The 16th-century Spanish conquistador and explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa helped establish the first stable settlement on the South American continent at Darién, on the coast of the Isthmus of Panama. In 1513, while leading an expedition in search of gold, he sighted the Pacific Ocean. Balboa claimed the ocean and all of its shores for Spain, opening the way for later Spanish exploration and conquest along the western coast of South America. Balboa’s achievement and ambition posed a threat to Pedro Arias Dávila, the Spanish governor of Darién, who falsely accused him of treason and had him executed in early 1519.
Early Life and Career
Balboa was born in 1475 in Jerez de los Caballeros, a town in the impoverished Extremadura region of Spain. His father was believed to be a nobleman, but the family was not wealthy; like many of his class, Balboa decided to seek his fortune in the New World.
Around 1500, he joined Spanish explorers on an expedition the coast of present-day Colombia, then returned to the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and sought to make his living as a farmer. After falling into debt, he fled his creditors by stowing away on an expedition carrying supplies to the colony of San Sebastian, located on the coast of Urabá (now Colombia), in 1510.
The colony had been largely abandoned by the time they arrived, after local Native Americans killed many of the colonists. At Balboa’s suggestion, they decided to move to the western side of the Gulf of Urabá, on the coast of the Isthmus of Panama, the small strip of land connecting Central and South America.
In that region, the local Indians were more peaceful, and the new colony, Darién, would become the first stable Spanish settlement on the South American continent.
Balboa Sees the Pacific
By 1511, Balboa was acting as interim governor of Darién. Under his authority, the Spaniards dealt harshly with native inhabitants of the region in order to get gold and other riches; from some of these Indians, they learned that a wealthy empire lay to the south (possibly a reference to the Inca).
In September 1513, Balboa led an expedition of some 190 Spaniards and a number of Indians southward across the Isthmus of Panama. Late that same month, Balboa climbed a mountain peak and sighted the Pacific Ocean, which the Spaniards called the Mar del Sur (South Sea).
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Balboa, King Ferdinand II had appointed the elderly nobleman Pedro Arias Dávila (usually called Pedrarias) as the new governor of Darién.
As a reward for his explorations, Balboa was named governor of the provinces of Panama and Coiba, but remained under the authority of Pedrarias, who arrived in Darién in mid-1514, soon after Balboa returned.
Balboa’s Later Explorations and Downfall
Though suspicious of each other, the two men reached a precarious peace, and Pedrarias even betrothed his daughter María (in Spain) to Balboa by proxy. He also reluctantly gave him permission to mount another expedition to explore and conquer the Mar del Sur and its surrounding lands.
Balboa began these explorations in 1517-18, after having a fleet of ships painstakingly built and transported in pieces over the mountains to the Pacific.
Meanwhile, Pedrarias’ many enemies had convinced King Ferdinand to send a replacement for him from Spain and order a judicial inquiry into his conduct as leader of Darién.
Suspecting Balboa would speak against him, and fearing his influence and popularity, Pedrarias summoned the explorer home and had him arrested and tried for rebellion and high treason, among other charges.
In the highly biased trial that ensued, presided over by Pedrarias’ ally Gaspar de Espinosa, Balboa was found guilty and condemned to death. He was beheaded, along with four alleged accomplices, in 1519.
Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. The Mariners’ Museum and Park.
Following in the Footsteps of Balboa. Smithsonian Magazine.