1902 Encyclopedia > Vasco Núñez de Balboa

Vasco Núñez de Balboa
Spanish conquistador
(c. 1475 - c. 1519)

VASCO NUNEZ DE BALBOA, one of the bravest and most successful of the Spanish discoverers of America, was born at Xeres de los Caballeros, in Estremadura, about the year 1475. He was by birth a hidalgo, or gentleman, but was in poor circumstances. Little is known of his life till the year 1501, when he was one of the company of adventurers who followed Eoderigo de Bastidas in his voyage of discovery to the western seas. He appears to have settled in Hispaniola, and took to cultivating land in the neighbourhood of Salvatierra, but with no great success, as his debts soon became oppressive. In 1509 the famous Ojeda sailed from San Domingo with an expedition, and founded the settlement of San Sebastian. He had left orders with Enciso, an adventurous lawyer of the town, to fit out two ships and convey provisions to the new settlement. Enciso set sail in 1510, and Balboa, whose debts made the town unpleasant to him, managed to accompany him, by concealing himself in a cask which was conveyed from his farm to the ship as if containing provisions. The expedition, after various adventures, reached San Sebastian to find Ojeda gone and the settlement in ruins. While Enciso was undecided how to act, Vasco Nunez proposed that they should sail for Darien, on the Gulf of Uraba, where he had touched when with Bastidas. His proposal was at once accepted, and carried out. The new town was named Sta Maria de la Antigua del Darien. Bitter quarrels soon broke out among the adventurers, caused chiefly by Enciso prohibiting all private interchange for gold with the natives. Enciso was deposed from the office of authority which he had assumed, but it was found no easy matter to elect a successor. Nicuesa, in whose province they were, was proposed by several, and was brought from Nombre de Dios by a ship which had been sent out to bring assistance to him. The inhabitants of Darien, however, would not receive him, and, in their wrath, seized him and placed him, with seventeen companions, in a crazy bark with which to find his way back to Hispaniola. The party of Vasco Nunez grew strong; Enciso was thrown into prison, and finally sent off to Spain along with Vasco's ally, the alcalde Zamudio. Being thus left in authority, Balboa began to make excursions into the surrounding country, and by his bravery and conciliatory manners gained the friendship of several native chiefs. On one of these excursions he heard for the first time of the great ocean that lay on the other side of the mountains, and of the wondrous land of gold, afterwards called Peru. Soon after his return to Darien he received letters from Zamudio, informing him that Enciso had complained to the king, and had obtained a sentence condemning Balboa and summoning him to Spain. In his despair at this message Vasco resolved to attempt some great enterprise, the success of which he trusted would conciliate his sovereign. On the 1st September 1513, he set out with about 190 men, well armed, and sailed to Coyba, where he left half his forces to guard the canoes and ships. With the remainder he started on his perilous journey across the isthmus. On the 26th September they reached the summit of the range of mountains, and the glorious expanse of the Pacific was displayed to them. Three days later, they began to descend the mountains on the western side, and Vasco, arriving at the seashore, formally took possession of the ocean in the name of the Spanish monarch. He remained on the coast for some time, heard again of Peru, had the Pearl Islands pointed out to him, and set out for Darien. On the 18th January 1514 he reached the town, and was received with the utmost joy. He at once sent messengers to Spain bearing presents, to give an account of his discoveries ; but, unfortunately, these did not arrive till an expedition had sailed from Spain, under Don Pedro Arias de Avila (generally called Pedrarias, or Davila), to replace Vasco Nunez, and to take possession of the colony. Eor some time after Pedrarias reached Darien Vasco was in great straits, but at length letters came from the king, announcing to him his satisfaction with his exploits, and naming him Adelantado, or admiral. Pedrarias was prevailed upon to be reconciled with Vasco, and gave him one of his daughters in marriage. Vasco then resolved to accomplish his grand project of exploring the western sea. With infinite labour materials for building ships were conveyed across the isthmus, and two brigantines were constructed. With these the adventurers took possession of the Pearl Islands, and, had it not been for the weather, would have reached the coast of Peru. This career of discovery was stopped by the jealousy of Pedrarias, who feared that Balboa would throw off his allegiance, and who enticed him to Acla by a crafty message. As soon as he had him in his power, he threw him into prison, had him tried for treason, and forced the judge to condemn him to death. The sentence, to the grief of all the inhabitants, was carried into execution on the public square of Acla in 1517.

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