Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–January 15, 1519) was a Spanish explorer, governor, and conquistador. He is best known for having crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean in 1513, becoming the first European to lead an expedition to have seen or reached the Pacific from the New World.
He traveled to the New World in 1500 and, after some exploration, settled on the island of Hispaniola. He founded the settlement of Santa María la Antigua del Darién in present-day Panama in 1510, which was the first permanent European settlement on the mainland of the Americas (a settlement by Alonso de Ojeda the previous year at San Sebastián de Urabá had already been abandoned).
With his share of the earnings from this campaign, Balboa settled in Hispaniola in 1502, where he resided for several years as a planter and pig farmer. However, he was not successful in this enterprise and ended up in debt. Finally, he was forced to abandon life on the island.
In 1508, the king of Spain, Ferdinand II "The Catholic", launched the conquest of Tierra Firme (the area roughly corresponding to the Isthmus of Panama). He created two new territories in the region between El Cabo de la Vela (near the eastern border of Colombia) and El Cabo de Gracias a Dios (the border between Honduras and Nicaragua). The Gulf of Urabá became the border between the two territories: Nueva Andalucía to the east, governed by Alonso de Ojeda, and Veragua to the west, governed by Diego de Nicuesa.
In 1509, wishing to escape his creditors in Santo Domingo, Balboa set sail as a stowaway, hiding inside a barrel together with his dog Leoncico, in the expedition commanded by the Alcalde Mayor of Nueva Andalucía, Martín Fernández de Enciso, whose mission it was to aid Alonso de Ojeda, his superior. De Ojeda, together with seventy men, had founded the settlement of San Sebastián de Urabá in Nueva Andalucía, on the location where the city of Cartagena de Indias would later be built. However, the settlers encountered numerous warlike natives living in the area, who used poisoned weapons, and de Ojeda was injured in the leg. A short time later, de Ojeda sailed for Hispaniola, leaving the colony under the supervision of Francisco Pizarro, who, at that time, was only a soldier waiting for Enciso's expedition to arrive. De Ojeda asked Pizarro to leave some men in the settlement for fifty days and, if no help arrived at the end of that time, to use all possible means to get back to Hispaniola.
Before the expedition arrived at San Sebastián de Urabá, Fernández de Enciso discovered Balboa aboard the ship, and threatened to leave him at the first uninhabited island they encountered; he later thought better of this and decided that Balboa's knowledge of that region, which he had explored eight years before, would be of great utility. This, in addition to the crew's pleas for his life, left Fernández de Enciso with no choice but to spare Balboa and keep him aboard. Moreover, both agreed on removing de Nicuesa as governor of Veragua.
After the fifty days had passed, Pizarro started preparations for the return to Hispaniola, when Enciso's ship arrived. Balboa had gained popularity among the crew because of his charisma and his knowledge of the region. By contrast Fernández de Enciso was not well liked by the men: many disapproved of his order to return to San Sebastián, especially after discovering, once they had arrived, that the settlement had been completely destroyed and that the natives were already waiting for them, leading to a series of relentless attacks.
Cémaco, together with his warriors, abandoned the town and headed for the jungle. The Spanish plundered the houses and gathered a treasure-trove of golden ornaments. Balboa kept his vow, and, in September 1510, founded the first permanent settlement on mainland American soil, and called it Santa María la Antigua del Darién.
Balboa took advantage of the situation, acting as the spokesman for the disgruntled settlers. He removed Fernández de Enciso from the position of alcalde mayor, using the following legal manoeuvre: de Enciso was now controlling an area in Veragua, to the west of the Gulf of Urabá; since he was substituting for Alonso de Ojeda, his mandate was illegitimate, because the governor of Veragua was Diego de Nicuesa, not de Ojeda; therefore, Fernández de Enciso should be deposed and arrested. After de Enciso's ouster, a more open government was established and a municipal council was elected (the first in the Americas). Two alcaldes were appointed: Martín Samudio and Vasco Núñez de Balboa.
Shortly after this, a flotilla led by Rodrigo Enrique de Colmenares arrived in Santa María. His objective was to find de Nicuesa, who was also facing some difficulties in the north of Panamá. When de Colmenares learned about the recent events, he convinced the town's settlers that they should submit to the authority of de Nicuesa, since their land was under his jurisdiction. Enrique de Colmenares invited two representatives, to be named by the local government, to travel with his flotilla and offer de Nicuesa authority over the city. The two representatives were Diego de Albites and Diego del Corral.
A certain Lope de Olano, who was jailed together with other malcontents, persuaded Santa María's representatives that they would make a serious error in handing control over to de Nicuesa, whom he described as cruel, greedy, and able to singlehandedly destroy the city's prosperity. With this evidence, de Albites and del Corral fled to Darién ahead of de Nicuesa and informed Balboa and the municipal authorities of the governor's intentions.
When de Nicuesa arrived at the city's port, a mob appeared, and the ensuing disturbance prevented the governor from disembarking into the city. De Nicuesa insisted on being received, no longer as governor, but as a simple soldier, but still the colonists did not allow him to disembark. He and 17 others were forced to board an unseaworthy boat with few supplies, and were put out to sea on March 1 1511. The ship disappeared, leaving no trace of de Nicuesa and his men. In this way, Balboa became governor (gobernador ) of Veragua.
With the title of governor came absolute authority in Santa María and all of Veragua. One of Balboa's first acts as governor was the trial of Fernández de Enciso, accused of usurping the governor's authority. De Enciso was sentenced to prison and his possessions were confiscated. However, he was to remain imprisoned only for a short time: Balboa set him free under the condition that he return immediately to Hispaniola and from there to Spain. With him on the same ship were two representatives from Balboa, who were to inform the colonial authorities of the situation, and request more men and supplies to continue the conquest of Veragua.
In the meantime, Balboa showed himself to have a conquistador mentality: he set sail for the west, traveling along Panama's Caribbean coastline, defeating various tribes and befriending others, exploring rivers, mountains, and sickly swamps, while always searching for gold and slaves and enlarging his territory. He was also able to quell revolts among those of his men who challenged this authority, and, through force, diplomacy, and negotiation, he earned a certain respect and fear among the natives. In a letter addressed to the King of Spain, he expressed, somewhat ironically, that he had to act as a guide and even open roads by his own hand.
He succeeded in planting corn, received fresh supplies from Hispaniola and Spain, and got his men used to life as explorers in the new territories. Balboa managed to collect a great deal of gold, much of it from the ornaments worn by the native women, and the rest obtained by violence. In 1513, he wrote a lengthy letter to the King of Spain, requesting more men (who were already acclimatized) from Hispaniola, weapons, supplies, carpenters versed in shipbuilding, and all the necessary materials for the building of a shipyard. In a subsequent letter, from 1515, he would refer to his humanitarian policies regarding the natives, while at the same time recommending extreme severity in dealing with cannibals and violent tribes.
At the end of 1512 and the first months of 1513, he arrived in a region dominated by the cacique Careta, whom he easily defeated and then befriended. Careta was baptized and became one of Balboa's chief allies; he ensured the survival of the settlers by promising to supply the Spaniards with food. Balboa then proceeded on his journey, arriving in the lands of Careta's neighbour and rival, cacique Ponca, who fled to the mountains with his people, leaving his village open to the plundering of the Spaniards and Careta's men. Days later, the expedition arrived in the lands of cacique Comagre, fertile but reportedly dangerous terrain. However, Balboa was received peacefully and even invited to a feast in his honor; Comagre, like Careta, was then baptized.
When Balboa first saw the Quarequas many of them were engaging in homosexual acts. An enraged Balboa had them killed by his dogs. Peter Martyr reported the following about the encounter:
"Vasco discovered that the village of Quarequa was stained by the foulest vice. The king's brothers and a number of other courtiers were dressed as women, and according to the accounts of the neighbours shared the same passion. Vasco ordered forty of them to be torn to pieces by dogs. The Spaniards commonly used their dogs in fighting against naked people, and the dogs threw themselves upon them as though they were wild boars or timid deer. The Spaniards found these animals as ready to share their dangers as did the people of Colophon or Bastabara, who trained cohorts of dogs for war; for the dogs were always in the lead and never shirked a fight." (The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin. Pg. 257)
It was in Comagre's lands that Balboa first heard of "the other sea." It started with a squabble among the Spaniards, unsatisfied by the meager amounts of gold they were being allotted. Comagre's eldest son, Panquiaco, angered by the Spaniards' avarice, knocked over the scales used to measure gold and exclaimed: "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". Panquiaco told them of a kingdom to the south, where people were so rich that they ate and drank from plates and goblets made of gold, but that the conquerors would need at least a thousand men to defeat the tribes living inland and those on the coast of "the other sea".
While the expedition to the South Sea was being organized in Santa María, some conquistadores travelled ten leagues (around 30 miles) up the Atrato River toward the interior, but came back empty-handed. Balboa's request for men and supplies had been denied: Enciso's case was by then widely known in the Spanish court. Therefore, Balboa had no choice but to carry out his expedition with the few resources that he had on hand in Santa María.
Using information given by various friendly caciques, Balboa started his journey across the Isthmus of Panama on September 1, 1513, together with 190 Spaniards, a few native guides, and a pack of dogs. Using a small brigantine and ten native canoes, they sailed along the coast and made landfall in cacique Careta's territory. On September 6, the expedition continued, now reinforced with 1,000 of Careta's men, and entered cacique Ponca's land. Ponca had reorganized and attacked, but he was defeated and forced to ally himself with Balboa. After a few days, and with several of Ponca's men, the expedition entered the dense jungle on September 20, and, with some difficulty, arrived four days later in the lands of cacique Torecha, who ruled in the village of Cuarecuá. In this village, a fierce battle took place, during which Torecha was defeated and killed in battle. His followers decided to join the expedition. However, the group was by then exhausted and several men were badly wounded, so many decided to stay in Cuarecuá to regain their strength.
The few men that continued the journey with Balboa entered the mountain range along the Chucunaque River the next day. According to information from the natives, the South Sea could be seen from the summit of this range. Balboa went ahead and, before noon that day, September 25, he reached the summit and saw, far away in the horizon, the waters of the undiscovered sea. The emotions were such that the others eagerly joined in to show their joy at Balboa's discovery. Andrés de Vera, the expedition's chaplain, intoned the Te Deum, while the men erected stone pyramids, and engraved crosses on the barks of trees with their swords, to mark the place where the discovery of the South Sea was made.
After traveling more than , Balboa named the bay where they ended up San Miguel, because they arrived on September 29, the feast day of the archangel Michael. He named the new sea Mar del Sur, since they had traveled south to reach it.
Balboa's main purpose in the expedition was the search for the gold-rich kingdoms promised by Panquiaco. To this end, he crossed through the lands of caciques Coquera and Tumaco, defeating them easily and taking their riches of gold and pearls. He then learned that pearls were abundant in the islands ruled by Terarequí, a powerful and feared cacique. Balboa set out in several canoes towards these islands, even though it was the beginning of October and the weather conditions were not favorable. He was barely able to make out the islands, and named the largest one Isla Rica (Rich Island, today known as Isla del Rey). He named the entire group Archipiélago de las Perlas, which they are still called today.
In November, Balboa decided to return to Santa María but by a different route in order to further expand his territory and procure more gold. He passed through the regions of Teoca, Pacra, Bugue Bugue, Bononaima, and Chorizo, defeating some by force and befriending others through diplomacy. A particularly bloody battle took place against the cacique Tubanamá, whom Balboa eventually defeated. In December, the expedition arrived back in the Caribbean coast, by the Gulf of San Blas, a strip of land ruled by cacique Pocorosa. From there, he headed to the lands of Comagre, to find that his elderly ally had died. His son, Panquiaco, was now the new chieftain.
From there, he crossed the lands of Ponca and Careta, to finally arrive in Santa María on January 19, 1514, with a treasure in cotton goods, more than 100,000 castellanos worth of gold, to say nothing of the pearls. All this, however, did not compare to the magnitude of the discovery of the South Sea on behalf of Spain. Balboa commanded Pedro de Arbolancha to set sail for Spain with news of this discovery. He also sent one fifth of the treasure to the king, as the law required.
Pedrarias was accompanied on this expedition by Gaspar de Espinosa, who held the office of alcalde mayor; the very same Martín Fernández de Enciso whom Balboa had forced into exile, now as Chief Constable (Alguacil Mayor) ; the royal officer and chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo; as well as several captains, among them Juan de Ayora, Pedrarias' lieutenant. There were also several clerics, most notably the Franciscan friar Juan de Quevedo, appointed bishop of Santa María. There were also women among the travellers, among them Isabel de Bobadilla, Pedrarias' wife. More than 500 men died from starvation or due to the inclemencies of the weather soon after reaching Darién. Fernández de Oviedo was to note that knights covered in silk and brocade, who distinguished themselves valiantly in the Italian Wars, would die, consumed by hunger and fever, due to the nature of the tropical jungle.
Balboa received Pedrarias and his representatives in July 1514 and accepted resignedly his replacement as governor and mayor. The settlers, however, did not like the change and some were planning to take up arms against Pedrarias, even as Balboa showed respect to the new colonial authorities.
As soon as Pedrarias took charge, Gaspar de Espinosa had Balboa arrested and tried "in absentia", sentencing him to pay reparations to Fernández de Enciso and others. He was, however, found innocent of the charge of murdering de Nicuesa, so he was freed shortly afterwards.
Due to overpopulation in Santa María, Pedrarias called on several expeditionaries to search for new locations fit for settlement. Balboa requested of Pedrarias that he be allowed to explore the Dabaibe region, along the Atrato river, for there was a rumour of the existence of a temple filled with vast riches there. However, this expedition turned out to be a failure, leaving Balboa wounded due to constant attacks by the region's natives.
This setback, however, did not deter Balboa's ambitions of returning to explore the South Sea. Secretly, he arranged to recruit a contingent of men from Cuba. The ship carrying them berthed just outside Santa María, and its caretaker informed Balboa of their arrival, receiving in return 70 gold castellanos. Pedrarias, however, soon found out about the ship; furious, he had Balboa arrested, took away all his men and was planning to lock him up in a wooden cage. He was held back from doing this by Bishop de Quevedo, who appealed to him not to abuse his power on Balboa.
Luckily for Balboa, around that time the Spanish Crown would finally recognize his valuable services. The king bestowed on him the titles of "Adelantado of the South Seas" and "Gobernador of Panama and Coiba". On top of this, the King instructed Pedrarias to show Balboa the greatest respect and to consult him on all matters pertaining the conquest and government of Castilla de Oro. Because of all this, Pedrarias was to release and exonerate Balboa, lifting all charges brought up against him in the matter of the clandestine recruitment of an expeditionary party.
Balboa wished to continue exploring the South Sea, but Pedrarias did everything possible to delay his departure. However, in light of the new relationship between them, Pedrarias could not stop him indefinitely, and he finally consented to let Balboa go on his new expedition, giving him license to explore for a year and a half.
So, between 1517 and 1518, Balboa moved to Acla with 300 men and, using the manpower of the natives and African slaves, managed to gather the materials necessary to fashion new ships. He traveled up to the Balsas river, where he had four ships built. He travelled through the Pacific, surrounding the Pearl Islands and the coasts of Darién, up to Puerto Piñas, so named because of the large amounts of pineapples (piñas) he found there. He then returned to Acla, to continue the construction of sturdier ships.
However, on his return, Pedrarias wrote warm letters urging Balboa to meet him as soon as possible. Balboa quickly obeyed. Halfway to Santa María, he encountered a group of soldiers commanded by Francisco Pizarro, who arrested him in the name of the governor and accused him of trying to usurp Pedrarias' power and create a separate government in the South Sea. Outraged, Balboa denied all charges and demanded that he be taken to Spain to stand trial; Pedrarias, however, together with Martin Enciso, ordered that the trial take place without delay.
Balboa's trial began in January 1519, and on the fifteenth of that month, de Espinosa sentenced him to death by decapitation. Four of Balboa's friends, Fernando de Argüello, Luis Botello, Hernán Muñoz, and Andrés Valderrábano, accused as accomplices, were sentenced to the same fate. The sentence was to be carried out in Acla, to show that the conspiracy had its roots in that colony.
As Balboa and his friends were being led to the block, the town crier announced: "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 could not restrain his indignation and replied: "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." Pedrarias observed the execution, hidden behind a platform. The executioner beheaded Balboa and his four friends with an axe. Balboa's head did not come off clean on the first try; it took three. Their heads remained in public display for several days, as a sign of Pedrarias' might.
The final location of Balboa's remains is unknown, partly because there is no record of what happened in Acla after the execution.
Thus, it was Gaspar de Espinosa, Pedrarias' underling, who sailed the South Sea aboard the very ships that Balboa had commissioned. In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan renamed the sea the Pacific Ocean because of its calm waters.
The highest order granted by the Panamanian government to distinguished and outstanding figures, foreign and domestic, is the Orden Vasco Núñez de Balboa, in various degrees, as established by Law 27 from 28 January 1933.