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

Balboa Captures a Princess


Until the expulsion of Enciso, says a Spanish writer of the century in which the actions narrated occurred, Balboa might have been considered as a bold and factious intriguer who, aided by his popularity, aspired to the first place among his equals, and who endeavored, artfully and audaciously, to rid himself of all who might, with better title, have disputed it with him; but as soon as he found himself alone and unrivalled, he gave himself up solely to the preservation and improvement of the colony which had fallen into his hands. He then began to justify his ambition by his services, to raise his mind to a level with the dignity of his office, and to place himself, in the scale of public opinion, almost in comparison with Columbus himself.

The removal of the colony from San Sebastian to Darien had been done in pursuance of his advice, and the wisdom of this act being apparent to everybody, he was thereby raised above all others in the estimation of his companions. He was not made giddy by his elevation to supreme power, but, on the contrary, seemed sobered by it, as though he realized his responsibilities, and also wished to justify his comrades' confidence in him. Having been invested with the command, he became a real leader and actual head of affairs, always first in any toil and danger, and shrinking from no exposure, whether to the elements or the weapons of the savages. While frank and affable in common discourse, and ever accessible to the meanest and most humble colonist, yet he was a strict disciplinarian with reference to his soldiers, and insisted upon being treated with the deference due him as governor-general of the colony and captain of its forces. He fully recognized the necessity for collecting ample supplies of gold, to be forwarded to King Ferdinand of Spain, in order to purchase exemption from punishment for his expulsion of Enciso, a royal official; but he deprived no man of his portion in consequence. Balboa was probably one of the most generous and high-minded of the Spanish-American conquerors. While he sometimes treated the Indians with barbarity, and his exactions bore heavily upon them, yet he was never unfair to his comrades when it came to a division of spoils. He was known to have relinquished his own share on more than one occasion, in order that his followers might not lose their reward for the toils and dangers of an arduous campaign.

Having united the warring factions among the colonists, and secured the unswerving loyalty of his soldiers by offering them in himself an exemplar of soldierly qualities, Balboa turned his attention to establishing the colony on a basis of thrift and security. He built a stockaded fort, repaired the dilapidated brigantines, ordered extensive fields to be cleared for planting with corn, and drilled his soldiers constantly. No tidings coming from the exiled Nicuesa as the weeks went by, Balboa despatched vessels for the rescue of whatever survivors might be discovered at Nombre de Dios and along the intervening coast, thereby saving several half-starved wretches from death. Among others thus rescued were two Spaniards who had fled from the severities of Nicuesa more than a year before, and found refuge with the cacique of a province called Coyba. They were nearly naked, like the Indians, and their skins were painted, after the fashion in vogue among the savages; but they could still speak their native language, and thenceforth served Balboa as interpreters. They had been kindly treated by Careta, the cacique of Coyba, who had freely given them shelter, food, and clothing; but their first thought, when they found themselves safe at Darien, was how they might betray him and assist their countrymen to obtain his treasures. Shown into the presence of Captain Balboa, they eagerly offered to lead him to Coyba, where, they said, he would find an immense booty in gold as well as vast quantities of provisions.

"And this cacique Careta, you say, treated you well?" he asked.

"As well as he could, being a savage," answered one of the men. "He is naught but an Indian, half the time going naked, and with manners not of the best; but such as he had he freely gave us, and saved us both from death by starvation, most likely."

"And yet," rejoined Balboa, with a curl of his lip, "ye would have me attack this generous chieftain, lay his town in ashes, per chance kill him and some of his subjects?"

"We have naught against him," answered the man, evasively; "but, being possessed of gold, of which he knows not the use, and of provisions, which ye certainly need in this settlement, it seemed to us our duty to acquaint you with these things."

"And that was well," exclaimed Balboa, "for of a truth we need both gold and supplies for our larder, which is low, even near to being exhausted. As to gold—indeed, as you say, the savage knows not its value, while to us it is the greatest and best thing in the world. We are already under ban of the king, most probably, for hastening the departure of the Bachelor Enciso, and unless I can persuade his majesty, with a golden argument, of the justice of our doings, it may go hard with me and with us all. So now, as I say, this news comes most opportunely, and peradventure it turn out to be true, ye shall not suffer for the imparting of it. I will myself lead the way, with you as guides, and if we can accomplish our object without bloodshed, much better will I be suited than if violence be done."

Balboa was highly elated by the tidings of a golden country not far distant, and, selecting a hundred and thirty of his best men, embarked them in two brigantines for the province of Coyba. They were equipped with the best weapons the colony could supply, and also with utensils for opening roads into the mountains, as well as with merchandise for traffic should it seem better to barter with the Indians than attack them openly.

The swamps and forests adjacent to the colony were occupied by Indians of different tribes, some more warlike than others, but none of them so barbarous as the fierce Caribs of the eastern shore of the Uraba Gulf, who ate their prisoners, gave no quarter in battle, and made use of poisoned arrows. These terrible weapons, as already remarked, were not used by the Indians of the western shore, who were far less sanguinary, though obstinate in battle and even ferocious. They spared the lives of their captives, and, instead of eating or sacrificing them to their gods, branded them on the forehead, or knocked out a tooth, as a sign of servility, and kept them as slaves. Each tribe was governed by a cacique, or supreme chief, whose title and privileges were hereditary, and who was permitted to have numerous wives, while the common warrior had but a single helpmeet, unless he had won unusual distinction by great bravery in battle. Besides supporting their caciques, the Darien Indians allowed priests, or magicians, and doctors to exercise their arts, and they adored a supreme deity, known as Tuira, to whom the milder tribes offered spices, fruits, and flowers, while the more savage ones poured out blood upon their altars and made human sacrifices.


Village on the River of Darien.

The houses of these people were mostly made of poles, or canes, loosely bound together with vines, and roofed with a thatch composed of grasses and palm leaves so thickly placed as to turn the tropical rains and afford a perfect shelter. When these structures were built on solid ground they were called bohios, as in the islands of the West Indies, and some of them were nearly a hundred feet in length, though not over twenty or thirty in breadth. The majority, however, were small huts, at a distance very much resembling hay-stacks, having a single opening only, as a doorway, and a clay or earthen floor, with a fire usually burning in the centre, the smoke from which escaped through the roof of thatch. There was another class of dwellings, either aerial or aquatic, depending upon whether they were built in trees, for safety from floods and wild beasts, or above the placid surface of some lake or gulf, and used as dwellings by fishermen. These were known as barbacoas;  and it is worthy of note that we find the same name applied to certain elevated structures of a similar sort used as corn-cribs by the Indians of Florida in De Soto's time. Both bohios and barbacoas were subject to removal or abandonment whenever the game of the neighborhood grew scarce, the soil unfruitful, or a pestilence decimated the tribe, following the dictates of danger or necessity.

During the greater part of the year, in that tropical climate, clothing was rarely necessary for warmth, except at night, and the men and boys were nearly always naked, though the caciques sometimes wore breech-cloths, and cotton mantles over their shoulders as badges of distinction. All males, and especially the warriors, painted their bodies with ochreous earths, and stained their skin with the juice of the annotto, while they adorned their heads with plumes of feathers. Both sexes inserted tinted sea-shells in their ears and nostrils as "ornaments," and encircled their wrists and ankles with bracelets of native gold. The women, after reaching the marriageable age, wore cotton skirts from waist to knee, and broad bands of gold beneath their breasts. Their hair, which was very coarse and black, they cut off in front, even with their eyebrows, by means of sharp flints, but allowed the thick, luxuriant tresses to fall over their shoulders as far as the waist.

They were fine-looking people, especially the young girls and children, for, though their complexion was brown, or copper-colored, their forms were models of symmetry, their countenances pleasing, and their dispositions sweet and amiable. Their defects (for they were by no means devoid of them) were such as might be expected to arise from their barbarous mode of life, descended from ancestors who had never been instructed in morals or religion, save in their most brutish forms. They had, of course, no written language, nor even a hieroglyphic system, to perpetuate their thoughts or the traditions of their ancestors; but they were experts in the chant and dance known as the areito, which they performed to the rude music of drums made of hollowed logs, like the tambouyé, or "tom-tom," of the Africans.

Free from the cares of civilization, their occupations agricultural, with frequent forays into the forest for game and upon the river and gulf for fish, they passed much of their time in idleness, except when pressed for hunger or incited by passion to war upon their neighbors. They knew not, as has been said, the value of gold, for they were always willing to barter great nuggets for the veriest trifles and toys; but Careta, the cacique of Coyba, may have been instructed in its worth by the two Spaniards who had shared his hospitality, for when, under their guidance, Balboa appeared in his settlement and demanded his treasures, he declared he had none to supply. Neither had he any provisions, he said, except such as were necessary to carry his tribe over to the next planting season, for he had been engaged in a disastrous war with Ponca, a powerful cacique who lived in the mountains, and his people had been unable either to sow or to reap.

Then one of the traitors took Balboa aside, and said:

"Commander, believe him not. To my certain knowledge, he hath an abundant hoard of provisions in barbacoas concealed in the forest, and of gold, also, vast quantities hidden in the reeds and thickets. But it is best to dissemble, for behold, he is surrounded by two thousand warriors, and they will fight, as I know from having seen them combat with the tribe of Ponca. Appear to believe him, then, and pretend to depart for Antigua; but in the night return, take him by surprise, burn the village, and make the cacique prisoner, with all his family."

This advice seemed sound. to Balboa, and he acted on it promptly, turning about that afternoon and making as though departing for Darien, after a cordial leave-taking, to the cacique's great delight. The unsuspecting chieftain watched the Spaniards out of sight, heard their drums and bugles resounding through the forest farther and farther away, and, convinced that they had indeed left him in good faith, retired to rest without setting scouts on their trail or posting sentinels about his camp. But the sagacious Balboa had no sooner placed a league or so of forest between himself and the unwary Careta than he ordered a halt. The wood was dense and dark, for the trees of the tropical forest are not only vast of bulk, but thickly held together by innumerable vines and bush-ropes, called lianas, seemingly miles in length, and forming impenetrable bulwarks, overtopped by canopies of foliage, through which the sun even at mid-day can hardly send a single ray.

Having with him, however, axes and machetes  for cutting his way through the forest, the prudent Balboa had commanded his men to slash a broad path ahead of the company, and thus, when they halted for rest shortly after sunset, behind them lay an open, easy trail leading directly back to the cacique's village. After posting sentries roundabout the camp, Balboa ordered a bountiful meal to be served his hungry men, one hundred of whom were allowed to sleep for the space of two hours, after which the command was given to march.

Without bustle or confusion, the soldiers formed in loose order and commenced their retrograde march through the forest, thanks to the foresight of their commander, finding the return far easier than the advance. All was silent as they approached the village, and, as stealthily as jaguars about to leap on their prey, crept within bow-shot of the dwellings. Balboa had passed the order for his men to refrain from shedding blood, unless a fierce resistance were offered, and, whatever happened, to capture the cacique and his family alive. The royal dwelling was conspicuous from its size and its position on a mound raised somewhat above the general level of the town, and it was silently surrounded by a picked company.

Suddenly the twang of a cross-bow string broke the stillness of the night, followed by a sheet of fire from an arquebuse; for two of the soldiers had spied some Indians moving through a thicket, and concluded the whole village was alarmed. At once, in terrible confusion, from the surrounded houses outpoured swarms of startled savages, naked and weaponless, seeking security by flight, and with no intention of resisting the unexpected attack. Several of them were cut down by the swordsmen and halberdiers, and a few were transfixed by arrows from the cross-bows; but the greater number were allowed to dart into outer darkness and escape. Nearly all escaped, in fact, except the cacique's numerous family, who, surrounded by the soldiery, with naked swords and lighted fusees in their hands, cowered around their dwelling in affright.

One alone attempted to escape, and would have succeeded but for Leoncico, Balboa's faithful hound, who had effectively assisted at "rounding up" the band, and was keeping a vigilant watch at his master's side. With a leap and a growl, Leoncico sprang over the heads of the group in front of him and disappeared in the darkness of the wood. "Dios!" exclaimed Balboa, in alarm. "It was a woman—a maiden! God grant she may not resist him! I never knew Leoncico to harm a woman, but he has torn many a man to pieces. Gonzalez, take you command for the moment, while I follow the hound to see that he does no harm to the maiden." Saying this, he plunged into the wood, which grew close up to the cacique's dwelling, and with his sword and heavy armor cut and beat down the vines that stretched across the path his hound had taken. Soon he was surrounded by silence, as well as by darkness, for the Indians who had fled to the forest lay quiet, like hares in a form, and the turmoil of the village was left far behind him.

"Leon—Leoncico!" he shouted, "where art thou?" For a while there was no response, then a hoarse bark sounded in his ears. It came from a point well ahead, deep in the wood, but by dint of sword and armor he forced his way to it, and there found that of which he was in search. The darkness was intense, for the time was then about midnight; but as he pushed his way onward a stray gleam of moonlight thrust a lance-like shaft through the leafy canopy above, and he saw the form of Leoncico crouching in front of a cringing figure outlined against the trunk of a mighty tree. Then Balboa drew breath with great relief, for, despite the darkness, he could see that the captive was, apparently, unharmed. She was pressed close against the tree-trunk, clinging for support to a sturdy liana, and motionless, save for the trembling which shook her like a leaf.

She seemed, indeed, a statue cast in golden bronze. Fear had paralyzed her limbs so that she did not move, even when, approaching softly, Balboa called to her to be of good cheer and touched her reassuringly. She continued gazing at the hound with wide-staring eyes and parted lips, as though fascinated by that terrible apparition. She had never seen its like before, and could not but have been bereft of sense and motion when it had sprung upon her from the darkness of the forest, like a phantom of evil.

Realizing that his errand had been accomplished with the appearance of his master, Leoncico rose with a growl, and would have returned to the village had not Balboa halted him. "Lie down, brute," he cried, in a voice hoarse with rage. "What do you mean by pursuing a defenceless maiden? Were there not warriors enough for you to slay?"

The hound cringed before him and whined, as though to exculpate himself; but suddenly his whole attitude changed. Springing erect, and thrusting his nose into the air, while the hair on his neck bristled with rage, he uttered a low, deep growl. At the same instant the whistle of an arrow came to Balboa's ears and a missile struck him forcibly between the shoulders. But for his armor he might have been transfixed, so forcefully was the missile-weapon sent; but, as it was, it fell in fragments to the ground.

Then there was the sound of a scuffle, a shriek of agony pierced the air, followed by the ravening of Leoncico as he tore to pieces the victim of his rage. He had sprung upon the savage who in the darkness had approached and sped the arrow at his master, and, bearing him to the ground, made short work of the poor wretch, who was soon a mangled corpse. Stupefied as she was by fear, the maiden could not but have felt the horror of that terrible scene, and sank senseless to the ground. War's dread experiences had not so seared the heart of Balboa that he could be insensible to pity for his helpless captive, and, sheathing his sword, he gathered her in his arms. Preceded by Leoncico, he bore her tenderly through the forest, shielding her from harm in the darkness, and in due time joined his command at the village.

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