In the footsteps of Vasco Núñez de Balboa

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was the leader of the host that discovered the current Pacific Ocean, decisive for the Hispanic economic policy during the Colony.

In the footsteps of Vasco Núñez de Balboa
Monument to Vasco Nuñez de Balboa.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa was born in Jerez de los Caballeros (Badajoz), but from a family originally from León, and after serving as a page in his childhood to a lord of Moguer, Núñez de Balboa went to the call of the New World at the age of 25, in the expedition that would lead Rodrigo de Bastidas, discoverer of Panama.

In a journey that would take him from the port of Cadiz to the new lands along with another illustrious, the cartographer Juan de la Cosa. In that first American experience, Núñez de Balboa would contemplate the Atlantic coasts of Panama, Colombia, and the Caribbean Sea. Retreating in 1502 to the island of Hispaniola.

He did not stay long in Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic. Harassed by debts, he embarked as a stowaway in 1509 in an expedition of Martín Fernández Enciso to San Sebastián de Urabá to help the Spanish governor. He was discovered and exploited by the expedition for his knowledge of the coasts.

On this point, the naval captain and expert on Núñez de Balboa, José María Blanco Núñez, highlights the words that Fray Bartolomé de las Casas dedicated to the discoverer of the Pacific: "... of good understanding and crafty and spirited and of very nice disposition and beautiful gesture and presence...".

One of his first milestones in this new adventure was the conquest and colonization of one of the first cities established on the mainland: the foundation of Santa María la Antigua del Darién, in present-day Panama.

This is how Octavio Méndez Pereira relates, in his biography of Núñez de Balboa, the arrival of the Spaniards to Santa María la Antigua del Darién and its "fertile plain on the banks of the river with a population of curious bohíos, abundant fruit trees, and coconut palms and pisbaes (tropical tree and fruit very abundant in the Darien, also known as pixbae or pifa) [...] A beach of clean white sand sloped gently down to the sea...".


The Spaniards had to face the tribe of the wren Cemaco who "were waiting from the heights for the advance of the whites". The fight was short but fierce and Núñez de Balboa stood out in it. Once the dead were buried and the wounded collected, the victors took possession of the abandoned town. Shortly thereafter, Núñez de Balboa obtained the position of governor of Veraguas, one of the nine provinces of Panama. Thus began a new adventure for the conqueror of Jerez de los Caballeros: the Isthmus of Panama.

As in the entire history of the colonization of America, the Spaniard befriended some tribes and fought with others. At the end of 1512, he would arrive at the domains of the indigenous chief Careta, who allied with the Spaniard. With this pact, Spaniards and Indians entered the territories of the chiefs Ponca and Comagre, and it was in the region of the latter that Núñez de Balboa heard for the first time echoes of a lake of gold, another sea, another blue... a new challenge.

Faced with the challenge of reaching the sea of gold, Nunez de Balboa again equips himself with more men and sets out on the adventure to the South Sea. After other struggles with local caciques, a thousand Indians and 190 Spaniards once again entered the Isthmus of Panama. The final battle was with the chief Torecha, who was defeated and killed in combat, his men allying with Núñez de Balboa after his defeat.

Núñez de Balboa, the Extremaduran who discovered the immensity of the Pacific.
The discovery of the South Sea definitively corroborated that the territories explored by Christopher Columbus were part of a vast continent of great potential, integrated into the European mentality from that moment on. With this, the world map was finally completed.

The South Sea

"On September 23, 1513, Captain Balboa took possession of the hamlet of Torecha, and that same day he had reports, without a doubt, that the mountain that rose on the western side, in this dilated and fertile valley of Cuarecuá, was the last barrier that covered the South Sea," relates Méndez Pereira's biography.

Balboa entered the mountain ranges of the Chucunaque River on September 25, 1513. According to the Indians who accompanied him, from there he would be able to see the new sea? "Suddenly, at about ten o'clock in the morning, one of the Indians who served as guide turned to the chief and pointed his finger at a bare ridge. [...] Balboa then ordered a halt. And then, before the anxious expectation of his men, he continued climbing alone towards the indicated summit. Suddenly they saw him look off into space, take off his sodden hat, and fall to his knees.

Father Andrés intoned a "Te Deum Laudeamus" and then with a stentorian voice and trembling with emotion, Vasco Núñez de Balboa announced to all winds that he was taking possession of those lands bathed by the South Sea in the name of the sovereigns of Castile.

After this discovery, Nuñez de Balboa took possession of the adjacent lands and sent a fifth of the riches, as stipulated, to the Crown in European lands. However, a rivalry would begin to be born: that between Núñez de Balboa and the governor of the new province of Castilla de Oro, Pedro Arias de Ávila, known as Pedrarias Dávila - an aristocrat of rancid ancestry - who would later stand out for his thirst for blood.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa takes possession of the South Sea, the Pacific Ocean.
Vasco Núñez de Balboa takes possession of the South Sea, the Pacific Ocean. Engraving from the Naval Museum.

The Crown recognized the work of Núñez de Balboa with the position of Adelantado of the South Sea; in addition, the King recommended that Pedrarias keep all consideration for the figure of Núñez de Balboa.

From that moment on, Núñez de Balboa wanted to continue his conquest of the Pacific coast from a new position in Acla. It was the year 1518. A figure would then appear in those lands, that of Francisco Pizarro who, to gain Pedrarias' favor, detained Núñez Balboa, with prior notice to return to Pedrarias' domains, under the accusation that he wanted to usurp Pedrarias' power and create a governorship in the South Sea. Something that Nuñez de Balboa denied.

Pizarro took Balboa to Acla where he was tried by Pedrarias and on January 15, 1519, along with four of his faithful, Nunez de Balboa would be beheaded. Before being executed, the man from Jerez de los Caballeros would reply to the accusation of treason against the Crown: "Lies, lies; there was never any room for such a crime in me; I have served the King as a loyalist, thinking only of increasing his dominions".

In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan renamed that immense blue with the name of Pacific, given the appearance of calm in its waters.

By Carlos Piera, Source: Inclusion