Vasco Núñez de Balboa, born in 1475 in either Badajoz or Jerez de los Caballeros, was a Spanish conquistador who founded the colony of Darién in Panama, the oldest still-existing European settlement in the mainland of the Americas. He was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean, which he named Mar del Sur, or South Sea.
Balboa sailed to Hispaniola in 1501 on an expedition under Rodrigo de Bastidas and Juan de la Cosa. During the voyage, they crossed the Gulf of Urabá (on the coast of present-day Colombia), and saw the Native American village of Darién in present-day Panama.
In Hispaniola, Balboa settled down as a planter. However, he soon amassed a large amount of debt, and to escape from his creditors it is widely believed that he stowed away on a supply ship headed for San Sebastián on the Gulf of Uraiba, hidden in a cask with his beloved pet dog. The ship was commanded by Martín Fernández de Enciso.
On the way they met Francisco Pizarro (the later conqueror of Peru), leader of the colony in San Sebastián, who told them almost all members of the colony had been massacred by the local people. Enciso nevertheless decided to go on to San Sebastián.
The ship was wrecked and the men were rescued by Pizarro, but all supplies and livestock were lost. Upon reaching the colony they found it, as they had been correctly informed earlier, in ashes. Balboa, by now accepted as a crew member of Enciso’s, convinced them to try again in the area around Darién.
Upon arrival they subdued the local population, started a colony and built a village. Balboa made the colonists reject both Enciso’s authority and, later, that of Diego de Nicuesa, sent to Darién as governor after Enciso had sought redress with King Ferdinand.
Balboa became de facto governor of the colony and both the colony and Balboa himself thrived under his policies. He either made friends with surrounding peoples or, if they didn’t want to, he subdued them and looted their properties.
Balboa had heard of a great sea on the other side of the mountains and a land of great wealth, Birú. This turned out to be Tahuantinsuyu (the Inca Empire) to the south of this sea. He also heard that the king wanted to send him back to be tried for his conduct towards Enciso and Nicuesa, so he decided that the most prudent course of action was to move on….and fast.
On September 1, 1513, he sailed to San Blas. This turned out to be a fortuitous choice as it just happens to be the smallest point of the isthmus. From there he travelled south across the isthmus. As was his way, he befriended the locals who were so inclined, and captured, tortured and looted those that remained hostile, thus gaining substantial treasure.
Finally he reached a top from where he could see the Pacific Ocean. When the others had joined him a Te Deum was chanted, a cross erected, and the sea was christened Mar del Sur (South Sea). He pushed on to the edge of the ocean, and Balboa claimed the ocean and all adjacent lands for Spain.
On the return journey they captured a Native American chief called Tubanama and received a huge ransom in return for his release. On January 18, 1514, Balboa was back in Darién.
In his absence, Pedro Arias de Ávila (generally known as Pedrarias) had been sent to Darién as a governor. Although Balboa did not oppose him openly, tension between them remained, Pedrarias envious because Balboa was much more popular than himself.
To mask his sinister plans, Pedrarius gave his daughter in marriage to Balboa and invested him with several titles, such as Adelantado of the South Sea and Governor of Coyba. These were quickly rendered ’empty’ titles by Pedrarius and his agents but Balboa, inexperienced in the fine art of intrigue, remained blissfully unaware.
Balboa then embarked on a new, courageous expedition, building ships on the Pacific coast. The transport of the materials across the isthmus cost the lives of many native slaves. Balboa made one expedition with the ships, to the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama. He tried to head south from there, but found the winds unfavorable.
The highly influential Quevedo, Bishop of Castilla del Oro, was Balboa’s long time and sincere friend, intervening and assisting him on many an occasion and was probably instrumental in keeping the ‘wolves’ at bay. Quevedo’s departure for Spain, however, changed the situation.
Pedrarius, fearful that the bishop might exert influence in Spain on behalf of his friend, Pedrarius, under the pretext that Balboa wanted to establish a government of his own on the west coast, had him arrested and tried for treason. Balboa was convicted and hastily sentenced to death. He was beheaded on January 21, 1519.