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

On the Shores of the Pacific


"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,

When a new planet swims into his ken,

Or like stout Balboa when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise

Silent, upon a peak in Darien."


Among the conquistadores  of America there is no more heroic figure than Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who looms large in history, second only to Columbus, perhaps, in the magnitude of his discovery. The admiral himself had sought persistently for a passage into the ocean, which he firmly believed existed beyond the continent by which he was confronted in 1502; but it remained for Balboa to reveal that ocean seven years after the great navigator had passed away. Balboa is also the most picturesque figure in the conquest of America by the Spaniards, and especially when, at the culmination of his efforts, he stood with sword in hand, and armor-clad, "silent, upon a peak in Darien."'

He was then at the zenith of his power, as well as in possession of the health and strength of vigorous manhood, for he was but thirty-eight years of age at the time he made his great discovery. For a few months only he was to retain that power undisputed; then was to ensue a period of depression in his fortunes, followed by his early death. So long as he remained at a distance from Antigua del Darien, devoting himself to original research in the wilderness and the subjugation of the natives, his success was unparalleled; but whenever he returned to the settlement disaster seemed to welcome him.

Leading his enthusiastic soldiers down the southern slopes of the mountain, Balboa entered the province of a cacique named Chiapes, who, unaware of what had happened to his northern neighbor, Quaraqua, like him offered battle to the strangers. They were few in number, wayworn and hungry-looking, so he set upon them with his warriors—and his experience was like that of all others who had opposed Balboa, who poured a volley from his arquebuses into the ranks of the enemy, and then, in the confusion that followed, let loose the dogs of war.

Stunned by the reports of the guns, confused by smoke and flames, and overcome with astonishment, many of the Indians fell to the ground and became easy prey to the blood-hounds, while many others were made captive. To these latter the Quaraquano guides made such representations of the Spaniards' power to slay by means of thunder and lightning, and of their magnanimity to the vanquished, that Cacique Chiapes issued from his hiding-place and appeared before Balboa with gifts of wrought gold amounting to five hundred pounds in weight. In return he received the proffered friendship of the commander, and trifles like hawk-bells, beads, and looking-glasses, with which he was greatly pleased and contented.

Their friendship having been established on a secure basis, Balboa sent back his guides and carriers to Quaraqua with orders for all his soldiers there, who were able, to join him without delay. While he remained in the cacique's village, three scouting-parties of twelve men each were sent out to explore the country between the mountains and the southern coast. These several parties were commanded by Juan de Escary, Alonzo Martin, and Francisco Pizarro, the last-named—then a lieutenant or captain under Balboa—to become, in the wisdom of Providence, the conqueror of Peru. The scouting-party under Alonzo Martin was the first to reach the sea-side, and, finding on the beach an Indian canoe, the captain stepped into it and was pushed by his men out into the water, so that he could rightfully claim to be the first European to embark upon the southern ocean.

After his scouts had returned and the men from Quaraqua had rejoined him, Balboa himself set out for the coast, with less than thirty men, but all well armed, and accompanied by Cacique Chiapes and some warriors. They reached the sea-side on the last day of September, 1513, at evening, and as the tide was out sat down to await its return. The tides on the Caribbean coast of the isthmus rise and fall but little, while on the Pacific coast they are swift and turbulent. Soon the flats in front of Balboa were covered with foaming waters rushing in like war-horses, and, leaving his shady seat beneath the forest trees above the beach, he advanced to meet the curling waves. He was in complete armor, with a shining helmet on his head, breast-plate, greaves, and gauntlets. He must have seemed a brave and gallant figure indeed to Chiapes and his warriors as, drawing his sword and taking in his left hand a banner upon which was painted the arms of Castile and Aragon, he waded into the tide. The fierce waves assailed him violently, dashing first against his knees, then against waist and breast; but he withstood them valiantly, and, waving both banner and sword, shouted in a loud voice: "Long live the high and mighty sovereigns of Castile! Thus in their names do I take possession of these seas and regions; and if any other prince, whether Christian or infidel, pretends any right to them, I am ready and resolved to oppose him, and to assert the just claims of my sovereigns."

"Long live the sovereigns of Spain!" shouted the band on shore. "We will defend these their new possessions, even to the death, and against all the potentates of the world. Viva! Viva!"  Returning to shore, Vasco Nunez drew a dagger and with it carved a cross on the trunk of a tree, saying; "In this sign we shall conquer the heathen, and the blessings of our religion will we give them, in exchange for their barbarous practices. At the point of the sword will we compel them. Now taste ye the waters of this sea, and by its being salt shall ye know that they are of the ocean. They are salt, like the seas of the north; and the waters are vast, like the seas of the north; but from them they are separated by intervening mountains, as ye know, and can swear that they pertain to the great Sea of the South, which has been the object of long search, and at last is found and taken possession of for our dread sovereigns." Saying this, he caused the notary of the expedition, Andres de Valderrabano, to confirm all that had been done and said in writing, to which all present subscribed their names.

The spot where these historic incidents took place was a secluded nook in the great and tortuous bay of San Miguel, which deeply indents the southern coast of Darien, and lies southwest from the harbor of Careta, in a straight line about sixty miles distant. Both names still adorn modern maps of the isthmus, and indicate approximately the terminal points of Balboa's great journey from the north coast to the south, in the year 1513.

Cacique Chiapes and his men looked on in wonder while their new allies performed the strange ceremonials, remaining passive, but evidently not approving what they did not understand. When, however, a few days later, Balboa demanded of the cacique that he produce canoes in which he might embark for some distant islands, the latter protested that the time was bad for ventures on the sea. It was then the month of October, and that month, with November and December, comprised the season of storms, in which the winds were strong and variable, the seas at any moment liable to rise suddenly. But Balboa was persistent. He cared not for the storms. "My God will protect me," he said. "For am I not fighting the good fight and converting the infidels to the true faith? Go get the canoes."

Cacique Chiapes shook his head and said, "Perhaps your God may be stronger than my god; but no god that the Indians serve can protect us from the waves at this season of the year."

"That is because the god you worship is not the true God, whom we reverently serve," answered Balboa. "He hath protected us, 'mid dangers many, and will continue to do so."

But Chiapes was unconvinced, and as chief of an inland tribe, unacquainted with navigation, he hesitated to embark. He compromised, however, by guiding the Spaniards to the littoral province of one Cuquera, whose subjects were fishermen and owned a great number of canoes. Cuquera confirmed the statement of Chiapes, that the season was unpropitious for a venture at sea, but at sight of some pearls the chief displayed, which, he said, had been obtained on the islands off-shore, Balboa was more than ever determined to make the voyage. Overcoming the objections of the caciques, he crowded sixty of his men into nine canoes, and, accompanied by the faithful Chiapes, embarked upon the bosom of the gulf. Hardly, however, had the canoes reached open water, when they were assailed by a frightful tempest. "Deafening was the tumult of the infuriated winds, which strewed the earth with the frail materials of the Indian huts. The rivers, swollen by the rains, overflowed their banks, tearing away in their violent course rocks and trees; and the tempestuous sea, roaring horribly among the rocky islands and reefs with which the gulf is filled, broke its waves against them, menacing with inevitable shipwreck those audacious mortals who had invaded this watery realm."

The intrepid spirit of Balboa had caused him to mock these dangers when on land; but soon he had good cause to repent his rash impulse, and, yielding to the importunities of the Indians, sought shelter on an islet. It appeared to be high and dry as the company landed there in the evening, but during the night the rising tide gained upon them until finally they were waist-deep in water. At or near midnight the wind went down with the tide, and at dawn next morning the unfortunate mariners sought their canoes, only to find them partially wrecked and all the provisions they had contained washed away. They spent part of the day in calking the open seams with grass and the bark of trees, and in the afternoon embarked in the crazy craft and sought the shore.

After hours of exposure to the tropic sun, they landed near nightfall at the upper end of the gulf, in the province of a cacique named Tumaco. The Spaniards, like the Indians, were weak and famishing, having labored all day without either food or drink; but no sooner had they made land in safety than the indomitable Balboa set out in search of the Indian town. It was at a little distance from the shore, and was not reached until midnight. The inhabitants had been informed of their coming and made a stout defence; but were soon routed by the Spaniards and driven into the forest at the point of the sword.

Groping within the bohios, or Indian huts, the victors found an abundant supply of provisions, with which they appeased their raging appetites, and also a large number of beautiful pearls, besides a quantity of gold. As some of the pearls were contained in shells freshly taken from the water, Balboa concluded that the seat of the pearl fishery was not far distant, and was very anxious to obtain possession of the cacique, believing that he could inform him in the matter.

Having captured a son of Tumaco, he loaded him with gifts, such as a shirt made in Castile, and other trifles valued by the savages, and sent him in search of his father. The chief had sought refuge in a wild den among the rocks, deep in the forest; but he was very much impressed by the beautiful presents brought by his son, and consented to emerge from his retreat. When he appeared before Balboa he had with him six hundred pieces of gold, and pearls to the number of two hundred and forty. The gold was wrought into ornaments, and the pearls, though most of them large and perfect in shape, had been injured by fire, with which the Indians had opened the shells.

All this treasure Tumaco presented to Balboa, and when he saw with what joy it was received, and understood that the pearls were especially appreciated, he sent a party of his divers to search for more. Thirty naked Indians, accustomed all their lives to dive for pearls, went down the coast in a canoe, accompanied by six Spaniards as witnesses; but the sea was so rough that they dared not fish in deep water, where the large pearl-oysters lay. The storm, however, had caused a great number of oysters to be washed ashore, and there they collected more than ninety ounces of small though perfect pearls, which were freely given to the Spaniards. The best of these, with specimens of the oysters from which they were taken, were set apart by the conscientious Balboa, as an acceptable gift to his sovereign.

More precious than pearls, however highly they were valued by the explorer, was certain information conveyed to Balboa by Tumaco, confirming the rumors that had reached him in the interior, respecting a vast country to the southward, which abounded in gold and gems. This was Peru, subsequently to be subjugated by Francisco Pizarro, then a humble follower of Balboa, and with him on this occasion. In order to impress the Spaniards with the high state of that country's civilization, Tumaco described as well as he could the beasts of burden used by the inhabitants of the distant empire. He moulded in clay, it is said, a figure of the animal known as the llama, which the Spaniards, as they had never seen or heard of it before, supposed might be a deer or a tapir—the latter being the largest animal they had found in South America.

But, great and glowing as were Balboa's hopes respecting that wonderful country to the southward, he was obliged to confess himself unable to explore it at that season and with the small force at his command. He made an experimental voyage along the coast for several leagues, cautiously feeling his way through an inundated forest on the border of the gulf, but dared not venture out at sea, where the wild winds roared and the waves beat incessantly upon the shores of distant islands. Pointing to one of these islands about five or six leagues distant, Tumaco told Balboa that its waters produced the largest and finest of pearls, such as the Spaniards had never seen, for size and beauty; but he could not take him to it then, much as he desired to please him. The two chiefs, the Indian and the Spaniard, were then in the former's war-canoe, hewn from the trunk of an immense forest tree, and paddled by a crew of sixty Indians. The paddlers themselves were stark naked, but the heads of the oars they used were inlaid with pearls. Of this circumstance, says a contemporary chronicler, "Balboa caused a record to be made by the notary, for the sake, no doubt, of establishing the credit of what he himself should write to the sovereign (no less needy and covetous than the discoverers themselves) concerning the opulence of the new country."

Several weeks were consumed by Balboa in exploring the country adjacent to San Miguel, and on a day in the first week of November, Tumaco took him and his companions in his war-canoe to the uppermost end of the great bay. With them also was the still faithful Chiapes, who considered himself in some sort as Balboa's sponsor, and who, when the time for parting came, is said to have shed tears, so deeply was he affected. He gladly assumed the care of the Spanish sick and wounded, and took them with him to his village in the mountains, while Balboa, with his able-bodied veterans, essayed to return by another route across the isthmus. The territory at the head of the bay was controlled by Cacique Techoan, who vied with the other chiefs in bestowing gold and pearls upon the Spaniards, and who furnished them with burden-bearers and provisions for the journey.

That Techoan was not entirely disinterested was shown conclusively by his guiding them to the abode of a cacique whom he represented as a rich and powerful lord, but an insufferable tyrant. This tyrant was known as the "Croesus of the mountains" (or its equivalent in the Indian language), and, as may be believed by those acquainted with the character of Balboa, the latter was not unwilling to seek him out and make his acquaintance. But Ponca (for that was his name) was not anxious to meet the Spaniards, especially when he learned that they were coming in company with his deadly enemy, and fled farther into the mountains, taking with him, it was thought, the bulk of his treasure. He left behind, however, some three thousand pieces of gold, which the Indian allies discovered and took to Balboa, who used every exertion to entrap him and force him to disclose the hiding-place of his vast wealth. He caught him at last; but when questioned as to his gold, Ponca answered that all he had the Spaniards already possessed, and that it had been left him by his ancestors. More than this he would not disclose, even when the cruel Spaniards put him to the torture, and, provoked by his obstinacy, in the heat of their passion, gave him and three companions to the dogs, who finished the revolting business by tearing them to pieces.

In extenuation of their cruelty the Spaniards afterwards described Ponca as a monster of depravity, with deformed limbs, a frightful countenance, and a sanguinary nature. The guilt of his death, said one of their countrymen, "rests more with the Indians than the Castilians; yet they  were not the judges of Ponca!" They assumed, however, that any Indian who refused to reveal the hiding-place of treasures which they desired to possess was deserving of death, believing, as they did, that there was nothing of greater worth in the world than gold, or its equivalent in material wealth. Thus cheaply did they hold the lives of the Indians, reckoning their immortal souls as of less worth than perishable gold. In this respect Balboa was no better than his comrades, and in truth set them an example which they were not slow in following.

The senseless avarice of the Spaniards wrought its own retribution on this journey, for they had laden their carriers with gold to a greater extent than with provisions, and this was done notwithstanding their route lay through a sterile wilderness yielding no supplies. The consequence was that they soon began to feel the effects of famine, some of them, as well as many Indian carriers, sinking by the wayside to rise no more. Rumors preceding the Spaniards informed the natives that they desired, above all other things, gold and like treasure, and thus gold was invariably brought as a peace offering, to the neglect of provisions, so that the soldiers (says the historian who perused Balboa's journal) "yet wanted nourishment and pursued their melancholy way, cursing the riches which burdened but could not feed them."

Still they clung desperately to those riches, stained as they were with the blood of innocent Indians, and when Balboa learned that a short distance off the main route he was pursuing there lived a powerful cacique named Tubanama, who had, according to report, vast stores of gold, he made a forced march and by a night attack fell upon and surprised him, with all his family. When threatened that unless he gave up his gold he should be tortured and thrown to the dogs, or bound hand and foot and cast into the river, he approached Balboa and, pointing to his naked sword, exclaimed: "Who that hath not lost his senses would think of prevailing against that weapon, which can cleave a man at a stroke? Who would not rather caress than oppose such men as thou? Kill me not, I implore thee, and I will bring thee all the gold I possess, and as much more as can be procured!"

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