Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) was a Spanish conquistador, explorer and administrator. He is best known for leading the first European expedition to sight the Pacific Ocean (or the "South Sea" as he referred to it). He founded the settlement of Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darién in present-day Panama, although it no longer exists. He ran afoul of fellow conquistador Pedrarías Dávila in 1519 and was arrested and executed. He is still remembered and venerated in Panama as a heroic explorer.
Unlike most conquistadors, Nuñez de Balboa was born into a relatively wealthy family. His father and mother were both of noble blood in Badajoz, Spain: Vasco was born in Jeréz de los Caballeros in 1475. Although noble, Balboa could not hope for much in the way of inheritance, as he was the third of four sons. All titles and lands passed to the eldest and younger sons generally went into the military or clergy. Balboa opted for the military, spending time as a page and squire at the local court.
By 1500, word had spread all over Spain and Europe of the wonders of the New World and the fortunes being made there. Young and ambitious, Balboa joined the expedition of Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1500. The expedition was mildly successful in raiding the northeastern coast of South America and Balboa landed in 1502 in Hispaniola with enough money to set himself with a small pig farm. He was not a very good farmer, however, and by 1509 he was forced to flee his creditors in Santo Domingo.
Back to the Darien
Balboa stowed away (with his dog) on a ship commanded by Martín Fernández de Enciso, who was heading to the recently-founded town of San Sebastián de Urabá with supplies. He was quickly discovered and Enciso threatened to maroon him, but the charismatic Balboa talked him out of it. When they reached San Sebastián they found that natives had destroyed it. Balboa convinced Enciso and the survivors of San Sebastián (led by Francisco Pizarro) to try again and establish a town, this time in the Darién (a region of dense jungle between present-day Colombia and Panama) which he had previously explored with Bastidas.
Santa María la Antigua del Darién
The Spaniards landed in the Darién and were quickly beset by a large force of natives under the command of Cémaco, a local chieftain. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Spanish prevailed and founded the city of Santa María la Antigua de Darién on the site of Cémaco's old village. Enciso, as ranking officer, was put in charge but the men detested him. Clever and charismatic, Balboa rallied the men behind him and removed Enciso by arguing that the region was not part of the royal charter of Alonso de Ojeda, Enciso's master. Balboa was one of two men quickly elected to serve as mayors of the city.
Balboa's stratagem of removing Enciso backfired in 1511. It was true that Alonso de Ojeda (and therefore Enciso) had no legal authority over Santa María, which had been founded in an area referred to as Veragua. Veragua was the domain of Diego de Nicuesa, a somewhat unstable Spanish nobleman who had not been heard from in some time. Nicuesa was found to the north with a handful of bedraggled survivors from an earlier expedition, and he decided to claim Santa María for his own. The colonists preferred Balboa, however and Nicuesa was not even allowed to go ashore: indignant, he set sail for Hispaniola but was never heard from again.
Balboa was effectively in charge of Veragua at this point and the crown reluctantly decided to simply recognize him as governor. Once his position was official, Balboa quickly began organizing expeditions to explore the region. The local tribes of indigenous natives were not united and therefore powerless to resist the Spanish, who were better armed and disciplined. The settlers collected much gold and pearls in this fashion, which in turn drew more men to the settlement. They began hearing rumors of a great sea and rich kingdom to the south.