Careta2 had for a neighbor a cacique some called by some Comogre, by others Panquiaco, chif of about ten thousand Indians, among whom were 3,000 warriors. Having heard of the valor and enterprise of the Castilians, this chief desired to enter into treaty and friendship with them; and a principal Indian, a dependent of Careta, having presented himself as the agent in this friendly overture, Vasco Nuñez, anxious to profit by the opportunity of securing such an ally, went with his followers to visit Comogre. . . .
Balboa was transported by the prospect of glory and fortune which opened before him; he believed himself already at the gates of the East Indies, which was the desired object of the government and the discoverers of that period; he resolved to return in the first place to the Darien to raise the spirits of his companions with these brilliant hopes, and to make all possible preparations for realizing them. He remained, nevertheless, yet a few days with the caciques; and so strict was the friendship he had contracted with them that they and their families were baptized, Careta taking in baptism the name of Fernando, and Comogre that of Carlos. Balboa then returned to the Darien, rich in the spoils of Ponca, rich in the presents of his friends, and still richer in the golden hopes which the future offered him.
At this time, and after an absence of six months, arrived the magistrate Valdivia, with a vessel laden with different stores; he brought likewise great promises of abundant aid in provisions and men. The succors, however, which Valdivia brought were speedily consumed; their seed, destroyed in the ground by storms and floods, promised them no resource whatever; and they returned to their usual necessitous state. Balboa then consented to their extending their incursions to more distant lands, as they had already wasted and ruined the immediate environs of Antigua, and he sent Valdivia to Spain to apprize the admiral of the clew he had gained to the South Sea, and the reported wealth of these regions.
He discoursed with and animated his companions, selected 190 of the best armed, and disposed, and, with a thousand Indians of labor, a few bloodhounds, and sufficient provisions, took his way by the sierras toward the dominion of Ponca. That chief had fled, but Balboa, who had adopted the policy most convenient to him, desired to bring him to an amicable agreement, and, to that end, dispatched after him some Indians of peace, who advised him to return to his capital and to fear nothing from the Spaniards. He was persuaded, and met with a kind reception; he presented some gold, and received in return some glass beads and other toys and trifles. The Spanish captains then solicited guides and men of labor for his journey over the sierras, which the cacique bestowed willingly, adding provisions in great abundance, and they parted friends.
His passage into the domain of Quarequa was less pacific; whose chief, Torecha, jealous of this invasion, and terrified by the events which had occurred to his neighbors, was disposed and prepared to receive the Castilians with a warlike aspect. A swarm of ferocious Indians, armed in their usual manner, rushed into the road and began a wordy attack upon the strangers, asking them what brought them there, what they sought for, and threatening him with perdition if they advanced. The Spaniards, reckless of their bravados, proceeded, nevertheless, and then the chief placed himself in front of his tribe, drest in a cotton mantle and followed by the principal lords, and with more intrepidity than fortune, gave the signal for combat. The Indians commenced the assault with loud cries and great impetuosity, but, soon terrified by the explosions of the crossbows and muskets, they were easily destroyed or put to flight by the men and bloodhounds who rushed upon them. The chief and 600 men were left dead on the spot, and the Spaniards, having smoothed away that obstacle, entered the town, which they spoiled of all the gold and valuables it possest. Here, also, they found a brother of the cacique and other Indians, who were dedicated to the abominations before glanced at; fifty of these wretches were torn to pieces by the dogs, and not without the consent and approbation of the Indians. The district was, by these examples, rendered so pacific and so submissive that Balboa left all his sick there, dismissed the guides given him by Ponca, and, taking fresh ones, pursued his road over the heights.
The tongue of land which divides the two Americas is not, at its utmost width, above eighteen leagues, and in some parts becomes narrowed a little more than seven. And, altho from the port of Careta to the point toward which the course of the Spaniards was directed was only altogether six days' journey, yet they consumed upon it twenty; nor is this extraordinary. The great cordillera of sierras which from north to south crosses the new continent, a bulwark against the impetuous assaults of the Pacific Ocean, crosses also the Isthmus of Darien, or, as may be more properly said, composes it wholly, from the wrecks of the rocky summits which have been detached from the adjacent lands; and the discoverers, therefore, were obliged to open their way through difficulties and dangers which men of iron alone could have fronted and overcome. Sometimes they had to penetrate through thick entangled woods, sometimes to cross lakes, where men and burdens perished miserably; then a rugged hill presented itself before them; and next, perhaps, a deep and yawning precipice to descend; while, at every step, they were opposed by deep and rapid rivers, passable only by means of frail barks, or slight and trembling bridges; from time to time they had to make their way through opposing Indians, who, tho always conquered, were always to be dreaded; and, above all, came the failure of provisionswhich formed an aggregate, with toil, anxiety, and danger, such as was sufficient to break down bodily strength and depress the mind. . . .
At length the Quarequanos, who served as guides, showed them, at a distance, the height from whose summit the desired sea might be discovered. Balboa immediately commanded his squadron to halt, and proceeded alone to the top of the mountain; on reaching it he cast an anxious glance southward, and the Austral Ocean broke upon his sight.3 Overcome with joy and wonder, he fell on his knees, extending his arms toward the sea, and with tears of delight, offered thanks to heaven for having destined him to this mighty discovery. He immediately made a sign to his companions to ascend, and, pointing to the magnificent spectacle extended before them, again prostrated himself in fervent thanksgiving to God. The rest followed his example, while the astonished Indians were extremely puzzled to understand so sudden and general an effusion of wonder and gladness. Hannibal on the summit of the Alps, pointing out to his soldiers the delicious plains of Italy, did not appear, according to the ingenious comparison of a contemporary writer, either more transported or more arrogant than the Spanish chief, when, risen from the ground, he recovered the speech of which sudden joy had deprived him, and thus addrest his Castilians: "You behold before you, friends, the object of all our desires and the reward of all our labors. Before you roll the waves of the sea which has been announced to you, and which no doubt encloses the immense riches we have heard of. You are the first who have reached these shores and these waves; yours are their treasures, yours alone the glory of reducing these immense and unknown regions to the dominion of our King and to the light of the true religion. Follow me, then, faithful as hitherto, and I promise you that the world shall not hold your equals in wealth and glory."
All embraced him joyfully and all promised to follow whithersoever he should lead. They quickly cut down a great tree, and, stripping it of its branches, formed a cross from it, which they fixt in a heap of stones found on the spot from whence they first descried the sea. The names of the monarchs of Castile were engraven on the trunks of the trees, and with shouts and acclamations they descended the sierra and entered the plain.
They arrived at some bohios, which formed the population of a chief, called Chiapes, who had prepared to defend the pass with arms. The noise of the muskets and the ferocity of the war-dogs dispersed them in a moment, and they fled, leaving many captives; by these and by their Quarequano guides, the Spaniards sent to offer Chiapes secure peace and friendship if he would come to them, or otherwise the ruin and extermination of his town and his fields. Persuaded by them, the cacique came and placed himself in the hands of Balboa, who treated him with much kindness. He brought and distributed gold and received in exchange beads and toys, with which he was so diverted that he no longer thought of anything but contenting and conciliating the strangers. There Vasco Nuñez sent away the Quarequanos, and ordered that the sick, who had been left in their land, should come and join him. In the meanwhile he sent Francisco Pizarro, Juan de Ezcarag, and Alonzo Martin to discover the shortest roads by which the sea might be reached. It was the last of these who arrived first at the coast, and, entering a canoe which chanced to lie there, and pushing it into the waves, let it float a little while, and, after pleasing himself with having been the first Spaniard who entered the South Sea, returned to seek Balboa.
Balboa with twenty-six men descended to the sea, and arrived at the coast early in the evening of the 29th of that month; they all seated themselves on the shore and awaited the tide, which was at that time on the ebb. At length it returned in its violence to cover the spot where they were; then Balboa, in complete armor, lifting his sword in one hand, and in the other a banner on which was painted an image of the Virgin Mary with the arms of Castile at her feet, raised it, and began to march into the midst of the waves, which reached above his knees, saying in a loud voice: "Long live the high and mighty sovereigns of Castile! Thus in their names do I take possession of these seas and regions; and if any other prince, whether Christian or infidel, pretends any right to them, I am ready and resolved to oppose him, and to assert the just claims of my sovereigns. "
The whole band replied with acclamations to the vow of their captain, and exprest themselves determined to defend, even to death, their acquisition against all the potentates in the world; they caused this act to be confirmed in writing, by the notary of the expedition, Andres de Valderrabano; the anchorage in which it was solemnized was called the Gulf of San Miguel, the event happening on that day.
1Quintana's account of this expedition is the best we have in Spanish literature. It forms part of his "Lives of Celebrated Spaniards" (1807-1833), a standard work of the encyclopedia class. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was born at Xerxes, in Spain, in 1475, and died in Panama about 1517. His first visit to America was made in 1500. Ten years later he went to Darien, where he became alcalde of a new settlement. In 1512 he was made governor of San Domingo.
While Governor of San Domingo Balboa learned from the Indians that there was a great sea lying to the south and west, and in September 1513, set out from Darien to discover it. After an adventurous journey he reached, on September 25th, a mountain top from which he first saw the Pacific. After building some ships for use on the Pacific and transporting them with immense labor across the Isthmus, launching two of them, Balboa was arrested by the governor of the colony on a charge of contemplated revolt and beheaded.
22 Careta was an Indian chief whose friendship Balboa secured.
3The date of this view of the Pacific by Balboa was September 25, 1513. Readers of the poems of Keats are familiar with the error his sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's 'Homer,'" where, by a curious error, never corrected, he makes Cortez, instead of Balboa, the Spaniard who stood "silent upon a peak in Darien."