Bits & Pieces

March 22, 2011

Balboa And The South Sea

Estimates vary on the number of natives who inhabited the isthmus of Panama when the Spanish Explorers arrived, but it is generally accepted that there were about one million.  The largest group of natives were the Cuna on the Atlantic side of the Darien area, followed by the Choco on the Pacific side and the Guaymi on the highlands near the Costa Rican border.
Among the three groups, land was communally owned and farmed.  In addition to fishing, the natives raised corn, cotton, cacao, various root crops and other vegetables and fruit.  They lived in thatched huts and slept in hammocks as many still do.
Cuna Native Hut - Armand Reclus, French Naval Officer, 1876
(Loteria Magazine)
Rodrigo de Bastidas was one of the first Spanish explorers to reach the Isthmus sailing westward from Venezuela in 1501.  A year later, Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage, touched several points on the Isthmus.  One was a horseshoe-shaped harbor that he named Puerto Bello, later renamed Portobelo.  By 1510, the settlement of Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien had been established on the Colombian shores near the Atrato River and the explorer, Vasco Nunez de Balboa,
had been elected co-mayor with Martin Zamudio.  This settlement, by the way, was the first city to be duly constituted by the Spanish crown. 
While as mayor of Santa Maria la Antigua, and later its governor, Balboa heard many tales of another sea and gold to the south.  So, on September 1, 1513, Balboa set out with 190 Spaniards, among them Francisco Pizarro who later conquered Peru, a pack of dogs and 1000 native slaves to search for the sea and riches on the south.  Leaving Santa Maria la Antigua on a small brigantine and native canoes, he sailed along the coast to the native town of Careta.  Here he turned south and entered the jungle following, most likely, native trails.  Reaching the Chucunaque River, he was told by the natives that the South Sea could be seen from the summit of the nearby range.  On September 25, Balboa reached the summit by himself and saw, far away in the horizon, the waters of the undiscovered sea.  Calling his men up, they all joined in a display of emotions which was soon followed the the chaplain's intoning the Te Deum while the men erected stone pyramids to mark the spot from which their discovery had been made.  Unfortunately, to this day, there is no definite proof as to the actual location of this point on the mountain range.
After the celebration was over, the expedition descended from the mountain range, crossed the Tuira River and headed to the area where La Palma is now located.  Following trails along the coast, they reached he coast probably west of what is now Playa del Muerto.  Once there, Balboa raised his sword with one hand and held the standard of the Virgin Mary with the other and, walking knee deep into the ocean, claimed possession of the new sea and all adjoining lands in the name of the Spanish sovereigns.  Traveling more than 68 miles, Balboa named the bay where they ended up, Golfo de San Miguel because they had arrived on September 29, the feast day of the Archangel Michael. He named the new sea Mar del Sur because he had traveled south to reach it.
Balboa discovers the Pacific Ocean (South Sea)(Wikipedia)
While on the coast, Balboa learned about islands where pearls were abundant, so he set out in canoes towards these islands, barely making it because of bad weather.  He named the largest one Isla Rica (Rich Island known today as Isla del Rey).  He named the entire group Archipielago de las Perlas.
Balboa's Route to the Pacific Ocean and back. (Wikipedia)
Statues of Balboa: In Panama, left and Madrid, right (Wikipedia)
In November, Balboa started his trip back to Santa Maria arriving there on January, 1514.  Balboa fell prey to political machinations and was beheaded at Acla, Panama,  near Santa Maria, on January 15, 1519.  In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan renamed the sea the Pacific Ocean because of its calm waters.
Sources: Library of Congress Country Studies, Wikipedia, U.S. Library of Congress

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas