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Sailing on a silver sea
Thursday, August 31, 2023 @ 8:09 AM

Balboa’s luck seemed to have run out, but fate stepped in to give him a last reprieve. The colony’s newly appointed, Bishop de Quevedo, intervened and cautioned Pedrarias about abusing his power. The church still had considerable authority here in this far-flung outpost, and a reluctant Pedrarias moderated the harsh treatment he had planned for Balboa.

Pedrarias must have been furious, but worse was to follow for the governor. If Balboa had a guardian angel she must have been working overtime in Spain.

King Ferdinand died in January 1516, and whether it was a last wish of the king, or a decree from King Charles I, his successor, I am not sure, but shortly after his incarceration came notification for Pedrarias to show Balboa the greatest respect and from now on to consult him on all matters pertaining to the conquest and government of Castilla de Oro. This must have been hard enough to swallow, but worse was to come. For his valuable services to Spain, the king bestowed on Balboa the titles of "Adelantado de los mares del sur" and "Gobernador de Panama and Coiba". This, of course, meant that Pedrarias had to immediately release Balboa and his men.

In an attempt to dispel the rivalry between the two men, and what has to be said is a bizarre solution to the problem, the Bishop and Isabel de Bobadilla arranged for Balboa to be married to one of Pedrarias’ daughters. However, she lived in Spain and had no intention of moving to the colony. It was to be a marriage of convenience and proxy and arranged by the bishop, and for a while it worked. Balboa learned to show respect and affection toward his father-in-law, but there was still that cruel, distrustful streak in Pedrarias that had earned him his evil reputation. The Bishop de Quevedo returned to Spain, but Isabel de Bobadilla was to become a woman of considerable power and respect in the future of Spanish exploration and influence in the Caribbean.

In Spain, the new discoveries were exciting the already rich and powerful nobility. The marriages that Isabel and Ferdinand had arranged for their children were paying great dividends in the powerful royal families of Europe. Even without the New World discoveries, Spain was on a trajectory would make it one of the most powerful nations in the world.

Balboa’s fascination with the South Sea continued to occupy him, and despite Pedrarias hindering every attempt by Balboa to organise a new expedition, he finally agreed to give him an 18-month licence to explore the southern sea.

Balboa gathered the carpenters and shipbuilders that he wanted for building new ships on the other ocean. He employed native guides and warriors for defence, and took along African slaves as porters.  The small army of 300 that Balboa had gathered sailed up the coast to establish a staging post which they named Acla.  From there they crossed the isthmus and arrived at the mouth of the Rio Balsas where they began the construction of four ships. Once the ships were finished and tested, Balboa took the flotilla out into the southern sea. He sailed south along the coast of what is now Darien and then explored further west around what is now the Isla del Rey, finally sailing back to the coast north of his starting point and following the coast south and returned to the Rio Balsa with the intention of building bigger boats.

On his return, he was given letters from his father-in-law which warmly expressed a desire to hear all about his voyage first-hand. Balboa set off back across the isthmus, but half-way met his old companion, Francisco Pizarro.

There was no welcome however. Pizarro was under orders to arrest Balboa for trying to usurp Pedrarias’ power as governor by starting a rival colony at Acla. Balboa was outraged that such an accusation should be made. He had asked and been granted permission from his father-in-law before he set off. He demanded that he be tried in Spain, but Pedrarias together with Martin Enciso forced through the trial and Balboa, Fernando de Argüello, Luis Botello, Hernán Muñoz, and Andrés Valderrábano were accused as accomplices and were sentenced to death by decapitation. The sentence was to be carried out in Acla, to show that the conspiracy had its roots in that colony.

As the men were led to the block the town crier read out the charges and to emphasise the governor’s power he added, "This is the justice that the King and his lieutenant Pedro Arias de Ávila impose upon these men, traitors and usurpers of the Crown's territories."

Balboa shouted his plea of innocence to the crowd.

"Lies, lies! Never have such crimes held a place in my heart. I have always loyally served the King, with no thought in my mind but to increase his dominions."

They were to be his last words. The executioner beheaded them all one-after another other with an axe. Pedrarias seemingly watched the executions from behind a platform and out of sight of the crowd in case there was a rebellion.  Their heads were put on public display as a sign of his power.

 Monument to Balboa in Darian. Photo:Chico

In the years that followed, Acla fell into disuse and the jungle reclaimed the site of the settlement. Pedrarias also disappeared from history except for being noted as a cruel evil governor of a tiny settlement. Balboa, however is remembered as the man who discovered what a later explorer would name the Pacific Ocean.

With corruption, betrayal and the lust for power and gold firmly established in the New World, Spain was about to have another lucky break that would eventually make it a truly world encompassing sea power. The King of Portugal was discouraging all exploration of the New World for fear that it would upset his monopoly on gold and spice trade with the far-east. This was to incite some of his more adventurous explorers to leave Portugal and move to Spain. Balboa’s discovery of a new ocean had revitalised an old dream that had died with Columbus; a westerly passage to China and the far-east.


The area of Balboa’s settlement at Santa Maria is now a part of the province of Darien. It is also the location of the infamous Darian Gap. Europe has a huge problem of dispossessed refugees from corruption, war and dictators. Central America has the same problem.  The gap gained its name from the gap in the Trans America Highway which runs from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. This 60 mile gap in the highway has claimed the lives of thousands of refugees fleeing the oppression and exploitation of the drug barons and corrupt politicians in South America.

In 1972 a team of British explorers led by Colonel John Blashford -Snell attempted the first vehicle crossing of the Darian Gap in two Range Rovers. Blashford -Snell has led over a hundred expeditions all over the world, but the Darian Gap proved to be one expedition too far. The expedition took several months to cover the 60 miles during which the 11 of the Columbian army support group who accompanied the expedition were killed and 50% of the rest of the team evacuated as medical casualties. There is still no permanent road across the Darian Gap.

Photo: Ass Press

The only connecting links are dirt tracks through the expanse between Columbia and Panama. The surrounding countryside is made up of some of the most dangerous and difficult terrain on the planet, with vast swamps and steep mountains covered in dense impenetrable rainforest. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of refugee families each year attempt the crossing in their desperation to find a better life. Not only do they face the daunting terrain, but the indigenous fauna. Several breeds of poisonous snakes and pumas prowl the jungle. To add to this are the local gangsters who charge a high price for safe passage through their territories. One of them, The Gulf Clan, a Columbian paramilitary group, have established a transit camp at Las Tekas in Columbia to “process” the migrants who pay them huge amounts to allow them to make the crossing under the supervision of their “coyotes” or guides. The ten day journey takes a heavy toll on the refugees who are often carrying children. Rape, robbery and sexual trafficking are additional extras the may have to suffer. Many die on the way.

Jean Gough, regional director of Latin America and the Caribbean UNICEF said in an October 2021 news release: “Week after week more children are dying or losing their parents, or being separated from their relatives whilst on this perilous journey.” UNICEF estimates that half the children who crossed in 2022 were under five and at least five hundred were unaccompanied. UNICEF records that 36 people died trying to cross in 2022, but the figure is likely to be much higher.  

According to Panamanian migration officials 88,000 people have made the crossing in 2022 and the number is expected to rise to 400,000 in 2024. Armed bandits who are trying to take over Haiti are causing thousands of displaced refugees to flee to the US where they are hoping they can claim asylum.  The Panamanian authorities and international aid organisations have set up camps on their side of the gap, but the numbers arriving have quickly swamped their facilities.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti many of Haitians fled to South America where they faced persecution.  In 2021, 61% of those crossing the gap were from Haiti, but now the bigger percentage is from Venezuela as humanitarian conditions in their own country deteriorate. Ninety-five percent of the population of Venezuelans live in poverty with 76% of them in extreme poverty and in 2022, 2.5 million Venezuelans registered for temporary protection status in Columbia with Brazil granting 345,300 residency permits to Venezuelan refugees.

It is easy to speculate that if the Spain of 1520 had chosen the leaders of its new colonies more carefully, then this circle of corruption and violence might never have got started.

In a book called Why Nations Fail, written by Darren Acemoglu and James A Robinson, the authors suggest that rule by conquest and subjugation set the standard for how all South America would be governed. The primary Spanish aim of expeditions into the interior was the extraction of gold. To this end, the invaders seized the chiefs and kings of the territories and held them to ransom, demanding gold be delivered for their release. They were often tortured to death to extract all the gold in their kingdoms.

These were the tactics of Pizarro when he conquered Peru, when he: “Set out with every intention of imitating the strategy and tactics of his fellow adventurers in other parts of the New World”. Spain went on to create a web of institutions to exploit the indigenous people and force their living standards down to subsistence levels. This turned Latin America into the most unequal continent in the world.

The same thing was tried when England set up its first colony in the New World. England was a late starter, and it was only when Elizabeth’s navy had defeated the Spanish Armada in1588 in a very lucky series of battles off the south coast of England that England could dare to challenge the Spanish control of the Atlantic. Eager to grab a slice of the action in the New World, the English founded the colony of Jamestown in 1607. The English chose North America because it was all that was left; Spain controlled all the rest of the Americas. The British had exactly the same game-plan as the Spanish, which was to conquer and exploit the natives. They had no idea that they had picked the worst place possible to start their conquest. Twenty miles from Jamestown was the camp of Wahunsonacock, a chief who controlled a small empire of 30 tribes. Leaving aside the story of Pocahontas and John Smith, the colony ran into serious difficulties. The natives would not co-operate and give them food, and the colony began to starve, culminating in the winter of 1609. Out of 500 settlers only 60 survived the winter.  After that, the Virginia Company, which had funded the entire enterprise, realised that to encourage new settlers (and some profits) they would have to do things differently.

It took nine years for the company to realize that treating the settlers as slaves would not work. They were given their own land and freed from their crippling contract with the company. After that, the settlers fought to remove all the controls that the British tried to force onto them. In 1619, a General Assembly was introduced which gave all men a say in the laws and institutions which governed the colony. This was the start of democracy in what was to become The United States of America.


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