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

The Quest for the Austral Ocean


A brigantine and nine large canoes carried the troops up the gulf to the shores of Chief Careta's territory, where the force was augmented by a thousand friendly Indians, who served as guides and carriers, on the march from the coast to the mountains. Finding his Indian father-in-law well disposed, and no signs of disaffection, the commander left here nearly half his men, to guard the vessels and keep open a way of retreat, should it be necessary, and with one hundred picked soldiers began his perilous journey through the wilderness.

He had left the settlement on September 1st, and on the 8th arrived at the frontier of Cacique Ponca's territory, but found his village abandoned and without a sign of life within its limits. Ponca, it will be remembered, was the inveterate enemy of Careta, and as he knew the latter was in league with Balboa, he had fled with all his people to the mountain fastnesses. He was extremely reluctant to emerge from his retreat, but was at last induced to do so by repeated offers of friendship, conveyed by the peaceful Indians, and when he finally came out was won by Balboa's kindness and induced to reveal to him all he knew.

It was not politic, the governor thought, to leave behind him one so powerful as Ponca inclined to be hostile, and, moreover, he alone could furnish guides to the sea that lay beyond the mountains. These he freely placed at Balboa's disposal, at the same time not only confirming the truth of the story told by Cornogre's people, as to the existence of a great sea, or ocean, but adding that the country adjacent was rich in gold. In the excess of his friendship, he presented Balboa with some golden ornaments—receiving in exchange glass beads and other trifles, precious in the sight of the Indian—and furnished the army with provisions for the journey. The golden ornaments, Ponca assured Balboa, came from the country bordering upon the great sea, to gain a glimpse of which it would only be necessary to ascend a high peak rising above the cordilleras, and visible from the village they then occupied. This peak seemed to pierce the skies, to such an altitude it rose above the surrounding hills, and its broad shoulders were covered with dense forests, so that it appeared like an island in an emerald sea.

With the departure from Chief Ponca's country the real labors of the journey began, for there was no open trail through the mountain wilderness, white men never having been there before. The Spaniards were compelled to hew their way with sword and axe, scale rugged precipices, and ford the torrents of numerous rivers. Friendly Indians carried the provisions, and the heaviest pieces of armor, but even though lightly clad and burdened only with their weapons, many of the soldiers were overcome by the combined effects of fatigue and climate, so that in the end less than seventy remained with their commander, the others having fallen by the way. Such as had strength enough returned to Coyba; but there were some who, unable to endure the journey, sank to the ground and never rose again.

Steadily climbing, at the rate of two or three leagues a day, about September 20th the little band of soldiers reached a broad plateau covered with a tangled forest through which ran deep and rapid streams. This was the country of a warlike cacique named Quaraqua, who, discovering this small body of strangers invading his province, and never having had experience with Europeans, prepared to give them a warm reception. He was at war with Ponca, and that was enough to provoke his ire, so he took the field with a swarm of ferocious savages, and thought to frighten the Spaniards by a display of force. He and his warriors were armed with spears, bows and arrows, and two-handed battle-axes made of wood, but almost as hard and as heavy as iron. They thought themselves invincible, in their ignorance of warfare as conducted by the Christian, and, yelling furiously, poured upon the Spaniards like a mountain torrent.

Sturdy Balboa was leading the advance, as usual, with his inseparable companion Leoncito by his side. This battle-scarred veteran was a hound of scarce more than medium size, but as strong and fierce as a lion. He was not only leonine in his majestic bearing, but in color also, for his hue was tawny, like that of the king of beasts. "

As he was considered by the soldiers the equal of any member of the force, he drew pay as one of them, and during his various campaignings earned for his master upward of a thousand crowns. The Indians of the coast country knew him well by reputation, which was so terrible that merely the sight of him would put a thousand to rout. But these Indians of the mountains knew neither the dog nor his master—though to their sorrow they were soon to make their acquaintance.

At sight of the warriors emerging in serried masses from the forest depths, Leoncito growled ominously, and as they approached within bow-shot he sprang to meet them with long leaps. A shower of arrows was sent at him and he was struck by several; but his progress was not stayed until he met a warrior in the oncoming ranks, whom he seized by the throat and bore to the ground. A moment later the hapless savage was a mangled corpse, and his fate was shared by others in swift succession, as the furious beast tore his way through the barbarian phalanx, leaving terror and destruction in his wake. The savages were surprised and alarmed by the advent of this strange animal in their midst, but they were absolutely terror-stricken when the cross-bows and arquebuses sent forth their messengers of death. Many were slain as they stood petrified with astonishment and terror; for this was their first experience with fire-arms, and they could not conceive whence came the rolling thunder of the explosions and the sheeted lightning of the flames. After the first discharge came in ringing tones Balboa's battle-cry, "Santiago, and at them, compafleros!" With bright sword drawn and gleaming in the air, he sprang towards the foe, followed close by his men.

Then ensued a scene of carnage the like of which has been many times witnessed in the encounters between Spaniards and the Indians of America. It is not a pleasant scene to dwell upon, so let it suffice to state that this "aboriginal Regulus," the rash though gallant Quaraqua, together with six hundred of his warriors, lay dead?, upon the field after the charge was over. Some had been pinned to the earth with lances, some cut down by swords, and others torn to pieces by the blood-hounds.

Having thus removed the obstacles to their advance, the Spaniards entered Quaraqua's town, which they quickly spoiled of all the gold and other valuables it contained. This booty Balboa shared equitably among his followers, reserving for himself no more than any other got, after deducting one-fifth the total amount for the king of Spain. By his eminent fairness to the soldiers, and by his courageous bearing on every occasion, Balboa wins the admiration of all who become cognizant of his exploits; but alas! his escutcheon is stained with the blood of many innocents. Among the prisoners taken in the town were fifty or sixty male Indians, dressed in robes of white cotton after the manner of women, and these, their enemies said, were given to unnatural crimes and followers of the devil. Whether they were or not, the Spaniards did not pause to inquire, but let loose their blood-hounds, who tore them limb from limb.

The village which Balboa had won at such cost of blood and suffering was situated at the very foot of the mountain whence, the Indians told him, the great sea could be distinctly seen. He had brought woe and desolation to its homes, but by his harsh measures the Indians had been thoroughly cowed, and, after sending back the subjects of Chief Ponca, he selected guides and carriers from the surviving Qluaraquanos. As his men were exhausted by the fatigue of fighting, and in need of all their energies for what was to come, he ordered them early to rest, after they had partaken of a bountiful supper supplied from the provisions found in the village. Some were disabled by their wounds, and these were to remain behind while he, with the strong and able-bodied, pushed on over the last stage of their eventful journey.

Having made every preparation for the morrow, after posting sentinels about the camp, Balboa retired to his hammock, but not to sleep. The events of the day had been so exciting that he lay awake all night, thinking, not of what had occurred, however: not of the lives he had taken, the crimes he had committed; but of what he was to see from that rock-ribbed mountain-peak, with its head in the stars above the sombre forest. It stood out black against the sky, provokingly near, yet aloof and isolate—this peak which he had sought for many months. It had stood there for uncounted centuries, and during the on of its existence it had never been visited by civilized man. He, Balboa, would be the first to scale its sides and stand upon its summit, the first to gaze upon the view it might reveal.

Such thoughts as these kept Vasco Nunez de Balboa awake while his soldiers slept. So absorbing were they that he hardly heard the groans of the wounded, the cries of anguish from the poor wretches on the battle-field. Wives, mothers, and children of the dead warriors were groping in the darkness for their loved ones, and when they found the objects of their search they rent the air with piteous lamentations.

At last the dawn dispelled the shades of night. Bounding from his bed in the ocean, the morning sun sent his rays athwart the vast expanse of forest and illumined the peak in the sky so that it shone like gold. It appeared to Balboa like a beacon-flame beckoning him onward, upward, and with feverish eagerness he spurred his men to activity. It had been his intention to start in the gray dawn, to avail of the morning coolness and freshness; but his soldiers were stiff and tired, and moved slowly, so that it was within two hours of noon when they emerged from the forest and saw the great peak standing stark before them.

"Stay ye here," said Balboa to his men, "while I ascend yon mountain-top." Leaving them huddled together at the dividing-line between the rank growth of the forest and the sparse vegetation of the higher altitude, he pushed onward alone. His heart beat high with expectation as he clambered over rocks that had been smoothed and polished by centuries of storm and finally reached the summit. There before him lay the view he had so long hoped to behold: a wilderness of forest, gemmed with sparkling streams, and bounded by the watery horizon. There lay the sea, or ocean, widely extending along the sky-line, vast, seemingly boundless, glittering like a diamond beneath the sun.


Discovery of the Pacific.

Thrilled by the sight, the conqueror stood for a moment spellbound, then sank upon his knees and, extending his arms seaward, gave thanks to the Almighty for the great privilege which had been vouchsafed him, as the first European to behold the southern sea. Rising to his feet, he waved his hands, and shouted to his men, "Come hither, and gaze upon that glorious ocean which we have so long and so much desired to see!" They flocked tumultuously over the rocky peak, and after them the Indians, who were extremely surprised at this outburst of joy and wonder over a spectacle with which they and their fathers had been familiar for many, many years.

After his excited companions had gathered around him, Balboa said: "Let us now give thanks to God, who bath granted us this great honor and privilege. For we behold before us, friends, the object of all our desires and the reward of all our labors. Before you roll the waves of the sea which was announced to us by Comogre's son, and which, no doubt, encloses the vast riches of which we have heard. We are the first to gaze upon it and shall be the first to reach its shores. To us belong their treasures, and ours alone shall be the glory of reducing these immense dominions to subjection in the name of our king, and of causing to be shed upon them the light of the only true religion. Follow me, then, faithful as hitherto, and, I promise you, the world shall not behold your equals in wealth and glory!"

The companions of Balboa, then reduced to a little company of sixty-seven, received his words with acclamation, and all embraced him, while the chaplain of the expedition, one Andres de Vara, chanted in solemn tones the beautiful anthem beginning: "Te Deum laudamus—Thee, O God, we thank." A great tree, which had been brought from the forest for the purpose, was shaped into a cross and raised on the spot whence Balboa first beheld the ocean. Around this was piled a mound of stones, to keep it in position, and then the company knelt in reverence before the holy symbol, while the chaplain offered renewed thanks for the inestimable privilege that had been accorded them.

Wrought upon by the sublimity of the scene, and filled with joy at the prospect of boundless wealth and conquest opened to them by the illimitable ocean spread out at their feet, the Spaniards rose to the dignity of the occasion, and showed themselves capable of elevated sentiment. Their leader had imbued them with his own enthusiasm, had invited them to share in the honors and glory of his great discovery, and they declared they would follow him to the shores of the great sea, and beyond. After signing a testimonial to the effect that they took possession of the sea and its shores in the name of the Castilian sovereign, which was duly attested by a notary, Balboa and his companions descended the sierras towards the south.

The date of this memorable discovery, as witnessed by the instrument the Spaniards signed, was September 25, 1513. They had been more than three weeks in accomplishing the journey from the north coast of the isthmus to the mountain-top, after fighting their way through difficulties and dangers which men of iron alone could have confronted and overcome.

Sometimes, says their chronicler, they had to penetrate through thick and entangled woods, sometimes to cross lakes, where some were lost in the depths; they had rugged hills and mountains to climb, precipices to scale, and deep and yawning gulfs to cross, upon frail and trembling hammock-bridges made of forest vines. From time to time they had to make their way through opposing bands of Indians, who, though easily conquered, were always to be dreaded, and upon whom they depended for their precarious supplies of provisions. Altogether, the toils, anxieties, and dangers of these Spaniards led by Balboa formed an aggregate sufficient to break down the strength and depress the mind of any, indeed, but "men of iron alone."

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