Vasco de Balboa

Explorer

Age of Discovery

Quick Facts:

Vasco de Balboa is credited as being the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean from the New World, which paved the way for Spanish expansion.

Name: Vasco Núñez de Balboa

Birth/Death: 1475 CE - 1514 CE

Nationality: Spanish

Birthplace: Spain

A portrait of Vasco Nunez de Balboa.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa

A portrait of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (New York, Harper, 1906.)
(Credit: Ober, Frederick A.)

Early Life

  • Vasco de Balboa, or Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, was born in Spain in 1475. Not much is known about his family, though his father was apparently a former knight. His mother’s name is never mentioned.
  • Balboa’s family had been wealthy noblemen at one point but the family’s prestige had fallen by the time of Balboa’s birth. The young Spaniard managed to secure a position as a page for another noble family, serving until an adult. The family he served had been explorers themselves, prompting Balboa’s interest in the New World.
  • In 1500, Balboa signed on to an expedition led by Rodrigo de Bastidas. The goal of the expedition was to explore modern day Venezuela. The King gave Bastidas two ships and the expedition set sail in 1501. The ships reached the New World soon after and sailed up and down the coast of Central America. Bastidas and his men found no gold, however, and began to plan their trip back to Spain. It was then that they learned their ships were infested with ship-worms, parasites that would eat through the wood of their ships. Both ships sank in 1502, forcing the crew to abandon the ships and swim to the beaches of Haiti where they were accused of smuggling and stripped of all their goods.
  • Left stranded in the New World poor and hungry, he attempted to make a living as a pig farmer but quickly found himself in debt soon after.

A Second Chance

  • In 1509, Vasco de Balboa and his dog Leoncico stowed away onboard a ship that was under the command of Martin Fernandez de Enciso. The ship was bound for the town of San Sebastian, a port under constant attack from hostile native tribes. Enciso quickly found Balboa and his dog but decided not to punish them. San Sebastian was located on the same coast that Balboa had sailed years before and his experience was greatly respected. Enciso brought Balboa along and the two quickly formed a strong friendship.
  • The ship arrived to find Francisco Pizarro and other survivors on the coast. They had fled San Sebastian, immediately souring relations with Enciso. Balboa, on the other hand, showed much more respect for Pizarro, forging another friendship and creating a rivalry between Pizarro and Enciso. The combined force marched back to San Sebastian to find the town burned and in ruins. Balboa, demonstrating great leadership, convinced the party to march north to establish another colony near tribes not as hostile to the Spanish and founded the town of Santa Marta.
  • Enciso was supposedly in charge of the city, but his authority quickly began falling apart. The men were unhappy with his leadership and elected Balboa mayor, leading to Enciso’s arrest and deportation back to Spain. Balboa proved to be a successful leader, allying himself with the surrounding tribes in exchange for protection. The local chiefs began to tell Balboa of lands to the south and west full of gold, which enticed the Spanish. Balboa took a keen interest in the tales of a sea to the west as another possible way to reach the wealthy Spice Islands that the Spanish were desperate to find.

Discovering the Pacific

  • The Spice Islands were located on the other side of Africa, a hazardous and long journey for Spain that stretched around the southern tip of the African Continent. The main Spanish rivals, the Portuguese, also controlled much of the region through the Treaty of Tordesillas, which gave the Portuguese everything east of a line drawn straight through the Atlantic. If the Spanish could find a route west it would greatly benefit their trade. The possible existence of an easy overland route to the Pacific was too enticing to pass up for Balboa.
  • In 1513, the explorer sent a request back to Spain to fund a mission to find the route. The message, unfortunately, never made it to the king as the messenger’s ship sank. The town of Santa Marta, meanwhile, grew restless under Balboa’s authority. Word had spread that Balboa’s dog, Leoncico, was getting the same pay as a regular soldier!
  • Feeling uneasy with the local population and hearing rumors of his potential arrest for how he handled his former commander Enciso, Balboa took 190 loyal soldiers and set off without the King’s approval. Guided by the local tribes he had befriended, Balboa marched through dense jungle and hostile tribes. The route he was taking was across Panama, the thinnest stretch of land separating the two oceans.
  • By September, he had finally reached his destination. Balboa became the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean from the New World. He waded in to the waves, declared the ocean and all the land in it for Spain, and marched back to Santa Marta.

His Demise

  • Vasco de Balboa hoped his discovery would grant him favor with the King, but instead, he found that the king had replaced him. The surrounding area still had a favorable opinion of Balboa, however, and the Spaniard fled to the Pacific coast where he built two small ships and sailed along the coast looking for gold.
  • Nervous that Balboa would attempt to lead a rebellion, the new leadership in Santa Marta dispatched Balboa’s old friend Francisco Pizarro to arrest the explorer. Balboa offered no resistance and was brought back to Santa Marta for trial. Found guilty of treason, Balboa was sentenced to death. Knowing little good would come from a fight, the explorer accepted his punishment and was executed later that same year.

Legacy

  • Vasco de Balboa is credited as being the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean from the New World.
  • Balboa’s expedition to the Pacific changed the world for Spain. Spain now knew that there was indeed ocean to sail to the east away from the Portuguese. Ultimately, Ferdinand Magellan and his crew would be the first to sail the ocean entirely.
  • His expeditions paved the way for Spanish expansion throughout the New World.
  • Romoli, Kathleen Balboa of Darién: Discoverer of the Pacific New York: Doubleday and Company, 1953 (E125 .B2 R6)
  • Baker, Daniel Explorers and Discoverers of the World Washington, DC: Gale Research, Inc., 1993 (E125 .B2 R6)
  • Strawn, Arthur The Golden Adventures of Balboa: Discoverer of the Pacific London: John Lane, Ltd., 1929 (E125 .B2 S9)

1.  What was Rodrigo de Bastidas’ mission in 1500?

a.)  explore Venezuela

b.) arrest Francisco Pizarro for treason

c.) re-supply Hispaniola

d.)  attempt to find a land route to the Pacific

2.  TRUE or FALSE: Vasco de Balboa and the rest of Bastidas’ expedition in 1502 after their ships were sunk by the Portuguese.

3.  Who was in command of the ship that Balboa stowed away on?

a.)  Rodrigo de Bastidas

b.)  Martin Fernandez de Enciso

c.)  Francisco Pizarro

d.)  Hernando Cortes

4.  TRUE or FALSE: Francisco Pizarro became immensely unpopular with the town of Santa Marta and was arrested, eventually being deported to Spain.

5.  TRUE or FALSE: Balboa had the full approval of the Spanish King to embark on an expedition to find the Pacific Ocean.

6.  What was something Balboa did that had particularly angered the people of Santa Marta?

a.)  he refused to send for supplies

b.)  his dog was getting paid as a soldier

c.)  he was starting wars with the natives

d.)  he was confiscating everyone’s gold

7.  Who was sent to arrest Balboa in 1514, ultimately sending him to his execution?

a.)  Martin Fernandez de Enciso

b.)  Ferdinand Magellan

c.)  Francisco Pizarro

d.)  nobody, Balboa turned himself in