Biography of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa

Discoverer of the Pacific

Balboa's Discovery of the Pacific by Clyde O. De Land
1513-Balboa's discovery of the Pacific ocean. Painting by Clyde O. De Land, 1911. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) was a Spanish conquistador, explorer, and administrator. He is best known for leading the first European expedition to sight the Pacific Ocean (or the "South Sea" as he referred to it). He founded the settlement of Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darién in present-day Panama, although it no longer exists. He ran afoul of fellow conquistador Pedrarías Dávila in 1519 and was arrested and executed.

He is still remembered and venerated in Panama as a heroic explorer.

Early Life

Unlike most conquistadors, Nuñez de Balboa was born into a relatively wealthy family. His father and mother were both of noble blood in Badajoz, Spain: Vasco was born in Jeréz de los Caballeros in 1475. Although noble, Balboa could not hope for much in the way of inheritance, as he was the third of four sons. All titles and lands passed to the eldest and younger sons generally went into the military or clergy. Balboa opted for the military, spending time as a page and squire at the local court.

America

By 1500, word had spread all over Spain and Europe of the wonders of the New World and the fortunes being made there. Young and ambitious, Balboa joined the expedition of Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1500. The expedition was mildly successful in raiding the northeastern coast of South America and Balboa landed in 1502 in Hispaniola with enough money to set himself with a small pig farm.

He was not a very good farmer, however, and by 1509 he was forced to flee his creditors in Santo Domingo.

Back to the Darien

Balboa stowed away (with his dog) on a ship commanded by Martín Fernández de Enciso, who was heading to the recently-founded town of San Sebastián de Urabá with supplies. He was quickly discovered and Enciso threatened to maroon him, but the charismatic Balboa talked him out of it.

When they reached San Sebastián they found that natives had destroyed it. Balboa convinced Enciso and the survivors of San Sebastián (led by Francisco Pizarro) to try again and establish a town, this time in the Darién (a region of dense jungle between present-day Colombia and Panama) which he had previously explored with Bastidas.

Santa María la Antigua del Darién

The Spaniards landed in the Darién and were quickly beset by a large force of natives under the command of Cémaco, a local chieftain. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Spanish prevailed and founded the city of Santa María la Antigua de Darién on the site of Cémaco's old village. Enciso, as ranking officer, was put in charge but the men detested him. Clever and charismatic, Balboa rallied the men behind him and removed Enciso by arguing that the region was not part of the royal charter of Alonso de Ojeda, Enciso's master. Balboa was one of two men quickly elected to serve as mayors of the city.

Veragua

Balboa's stratagem of removing Enciso backfired in 1511. It was true that Alonso de Ojeda (and therefore Enciso) had no legal authority over Santa María, which had been founded in an area referred to as Veragua. Veragua was the domain of Diego de Nicuesa, a somewhat unstable Spanish nobleman who had not been heard from in some time.

Nicuesa was found to the north with a handful of bedraggled survivors from an earlier expedition, and he decided to claim Santa María for his own. The colonists preferred Balboa, however and Nicuesa was not even allowed to go ashore: indignant, he set sail for Hispaniola but was never heard from again.

Governor

Balboa was effectively in charge of Veragua at this point and the crown reluctantly decided to simply recognize him as governor. Once his position was official, Balboa quickly began organizing expeditions to explore the region. The local tribes of indigenous natives were not united and therefore powerless to resist the Spanish, who were better armed and disciplined. The settlers collected much gold and pearls in this fashion, which in turn drew more men to the settlement. They began hearing rumors of a great sea and rich kingdom to the south.

Expedition to the South

The narrow strip of land which is Panama and the northern tip of Colombia runs east to west, not north to south as you might suppose. Therefore, when Balboa, along with about 190 Spaniards and a handful of natives decided to search for this sea in 1513 they headed mostly south, not west. They fought their way through the isthmus, leaving many wounded behind with friendly or conquered chieftains and on September 25 Balboa and a handful of battered Spaniards (Francisco Pizarro was among them) first saw the Pacific Ocean, which they named the “South Sea.” Balboa waded into the water and claimed the sea for Spain.

Pedrarías Dávila

The Spanish crown, still with some lingering doubt over whether or not Balboa had correctly handled Enciso, sent a massive fleet to Veragua (now named Castilla de Oro) under the command of veteran soldier Pedrarías Dávila. 1,500 men and women flooded the tiny settlement. Dávila had been named governor to replace Balboa, who accepted the change with good humor, although the colonists still preferred him to Dávila. Dávila proved to be a poor administrator, and hundreds of settlers died, mostly those who had sailed with him from Spain. Balboa tried to recruit some men to explore the South Sea without Dávila knowing, but he was found out and arrested.

Vasco and Pedrarías

Santa María had two leaders: officially, Dávila was governor, but Balboa was more popular. They continued to clash until 1517 when it was arranged for Balboa to marry one of Dávila’s daughters. Balboa married María de Peñalosa in spite of one key fact: she was in a convent in Spain at the time and they had to marry by proxy. In fact, she never left the convent. Before long the rivalry flared up again. Balboa left Santa María for the small town of Aclo with 300 of those who still preferred his leadership to that of Dávila. He was successful in establishing a settlement and building some ships.

Death of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa

Fearing the charismatic Balboa as a potential rival, Dávila decided to get rid of him once and for all.

Balboa was arrested by a squad of soldiers led by Francisco Pizarro as he made preparations to explore the Pacific coast of northern South America. He was hauled back to Aclo in chains and quickly tried for treason against the crown: the charge was that he had tried to establish his own independent fiefdom of the South Sea, independent from that of Dávila. Balboa, enraged, shouted out that he was a loyal servant of the crown, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He was beheaded on January 1, 1519 along with four of his companions.

Legacy

Without Balboa, the colony of Santa María quickly failed. Where he had cultivated positive ties with local natives for trade, Dávila enslaved them, resulting in short-term economic profit but long-term disaster for the colony. In 1519 Dávila forcibly moved all of the settlers to the Pacific side of the isthmus, founding Panama City, and by 1524 Santa María had been razed by angry natives.

The legacy of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa is brighter than that of many of his contemporaries. While many conquistadors, such as Pedro de AlvaradoHernán Cortés and Pánfilo de Narvaez are today remembered for cruelty, exploitation and inhuman treatment of natives, Balboa is remembered as an explorer, fair administrator and popular governor who made his settlements work.

As for relations with natives, Balboa was guilty of his share of atrocities, including setting his dogs on homosexual men in one village, but in general, he dealt with his native allies very well, treating them with respect and friendship which translated into beneficial trade and food for his settlements.

Although he and his men were the first to see the Pacific Ocean (at least while heading west from the New World), it would be Ferdinand Magellan who would get the credit for naming it when he rounded the southern tip of South America in 1520.

Balboa is best remembered in Panama, where many streets, businesses, and parks bear his name. There is a stately monument in his honor in Panama City (a district of which bears his name), and the national currency is called the Balboa. There is even a lunar crater named after him.

Source:

Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.