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ON THE SHORES OF THE PACIFIC
"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,
When a new planet swims into his ken,
Or like stout Balboa 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."
 AMONG the conquistadores of America there is no more heroic figure than Vasco Nunez
de Balboa, who looms large in history, second only to Columbus, perhaps, in the magnitude
of his discovery. The admiral himself had sought persistently for a passage into the
ocean, which he firmly believed existed beyond the continent by which he was confronted in
1502; but it remained for Balboa to reveal that ocean seven years after the great
navigator had passed away. Balboa is also the most picturesque figure in the conquest of
America by the Spaniards, and especially when, at the culmination of his efforts, he stood
with sword in hand, and armor-clad, "silent, upon a peak in Darien."'
 He was then at the zenith of his power, as well as in possession of the health and
strength of vigorous manhood, for he was but thirty-eight years of age at the time he made
his great discovery. For a few months only he was to retain that power undisputed; then
was to ensue a period of depression in his fortunes, followed by his early death. So long
as he remained at a distance from Antigua del Darien, devoting himself to original
research in the wilderness and the subjugation of the natives, his success was
unparalleled; but whenever he returned to the settlement disaster seemed to welcome him.
Leading his enthusiastic soldiers down the southern slopes of the mountain, Balboa entered
the province of a cacique named Chiapes, who, unaware of what had happened
 to his northern neighbor, Quaraqua, like him offered battle to the strangers. They were
few in number, wayworn and hungry-looking, so he set upon them with his warriors—and
his experience was like that of all others who had opposed Balboa, who poured a volley
from his arquebuses into the ranks of the enemy, and then, in the confusion that followed,
let loose the dogs of war.
Stunned by the reports of the guns, confused by smoke and flames, and overcome with
astonishment, many of the Indians fell to the ground and became easy prey to the
blood-hounds, while many others were made captive. To these latter the Quaraquano guides
made such representations of the Spaniards' power to slay by means of thunder and
lightning, and of their magnanimity to the vanquished, that Cacique Chiapes issued from
his hiding-place and appeared before Balboa with gifts of wrought gold amounting to five
hundred pounds in weight. In return he received the proffered friendship of the commander,
and trifles like hawk-bells, beads, and looking-glasses, with which he was greatly pleased
Their friendship having been established
 on a secure basis, Balboa sent back his guides and carriers to Quaraqua with orders for
all his soldiers there, who were able, to join him without delay. While he remained in the
cacique's village, three scouting-parties of twelve men each were sent out to explore the
country between the mountains and the southern coast. These several parties were commanded
by Juan de Escary, Alonzo Martin, and Francisco Pizarro, the last-named—then a
lieutenant or captain under Balboa—to become, in the wisdom of Providence, the
conqueror of Peru. The scouting-party under Alonzo Martin was the first to reach the
sea-side, and, finding on the beach an Indian canoe, the captain stepped into it and was
pushed by his men out into the water, so that he could rightfully claim to be the first
European to embark upon the southern ocean.
After his scouts had returned and the men from Quaraqua had rejoined him, Balboa himself
set out for the coast, with less than thirty men, but all well armed, and accompanied by
Cacique Chiapes and some warriors. They reached the sea-side on the last day of September,
1513, at evening, and as the tide was out sat down to await
 its return. The tides on the Caribbean coast of the isthmus rise and fall but little,
while on the Pacific coast they are swift and turbulent. Soon the flats in front of Balboa
were covered with foaming waters rushing in like war-horses, and, leaving his shady seat
beneath the forest trees above the beach, he advanced to meet the curling waves. He was in
complete armor, with a shining helmet on his head, breast-plate, greaves, and gauntlets.
He must have seemed a brave and gallant figure indeed to Chiapes and his warriors as,
drawing his sword and taking in his left hand a banner upon which was painted the arms of
Castile and Aragon, he waded into the tide. The fierce waves assailed him violently,
dashing first against his knees, then against waist and breast; but he withstood them
valiantly, and, waving both banner and sword, shouted 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
 "Long live the sovereigns of Spain!" shouted the band on shore. "We will defend these
their new possessions, even to the death, and against all the potentates of the world.
Viva! Viva!" Returning to shore, Vasco Nunez drew a dagger and with it carved
a cross on the trunk of a tree, saying; "In this sign we shall conquer the heathen, and
the blessings of our religion will we give them, in exchange for their barbarous
practices. At the point of the sword will we compel them. Now taste ye the waters of this
sea, and by its being salt shall ye know that they are of the ocean. They are salt, like
the seas of the north; and the waters are vast, like the seas of the north; but from them
they are separated by intervening mountains, as ye know, and can swear that they pertain
to the great Sea of the South, which has been the object of long search, and at last is
found and taken possession of for our dread sovereigns." Saying this, he caused the notary
of the expedition, Andres de Valderrabano, to confirm all that had been done and said in
writing, to which all present subscribed their names.
The spot where these historic incidents took place was a secluded nook in the great
 and tortuous bay of San Miguel, which deeply indents the southern coast of Darien, and
lies southwest from the harbor of Careta, in a straight line about sixty miles distant.
Both names still adorn modern maps of the isthmus, and indicate approximately the terminal
points of Balboa's great journey from the north coast to the south, in the year 1513.
Cacique Chiapes and his men looked on in wonder while their new allies performed the
strange ceremonials, remaining passive, but evidently not approving what they did not
understand. When, however, a few days later, Balboa demanded of the cacique that he
produce canoes in which he might embark for some distant islands, the latter protested
that the time was bad for ventures on the sea. It was then the month of October, and that
month, with November and December, comprised the season of storms, in which the winds were
strong and variable, the seas at any moment liable to rise suddenly. But Balboa was
persistent. He cared not for the storms. "My God will protect me," he said. "For am I not
fighting the good fight and converting the infidels to the true faith? Go get the canoes."
 Cacique Chiapes shook his head and said, "Perhaps your God may be stronger than my god;
but no god that the Indians serve can protect us from the waves at this season of the
"That is because the god you worship is not the true God, whom we reverently serve,"
answered Balboa. "He hath protected us, 'mid dangers many, and will continue to do so."
But Chiapes was unconvinced, and as chief of an inland tribe, unacquainted with
navigation, he hesitated to embark. He compromised, however, by guiding the Spaniards to
the littoral province of one Cuquera, whose subjects were fishermen and owned a great
number of canoes. Cuquera confirmed the statement of Chiapes, that the season was
unpropitious for a venture at sea, but at sight of some pearls the chief displayed, which,
he said, had been obtained on the islands off-shore, Balboa was more than ever determined
to make the voyage. Overcoming the objections of the caciques, he crowded sixty of his men
into nine canoes, and, accompanied by the faithful Chiapes, embarked upon the bosom of the
gulf. Hardly, however, had the canoes reached open water,
 when they were assailed by a frightful tempest. "Deafening was the tumult of the
infuriated winds, which strewed the earth with the frail materials of the Indian huts. The
rivers, swollen by the rains, overflowed their banks, tearing away in their violent course
rocks and trees; and the tempestuous sea, roaring horribly among the rocky islands and
reefs with which the gulf is filled, broke its waves against them, menacing with
inevitable shipwreck those audacious mortals who had invaded this watery realm."
The intrepid spirit of Balboa had caused him to mock these dangers when on land; but soon
he had good cause to repent his rash impulse, and, yielding to the importunities of the
Indians, sought shelter on an islet. It appeared to be high and dry as the company landed
there in the evening, but during the night the rising tide gained upon them until finally
they were waist-deep in water. At or near midnight the wind went down with the tide, and
at dawn next morning the unfortunate mariners sought their canoes, only to find them
partially wrecked and all the provisions they had contained washed away. They spent part
of the day in calking the open seams with grass and the bark
 of trees, and in the afternoon embarked in the crazy craft and sought the shore.
After hours of exposure to the tropic sun, they landed near nightfall at the upper end of
the gulf, in the province of a cacique named Tumaco. The Spaniards, like the Indians, were
weak and famishing, having labored all day without either food or drink; but no sooner had
they made land in safety than the indomitable Balboa set out in search of the Indian town.
It was at a little distance from the shore, and was not reached until midnight. The
inhabitants had been informed of their coming and made a stout defence; but were soon
routed by the Spaniards and driven into the forest at the point of the sword.
Groping within the bohios, or Indian huts, the victors found an abundant supply of
provisions, with which they appeased their raging appetites, and also a large number of
beautiful pearls, besides a quantity of gold. As some of the pearls were contained in
shells freshly taken from the water, Balboa concluded that the seat of the pearl fishery
was not far distant, and was very anxious to obtain possession of the cacique, believing
that he could inform him in the matter.
 Having captured a son of Tumaco, he loaded him with gifts, such as a shirt made in
Castile, and other trifles valued by the savages, and sent him in search of his father.
The chief had sought refuge in a wild den among the rocks, deep in the forest; but he was
very much impressed by the beautiful presents brought by his son, and consented to emerge
from his retreat. When he appeared before Balboa he had with him six hundred pieces of
gold, and pearls to the number of two hundred and forty. The gold was wrought into
ornaments, and the pearls, though most of them large and perfect in shape, had been
injured by fire, with which the Indians had opened the shells.
All this treasure Tumaco presented to Balboa, and when he saw with what joy it was
received, and understood that the pearls were especially appreciated, he sent a party of
his divers to search for more. Thirty naked Indians, accustomed all their lives to dive
for pearls, went down the coast in a canoe, accompanied by six Spaniards as witnesses; but
the sea was so rough that they dared not fish in deep water, where the large pearl-oysters
lay. The storm, however, had caused a great number of oysters to be washed
 ashore, and there they collected more than ninety ounces of small though perfect
pearls, which were freely given to the Spaniards. The best of these, with specimens of the
oysters from which they were taken, were set apart by the conscientious Balboa, as an
acceptable gift to his sovereign.
More precious than pearls, however highly they were valued by the explorer, was certain
information conveyed to Balboa by Tumaco, confirming the rumors that had reached him in
the interior, respecting a vast country to the southward, which abounded in gold and gems.
This was Peru, subsequently to be subjugated by Francisco Pizarro, then a humble follower
of Balboa, and with him on this occasion. In order to impress the Spaniards with the high
state of that country's civilization, Tumaco described as well as he could the beasts of
burden used by the inhabitants of the distant empire. He moulded in clay, it is said, a
figure of the animal known as the llama, which the Spaniards, as they had never seen or
heard of it before, supposed might be a deer or a tapir—the latter being the largest
animal they had found in South America.
But, great and glowing as were Balboa's
 hopes respecting that wonderful country to the southward, he was obliged to confess
himself unable to explore it at that season and with the small force at his command. He
made an experimental voyage along the coast for several leagues, cautiously feeling his
way through an inundated forest on the border of the gulf, but dared not venture out at
sea, where the wild winds roared and the waves beat incessantly upon the shores of distant
islands. Pointing to one of these islands about five or six leagues distant, Tumaco told
Balboa that its waters produced the largest and finest of pearls, such as the Spaniards
had never seen, for size and beauty; but he could not take him to it then, much as he
desired to please him. The two chiefs, the Indian and the Spaniard, were then in the
former's war-canoe, hewn from the trunk of an immense forest tree, and paddled by a crew
of sixty Indians. The paddlers themselves were stark naked, but the heads of the oars they
used were inlaid with pearls. Of this circumstance, says a contemporary chronicler,
"Balboa caused a record to be made by the notary, for the sake, no doubt, of establishing
the credit of what he himself should write to the sovereign
 (no less needy and covetous than the discoverers themselves) concerning the opulence of
the new country."
Several weeks were consumed by Balboa in exploring the country adjacent to San Miguel, and
on a day in the first week of November, Tumaco took him and his companions in his
war-canoe to the uppermost end of the great bay. With them also was the still faithful
Chiapes, who considered himself in some sort as Balboa's sponsor, and who, when the time
for parting came, is said to have shed tears, so deeply was he affected. He gladly assumed
the care of the Spanish sick and wounded, and took them with him to his village in the
mountains, while Balboa, with his able-bodied veterans, essayed to return by another route
across the isthmus. The territory at the head of the bay was controlled by Cacique
Techoan, who vied with the other chiefs in bestowing gold and pearls upon the Spaniards,
and who furnished them with burden-bearers and provisions for the journey.
That Techoan was not entirely disinterested was shown conclusively by his guiding them to
the abode of a cacique whom he represented as a rich and powerful lord, but
 an insufferable tyrant. This tyrant was known as the "Croesus of the mountains" (or its
equivalent in the Indian language), and, as may be believed by those acquainted with the
character of Balboa, the latter was not unwilling to seek him out and make his
acquaintance. But Ponca (for that was his name) was not anxious to meet the Spaniards,
especially when he learned that they were coming in company with his deadly enemy, and
fled farther into the mountains, taking with him, it was thought, the bulk of his
treasure. He left behind, however, some three thousand pieces of gold, which the Indian
allies discovered and took to Balboa, who used every exertion to entrap him and force him
to disclose the hiding-place of his vast wealth. He caught him at last; but when
questioned as to his gold, Ponca answered that all he had the Spaniards already possessed,
and that it had been left him by his ancestors. More than this he would not disclose, even
when the cruel Spaniards put him to the torture, and, provoked by his obstinacy, in the
heat of their passion, gave him and three companions to the dogs, who finished the
revolting business by tearing them to pieces.
 In extenuation of their cruelty the Spaniards afterwards described Ponca as a monster of
depravity, with deformed limbs, a frightful countenance, and a sanguinary nature. The
guilt of his death, said one of their countrymen, "rests more with the Indians than the
Castilians; yet they were not the judges of Ponca!" They assumed, however,
that any Indian who refused to reveal the hiding-place of treasures which they desired to
possess was deserving of death, believing, as they did, that there was nothing of greater
worth in the world than gold, or its equivalent in material wealth. Thus cheaply did they
hold the lives of the Indians, reckoning their immortal souls as of less worth than
perishable gold. In this respect Balboa was no better than his comrades, and in truth set
them an example which they were not slow in following.
The senseless avarice of the Spaniards wrought its own retribution on this journey, for
they had laden their carriers with gold to a greater extent than with provisions, and this
was done notwithstanding their route lay through a sterile wilderness yielding no
supplies. The consequence was that they soon began to feel the effects of famine,
 some of them, as well as many Indian carriers, sinking by the wayside to rise no more.
Rumors preceding the Spaniards informed the natives that they desired, above all other
things, gold and like treasure, and thus gold was invariably brought as a peace offering,
to the neglect of provisions, so that the soldiers (says the historian who perused
Balboa's journal) "yet wanted nourishment and pursued their melancholy way, cursing the
riches which burdened but could not feed them."
Still they clung desperately to those riches, stained as they were with the blood of
innocent Indians, and when Balboa learned that a short distance off the main route he was
pursuing there lived a powerful cacique named Tubanama, who had, according to report, vast
stores of gold, he made a forced march and by a night attack fell upon and surprised him,
with all his family. When threatened that unless he gave up his gold he should be tortured
and thrown to the dogs, or bound hand and foot and cast into the river, he approached
Balboa and, pointing to his naked sword, exclaimed: "Who that hath not lost his senses
would think of prevailing against that weapon,
 which can cleave a man at a stroke? Who would not rather caress than oppose such men as
thou? Kill me not, I implore thee, and I will bring thee all the gold I possess, and as
much more as can be procured!"