THE Pacific Ocean, whose waters lave the western shores of our Republic along a distance, as a bird flies, of sixteen degrees of latitude, from San Diego on the south to Cape Flattery on the north, was discovered by one of the Spanish adventurers who accompanied the expedition under Nicuessa, to the coasts of Central America. That discoverer was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, an active and energetic young man of noble lineage but of small fortune, who crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies in search of wealth, in the year 1501. On Hispaniola he had acquired a moderate competence, but having fallen in debt, he escaped his creditors by being carried in a cask (supposed to contain provisions) on board a ship commanded by the Bachelor Enciso, one of Nicuessa's lieutenants. When the vessel was fairly out at sea, Nunez came from his cask. Enciso, astonished, and angry because of the deception, threatened to leave him on the first uninhabited island they should discover, but Nunez succeeded in pacifying his commander and gaining his friendship.
At Carthagena, Enciso was joined by Pizarro, who had been left by Ojeda in charge of the remnant of his colony. With that remnant, much wasted by sickness, hunger, and the arrows of the natives, he was making his way back to Hispaniola, in a brigantine. He was persuaded by Enciso to remain and return with him to the place of Pizarro's departure. They were about to weigh anchor when they heard of a province called Zenu, lying at the westward, whose mountains they were told abounded with the precious metals, and where there was an ancient cemetery in which, for centuries, the Indians had been buried with all their golden ornaments. Enciso determined to hasten to that country, dig treasures from the mountains and sack the sepulchres, for he felt no compunction at the idea of rifling the graves of pagans. The whole expedition sailed for the coast of Zenu, where they were met by two caciques and many armed followers, who opposed the invasion of the Spaniards. Then Enciso caused the formula used by Ojeda to be read and interpreted to the caciques, expounding the nature of God, the supremacy of the Pope and the right of Roman Catholic sovereigns to all the lands by virtue of a grant from the occupant of the papal chair at Rome. The caciques courteously listened to the Spaniards, and then one of them said: "No doubt there is only one God, but the Pope must have been drunk to give away what was not his own, and the King of Spain must have been crazy to ask from him what belonged to others. We are lords of these lands and want no other sovereign, and if this king should come to take possession, we would cut off his head and put it on a pole."
Enciso attacked and defeated the Indians, but in rifling the tombs of their ancestors, he did not find sufficient treasure to assuage his grief at the loss of two of his men who had perished by poisoned arrows. He now proceeded to the seat of Ojeda's colony, where he found the fort and cabins erected there in ruins. Nunez, who had been there before, with another adventurer guided Enciso to a village on the bank of a river which the natives called Darien, and there the seat of government was established, after expelling the natives. Discontents soon arose among the Spaniards, and Nunez taking advantage of them, succeeded in having Enciso deposed and himself made chief magistrate. When Nicuessa came to assume chief command, the colonists, under the influence of Nunez, refused their allegiance to him, and the usurper became governor. He expelled Nicuessa from the country, who, with a few followers, embarked in a crazy vessel for Hispaniola, and were never heard of afterwards. Enciso, seeing no chance for the recovery of his power whilst the energetic usurper lived, returned to Spain with feelings of revenge.
Nunez was soon joined by two Spaniards who, to avoid punishment, had fled from Nicuessa's ship and found refuge and the kindest treatment with Careta, the cacique of Coyba. They requited this hospitality of the pagan chief by advising Nunez to attack Careta in his dwelling, where he would find immense booty. The governor prepared to do so. One of the Spaniards returned to Careta to assist Nunez in his betrayal, and the other acted as guide to the invaders. Nunez was kindly received by the cacique and his people, and departed with presents. He halted a little way from the village, and when the Indians were all asleep, he led his men into the town at midnight and made Careta, his wives and children and many of his people captives. With them and a considerable booty, the treacherous Nunez returned to Darien, when the good cacique, distressed at his situation, said: "What have I done to thee that thou shouldst treat me thus cruelly? None of thy people ever came to my land that were not fed, and sheltered, and treated with loving-kindness. When thou camest to my dwelling did I meet three with a javelin in my hand? Did I not set meat and drink before thee, and welcome thee as a brother? Set me free, therefore, with my family and people, and we will remain thy friends. We will supply thee with provisions, and reveal to thee the riches of the land. Dost thou doubt my faith? Behold my daughter! I give her to thee as a pledge of my friendship. Take her for thy wife, and be assured of the fidelity of her family and her people."
Careta's daughter was young and beautiful. Nunez was deeply impressed by her charms. He granted the prayer of Careta, took his daughter to be his wife according to the usages of her country, and becoming very found of her, she soon acquired great influence over him. He assisted Careta in wars against his enemies, and they became fast friends. Whilst visiting a powerful cacique, a friendly neighbor of Careta, Nunez was told by the son of that chief, that beyond the mountains toward which he pointed, was a mighty sea that could be discovered from the summits of the great hills; that the sea was navigated by vessels almost as large as the Spanish brigantines and equipped like them with sails and oars; that the rivers which flowed down from the southern slopes of the mountains abounded with gold, and that there was a country further southward, bordering on that great sea, where the kings ate and drank out of golden vessels, and that gold was as plentiful there as iron was among the Spaniards.
This information seemed like a revelation from heaven beaming into the mind of Nunez. He felt a sudden impulse to abandon his wayward life, and an ambition to be ranked among the great discoverers of his age. If he could first see that mighty ocean and the precious rivers and the country where its kings ate and drank out of golden vessels, he would surely be elevated to fame and fortune. He eagerly inquired how the summits of the mountains and the borders of that sea might be reached. "You will have to fight your way to the top and down their slopes, and through the plains beyond, with powerful caciques and brave warriors," said the young man. "You will need at least a thousand men, armed like those who follow you."
Nunez hastened back to Darien to make preparations for his journey. His thoughts were wholly occupied with plans for the discovery of the great sea beyond the mountains. He pondered the subject when awake and it gave color and shape to his night-dreams. With gold of the value of fifteen thousand crowns which he sent to Don Diego Columbus, in Hispaniola, to be forwarded to the king as the royal share of the winnings in Central America, he sent an appeal to that officer for aid in men and provisions, to enable Nunez to fight his way across the isthmus. Whilst awaiting an answer he made several expeditions from Darien, and everywhere he heard the story of the great sea beyond the mountains. Finally, one hundred and fifty armed men, with ample supplies, arrived at Darien from Hispaniola, and Nunez determined to march for the mountain summits. With one hundred and ninety men and a number of bloodhounds, he made his way to Coyba, where Careta furnished him with guides and Indian warriors; and on the 6th of September, 1513, the expedition set off for the great hills which loomed up in the southern horizon. They fought their way victoriously, spreading terror among the natives by their guns, which, to the Indians, seemed like demons vomiting lightning and thunder.
At ten o'clock in the morning of the 26th of September, Nunez and his followers emerged from a thick forest high up in the mountain range. Only sixty-seven of his Spanish soldiers now remained, who were able to climb that rugged height. The bald rocky summit alone remained to be ascended. Commanding his followers to halt, and not a man to stir from his place, he climbed to that summit, when the glorious apparition of a broad sea burst upon his vision. It seemed to him that a new and unknown world, separated from the known by the lofty mountain barrier on which he stood, had been unfolded to him. It was even so. Overcome by mingled feelings of awe and joy, he fell upon his knees and fervently poured out his thanks to God for permitting him to be the first of Europeans to discover that mighty sea. He then shouted to his followers to come up; and when they had gathered around him on that breezy height, and beheld the sea stretching out interminably, he exhorted them to be faithful to him and valorous in the conquests of rich heathen lands before them, and so give glory to God and their king and win riches for themselves. They embraced their leader and made vows of fidelity to him even unto death. Then they chanted the Te Deum Laudamus. So it was that the Pacific Ocean was discovered by Vasco Nunez de Balboa. It was called by him the South Sea, but Magellan, who sailed into it through the straits which bear his name, a few years later, called it the Pacific Ocean, because its waters were far less turbulent than those of the Atlantic which he had just crossed.
Nunez now called all of his followers to witness the fact that he took possession of that sea, with all its coasts and islands, in the name of the sovereigns of Spain; and the notary drew up a testimonial to that effect, which the leader and his sixty-seven warriors signed. Then a tree was cut down and wrought into a cross; and on the spot where Nunez first saw the ocean, it was planted with solemn religious ceremonies, whilst the Indians looked on in wonder, not comprehending the meaning of the sacred symbol nor the significance of the act. It marked the subjugation of their land by an avaricious race.
Descending the mountains on their southern sides, Nunez and his followers made their way to the sea. As the tide came flowing in upon the sandy beach, the leader took a banner on which the Virgin and Child were painted, and under them the arms of Castile and Leon. Then drawing his sword and throwing his buckler over his shoulder, he marched into the water until it covered his knees, and waving his banner he with a loud voice again proclaimed that he took possession of that sea and its islands, in the name of the sovereigns of Spain. A testimonial to that effect was again signed by all, and the conquest was regarded as complete. After that Nunez made voyages along the coast of the Pacific, and heard tidings of the rich kingdom of Peru, where the Incas or monarchs ate and drank out of vessels of gold. That kingdom, then eminent for its civilization, was afterward conquered by Pizarro, with circumstances of great cruelty and wickedness. Vasco Nunez de Balboa, falsely accused of traitorous intentions by his jealous rival and successor, Davila, was beheaded at Acla, in Central America, by order of that officer, in 1517, when he was in the forty-second year of his age.
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