"Silent, upon a peak in Darien" - Vasco Núñez de Balboa's Discovery of the Pacific Ocean

24 September 1513 - near the Bay of San Miguel, 80 miles south of present-day Panama City, the conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa became the first European to behold the Pacific Ocean.

“Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men / Look'd at each other with a wild surmise — / Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” (John Keats, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer")

The cover of a Spanish comic series called “Aventuras de la Vida Real“
from June 1956, showing Balboa taking possession of the Mar del Sur*

It might actually have been Keats’ famous poem attributing the discovery of the great Mar del Sur to Hernán Cortés that Balboa and his sheer incredible feat of crossing the Isthmus of Panama is half-forgotten in most parts of the world. Nonetheless, Balboa’s expedition proved that Christopher Columbus did not reach some unknown part of Asia but had stumbled across a new continent. However, Balboa could hold his own with the worst of the conquistadores. Stemming from impoverished Galician nobility, he came to Cuba, seeking fame and fortune as a pig farmer after sailing with Rodrigo de Bastidas who discovered the Gulf of Darién on the Columbian coast in 1500, blowing his money and getting into debt, fleeing the island cloak-and-dagger-style, taking command of a Panama-bound emigrant ship after promising passengers and crew he knew of a gold bearing river, founded the first permanent European settlement on the Spanish Main and ended up as the governor of the Province of Darién in 1510.

A 19th century imagination of Balboa taking possession of the Pacific Ocean for Spain

Then, Balboa went down to business in earnest. He and his men brought general mayhem over the indigenous people of the region, plundered and murdered, allied themselves with a local tribe, Balboa married the cazique Careta’s daughter and together, Careta and Balboa marauded even more. However, the two were invited to a feast by another mighty cazique and as he saw how the conquistadores leaped at the gold on the banquet table the locals looked on as just another type of metal, their host told them of the other ocean in the west and the El Dorado of the South, maybe the name “Piru” was mentioned here first and Balboa pricked up his ears. He assembled an expedition of 190 Spanish volunteers, Francisco Pizarro among them, and asked for the shortest route to the other sea. The locals sent him on his way across the Isthmus of Panama, through one of the most dangerous terrains in Middle America.

Frederick A. Ober:  "Execution of Vasco Núñez de Balboa" (1906)

The Isthmus of Darién, as it was known back then, stretched over roughly 30 miles, dense primeval jungle full to the brim with every imaginable hazard. The three weeks it took the conquistadores to cover the distance saw 120 of them dead - and not only because Balboa left behind everyone too sick or injured to drag on. When native guides pointed out a mountain from which the other ocean would be visible, Balboa ordered his men to stay behind, climbed up to the top alone and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. Then he ordered the others up the mountain to share his triumph. Four days later, the conquistadores reached the shoreline of the bay of San Miguel, Balboa stepped into the surf and claimed the Mar del Sur for Spain. Even though he was appointed as Captain General of Coiba and Panama and governor of the South Sea, the machinations of one Martin de Enciso, the captain of the ship who was disposed by Balboa five years earlier, finally came to fruition and he was accused of setting up a rebel kingdom in Panama, seized by Pizarro and executed for treason in January 1519 before he could return to Spain and defend himself. Pizarro set forth seven years later to conquer Peru, while Magellan gave the name the name of “Pacific”, peaceful, to the Ocean while he lay off the Philippines in 1520 in calm weather during his circumnavigation.

* The image was found on: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bermoraca/1538193745/

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