, to the sea he had discovered, for the purpose of investigating the islands abounding in pearls. This step, however, the yet jealous Pedrarias refused to take. He intended to have the islands explored, but not by their discoverer, as that would only add to the laurels he already wore, and increase his popularity both at Darien and in Spain.

An expedition was formed, consisting of sixty men, commanded by one Gaspar Morales, a relative of the governor, with the redoubtable Francisco Pizarro as his lieutenant. The man whom the world was to know as the conqueror of Peru had already been to the coast with Balboa, and, knowing the way thither, led the party safely to the shores of the Pacific. Leaving thirty men with a cacique named Tutibara, Pizarro embarked with the others for the pearl islands, where he encountered a fierce resistance from the islanders, whom he overcame, after great slaughter had been inflicted, and compelled to pay him tribute.

The cacique of the island brought him a basketful of pearls as a peace-offering, among which were several of great beauty and extraordinary size. These he gladly exchanged for iron hatchets, beads, and hawk-bells, sagely remarking, when the Spaniards smiled at his simplicity, "These things I can turn to useful purpose; but of what value are those baubles to me? The shores of this island and the deep places of the waters around them abound in pearls without number, which my divers can get for me whenever I wish."

Taking the Spaniards to the summit of a high hill, and showing them the distant coast of the mainland, with its towering mountains and bluff promontories, he remarked: "Beyond and beyond, as far as you can see, and much farther, lies a land containing a rich kingdom called Biru [Peru], where gold is as plentiful as stones are with us. That is a country worthy your efforts; that is something which will richly reward you—if you can but conquer it." It is thought that then and there, while listening to the cacique of the pearl islands, Francisco Pizarro formed the resolve to seek out and effect the conquest of that golden empire which he subjugated sixteen years later.

We shall have nothing further to do with this expedition, except to relate its results as they bear upon the fortunes of Balboa. It came near sharing the fate of nearly all those which were sent out while Pedrarias ruled the isthmus, for, on the way back to Darien, Pizarro and Morales were fiercely attacked by several caciques, whom they had outraged by their cruelties, and for seven days pursued through the forests in disastrous retreat. Their command was nearly exterminated, and but a remnant arrived at Darien, after enduring incredible sufferings.

The administration of Pedrarias was replete with disaster from beginning to end, and every enterprise he undertook ended in misfortune and disgrace. A valiant captain, Francisco Becerra, undertook to invade the province of Zenu, where, according to report, gold in unlimited quantities could be drawn from the rivers in nets. He had one hundred and eighty men and three small cannon when he entered the forest and bade farewell to the settlement; but never a man of that gallant command came back, nor were the cannon ever recovered. All were swallowed up in the forest, as though the earth had opened and taken the invaders into a subterranean tomb.

While Balboa was detained inactive at the settlement, these various expeditions under inexperienced commanders overran the country, and effected nothing more than had been already—and better—done by the discredited commander who was being consumed by vexation and despair. All the littoral Indians of Darien had been reduced to subjection by him, and the most that was effected by Pedrarias was a reconquest, which was worse than useless, as it roused the rage of the caciques and provoked retaliation. Among those who, though powerful and war-like, Balboa had overcome and compelled to sue for peace was the mountain cacique Tubanam'a. He was blunderingly attacked, by orders of Pedrarias, and not only repulsed the Spaniards from his stronghold, but drove them, bootless, back to Darien, where the survivors arrived breathless and panic-stricken. Stripping the slain Spaniards as they lay in the forest, Tubanama displayed their bloody shirts on poles as banners, and marched his warriors around the walls, striking terror and dismay to the hearts of all within the settlement. The garrison was beleaguered, foraging-parties assaulted, sorties ambuscaded, and such was the alarm, says the good Bishop Las Casas in his history, that the people feared to be burned within their dwellings.

"They kept a watchful eye upon the mountains, the plains, the waving branches of the trees, for their imaginations were infected by their fears. If they looked towards the land, the long, rustling grass appeared to them to be moving hosts of savages; if they looked towards the sea, they beheld fleets of canoes in the distance. Pedrarias endeavored to hush all rumors that might increase the alarm; at the same time he ordered the smelting-house to be closed, which was never done except in time of war. This was done at the suggestion of the bishop, who caused prayers to be offered and fasts proclaimed in order to avert the impending calamities."

The one man by whom these calamities could have been obviated, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, was by the governor's orders restrained from action and confined, virtually a prisoner, within the walls of Antigua. While courageous and daring enough in the field, he yet possessed an excessive regard for his sovereign and his representatives, hence his servile submission to the persecutions of Pedrarias. He has remained silent for a long while beneath the governor's opprobrium and calumnies; now let him speak in his own behalf. While the ravage of Tubanama was in progress, and his warriors were raging around the settlement, he approached the bishop one day as he emerged from the rude chapel that served as church and cathedral. "Your lordship," he said, "I can endure this no longer! My patience, beneath the insults and indignities which the governor has heaped upon me, has reached its limit. Even the king, were he to know all that has occurred in this colony since that base usurper came here, could not but sustain me in rebelling against his authority. He has, as you know, kept me here in durance, while others have been intrusted with expeditions that have invariably returned in disaster. In justice to the survivors of this once-flourishing colony, which I alone placed on a basis of prosperity, but which Pedrarias has reduced to lamentable ruin, I demand that I be established in power again. If not here at Darien, then on the coast of the great sea, of which so little has been learned since I discovered it." His eyes flashed, his breast heaved with deep emotion, and the bishop saw that he was at last aroused from his lethargy—that the lion within him was crouching for a spring.

He heard him through without interruption, then said, soothingly: "My son, it is even so as thou hast said. I have beheld these things with grief and inward rage; but, as thou knowest, Don Pedro hath been appointed by the king, and, though he be technically a usurper, still he is supported by the crown. Had but Arbolancha arrived a few weeks sooner than he did all might have been in thy favor; but now—now the king's eyes have been opened too late to bestow upon thee thy deserts. But patience, my son, for yet a little while. To-day, this very morning, will I see the governor and plead thy cause."

The good bishop quickly redeemed his pledge, and within an hour was in the presence of the governor and his lady. Without a moment's delay he plunged into the subject of which he was so full, representing to Pedrarias that "by keeping the finest capacity in the land in idleness and obscurity he was injuring none more than himself, thus losing the fruits which the friendship of Vasco Nunez would produce for him."

"There is no doubt," he said to the surly Pedrarias, "that Vasco Nunez will, in some way or other, make known to the king the oppression and contumely in which he has been held, to the defiance of royal command and the injury of his majesty's interest. Why, then, persist in driving a man to become your deadliest enemy whom you may grapple to your side as your firmest friend?"

"Why, forsooth?" exclaimed Pedrarias, with a growl. "Because he has chosen to oppose me and to oppose the royal commands. But even were we disposed to agree—of which there is doubt—how could I, now that I have humbled and discredited him, still regain his confidence and friendship? It is incredible!"

"Nay, Pedro," said the bishop, bending forward and bestowing a glance full of meaning upon his listeners. "To the contrary, it is the simplest thing in the world. You have two marriageable daughters. Give him one of them!"

"What? One of our daughters marry that base-born caitiff? Hearest thou that, Isabel?"

"I hear," replied his wife, demurely. "But I do not consider Vasco Nunez so far beneath us that he could not aspire. He is of the hidalguia [nobility] by birth, and not base-born, my lord."

"Aha! the rope of pearls! Hath it, then, bound thee to Balboa?"

"Shame! Thou knowest it is not so. That remark is unworthy of thee, Pedro," exclaimed the bishop, hotly.

Dona Isabel did not respond, but her eyes flashed until their fire was extinguished by the tears that welled up from them. She was used to insult from her lord, but not yet calloused.

Bestowing upon her a glance of sympathy, the bishop continued: "My friends, Vasco Nunez would be a suitable match for your daughter. He is a man of merit, an hidalgo by birth, and—whether thou likest or not to hear it, Pedro—a favorite of the king. Whilst thou art advanced in years, Pedro, he is in the prime of life, in the very vigor of his days. Make him, then, thy son-in-law, and as thy lieutenant he can carry out thy plans. Thus all his achievements will redound to the advancement of thy family, and to the credit of thy administration."

"Enough!" exclaimed Pedrarias, won over, not so much by the bishop's earnestness and eloquence as by the evident advantages to himself in such a match. "Send for Vasco Nunez and for a notary. He shall espouse Maria, our eldest daughter. She is in Spain; but that matters not, so the marriage agreement be written out and signed before witnesses. Send for my son-in-law!"

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