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

Balboa Asserts his Supremacy


The barren victory at Zenu did not serve to greatly strengthen the authority of Enciso, and it required all his arts as a solicitor to induce Pizarro's disgusted soldiers to return to San Sebastian—as Ojeda's settlement was called. It was situated on the east side of an inlet from the Gulf of Darien known as Uraba, the currents of which were so swift and strong as to force Enciso's vessel upon a shoal, where she went to pieces, with the result that nearly all her precious freight was lost, the men on board barely escaping with their lives. They reached the shore nearly naked and destitute, only to find their fortress and former dwellings in ashes, and the rapacious savages lying in wait for them in the surrounding forest.

A party sent by Enciso to forage the country was waylaid by Indians, who wounded several Spaniards with their poisoned arrows, and compelled the command to retreat to the shore. There a consultation was held, at which all present were unanimous for abandoning a region where, in their own words, "Sea and land, the skies and the inhabitants, all unite to repulse us." But they knew not whither to go, unless it were back to Santo Domingo, which, under the circumstances, would not be likely to receive them hospitably. At this juncture, the one man of that company who had less to expect from a return to the island than from remaining away from it, stepped forth and, by his words of encouragement, kindled in the hearts of the despairing colonists new spirits and new hopes.

"Now I remember," said Vasco Nunez de Balboa, "that some years ago when passing by this coast on a voyage of discovery with Rodrigo de Bastidas, we entered this very gulf and disembarked on its western shore. There we found a large river, and saw on its opposite bank an Indian town, the inhabitants of which do not poison their arrows. The country adjacent, moreover, was open and fertile, so that, doubtless, we shall find there great store of maize and cassava, as well as a good site for a settlement."

This welcome information at once placed Balboa upon a pinnacle of prominence, and be was urged to lead the starving band towards the promised land of abundance. As many as possible crowded into the remaining brigantine, and sailed across the gulf, where they found the river and the town, just as Vasco Nunez had described them. They landed at once and took possession, for the town was abandoned of its inhabitants, who had retreated to the forest. The place, however, was rendered untenable at the moment by its brave cacique, named Zemaco, who, with five hundred warriors, had intrenched himself on a near-by hill, where he courageously awaited the invaders, determined to give them battle. With such men as Pizarro and Balboa in his command, and the latter already aspiring to leadership, it was not possible for Enciso to restrain the ardor of his men, who would not heed his desire to parley with the Indians, but immediately attacked them in their chosen stronghold.


Panama, Darien, and the South Sea.

The Indians fought for their homes, but the Spaniards for their very lives, and with such desperation they battled that the issue was not long in doubt. The cacique and his warriors were driven from the hill with slaughter, and the victorious though famishing Spaniards, unable to pursue and overtake them in their flight, remained in possession of the town, with its ample stores of provisions and its treasures. They found in the huts, thrust beneath thatched roofs of palm leaves, many quaint ornaments of gold, such as anklets and bracelets, nose and ear rings, altogether to the value of ten thousand crowns. In the reeds and canes along the river, also, were discovered many precious articles concealed there by the Indians in their flight, and the cacique, having been captured and put to the torture, revealed the hiding-place of many more.

Thus suddenly raised from poverty to affluence, with more than twelve thousand pieces of gold in their possession, the Spaniards entertained hopes of acquiring yet greater wealth, in a short time, by marauding expeditions. But their ardent expectations were suddenly dashed by Enciso, who not only claimed the right to hold in his keeping all the gold, in conformity to royal command, but imprudently prohibited all traffic with the Indians on individual account, under penalty of death. As the greater part of his command was composed of men like Balboa, who had left their country in the hope of bettering their fortunes by barter with the natives of this golden region, dissatisfaction was wide-spread and the murmurings loud as well as deep. It was instantly perceived that the bachelor would prove a captious, miserly master, and the bolder spirits of the company resolved upon resisting his authority.

All had agreed, meanwhile, that the Indian village was well situated for a permanent settlement, and, after sending for the remainder of his company at San Sebastian, Enciso commenced to lay the foundations of a town which, in fulfillment of a vow he had made, he called Antigua del Darien. He was the founder of the town of Antigua, but was not to remain long in control of it, for, having without sufficient force to back him attempted to restrain the passions of his followers and deprive them of their liberties, he was soon to be swept away when those pent-up passions burst their bounds.

The Spaniards of those days had a deep reverence for royal authority and fear of their king; but when it was casually discovered that Enciso had unwittingly settled upon territory which had been granted to Nicuesa, and over which neither Ojeda nor himself had any jurisdiction, he was promptly deposed by the soldiers, who refused him further allegiance. He was beaten by his own weapons—those of the law—which were turned against him by his chief opponent, Balboa, who had never forgotten Enciso's threat to throw him into the sea, or land him on a desert island, when he had first made his appearance on shipboard. The line of demarcation between the territories granted to Ojeda and Nicuesa respectively ran through the centre of the Gulf of Uraba, the eastern shores of which pertained to the former and the western to the latter.

As Antigua had been founded on the western shore, it undoubtedly lay within the limits of Nicuesa's grant, and hence the unfortunate Enciso was without a legal leg to stand on. "This miser who would deprive us of our gold," said Balboa, "and who covets for himself all the fruits of our efforts, would use to our prejudice an authority to which he has no just claim. Placed as we are, beyond the limits assigned to Ojeda's jurisdiction, his command as alcalde mayor is become null, together with our obligation to obedience."

Enciso could not refute this argument, and was set aside, in his place being elected as alcaldes, or magistrates, Vasco Nunez de Balboa and a man named Zamudio. Though the majority of the company had chosen these two as their chiefs, there were still some discontented ones, and finally the altercations became so violent as to threaten the disruption of the little colony. In the midst of it, one day, as the disputants were hotly engaged in the market-place, they heard the sound of cannon and saw signal-smokes arising from the hills across the gulf from Antigua. They replied in like manner, with cannon and smoke-signals, and soon two ships were seen sailing from the eastward, which, on arrival in the river, proved to be in command of one Diego de Colmenares, who had come from Spain in search of Nicuesa, the long absence of whom without tidings had excited alarm.

Learning that opinion in the colony was divided as to the authority that should rule there, Colmenares agreed to remain and share his arms and supplies with the colonists, provided they would receive Nicuesa as their leader. This proposition having been acceded to (for the liberality of Colmenares had gained him universal favor), he and two others were deputed to go in search of the lost leader, who, with seven vessels and five hundred men, had disappeared, months before, and left no sign by which others could follow him. It was known that he had taken part with Ojeda in an attack upon the Indians at Cartagena, after which he had set sail for his allotted territory to the westward of Uraba. Since then nothing whatever had been heard from Nicuesa, but the search of Colmenares disclosed the details of a terrible narrative of suffering and fatal disasters, almost without a parallel in the annals of exploration. In short, at the time Colmenares set out from Antigua, only sixty men survived of the five hundred who had sailed from Spain with Nicuesa, and but one brigantine was left of his fleet.

The unfortunate explorer was finally found at a port on the north coast of the isthmus named Nombre de Dios, where he and the remnant of his band were existing in a state of utter despondency, unable to get away, and despairing of assistance from any quarter. This port had been discovered and named by Nicuesa himself, who, on reaching it when worn by fatigue and exhausted by hunger, had exclaimed: "En nombre de Dios—in the name of God—let us rest here!" There he and his companions gave up their battle against the elements and hostile savages, and in the apathy of despair awaited the end. From this situation they were rescued by the coming of Colmenares, who snatched them from the very jaws of death.

This Nicuesa had been a man of some distinction in Spain, where he had held the office of royal carver, and had amassed quite a fortune. He was just such a vivacious and testy cavalier as Ojeda himself, with whom, by-the-way, he came near fighting a duel over their respective boundaries. His reckless and generous disposition was made manifest by the bountiful dinner he ordered prepared from the stores brought by his rescuer, at which he proudly exhibited his skill as a carver, by slicing and disjointing a fowl while held in the air on a fork. His imprudence was shown by repeated boasts that he would promptly chastise those who had ventured to question his authority over Antigua, and would take from them all the gold of which, without his permission, they had possessed themselves. It belonged to the crown, he said, and to him, and those who held it must disgorge, even to the last centavo, which he would force them to do immediately on his arrival. Colmenares and his two companions were disgusted, and their apprehensions were further excited at the story told them by one Lope de Olano, who had formerly come to Nicuesa's relief, and had been imprisoned by him on a technical charge of desertion. "Take warning by my treatment," he said, privately, to the envoys. "I brought relief to Nicuesa, and rescued him from certain death when starving on a desert island; but behold my recompense! He repays me, as you see, with imprisonment and with chains. And such, believe me, is the gratitude the people of Darien may look for at his hands."

Colmenares continued loyal to his chief, but his companion envoys, Corral and Albitez, were so impressed by the avaricious disposition displayed by Nicuesa, that they hastened ahead of the brigantine in which he embarked, and, arriving at Antigua before him, warned the inhabitants against receiving the boastful ingrate into their midst. "A blessed change we shall make," they said, "in summoning this Diego de Nicuesa to take supreme command. We have called in King Stork with a vengeance, and he will not rest until he has devoured us. What folly is it, being our own masters, and in such free condition, to send for a tyrant to rule over us!"

Their words, indeed, produced a turmoil, and the two parties of Enciso and Balboa, though opposed to each other, quickly united in opposition to the landing of Nicuesa. When the man without a government arrived in the river opposite Antigua, the people sallied forth as if to receive him, but with loud cries and menaces warned him against disembarking, and ordered him back to Nombre de Dios. It was a desperate situation for Nicuesa, who felt, indeed, as if "the heavens were falling on his head." To be warned away from his own territory was humiliating, but to be sent back to the isthmus meant death by starvation. He entreated, then, to be allowed to land, though merely as an equal and companion; failing in that, he begged the heartless Spaniards to take and imprison him, since, though he should lose his liberty, his life might be saved thereby. But the factions were obdurate, and when, in spite of Balboa's warning, Nicuesa persisted in landing, a band of vagabonds pursued him along the shore until, by sheer fleetness of foot, he escaped from them and plunged into the forest.

At sight of this once respected cavalier, who had lost a fortune in his expedition, and was now reduced to the extremity of flight before a rabble crew, Balboa's heart misgave him. He had been foremost in exciting the populace against Nicuesa, but he had not expected such a tempest of disapproval as to threaten his life, and strove earnestly to allay it, though in vain. His fellow-alcalde Zamudio was the most demonstrative against the poor wretch, fearing to lose his position should he be allowed to assume the government. One of his most zealous supporters was a burly ruffian named Benitez, who was so vociferous that Balboa, after repeatedly warning him to desist, suddenly set in motion the machinery of the law, and, in his capacity of magistrate, ordered him to receive one hundred lashes on the bare shoulders. This act of lawful violence cooled the emotions of the mob somewhat, and poor Nicuesa was allowed to emerge from the forest and seek shelter on his brigantine. Here he received word from Balboa that his only safety lay in keeping out of sight aboard the vessel; but the next morning, while his friend's attention was attracted in another direction, he was lured on shore by a deputation assuming to have been sent to treat with him, and hastily cast into a small and unseaworthy vessel, which was set adrift upon the waters of the gulf. Together with seventeen comrades, who chose to accompany him on his perilous voyage, Nicuesa was thrust into the miserable craft, which, with scant provisions and little water, was sent forth to cross the Caribbean Sea, and was never heard of again.

Nicuesa was thus disposed of the first week in March, 1511. He was never to return; but a few years later his avengers exacted reparation for this barbarous deed, and Balboa lost his life partly in consequence. After ridding themselves of Nicuesa, the Antiguans resolved upon sending Enciso after him, and under form of the law succeeded in doing so. He was, however, better equipped for a voyage than his lamented predecessor, and in the caravel which conveyed him to Santo Domingo and Spain went also the alcalde Zamudio. He had been prevailed upon by his partner to take the voyage for the purpose of presenting their cause at court, and thus, at a single coup, the wily Balboa removed an enemy and a rival from the colony, and was left in sole and absolute command.

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