The first European to sight the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean, he opened the way for Spanish exploration and settlement of South America's western coast.
Vasco Nuñez de Balboa
Spanish Conquistador and explorer
1475 - 1519
Vasco Nunez de Balboa was a poor uneducated man born in 1475 in Jerez de los Caballeros in Estremadura. In 1501 he set sail on an expedition commanded by Rodrigo de Bastidas to explore the northern coast of present-day Colombia. Upon arrival, he settled on the island of Hispaniola and ventured to become a farmer. When this failed and his debts grew, he stowed away on a ship headed for Colombia to avoid his financial responsibilities. The expedition headed by Enciso led to a settlement in Cartegena. Balboa was welcomed by the settlers as a common soldier. He suggested that the colony move west to a place he had visited on his original voyage with Bastidas. This location had abundant food resources and a considerable amount of gold.
This new colony, Santa Maria de la Antigua, was founded by Nicuesa in present-day Panama during the year 1510. There were power struggles between the current leader (Enciso) and the old leader (Nicuesa) which resulted in Nicuesa being deported on a dilapidated ship which was never seen again. Balboa charged Enciso with usurpation and he was forced to leave the colony. The king appointed Balboa interim governor in 1511, and in 1513 he was appointed supreme commander of the colony. Enciso, upon arrival in Europe, brought the same charges of usurpation against Balboa. Balboa realized that he needed to do something extraordinary to overcome these charges and escape punishment.
On September 1, 1513, Balboa left the settlement with almost 200 Spaniards and a thousand Indians in search of a great body of water that he had heard about from a native friend. As they crossed the isthmus of present day Panama, they encountered dense jungles, swamps, violent natives, and rough mountain terrain. He succeeded in defeating many tribes of natives without losing any men. On September 25th or 27th Balboa climbed alone to the peak of a mountain, and for the first time saw the "South Sea" or what is now the Pacific Ocean. Four days later, he and his men reached the ocean and claimed it and the lands that it touched for Spain. He also found a fortune in gold, pearls, and slaves and proudly returned to Antigua. The king, before hearing of Balboa's achievements, appointed a new governor named Avila. When Avila arrived he suspended Balboa's authority because of the previous charge of usurpation, but on the initial inquiry Balboa was acquitted. Balboa gained much popularity and became betrothed to Avila's daughter in 1516. Avila disliked Balboa for both of these reasons and framed him for disobedience and treason, the result of a friend's betrayal. He was found guilty of treason and decapitated in 1519.
Anderson, Charles L., Life and Letters of Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1941; repr. 1977);
Garrison, Omar, Balboa: Conquistador (1971)
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