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

First Tidings of the Pacific


Cacique Comogre's sons were young men of whom any father, savage or civilized, might have been proud, but especially distinguished for his intelligence and sagacity (says the Spanish biographer of Balboa, Senor Quintana) was his eldest son, who was also his father's favorite. He took note of the glances exchanged by Balboa and his lieutenant, Colmenares, when they were inspecting the pantheon, and rightly construed their meaning, which was, of course, that they would give much for the privilege of sacking the place and depriving the sacred dead of their rich ornaments. He had been informed of what had taken place in his neighbor Careta's province, and knew that neither the opposition to their rapacity of argument or force, nor any consideration for religion or the dead, could restrain them were they to conceive the desire to ravish the sepulchres of his ancestors.

His father had three thousand warriors, ferocious and reliable; but, from what he had been told by Cacique Careta, who had tasted their quality and tested their valor, they could not stand for an hour before the two hundred Spaniards then in his province. The mailed men, Careta said, would scatter them like chaff, and, with the fire from their muskets and cannon, devour them as the flames consumed the grass of the plains. Then he conceived the idea of purchasing exemption from ravage by bribing the commanders, in the hope that by so doing they would refrain from desecrating the tombs he held in such regard. But he did not know, what he was later to learn, that the more the Spaniard obtained the greater grew his appetite, and that by displaying the wealth of the land he was but hastening its ruin. Simple son of Comogre! He had, then, much to learn.

After consulting with his father, who was elated that a son of his should possess such sagacity and penetration, the young cacique sent for Balboa and Colmenares, who met him in the great square of the town. "Great and worthy ones," he said, "here are sixty slaves, male and female are they—all are yours, to be divided between you as may seem desirable to both. And here, great and worthy ones, are golden ornaments, taken from the hoard saved by our fathers. To us they are of use only as mementos of the dead, for to the accumulation of riches we are not given, being content with what we can eat and what we need to protect us from the elements. We give you these things freely, because we see that you value gold above all else, and because we would find favor in your eyes and desire your friendship."

Balboa and Colmenares were at first overcome with astonishment, but when they recovered speech they thanked the cacique and his son in extravagant language—and then began to quarrel over the division of the treasure. The slaves were of some account, but the chief treasure consisted in the gold, which, when they had weighed and carefully estimated its value, was found to amount to four thousand crowns. Most of it was in the shape of animals of various sorts, and must have caused the native artisans great labor; but of this the avaricious Spaniards took no account, and all went into the melting-pot, greatly to the grief of the young cacique.

Having always the fear of his sovereign in mind, and the potentiality of gold to buy the king's favor, Balboa first set aside a fifth part for royalty, which was to be despatched to Spain at the first opportunity. Then he attempted to divide the remainder between himself and companions; "but this division begat a dispute that gave rise to threats and violence, which, being observed by the high-minded Indian, he suddenly overthrew the scales in which they were weighing the precious metal, exclaiming: 'Why quarrel for such a trifle? If such is your thirst for gold that for sake of it you forsake your own country and come to trouble us in ours, I will show you a province where you may gather it up by the handful—yea, and carry it off by the backload!' "

When, by a blow of his fist, the spirited savage had overturned the scales and scattered the gold on the ground, the Spaniards standing by were greatly enraged; but when his speech was finally translated to them they were exceedingly astonished, and desirous of learning more respecting that golden province of which he told them.

"Where is it?" demanded Balboa and Colmenares, in a breath. "Show us the way, and we will follow you at once."

"Nay, nay," answered the young man, with a shake of his head. "It lies beyond those lofty mountains, far to the south. Beyond them, again, extends a mighty ocean, a glimpse of which may be gained from the mountain-peaks, but it is many days distant to the west and the south. To succeed in getting there, you should be more numerous than you now are, and will need at least a thousand men, even though with coats like those you have on, which neither spears nor arrows can pierce. For you will have to contend with powerful kings, who will defend their dominions with vigor. You will first find a cacique who is very rich in gold, who resides at the distance of six suns from here. Climbing the mountains, ever climbing, climbing, you will reach their summits, and then behold the sea, which lies in that part." And he pointed to the south. "There you will meet with people who navigate in barks with sails and oars, not much less than your own in size, and who are so rich that they eat and drink from vessels made from the metal which you so much covet."

This was the first information conveyed to the Spaniards of the Pacific Ocean and Peru, and they were vastly excited over it, endeavoring to get the young man to furnish them further details of the country intervening, as well as of the great sea, its extent and situation.


Quarrel for the Gold.

"Go back to your settlement," continued the young cacique, "there to prepare for a journey of many days. Select your stoutest and bravest soldiers, and provide them well with food and weapons. Then return to us, and we will furnish you guides. My father's warriors will go with you; but of yourselves, as I said, you should be a thousand strong—no less than that—for we shall meet hosts of warriors, some of them cannibals, who eat the flesh of men, and all of them fierce fighters, such as those of the cacique Tubanama, in whose province is gold beyond measure. Stay, I will send for one of my men who was once a captive to Tubanama, and he will tell you the same."

The quick-witted cacique had seen distrust lurking in Balboa's eyes, and, indeed, the Spanish commander conceived this might be but a scheme to get him out of Comogre's country and into the mountains, where he might be swallowed up in the wilderness and never return to the colony, which would be attacked by the Indians and destroyed. But the former captive of Tubanama, who was questioned separately from the young cacique, confirmed the latter's story in every particular, and verified his account of gold which might be found in all the streams, as well as accumulated in the cacique's treasuries.

Then Balboa, says one who was near him and saw the journal he wrote with his own hand, was transported by the prospect of glory and fortune which opened before him. He believed himself already at the gates of the East Indies, which was the desired object of the government and the discoverers of that period. He resolved to return, in the first place, to Darien, to raise the spirits of his companions there with these brilliant hopes, and to make all possible preparations for realizing them. He remained, nevertheless, yet a few days with the caciques, and so warm was the friendship he contracted with them that they and their families were baptized, Careta taking in baptism the name of Fernando, and Comogre that of Carlos. Balboa then returned to Darien, rich in the spoils of Ponca, rich in the presents of his friends, and still richer in the golden hopes which the future offered him.

Darien was in sore straits when, elated with his several victories, Balboa marched into the settlement at the head of his little army. Notoriously improvident as they were, the Spaniards had planted, notwithstanding, a large tract with maize, or Indian-corn, and were looking forward to gathering a harvest, when down from the mountains swept a torrent, accompanied by a tempest with thunder and lightning, and in an hour their fields were totally ruined. Starvation stared them in the face, but about this time the regidor, Valdivia, who had been sent to Santo Domingo by Balboa, with gold for Diego Columbus, returned in a small vessel well laden with provisions.

These stores were soon consumed, and Valdivia returned to the island, bearing a rich present for Don Diego and fifteen thousand crowns in gold for King Ferdinand. This amount of gold, it was estimated, was due the sovereign as the royal fifth, which was exacted from all treasure obtained in America. As there was frequent communication between Santo Domingo and Spain, and as, moreover, Don Diego Columbus was viceroy over the islands, and Terra Firma as well, it was proper and politic to send the treasure by the hands of the admiral. The latter had sent abundant promises of aid, but, though Balboa represented that it was necessary for him to have at least a thousand men as a reinforcement, it is not on record that he ever got them. He had in mind the invasion of the country contiguous to the great sea, which, Comogre's son had told him, would demand more than a thousand soldiers, fully armed and equipped. Failing to interest Don Diego in the scheme, Valdivia was instructed to sail from Santo Domingo for Spain and lay it before the king, who, in view of the large amount of gold remitted, might feel inclined to accede to his modest request.

Valdivia sailed from Antigua del Darien, bearing with him the king's fifth, and charged with Balboa's message, which was emphasized by a startling statement that unless the needed troops were despatched without delay, he should be obliged, in self-defence, to exterminate all the caciques on the isthmus. He had already, he wrote, slain thirty caciques, mainly with his own hand, and "must in like manner destroy every one he should capture, as the small number of his troops left him no alternative." We may probably take this message as evidence, rather, of Balboa's skill with the "long bow," already alluded to, than of the slaughter he committed with more potent weapons, for he certainly possessed a vivid imagination.

Valdivia, the regidor, sailed for the island and Spain, but was never heard of more, and it is probable that his ship went down with all on board. With him, also, went the fifteen thousand pieces of gold, besides other sums, sent by Balboa and his men to satisfy their creditors in Santo Domingo. Truly, an evil genius pursued him, he was prone to say, for, labor as he might, he could not make head against his adverse fortune. Greater opportunities were given him, perhaps, than to any man then living since the days of Columbus, and it cannot be truly said that he did not improve them to the utmost; but every great endeavor of his came to naught. He was ardent and generous, and he was sane, save where his passions were concerned. His command over men was a marvel to all who knew him, and there was not a soldier in his command who would hesitate to follow him anywhere. He never told his men to go, but always asked them to come, for he was ever in the fore-front of battle, and the more desperate the enterprise, the more anxious was he to take part in it and assume the leadership.

Life in the settlement irked him greatly, says his Spanish biographer, and although it was essential to its peace and prosperity that he should stay in it a certain length of time, in order to place the town in a posture of defence and encourage the waning spirits of the settlers, his active and enterprising disposition would allow him no rest. He had desired to go in person to present his cause to the court, but his fellow-settlers would not hear of it. They were already sadly distressed by their losses, through the inimical effects of the climate and the repeated attacks of the Indians, and there seemed to be no one but Balboa who could hold them where they were. What they had really gained was very little, since their harvests were washed away by the floods, and the gold they had acquired was useless, without marts in which to purchase the things they most required to sustain life.

In order to keep them from seizing a vessel and departing for more attractive regions, Balboa conceived the plan of invading the dominions of Dobaybe, which lay around the head of the gulf, and contiguous to the cannibal country on its eastern boundary. He was obliged. to await the return of Valdivia with reinforcements, if he would invade the great and opulent region beyond the mountains, but meanwhile there came to him information of a character that fanned to a flame the slumbering desire to achieve a great discovery. An Indian was brought to him one morning, who said he was the subject of a great cacique living in a golden realm of the interior about one hundred miles from Darien. Its capital was situated on the bank of the very river that emptied itself, by many mouths, into the Gulf of Urabi. Its riches were prodigious, and it derived its name from a wondrous goddess of most ancient times, who, according to Indian tradition, was the mother of the god who had created the sun, the moon, and the stars. She also controlled the elements, he said, sending great storms, with thunder and lightning, which destroyed the habitations of those who did not worship her fervently, but rewarding those who did with abundant crops and success in battle. According to some, this goddess had been at one time an Indian princess, whose capital was in the mountains of Dobaybe, and in. whose memory, after her death, a temple had been erected containing a golden idol, which was still worshipped by the natives. Both temple and idol were made of gold, and to the holy shrine it was the wont of Indians far and near to make annual pilgrimages, for the purpose of making offerings of their wealth. Thus, in the course of centuries, the golden temple had become filled with treasure of inestimable value. Its walls were adorned with plates of gold, and its vaults filled with the precious metal, veins of which radiated from them to the various mines with which the region abounded.

The idol and the temple were of themselves sufficient to arouse the predatory instinct of the Spaniards; but not alone was their cupidity appealed to, for Balboa was informed that his old enemy Zemaco had retreated to the province of Dobaybe, and was engaged in arousing its cacique to resistance. Inflamed, then, by a lust for gold and their desire for revenge, the followers of Balboa volunteered so readily for the desperate enterprise that he had difficulty in retaining any able-bodied soldiers for the defence of the settlement. One hundred and seventy were finally selected, and embarking them in two brigantines, under command of himself and Colmenares, Balboa sailed up the gulf to the mouth of the river draining the golden country.

While nothing more was ever heard of Balboa's friend, the regidor, yet tidings indirectly came to the Spaniards, in the course of CortÚs's voyage to Yucatan, in the year 1519. When his fleet was off that coast, a rumor reached him that two Spaniards were held captive by a cacique of the interior. One of these was rescued, and proved of inestimable value to CortÚs in the conquest of Mexico, as an interpreter. His name was Aguilar, and he informed his rescuers that he and another were the only survivors of the shipwreck, all the rest, thirteen men and two women, having been sacrificed, or killed by hard usage.

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