Expedition to the South
The narrow strip of land which is Panama and the northern tip of Colombia runs east to west, not north to south as you might suppose. Therefore, when Balboa, along with about 190 Spaniards and a handful of natives decided to search for this sea in 1513 they headed mostly south, not west. They fought their way through the isthmus, leaving many wounded behind with friendly or conquered chieftains and on September 25 Balboa and a handful of battered Spaniards (Francisco Pizarro was among them) first saw the Pacific Ocean, which they named the “South Sea.” Balboa waded into the water and claimed the sea for Spain.
The Spanish crown, still with some lingering doubt over whether or not Balboa had correctly handled Enciso, sent a massive fleet to Veragua (now named Castilla de Oro) under the command of veteran soldier Pedrarías Dávila. 1,500 men and women flooded the tiny settlement. Dávila had been named governor to replace Balboa, who accepted the change with good humor, although the colonists still preferred him to Dávila. Dávila proved to be a poor administrator, and hundreds of settlers died, mostly those who had sailed with him from Spain. Balboa tried to recruit some men to explore the South Sea without Dávila knowing, but he was found out and arrested.
Vasco and Pedrarías
Santa María had two leaders: officially, Dávila was governor, but Balboa was more popular. They continued to clash until 1517 when it was arranged for Balboa to marry one of Dávila’s daughters. Balboa married María de Peñalosa in spite of one key fact: she was in a convent in Spain at the time and they had to marry by proxy. In fact, she never left the convent. Before long the rivalry flared up again. Balboa left Santa María for the small town of Aclo with 300 of those who still preferred his leadership to that of Dávila. He was successful in establishing a settlement and building some ships.
Death of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa
Fearing the charismatic Balboa as a potential rival, Dávila decided to get rid of him once and for all. Balboa was arrested by a squad of soldiers led by Francisco Pizarro as he made preparations to explore the Pacific coast of northern South America. He was hauled back to Aclo in chains and quickly tried for treason against the crown: the charge was that he had tried to establish his own independent fiefdom of the South Sea, independent from that of Dávila. Balboa, enraged, shouted out that he was a loyal servant of the crown, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He was beheaded on January 1, 1519 along with four of his companions.
Without Balboa, the colony of Santa María quickly failed. Where he had cultivated positive ties with local natives for trade, Dávila enslaved them, resulting in short-term economic profit but long-term disaster for the colony. In 1519 Dávila forcibly moved all of the settlers to the Pacific side of the isthmus, founding Panama City, and by 1524 Santa María had been razed by angry natives.
The legacy of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa is brighter than that of many of his contemporaries. While many conquistadors, such as Pedro de Alvarado, Hernán Cortés and Pánfilo de Narvaez are today remembered for cruelty, exploitation and inhuman treatment of natives, Balboa is remembered as an explorer, fair administrator and popular governor who made his settlements work.
As for relations with natives, Balboa was guilty of his share of atrocities, including setting his dogs on homosexual men in one village, but in general he dealt with his native allies very well, treating them with respect and friendship which translated into beneficial trade and food for his settlements.
Although he and his men were the first to see the Pacific Ocean (at least while heading west from the New World), it would be Ferdinand Magellan who would get the credit for naming it when he rounded the southern tip of South America in 1520.
Balboa is best remembered in Panama, where many streets, businesses and parks bear his name. There is a stately monument in his honor in Panama City (a district of which bears his name), and the national currency is called the Balboa. There is even a lunar crater named after him.
Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.