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

A Rival in the Field


Cacique tubanama was warlike as well as wealthy, but he had been completely cowed by Balboa's display of force and weapons, so that he readily complied with the Spaniard's demands. Sending his men into the forest, he remained as a hostage with his captor, while they ransacked his storehouses for gold. So successful were they that within three days gold was brought in to the amount of six thousand crowns; but even then Balboa professed himself dissatisfied and declared there must be much more concealed in the province. As Tubanama positively declared to the contrary, he finally gave the cacique his freedom, but when he departed for the coast took with him, it is said, his eighty wives and eldest son.

Great quantities of virgin gold having been discovered in the mountain streams, he resolved to return, and found a settlement in that region, but the condition of his command at that time forced him to resume his homeward march without delay. Most of his men were now so exhausted that, like Balboa himself, who was ill of a fever, they had to be borne in hammocks on the Indians' shoulders. In this manner marching, and in such sorry state that by a concerted effort the caciques might have destroyed them utterly, the Spaniards approached the province of Comogre, where they found themselves among friends and on familiar ground. The old chief was dead, they were told, but in his place ruled the young cacique who had first informed Balboa of the South Sea and Peru. He received him hospitably, as before, and made him a present of all the gold he and his subjects had collected since they parted, in return for which Balboa gave him a shirt and a soldier's cloak. As he had embraced Christianity, young Comogre considered himself vastly superior to the pagans about him, and when clad in the garments of the Christians, he assumed the airs of a king and compelled his naked subjects to do him homage.

At this, or a point previously reached on their journey, the Spaniards were rejoined by the wounded and invalids who had been left with Chiapes. Though but a handful of soldiers, they had travelled in safety through the forests and defiles of the mountains, such was the terror with which the deeds of Balboa had inspired the natives. One of the provinces they had passed through was governed by a minor cacique named Bonouvama, who not only detained, but entertained them most hospitably with everything his territory afforded. When they left his town he placed himself at their head, and on arriving in the presence of Balboa, said to him: "Lo, we are here! Receive, O valiant man, thy companions safe and uninjured, even as when they entered my bohio. May He who gives us the fruits of the earth, and who creates the thunder and the lightning, preserve thee and them, my lord!"

Balboa was deeply affected by the cacique's speech and meritorious actions. He graciously replied that they should arrange a perpetual friendship and alliance, as he hoped to do with all the caciques of Darien, and after bestowing upon him some beads, toys, and a Spanish shirt, sent him back to his province greatly rejoicing. Although, as we have too often seen, he acted with great cruelty towards some of the caciques, to those who approached him in a pacific spirit he was ever friendly and benign. That he grew to understand the nature of the Indians is shown by his success in converting them from enemies to friends, and by the alliances which he cemented with more than a score of native caciques in the course of his wonderful journey. There never was a Spaniard among his contemporaries, excepting perhaps De Soto, who had such success with the aborigines. Columbus and CortÚs, Pizarro and Velasquez (who conquered Cuba), and all others who came in their train, lamentably failed in their dealings with the Indians. Balboa's success with his men was no less than with the Indians he encountered, for he had a faculty for winning their affections and holding them, which no other commander of his time displayed. Pizarro approached him in this respect; but Pizarro received his initial training under Balboa himself.

Bidding Comogre farewell, Balboa led his men through the province belonging to Ponca, where he was met by four Castilians, who informed him that a ship and a caravel well laden with supplies had arrived at Darien during his absence, and that he was awaited there with great anxiety. Hastening thence to Coyba, the territory of his father-in-law, he embarked at the port of Careta for Antigua del Darien, where he arrived the following day, which was January 19, 1514, after an absence of four months and twenty days. Every week, nearly every clay, that had passed since his departure had been filled with exciting incident, and, moreover, he had returned to report to his fellow-citizens of Antigua one of the greatest discoveries of the age. No wonder, then, that the entire population sallied forth to greet him at the gates of the town, and that they rent the air with shouts of joy and welcome.

Lamentations were mingled with the acclamations, for some who had gone out with him had found, instead of gold, only a grave in the forest. Some who returned were suffering from fevers and wounds received in conflicts with the Indians; but notwithstanding, it was declared that the expedition of Balboa to the shores of the great Southern Sea was the most successful of any that had ever been made in America. And when the plunder was displayed: gold by the thousand pieces, pearls by the hundred, brought in by scores and scores of captives who would serve in the future as slaves, the transports of the people knew no bounds. He was hailed as "Conqueror of the Mountains, Pacificator of the Isthmus, and Discoverer of the Austral Sea." Bringing with him more than forty thousand ounces of gold, innumerable cotton robes, and eight hundred Indians of service—possessor, in short, of all the secrets of the land, and full of auspicious hopes for the future—he was considered by the colonists of Darien as a being privileged by Heaven and fortune. Congratulating themselves on possessing such a chief, the Antiguans conceived themselves invincible and happy under his guidance and government.

"They compared the constant prosperity the colony had enjoyed, the splendid prospects before them, the certainty of success attending his expeditions, with the unfortunate enterprises of Ojeda, of Nicuesa, and even of Columbus, who could never gain a firm footing on the American continent; and this glory was yet enhanced when the virtues and talents of him who had obtained it were taken into consideration. . . . Among all these eulogiums none were so hearty as those which were given to his care and affection for his companions. Affecting no military discipline, but behaving more like their equal than their chief, he visited the sick and wounded individually, and condoled with them as a brother; when any one sank on the road from fatigue, he was himself, instead of deserting, the first to raise and encourage him. He would often go out with his cross-bow in search of game to appease the hunger of those who were unable to seek food for themselves; he himself would carry it to them, and by this care and kindness he so gained their hearts that they would follow him willingly whithersoever he chose. The remembrance of these excellent qualities survived for many years; and the historian Oviedo, who cannot be charged with lavishing his praises on the conquerors of Terra Firma, wrote, in 1548, that in conciliating the love of the soldier, no captain of the Indies had hitherto done better than, if any had done so well as, Vasco Nunez de Balboa in Darien."

The rich spoils, including the forty thousand ounces of gold and the pearls, were fairly divided between the soldiers and the settlers, as the latter had held possession of Antigua as a base of supplies and operations while the former were actively engaged in the field, and had thus contributed their share towards the success of the expedition. The "king's fifth" was religiously set apart, in the first place, and soon an opportunity offered for sending it to Spain, in charge of a soldier who had accompanied him when the South Sea was discovered, Pedro de Arbolancha. As he was an intimate friend of Balboa, who had proven himself a trusty companion in the midst of great vicissitudes he was despatched as an envoy to the court, not only with letters to the king containing a full account of the great discovery, but in charge of the sovereign's fifth and a donative of the largest and most precious pearls.

If he could have set out immediately after the return of the expedition, all might have gone well with Balboa's schemes of conquest and government; but his ship was delayed until the first part of March, and in the meanwhile events were shaping in Spain which imperilled not only the fortunes, but the life of the great leader. Balboa's former messengers, Caicedo and Colmenares, had arrived in Spain during his absence from Antigua, bearing to the king the tidings communicated by the cacique Comogre, and a request for reinforcements to the extent of a thousand men. Their testimony as to Balboa's unswerving loyalty to the crown, and the vast significance of the intelligence they brought respecting the existence of an ocean beyond the mountains, turned the tide of sentiment at court in his favor, and excited the swelling ambition of King Ferdinand. The sovereign had already listened favorably to the complaints of Enciso and other enemies of Balboa, and had issued an order for his arrest, even going to the extent of threatening to imprison his friend Zamudio on account of the zeal he displayed in his defence. But the more recent information placed him in a new light. The enormity of his offence was lessened by the great service he had rendered the crown. He was no longer regarded as a fugitive from justice, an absconding debtor, who had seized the government of Darien by force and caused the death of its real proprietor Nicuesa. He had made for himself a new name, and around his head already shone the halo of the great discoverer.

But again, the sovereign was involved in a complication which arose from the conflicting accounts from Darien. That there was dissension there, that the colony was threatened with extinction through the quarrels of unscrupulous men, he was well assured. The leader of those men, he had also been assured, was none other than Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Accompanying the reports of dissension in the colony had come, as well, most convincing proofs of its prospective value to the crown in the richness of its resources. "And as the adventurers who went to America dreamed of nothing but gold—as gold was the object of their pursuit—as it was gold which they took forcibly from the Indians—and gold alone by which the latter purchased their friendship—gold which resounded in their letters and despatches to court—and gold which at court was become the sole subject of conversation and desire—the Darien, which appeared so rich in this coveted metal, lost its first name of New Andalusia, and was commonly called, and even named in the despatches, the 'Golden Castile.'"

Though it was mainly owing to Balboa's efforts that the isthmus won its new appellation, Golden Castile, and though he had in a measure retrieved himself, yet the king was unwilling to intrust him with its government. Casting about for some one to represent the crown with dignity and credit, he selected a cavalier who had served with distinction in the wars against the Moors, Don Pedro Arias de Avila, more commonly known as Pedrarias. He was an elderly man, who had won a reputation in his youth as a jouster in the tournaments, and who, beneath a chivalrous and courtly demeanor, concealed a nature narrow, mean, and warped by prejudice. He had certainly no qualifications for the office of governor; but he possessed the patronage of the powerful Bishop Fonseca, who then ruled the colonial affairs of Spain, and that sufficed to land him in the executive chair at Darien.

He sailed from Spain about the middle of April, 1514, and entering the Gulf of Uraba the last of June, cast anchor before the town of Antigua del Darien. His fleet was composed of five large vessels, and contained a gallant company, with everything needed for conquest and colonization. Balboa had asked the king for only a thousand soldiers, but Pedrarias sailed with a company of two thousand, some of them cavaliers of distinction, many wealthy hidalgos, and all well provided with arms, equipment, and money. They had heard the exaggerated reports from Darien, of gold that was caught in nets, which might be obtained almost without effort from the waters of every mountain stream, and were eager to join the fortunate adventurers under Balboa.

The king himself thought so well of the venture that he had expended upon the armada more than fifty thousand ducats, and had sent out with Pedrarias a number of friars, over whom was placed his favorite preacher Juan de Quevedo. He was consecrated as bishop of Antigua del Darien, which was elevated to the dignity of a metropolitan city, as capital of the Golden Castile. While the sovereign provided for the spiritual interests of the colony in this manner, at the same time he ordained that no lawyers should be permitted to practise there, as experience had shown they were detrimental to the welfare of new settlements. In spite of this inhibition, however, one lawyer went out to Darien as alcalde mayor, or chief judge, where he fully justified the king's apprehensions regarding men of his profession. His name was Gaspar de Espinosa, and though he knew little of the law, he knew enough to make a deal of mischief in the colony, and eventually became a tool in the hands of Pedrarias, by which he effected the downfall of his enemies, among whom he soon reckoned Vasco Nunez de Balboa.

The fleet swarmed with cavaliers and men of distinction, but there was only one lady of importance aboard the flag-ship, the wife of Governor Pedrarias, Dona Isabel de Bobadilla, a distant relative of royalty and formerly a favorite at Queen Isabella's court. So attached was she to the crusty old cavalier, her husband, that, notwithstanding she was mother of several children, she chose to abandon them all and accompany the governor to his capital in the wilderness. Needless to say, she was a lady of grace and refinement, and deserved better of fate than to be wedded to a sanguinary monster such as Pedrarias soon proved himself to be. She has left no record of her sorrows; but they must have been great, since the crimes she was compelled to witness were frequent, and revolting even to the hardened soldiery of Darien.

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