After Columbus opened up the New world to Europe, the West Indies became centers of exploration. Among others, Ojeda, under a grant from the King of Spain, founded the settlement of San Sebastian, in the Gulf of Uraba. With him had engaged to sail Francisco Pizarro and Hernando Cortez. The latter was detained by illness, but the former thus made the first step in his famous career. The colony left by Ojeda was forced by the Indians to abandon the settlement. One vessel foundered. The other, commanded by Pizarro, reached Carthagena, where was found Enciso, a lawyer of San Domingo, who was conveying men and provisions to the colony. With him was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, an adventurer whose debts made him fly the town, and who managed to smuggle himself on board the ship in what purported to be a cask of provisions. On leaving shore he emerged from his cask, fell on his knees to Enciso, and begged pardon for his trick and permission to accompany the expedition. The colony having been deserted, Balboa proposed that they should sail for Darien, which coast he had already visited with Bastides. This proposal was accepted, and a new town established, which was named Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien. Troubles ensured among the colonists, which ended in the imprisonment of Enciso, and the establishment of Balboa as alcalde of the colony.
In the mean time the natives of Darien, weary of their unbidden guests, and calculating that the same passions which brought them to their shores would tempt them to remove, represented that the neighboring district of Coyba was richer than that of Santa Maria, both in provisions and gold. Balboa sent Pizarro, with six men only, to explore the country. Whilst ascending the river, they were surrounded by four hundred Indians, commanded by the cacique Zemaco, with whom the Spaniards unhesitatingly engaged, and in a very short time slew on hundred and fifty, and wounded many others. All the Spaniards were severely hurt, and one, dangerously wounded, was left on the field. The others retreated to Santa Maria. But Balboa, conceiving it to be a stain on his reputation that a living man should be thus abandoned, compelled Pizarro, with another party, to bring him off.
Balboa soon after conquered Coyba, and formed a league with its cacique, who became a useful ally.
Adjacent to Coyba, at the foot of a range of high mountains, lay the district of Comagre, governed by a cacique of the same name, who, struck with admiration of the Spaniards, invited them into his territories, treated them with much hospitality, and displayed greater civilization than they had yet seen in the New World. His palace, one hundred and fifty paces in length and eighty in breadth, was enclosed by a wall of timber of ingenious workmanship, and divided into convenient apartments, stored with abundance of provisions. One of these chambers was the receptacle of the dried and embalmed bodies of his ancestors of many generations, which, clothed in mantles of cotton, embroidered with gold, pearls, and precious stones, were suspended from the walls.
The eldest son of the cacique presented his guest with a rich offering of gold, valued at four thousand pesos, and seventy slaves. A fifth of the metal was set apart for the king; but in the division of the remainder a strife arose among the Christians, which surprised and provoked the young Indian. "If," said he, addressing the Spaniards, and indignantly striking over the balance, "if you are so fond of gold as for its sake to desert your own country and disturb the peace of others, I will lead you to a province where your utmost desires may be gratified, -- where gold is more abundant than iron in Spain, and is used in the fabric of ordinary domestic utensils. But to conquer this country you must provide a larger force than you have here, since you will have to contend with mighty chieftains, who will vigorously defend their possessions. When you shall have passed these mountains," continued he, pointing to a range in the southwest, "you will behold another ocean, on which are vessels inferior only to those which brought you hither, equipped with sails and oars, but navigated by a people naked like ourselves." It is supposed that the young chief alluded to the people of Peru.
Balboa received with rapturous delight this first certain intimation of the existence of another ocean. He exulted in the hope of discovering the East Indies, which had been so dearly cherished by Columbus, and conjectured that the country now described to him formed a part of that vast and opulent region. He immediately set about preparation for this great enterprise, cultivating the good will of Comagre and other chieftains, and administering to the former and his sons the rite of Christian baptism.
He sent the gold intended for the royal treasury to St. Domingo, and occupied himself in subduing the neighboring tribes while waiting to obtain the sanction of the king to his government of the colony. So much gold was obtained, and such extravagant accounts of the riches of the country were carried to Spain, that the region received the name of Golden Castile (Castilla del Oro), and Balboa was sent the commission of captain-general by Passamonte, the king's treasurer at St. Domingo.
But the pleasure of Nunez, on this occasion, was not unmixed. Enciso had carried his complaints to the foot of the throne, and Balboa was commanded to repair his losses, to proceed immediately to court, and submit himself to the king's pleasure. He might, therefore, hourly expect a successor, to deprive him of the fame and wealth he anticipated from his intended enterprise. To prevent a calamity greatly deprecated by his ambitious spirit, he determined to effect the passage to the South Sea with the force then under his command.
The Isthmus of Darien is not above sixty miles in breadth, but a chain of lofty mountains, a continuation of the Andes, covered with almost impenetrable forests, runs through its whole extent. Its valleys, divided by large and impetuous rivers, and inundated by rains which prevail near two-thirds of the year, are marshy and unhealthy. Its inhabitants, advanced but a few degrees in civilization, had done nothing to remove or alleviate the difficulties of the passage from sea to sea; nor after a lapse of three hundred years has it become more facile or commodious.
The attempt of Balboa may justly be considered the boldest which had been made by the Spaniards in the New World; but he was in all respects fitted to insure its success. The quality of courage he possessed, only, in common with the meanest of his army; but his prudence, generosity, and affability, and those nameless popular talents which inspire confidence and secure attachment, were peculiarly his own. In battle his post was that of the greatest danger, and in every labor that of the greatest fatigue; whilst his regard for the ease of his troops was ever active and anxious. He desired for his undertaking a force of one thousand soldiers, but he commenced it with one hundred and ninety only, and some fierce blood-hounds, which were efficient auxiliaries. A thousand Indians, who accompanied him, were chiefly useful in the transportation of the baggage.
Balboa set forth on the 1st of September (1513), after the rainy season had passed. He proceeded by sea to the district of Coyba, and thence marched into that of the cacique Ponca. At his approach, that chieftain fled to the deepest recesses of his mountains; but, attracted by promises of favor, and a liberal donation of Spanish implements and toys, he returned to his village, and gave the Spaniards a small quantity of gold, some provisions, and guides. Further progress was sternly opposed by a warlike tribe, armed with bows and arrows, and a species of sling, by which they threw staves hardened in the fire with such force as to pass through the body of a naked adversary. But the novel and terrific effect of the firelock, the keen edge of the sword, and the ferocity of the bloodhounds, scattered them in dismay, with the loss of their cacique and six hundred of inferior note. Among the prisoners were the brother of the cacique, and several chiefs, who were clothed in tunics of white cotton; and, being accused of unnatural crimes by their enemies, they were torn to pieces by the dogs, at the command of the Spaniards.
This defeat made the neighboring tribes fearful of provoking hostility, and disposed them to render such assistance as the Christians required. But great labor and patience were necessary to overcome the natural difficulties of the way. Disease and fatigue broke down some of the hardy veterans, and they were left behind to recruit their health. A journey estimated by the Indians to be of six days only had already occupied twenty-five days, when Nunez approached the summit of a mountain from which he was informed the great ocean might be seen. He commanded the army to halt, and advanced alone to the apex, whence he beheld the great South Sea opened before him, in boundless extent. Casting himself on his knees, he poured forth his grateful thanks to heaven for conducting him in safety to this glorious object. The army, beholding his transports, rushed forward, and joined in his admiration, his exultation, and his gratitude. Then, with formal ceremony, he took possession of land and sea, making a record thereof, carefully attested, don. The design of the conquest of Peru, which he was thus prevented from accomplishing, was finally carried out by Pizarro, as able a man as Balboa, and a much more unscrupulous one. Three years after the death of Balboa, a Spanish fleet, under Magellan, entered the South Sea after sailing around the southern extremity of the continent. This great ocean, which Magellan named the Pacific, from the pleasant weather with which he was steadily favored, was crossed by his ships to the islands of the Indian archipelago. Laden with spices, the fleet returned to Europe by way of the Cape of Good Hope, having thus completed the circumnavigation of the globe.
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