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Núñez de Balboa
[vaz'kO noo'nyeth dA bal bO'uh] the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from America
Vasco Núñez de Balboa was born in Jerez de los Caballeros, Spain, about 1475. His father was a minor nobleman with neither influence nor wealth, so young Vasco made a living as a servant in the household of a rich nobleman in Moguer, a port on Spain's southwest coast. After Christopher Columbus reached America in 1492, Moguer became a major shipping-out port for ships heading to the New World.
In 1501, intrigued by stories of the fame and wealth to be had in America, Balboa joined a Spanish expedition to South America. The expedition found pearls and other valuable goods, and sailed from Maracaiba to the mouth of the Magdalena River in what is now Colombia. But disaster struck when the ship began leaking and the expedition was forced to sail to the island of Hispaniola, then the main Spanish base in America. All of their goods were then confiscated, and Balboa was left penniless.
In 1509, the first Spanish expedition to colonize the mainland of South America left Hispaniola. Balboa tried to join the expedition, but was prevented from doing so by men to whom he was in debt. The Spanish established the settlement of San Sebastián along the eastern side of the Gulf of Urabá, without Balboa.
In 1510, Balboa managed to stow away on a ship carrying supplies and new settlers to San Sebastián. Upon reaching the mainland, however, the new settlers learned that San Sebastián was in danger due to hostile natives and a lack of food. Balboa, who may well have been the only person among the new settlers who had ever seen the continent, suggested moving to the western side of the gulf because he knew that the natives who lived there were more peaceful and settled. The Spaniards listened to him, despite his being a stowaway, and established the town of Darién. Balboa was subsequently named Acting Governor of Darién.
Using Darién as a base, Balboa led expeditions into Panama, conquering some natives and making agreements with others in the area. In 1511, natives told him of a sea on the other side of the Isthmus of Panama. He also heard stories of gold and other wealth in an area farther to the south. Wanting to please King Ferdinand of Spain, and hoping to keep his governorship as well, Balboa decided to mount an expedition to find the sea about which he had been told. Early in September 1513, he led about 90 Spaniards and a large contingent of natives from Darién and followed a series of native trails across the isthmus. During the third week of the trip, Balboa's guides told him that the ocean could be seen from a nearby mountain. On September 25, 1513, upon ascending the mount, he was indeed able to become the first European to see the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean. The expedition returned to Darién on January 19, 1514, carrying gold, pearls and other valuables. Along the way Balboa had conquered several native tribes, and made friends of others, all without the loss of a single Spaniard. Balboa believed he had accomplished enough to win him an appointment as permanent Governor of Darién.
Before news of Balboa's expedition could reach Spain, however, King Ferdinand appointed Pedrarias Dávila, an elderly nobleman, to be the new Governor; he arrived at Darién in 1514. Upon hearing of Balboa's findings, Ferdinand named him to serve under Pedrarias as Governor of a new area on the Pacific coast of Panama. Balboa established the town of Acla on the north coast and then transported materials across the isthmus to build ships for further conquest and exploration. In 1518 he explored along the Gulf of Panama. He also considered an expedition to conquer the area now known as Peru.
Pedrarias grew increasingly jealous of Balboa, who had become a powerful figure with many supporters. In 1518, while Balboa was busy exploring, the Governor had Balboa arrested on trumped-up charges of treason. After a speedy trial in which Balboa had little opportunity to defend himself, he was sentenced to death. In January, 1519, Balboa and four friends were beheaded in the public square of Acla.
This page was last updated on 03/25/2017.