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A whole new world
Thursday, August 24, 2023 @ 8:25 AM

In the space of three years, Vasco Núñez de Balboa had come from being a bankrupt stowaway to the governor of the only settlement on the American mainland after ousting the two governors appointed by the King of Spain. He had performed this minor miracle whilst living in the most inhospitable jungle and facing ferocious natives; but Balboa was just getting started.

In late 1512 he entered the territory of the cacique Careta who rallied his warriors to defend their lands. He defeated the chief, but later befriended him.  Subsequently, he converted him to Christianity and had him baptized. From then on, Careta became one of his best native allies and gave the Spaniards food to help sustain the colony. Careta might have had an ulterior motive, because he and his tribe had an enemy in the nearby villages of the cacique Ponca, and Balboa and Careta unified their forces and attacked Ponca’s villages. Overcome by this overwhelming force, Ponca and the remains of his tribe fled into the jungle leaving their village to be plundered.  Balboa’s new army moved on to the tribal territory of Cogmore, another cacique. This time there was no battle and they were welcomed by Cogmore who organised a feast in their honour. Later, he also agreed to be baptized.

Wherever the Spaniards went, their preoccupation for gold was noted by the natives. In a society where gold was just an easily worked ornamental metal that had no other value, this obsession must have seemed very strange. Balboa’s men were complaining about the meagre amounts of gold that they were being allocated as their reward for living in such a hostile environment. It was during one of these periodical share-outs of the gold booty that a squabble broke out amongst the Spaniards. The eldest son of Cogmore, Panquiaco, was watching and he stepped forward and knocked over the scales used to measure each man’s share.

He shouted to the Spaniards: "If you are so hungry for gold that you leave your lands to cause strife in those of others, I shall show you a province where you can quell this hunger.” He told them of a kingdom to the south where people ate their food from plates of gold and drank from golden goblets. The Spaniards, who had now fallen silent, listened as Panquiaco warned them that they would need at least a thousand men to defeat the tribes living inland and those on the coast of the other sea.

Balboa was told of this outburst and, like one of his hunting dogs, his ears pricked up at the promise of so much gold. He was also intrigued by Panquiaco’s reference to the “other sea”. He decided to mount an expedition to explore inland. Balboa had taken note of the need for a stronger force to overcome these other tribes and in 1513 wrote a letter to the King of Spain asking for more men who were already acclimatised to the tropical heat. Ideally they should be from Hispaniola. He also requested that he be supplied with provisions, weapons and carpenters who were versed in the building of ships. His ambitious plan was to find the source of all this promised gold as well as this curious “other sea” and build a shipyard there to explore it. In early 1513 he returned to Hispaniola to recruit more men. Unfortunately, Fernández de Enciso, one of the appointed administrators that Balboa had ousted, had spread the word that Balboa was an illegal usurper of the title of governor. He was told that there would be no further assistance from Hispaniola for his expedition.

Undaunted, Balboa dispatched his friend, Enrique de Colmenares, directly to Spain to plead his case with the king, but news Balboa’s take-over had reached the Spanish courts and he was denied assistance. He returned to Santa Maria empty handed and decided to mount an expedition with the meagre forces that he had in the settlement. After gathering information from the friendly native chiefs he began planning the route of his expedition.  Whilst he had been waiting in Hispaniola for a reply to his letter to the king, another expedition from Santa Maria had made an attempt to follow the Rio Atrato, but after 30 miles they saw no tracks or villages and returned. There was no easy way to penetrate inland; every mile would have to be cut through a dense and often boggy jungle. Only native guides who knew the land would be able to lead Balboa through to the “other sea”. On September 1, 1513 Balboa set off from Santa Maria aboard a brigantine leading a small flotilla of 10 native canoes. In total there were around 190 Spaniards plus Balboa’s secret weapon, a pack of his hunting dogs. He also had a military contingent under the command of none other than Francisco Pizarro. They sailed up the coast to the village of the cacique, Careta, who joined him with 1,000 warriors to enter the lands of his old enemy, Ponca. After following the Rio Chucunaque they found him and his warriors on September 6 and immediately attacked.

Ponca had regrouped his villagers but the battle was a forgone conclusion and Ponca surrendered. The terms were not unjust and he agreed to ally himself with Balboa and Careta. By September 20, the force was ready to move inland again, this time against the next cacique, Torecha, who ruled in the village of Cuarecuá. It took four days of hard cutting through the jungle to reach the village and Torecha was ready for them. He met the Spaniards in force and a fierce battle ensued which only ended when one of Balboa’s hunting dogs killed Torecha. Faced with no alternative, Torecha’s tribe agreed to join Balboa’s army. By now Balboa had many wounded men and all were weary from the hard passage through the jungle.  His men decided to camp in the village to recover their strength.

Balboa, however, gathered a small contingent of men who were eager to continue the next day.  The natives that he had questioned had told him that he would be able to see the “other sea” from the range of mountains immediately in front of them and less than a day’s climb away. Balboa made better headway than the others, no doubt wishing to claim to be the first to see the “other sea”.  He was rewarded just before noon on September 25, 1513 when he reached the crest of a hill and saw in the distance what would later be called the Pacific Ocean. As one-by-one the others caught up, they were awed at the sight, and Andrés de Vera, the expedition's chaplain, intoned the Te Deum. Meanwhile, others erected stone pyramids and carved crosses into the bark of nearby trees to mark the site of the discovery.

Picture: Alan Pearson

I think that Balboa had grasped the significance of the “other sea” immediately. All the expeditions from Spain, including the first one by Columbus, had one overriding motive; to find a westerly trade route with China and the orient, and here it was. Balboa had been incredibly fortunate. From Cabo Gracias a Dios at the northern end of Veragua it would have been a 400mile trek through the most inhospitable jungle in the world to reach the Pacific. Similarly, from Cabo de la Vela in Nueva Andalucía it was a journey of around 500 miles and a crossing of the northern end of the Andes before you could reach the Pacific. But here, so close to the first settlement, was a crossing of only 60 miles to the gateway to the Orient.  It would not have been an unreasonable task to drive a track through the jungle and establish a port on the western side of the isthmus and from there sail across to China.  This, in fact, is what Balboa had proposed to do when he wrote to the king asking for carpenters and shipbuilders.

(Starting in 1532 the looted gold from the Inca Empire was ferried up the western coast of South America and brought to Panama where it was loaded onto mule trains which crossed the isthmus along the Camino Real to Nombre de Dios. Here it was loaded onto ships which took it directly to Seville. By 1572 the Incas were conquered, and the flow of gold to Spain was at its height. A fact that had not gone unnoticed by an enterprising English sailor called Francis Drake, who in 1573 made a very famous and daring raid on one of the mule trains. He made off with enough gold from the 190 mule-long train to equip his ship, the Pelican, for a circumnavigation of the world. He also greatly impressed his queen, Elizabeth I.  But that’s another story.)

Balboa returned to Santa Maria knowing that he was sitting on a veritable gold mine, making his situation very dangerous. Many of the high-born Spanish officials were reluctant to risk their lives in jungles full of hostile natives, but once it was civilised and safe, they could use their wealth and power to move in and take over. He had made plenty of enemies in his rise to power. Fernández de Enciso, whom Balboa had sent packing, had been busy in the royal court maligning Balboa and reporting the mysterious disappearance of Diego de Nicuesa, the old governor of Veragua.

The king decided to appoint Pedro Arias de Ávila as governor of the newly-created province of Castilla de Oro. He was to be the new governor of Veragua and he set off from Spain at the head of the largest fleet ever to sail to the New World. Seventeen ships and 1,500 men were to land at Santa Maria and take control of the colony. Martín Fernández de Enciso, returned as Alguacil Mayor, the Chief Constable of the colony. Franciscan friar Juan de Quevedo was appointed bishop of Santa Maria and Gaspar de Espinosa was to be the Alcalde. Also, there was to be a royal chronicler, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés. There was to be no official post for Balboa.

They arrived in Santa Maria in July 1514 and the New World had prepared a welcome celebration of its own for the new arrivals. Several storms battered the colony, and the crops that had supported the colonists so far were not sufficient to support the newly enlarged population.  Balboa had wisely requested troops who were acclimatised to tropical conditions, but the newcomers were decimated by hunger fever and disease, and 500 men were lost within the first few months after landing in Santa Maria.

Balboa was magnanimous in defeat, and resignedly accepted his replacement as governor and mayor, but the settlers did not. Their new governor, Pedro Arias de Ávila, better known later as Pedrarias Dávila, would become known throughout the colonies as a brutal, cruel tyrant. They were preparing to start an insurrection when Pedriarias had Balboa arrested and ordered him to pay reparations to Fernández de Enciso. There was also a murder charge brought against him concerning the disappearance of Nicuesa, but he was found innocent and released. Despite the early fatalities amongst the new arrivals the small colony was still overpopulated, and Balboa asked for permission to search for a location for a new settlement to ease the overcrowding.  This got him out from under the heel of Pedrarias for a while, but during an attack by the natives he was wounded and forced to return to recover. His subservience to Pedriarias, whose malice was unchecked by any higher authority, must have been misery for Balboa after all that he had achieved. In desperation, he sent word to Cuba that he was going to recruit men to cross the isthmus and set up a small shipyard in the Southern Ocean away from the stifling influence of Pedriarias. The ship carrying his recruits made landfall along the coast from Santa Maria and he joined them with every intention of leading them inland. Somebody betrayed him to Pedriarias, and before they could set off, the governor sent troops and had them all arrested. A furious Pedriarias ordered Balboa to be locked within a wooden cage. Balboa’s future was looking pretty bleak.


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