A wild surmise: Vasco Núñez de Balboa

James Ferguson recalls the fateful day, five hundred years ago, when the conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa set eyes on the Pacific

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

Few moments in history can have been more evocatively captured. On 25 September, 1513, a Spanish conquistador gazed in wonder from a jungle-clad mountain on the Isthmus of Panama at the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Behind him lay the Caribbean Sea, an arduous twenty days’ march away. In front of him was an ocean that no European had ever seen from its eastern shore before. On that day, five hundred years ago, the Western understanding of the world was changed forever.

It was the Romantic poet John Keats who, in his “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, imagined the wonder and solemnity of the moment:

. . . like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats’s sonnet is perfect in its mastery of metre and rhyme. It suggests the mix of exultation and trepidation that must have overcome the explorers, and hints at the rapacious and pitiless nature of the Spanish conquest. Its single flaw is that Hernán Cortés (or Cortez) was not present at the first European sighting of the Pacific — he was in Cuba at the time — and only explored Mexico’s Pacific coast some time later.

The man whose misfortune it was to be replaced by Cortés (perhaps because Keats muddled up his conquistadors, or perhaps because the poet chose the better-known adventurer for poetic or dramatic effect) was Vasco Núñez de Balboa. It was, in fact, just one of the many misfortunes to be suffered by this quixotic character whose life — and death — reflected the savagery and cruelty of the early Spanish empire.

Like many of the conquistadors, Balboa was born in humble circumstances, an hidalgo (nobleman), but a poor one from the impoverished Extremadura region of Spain. His precise date of birth is not known, but in 1500, when he was about twenty-five, he enlisted to join one of the Spanish expeditions sent in the wake of Columbus’s 1492 voyage to consolidate Spanish settlement in the Caribbean and send back gold. The expedition along the Caribbean coast of present-day Panama and Colombia apparently earned Balboa enough money for him to set up a pig farm on the island of Hispaniola, then Spain’s main colony.

A Spanish nobleman does not necessarily make a good pig farmer, and Balboa’s business foundered. Deep in debt, he needed to escape Hispaniola and his creditors, and so again joined an expedition, this time to support the new Spanish settlement of San Sebastián de Urabá (near present-day Cartagena in Colombia). Legend has it that the impecunious Balboa hid — with his faithful dog Leoncico — in an empty barrel that was carried onto the ship. The ruse worked, but in due course they were discovered, and the expedition leader, Martín Fernández de Enciso, threatened to maroon man and dog on the nearest island, until he realised that Balboa’s prior knowledge of the region might come in handy.

The Spanish settlement on Tierre Firme (the mainland) was a seething mess of intrigue and factionalism. Nor were the natives particularly friendly, so Balboa quickly earned plaudits when he suggested that San Sebastián should be abandoned and the colony moved to the safer and more fertile area of Darién. After the indigenous peoples were driven out and their homes looted, the town of Santa María la Antigua del Darién was founded and Balboa became mayor, having first overthrown Fernández de Enciso, whom he had sent back to Spain.

Balboa’s career now seemed to be on an upward curve. Another threat was averted when Diego de Nicuesa, the governor of Veragua, an area to the west, attempted to claim control of Santa María, but was stopped by a mob loyal to Balboa. He was put on a leaky boat, and promptly disappeared. Balboa was by all accounts charismatic and popular, but — predictably — keen to conquer more territory and seize more gold. A succession of conflicts with local chieftains ensued, and he used either violence or charm to subdue the surrounding indigenous communities. He also defeated potential rivals and mutineers, sending letters and gold back to the court in Spain, which reciprocated by dispatching supplies and reinforcements.

By late 1512, Balbo was secure enough to launch another exploratory expedition, heading inland from Santa María into territory controlled by several caciques or chieftains. One of these, Comagre, was subdued and baptised, but his son Panquiaco was reportedly so exasperated by the Spaniards’ complaints at the lack of gold that he told them to head further south, where they would find not only vast wealth but “the other sea.” After a brief return to Santa María — where he heard that the returned Fernández de Enciso had accused him of crimes and turned the Spanish court against him — Balbao finally set off on 1 September, 1513, in search of the promised ocean, determined to win back royal favour by a spectacular discovery. After skirmishes with tribal warriors and a debilitating trek through dense mosquito-infested jungle, Balboa and his men — some Spanish, others indigenous — were close to collapse. Then, on the morning of the 25th, they were told by co-operative locals that the sea could be seen from the next summit.

According to a rather florid 1906 biography by Frederick A. Ober, Balboa told his men to wait while he clambered alone to the top of the range.

There before him lay the view he had so long hoped to behold: a wilderness of forest, gemmed with sparkling streams, and bounded by the watery horizon. There lay the sea, or ocean, widely extending along the sky-line, vast, seemingly boundless, glittering like a diamond beneath the sun.

After a Te Deum, the men started the descent to the Pacific, arriving several days later at a beach where Balboa, carrying a standard with the image of the Virgin Mary, waded into the water and claimed the ocean for the King of Spain. This is how oceans and continents were appropriated in those days.

It was the climax of a wild and unpredictable life. Balboa went on to fight many more battles, conspired and was conspired against, and finally fell foul of a powerful rival, Pedrarias Dávila, sent by the Spanish crown to establish order in its unruly South American possessions. In January 1519, he was charged with treason and beheaded in a place called Acla — long since abandoned — where to the last he protested his innocence. That he had not long before married Pedrarias Dávila’s daughter seems not to have made any difference — another instance, perhaps, of Balboa’s recurring bad luck. If he is remembered today in many place names, with statues and with the Panamanian currency, he is most ironically forgotten — or ignominiously substituted —in Keats’s sonnet. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote the poet, but in this case the undoubted beauty missed the historical truth.