Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475—1519)


Spanish explorer and conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475—1519) appears in the history books as the first European to sight the Pacific Ocean from its eastern shore and one of the significant players in the development of the Spanish empire in the New World. 

Born in Jerez-de-Los-Caballeros in the province of Extremadura in Castile, the third of four sons of a minor provincial nobleman, Nuño Arias de Balboa, little is known of his early life. He seems to have served as a page and squire to Don Pedro de Portocarrero, who may have encouraged him to seek his fortune in the New World.

Around 1500, he joined Rodrigo de Bastidas' expedition, a treasure-hunting exercise that explored the Caribbean coast of present-day Colombia and the north-east of South America. Under the quinto real ("royal fifth") policy, the participants were entitled to 80% of the proceeds of such enterprises.

Balboa's share was enough to set him up as a planter and pig farmer when he settled in Hispaniola in 1505  as a planter and pig farmer. 

Five years later, deeply in debt, he fled his creditors by stowing away inside a barrel on Martín Fernández de Enciso's expedition carrying supplies to Alonso de Ojeda's newly founded colony of San Sebastian on the east side of the Gulf of Uraba in modern-day Colombia.

De Ojeda's seventy settlers had, however, encountered ferocious resistance from the indigenous population, and the leader, suffering from a leg injury, sailed for Hispaniola, leaving Francisco Pizarro in charge while he waited for reinforcements.

Predictably, the stowaway was discovered before the relief expedition arrived at San Sebastián, and while de Enciso's first inclination was to maroon Balboa on the next uninhabited island, Balboa's knowledge of the region from eight years before made him a useful asset.

When the relief party arrived at the settlement, most of the colonists were dead, and the survivors were on the point of abandoning the colony and heading back to Hispaniola. Balboa managed to convince them to relocate to move to the western side of the Gulf of Uraba on the Isthmus of Panama, where the native population was friendlier, and the soil was more fertile. Predictions about local resistance, however, proved inaccurate. The local cacique (chieftain), Cémaco, with a force of five hundred warriors was ready to fight, and the severely outnumbered Spanish reputedly made a vow to the Virgin de la Antigua that they would name their new settlement after her if they emerged victorious. They duly did, and in September 1510 Santa María la Antigua del Darién became the first permanent European settlement on the American mainland. 

Cémaco and his followers headed for the jungle, the Spanish plundered their villages and gathered a treasure-trove.

The result earned Balboa authority and respect among his peers, who were increasingly hostile toward de Enciso. While Balboa managed to remove de Enciso from the leadership of the expedition through a legal manoeuvre and became the interim governor of the settlement, his achievement set a series of complications in train that would eventually lead to his execution.

In the meantime, however, he set about extended Spanish influence in the neighbourhood and mounted treasure-seeking expeditions into the hinterland. On one of them, he became the first European to sight the Colombian Andes before reports of a vast ocean encouraged an attempt to cross the Isthmus of Panama in September 1513,

On the 25 September, from the heights of the Sierra de Quarequa, the range that runs through Panama, Balboa became the first European to sight the eastern shores of the Pacific. At that point, however, the isthmus of Panama runs east-west, so the discovery was tagged the South Sea (Mar del Sur)since his party had to travel south to reach it. 

When his party reached the shore, Balboa, in full armour, waded into the sea and, knee-deep, claimed formal possession "for Castile and Leon", sword in one hand and the Castillian flag in the other. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the isthmus, in Hispaniola and Spain, a complicated string of events that would bring about Balboa's downfall were unfolding. 

In a way, much of his downfall stemmed from Balboa's actions in relocating the San Sebastián settlement from Alonso de Ojeda's Nueva Andalucía (present-day Venezuela) to Diego de Nicuesa's Veragua (today's Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama). The change of location had provided the legal excuse to topple de Enciso, but since the new settlement lay in de Nicuesa's territory, he reasoned he was entitled to administer it for his own benefit.

A relief mission sent to locate de Nicuesa found him near Nombre de Dios, having travelled via Santa María, reported that Balboa's settlement was doing well and prompted the wounded Governor to head there to assert his authority. 

News of his intentions, however, preceded him, and his arrival and when de Nicuesa arrived at the port, a disturbance prevented him from disembarking. With seventeen of his followers, de Nicuesa was forced to board an unseaworthy vessel with limited supplies. They were put out to sea on 1 March 1511 and promptly disappeared without a trace.

That had left Balboa as governor of Veragua, and he had asserted his authority by putting de Enciso on trial. Charges of usurping the governor's power saw De Enciso imprisoned for a short time and his possessions confiscated. He was then set free on condition that he return to Spain via  Hispaniola. Balboa had two representatives travel with the exiled former governor. They were to report to the colonial authorities and request reinforcements that would allow Balboa to continue the conquest of Veragua.

In the meantime, Balboa used the resources he had at hand to extend his territory, defeating hostile tribes and befriending those that were not, exploring river basins and mountain ranges, and in a constant search for gold, silver and slaves.

Having reached and claimed the South Sea for Spain in September 1513, Balboa continued along the western coast of the isthmus, gathering large quantities of gold and pearls and making his way back to the Caribbean coast by a different route, maximising the potential for plunder. 

Balboa was back in Santa María on 19 January 1514, with gold worth more than 100,000 doubloons, an impressive quantity of pearls and news of the discovery of the South Sea. He sent Pedro de Arbolancha to Spain with word of his discovery, along with the regulation one-fifth of the expedition's booty and the routine request for reinforcements and further resources.

What he received in return, however, was something else.

Prompted by accusations from Fernández de Enciso and the removal and disappearance of de Nicuesa, the king created a new province (Castilla de Oro) to cover the Central American territories from the Gulf of Urabá to Panama's Belén River. News of Balboa's "South Sea" discovery saw the province's jurisdiction extended along the Pacific coasts of Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

But the new province was not to be Balboa's realm. The king appointed an elderly nobleman Pedro Arias Dávila (a.k.a. Pedrarias) as the governor of the new province.

Pedrarias arrived in Darién in mid-1514, soon after Balboa returned from the South Sea, at the head of the most substantial expedition that had left Spain for the New World. Fifteen hundred men in seventeen ships meant the reinforcements had arrived, but they were not Balboa's to command. Gaspar de Espinosa accompanied Pedrarias as alcalde mayor (the administrative and judicial head of the new province) and Martín Fernández de Enciso, who Balboa had deposed and forced into exile as Chief Constable. Both had points to prove.

While Balboa received Pedrarias in July 1514 and seems to have accepted his replacement as governor, some of the settlers were reputedly planning to take up arms to restore the former arrangements.

That may have prompted Gaspar de Espinosa's move to arrest Balboa arrested and have him tried in absentia. Charges of murdering de Nicuesa and his party failed to stick, but Balboa had to pay reparations to de Enciso and others.

In any case, Pedrarias needed experienced expeditionaries to search for new locations for settlement and new sources of loot. Balboa's request for permission to explore Colombia's  Dabaibe region, said to contain a temple filled with a vast treasure, but the expedition failed to deliver anything of note.

Balboa was wounded along the way, and at that point, the intrigue kicked into high gear. 

Balboa planned a clandestine mission to the South Sea; Pedrarias found out and had Balboa arrested, but an influential clergyman intervened on Balboa's behalf.

The Spanish Crown came to the rescue with titles (Adelantado of the South Seas, which meant he was authorised to communicate directly with the Council of the Indies and Governor of Panama and Coiba) and directions that he was to be consulted on all matters about the administration of Castilla de Oro. So Balboa was released, exonerated, all the charges against him were lifted and, in a surprising development, his friendly influential clergyman and Pedrarias' wife, Isabel de Bobadilla, arranged for Balboa to marry one of Pedrarias' daughters, María de Peñalosa. She was in Spain, and he was in the Americas, so the marriage took place by proxy. 

At that point, one might assume Balboa was relatively safe. 

But he still had intentions towards the South Sea, and while Pedrarias did everything he could to rein those plans in, he could not defer them indefinitely. When his father-in-law eventually yielded,  Balboa moved to the Pacific coast in 1517-18 and set about assembling a fleet of four ships that had been transported in pieces across the mountains from the shores of the Caribbean.

He managed a seventy-four kilometre sweep around the Pearl Islands and Panama's Pacific coast before heading back to his base in Acla to set about building sturdier vessels. 

And, across the isthmus, the intrigues continued. Pedrarias’ enemies had managed to convince Ferdinand to replace him and order a judicial inquiry into his management of Castilla de Oro. 

Faced with the possibility that his son-in-law might have been inclined to testify against him, Pedrarias took preventative action.

Once Balboa was back from his latest expedition, a letter summoned him to Santa Maria. Balboa was halfway there when a group of soldiers commanded by Francisco Pizarro arrested him for rebellion and high treason. 

In Pedrarias' version of events, Balboa was out to undermine his authority and establish a separate government in Panama and Coiba and into the South Sea.

While Balboa denied the charges and wanted to stand trial in Spin, that did not sit well with  Pedrarias' intentions. The case was heard without delay, with Pedrarias’ ally Gaspar de Espinosa presiding. Balboa, along with four alleged accomplices was found guilty, condemned to death, and the sentence was carried out in Balboa's base Acla, to ensure that everyone there understood who was in charge.

Then, to underline the point, Gaspar de Espinosa headed an expedition to the South Sea aboard the new ships Balboa had commissioned.

© Ian Hughes 2017