This edited article about Vasco Nunez de Balboa originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 730 published on 10 January 1976.
Vasco Nunez de Balboa and the age of discovery in which he lived were well suited to one another. This tall, strong, self-sufficient and enterprising Spaniard, who was born in about 1475, was just the sort of man needed at a time when unknown oceans were being probed, unknown lands were being explored and Europeans were coming face to face for the first time with alien peoples, unfamiliar often unhealthy climates and jungle and mountain terrain totally different from the geography of Europe.
By the time Balboa died in 1529, Columbus had sailed to America, the sea route from Europe to the Orient had been found and Spanish and Portuguese settlements had been planted thousands of miles from home in Africa, India and the Caribbean.
This was an exciting, dangerous and promising time to be alive, and along with the prospect of colossal wealth in gold, silver and other treasure, the greatest excitement was the chance it gave to make new and even more thrilling discoveries.
In the early 16th century, when Nunez de Balboa was a pioneer farmer on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the discovery that was being most vigorously sought was the so-called “Other Sea”. This was the name the Spaniards gave to the ocean they were convinced lay on the “other” – western – side of the vast American continent.
Ever since 1502, when Amerigo Vespucci first revealed the existence of this enormous land mass, explorers had been striving to get around or across it: once they had done so, they were sure that the gold, jewels, spices and silks of Asia would be within their reach, and their avaricious dreams would be fulfilled.
At the age of 35, Balboa found himself in a particularly favourable position to mount a search for the “Other Sea.” His chance came through his own mismanagement of his farm in Hispaniola. By 1510, the farm was so unsuccessful that Balboa was seriously in debt and he had to flee from Hispaniola to escape his creditors. Balboa’s exit was ignominious. He squeezed into a wine cask and by this means got himself smuggled on board a caravel bound for Colombia.
Here, at San Sebastian on the north coast, the Spanish “conquistador” Alonso de Ojeda had recently founded a new colony. However, when Balboa got there, he found that after a violent attack by Indians, Ojeda and most of his men had disappeared. Only 41 exhausted survivors remained. Balboa took charge and led the survivors along the coast to Darien on the Panama Isthmus, where the Indians seemed more friendly.
Unknown, as yet, to Balboa, the colony of Santa Maria de la Antigua, which he founded in Darien lay on the eastern side of the narrowest part of the American continent. Here, a neck of land only 40 miles (64 km.) wide separated the Caribbean from the “Other Sea” – now known as the Pacific Ocean.
In the years that followed the founding of his colony, Balboa explored the surrounding countryside and from this, and information gleaned from local Indians, he soon came to suspect the nearby presence of the “Other Sea”. In 1513, Balboa determined to reach it.
On September 1 of that year, Balboa set out to cross the Isthmus of Panama through some of the most difficult, most dangerous country any conquistador had ever faced. With him went 192 Spaniards and 800 Indians.
For the Spaniards in particular, every day that followed was a day of immense physical exertion. The Isthmus was like a steaming hothouse and every step the Spaniards took in their heavy armour bathed them in a stream of sweat. Many caught fevers, and stumbled along through the tangled jungle delirious and tortured by pain.
Every now and then, from hiding places among the trees, hostile Indians loosed showers of poisoned arrows at the slow-moving column of men. Anyone who was hit was doomed, and died in minutes.
Nevertheless, Balboa and the rest slogged on, covering little more than a mile on most days, much less when there was swampland to be crossed. The Spaniards sank waist deep in the stinking slime of the mangrove swamps, where placing one foot in front of the other took an incredible amount of strength. Beyond the swamp lay more jungle to be hacked through, more hills to be climbed and yet more swamps to be crossed.
All the way, Balboa urged his men on, reminding them constantly of the treasure that lay at the end of their journey. “Soon,” he told the Spaniards “we will come to the shore of the fabled sea, where . . . even the cooking pots are made of gold . . . ”
Spurred by this glittering vision of wealth, the Spaniards struggled on. Early on September 26, they reached the foot of a hill. Like all the rest they had climbed, it was smothered in thick jungle and it was nearly mid-day before the Spaniards had cut their way through to a point near the top.
Instinctively, Balboa realised that the great prize he sought was near, and he did not wish to share it with anyone. “Wait here!” he ordered his men. Balboa went on alone to the summit. There, spread out before him lay a stunning vista which no European had seen until that moment.
All the way to the horizon, the “Other Sea” stretched, a vast expanse of sparkling, brilliant blue water. From where Balboa stood, it looked unruffled and perfectly calm. That was why the “Other Sea” came to be called the “Pacific” Ocean, from the Spanish word for “peaceful”.
Three days later, Balboa and the 66 Spaniards who had survived to share the experience with him, reached the shores of the Pacific. Balboa waded into the water clad in full armour, and laid claim to the whole ocean in the name of the Spanish king, Ferdinand.
Three months afterwards, Balboa returned to the Caribbean side of the Isthmus. With him, he took a fortune in pearls and gold and the news that this was only a tiny sample of the riches that lined America’s Pacific coast. Not for the first or the last time in America, the dreams of avarice had come true.
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