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Balboa: His Great Discovery

 

Entrada En Darien Y El Mar Sur

The first six months at Santa Maria were occupied in building the Spanish town alongside the Indian town, in setting the natives to plant more fields, and in prospecting for gold. At an undetermined early date, gold was found in streams of the Serrania (mountains) a dozen miles to the west, the first effective discovery of placers on the mainland.

By the late spring of 1511 Balboa was ready to begin exploration. The first direction taken was northwest along the coast in the province of Careta, which adjoined that of Darien, the seat of its cacique twenty leagues distant. Like Darien, Careta lay on the Caribbean shore and extended inland into the Serrania Del Darien. The mountain crest here was much lower than behind Darien; the foothills extended to the sea, forming a shore of cliffs headlands and rocky islands; and there were no broad lowlands. (The Scottish settlement that took the same name Darien was attempted here in the following century and has left the names Caledonia Bay and Punta Escoces). Careta was only able to provide only a small store of food, but it gave a welcome tribute of fabricated gold. What was more important, it became and remained a willing Spanish colony.

At the time, the Caretans were at war with another cacicazgo inland named Ponca after its chief. The mountain land of Ponca lay partly astride the Serrania, and largely on the interior side, drained by streams joining to form the Rio Balas (Chucunaque). Balboa helped his new friends, taking and sacking the seat of Ponca on the far side of the mountain ridge. In doing so he discovered an easy entry into Colombia to the Canal Zone. At the time he could only know that he had gotten across the mountains by a low saddle and that there was a wide and inhabited lowland ahead that stretched along the interior of the mountain range he had been following.

From Ponca the Spanish party, led by its new friends from Careta, turned northwest to visit another cacique, Comogre. This exploration was to point the way to the occupation of the as yet unknown Isthmus. Balboa had the sense of orientation in strange terrain that marks the explorer, and this was his first and well-remembered lesson in its topography. The Ponca territory drained into a river that he was to follow later on its southward course, the Rio De Las Balsas, now called Chucunaque. The land of Comogre straddled the low divide between the basin of the Chucunaque and that of the Rio Bayano. Peter Martyr heard from the participant Colmenares that Comogre held a fertile plain twelve leagues in extent beginning thirty leagues from Darien. The province of Comogre was mainly in the upper part of the Bayano drainage, but also extended north across the low coastal range to the Caribbean, largely an open country except for woods along the rivers and ravines.

The visitors were well received and lavishly feasted at the great house of Comogre, which was a hundred fifty paces long and fifty wide, with ornately carved beams, a finely decorated floor, and a defense of stone walls. Its cellar was stocked with large earthen jars that held wine made from yucca, sweet potatoes, maize, and palm fruits (probably the peach palm Guiliema). Some of the wine was said to be in wooden kegs like those of Spain or Italy. The desiccated bodies of ancestors hung from the rafters with gold masks covering their faces. The visitors were presented with worked gold objects to the value of four thousand gold drachmas and also with seventy slaves.

The new friendship was sealed by alliance. On that occasion the eldest son of Comogre made a speech, reproved the Spaniards for taking fine gold jewelry and melting it down into bars, whereas the natives prized the art of the goldsmiths, not the weight of gold. If it was gold the Spaniards were after, they should return with a thousand men so that they could subjugate other chiefs and get all the gold they wanted. While doing so, he would lead them to headlands at a distance of six suns. From these they could look out over the other sea on which were ships as large as theirs. Las Casas was of the opinion that these ships had come from Peru, the Incas having had a great balsas under sail that traded to the north, some of which may have reached the Golfo De Panama. Thus, as early as the fall of 1511, Balboa had word of the other ocean. The Indians throughout the Isthmus carried on trade across it. Bartholomew Columbus had drawn a sketch in Rome of the Isthmus that his brother thought to be the Golden Chersonese, from which one could sail to the Ganges.

In contrast to previous blundering, this expedition was well managed and highly successful. It outlined the main route of Spanish penetration. Four native states had been secured, only one of them by a display of force and this a staged effect. Friendly caciques would provide food, carriers, guides, and even slaves. Ornaments of gold were in common use and were given as good will offerings to the visitors. Since gold was what the Spaniards wanted, they would be guided into farther lands and thus into another sea where there were sailing ships. Native provisions were available; the men in Santa Maria did not need to wait for supplies to arrive from Jamaica or Hispanola. They were free to return to Comogre and from that base to go with Indian guides to find lands rich in gold and reach the other sea. On getting the news King Ferdinand recognized the self made leader, designating Balboa, on December 23 1511, as his captain and governor of the province of Darien, without the mention of term of tenure.

Sur Del Golfo De Uraba

The promising western prospect could wait while Balboa turned his attention in 1512 to discover what lay to the south. The information is from temporary sources. The first is the letter Balboa sent to the King, dated January 20, 1513, telling how he had organized the men who were left stranded by Nicuesa and Hojeda, had made an ordered the town of Santa Maria, had secured the friendship of the provinces to the west and heard of this other sea, and had started gold mining in the mountain streams to the west of Santa Maria. He then described his second expedition, which went by canoe and longboat far up great rivers to the south. Another account is by Rodrigo De Colmenaries, who had taken part in this second discovery and returned to Spain to tell his version to Peter Martyr in 1513. The third is by Oviedo, who cane as an official to Darien in 1514, knew Balboa and many of his men, and had in his possession the records left by Balboa. The accounts mainly agree, their obscurer passages being of the physical geography of the country traversed. The party traveled by canoes and longboats up rivers that flow through swamps and tropical rain forest, a land in which there was few recognizable landmarks. Following the sinuous watercourses, they had scant knowledge of how far they got day by day.

Golfo De Uraba had been known from the time of Batistas as a major extension of the sea into the Tierra Firme. It remained for Balboa to discover how far it reached to the south and what lay beyond. At the southwest the Golfo De Uraba is constricted sharply by the delta of the Rio Atrato, forming the shallow inner pocket of bay known as the Culata. The Indian town of Darien, remade into Santa Maria, lay beyond the northwest margin of the delta. The delta in crossed by numerous and shifting tributary channels. Besides such discharges from the Atrato, the Culata also receives the flow of the Rio Leon. Indian Darien had most convent access by canoe to both the Atrato and the Leon.

Golfo De Uraba is the seaward end of a structural basin that extends southward for hundreds of miles, three hundred of which are drained by the Rio Atrato. The low, wide basin is one of the rainiest regions in the American tropics, and receives runoff of the western side of the Andean Cordillera Occidental. In volume the Atrato is great, a widely flowing river with backwater lakes, swamps and bayous. The expedition to Comogre had been the longest march undertaken by a Spanish party. The expedition south from the Golfo De Uraba would be a far more test of Balboa’s ability to take an expedition in tropical inland waterways. Again he made use of Indian information and guides.

The principle objective of 1512 was to discover the seat of the great cacique (Quevi) named Dabeiba, who was thought to live beyond the watery lowlands and was said to be fabulously rich in gold. By way of reconnaissance, Balboa set out of Santa Maria in a brigantine, skirted the delta, and landed at the mouth of the Rio Leon. They went up this river for thirty miles to a fishing village amid garden plots. The natives had fled, but left a welcome lot of ‘encrusted’ gold, which according to Peter Martyr, was worth seven thousand castellanos. Whatever these objects of a superior goldsmith were, they are unlikely to have belonged to fishermen. The village was subject to the Quevi Dabeiba, whom Peter Martyr reported as overlord of the fishermen of the Culata. The notes suggest a political geography of dependence of the Rio Leon basin on a southerly highland state; the river served as a trade route by which worked gold was taken north and dried fish was taken into the southern interior, as was the common practice on the Caribbean coasts of the Tierra Firme. The recon had been worth while. It had entered the northern lowlands that were reported subject to Dabeiba, had found a substantial amount of gold objects which, it may be inferred, were to be carried to the Golfo De Uraba, and it knew that the seat of Dabeiba must be sought farther south.

The next attempt was to go up the Rio Atrato, named Rio San Juan by Balboa, perhaps because it was entered in June 24. Oviedo heard from Balboa that this river entered the Golfo De Uraba by ten arms, six of which carried no less water than the Guadalquiver of Andalusia; also that it had great swamps and many lagoons, especially to the east, and that it flooded widely. Balboa wrote the King in January, 1513: "The manner in which this river must be navigated is by canoes of the Indians, for there are many small and narrow arms, some closed by trees, and one cannot enter except in canoes three or four palms wide. After this river had been explored, boats eight palms wide may be made to employ up to twenty oars, as in fuscats, for it is a river of great current and not easy to navigate even in Indian canoes." The blocking of passage by trees came about by their toppling into the stream and intercepting floating driftwood. Balboa mentioned large bends in the river and to the east of the river a lowland that extended to a great sierra which began inland from Uraba, low at first but rising southward "so high as to be covered with clouds. In the two years we have been here the crest has only been seen twice, for the sky is continuously covered. From this highest part it drops away. To that point [i.e., to the north] it is covered with great forests, and beyond [to the south] there are mountain ridges without trees or any brush cover." This is a fair description of the Cordillera Occidental of Colombia, with the interesting observation that it was heavily wooded to the north but not so to the south.

The accounts of the voyage up the river make no mention of the arm of the delta by which they entered. Since these arms discharge into the Culeta over a shoreline of many miles, the estimates of distance traveled up the river lack a known starting point. The channels also have shifted through the centuries, as they continue to do. Balboa mentions the distances only three times: (1) "Going up this Grande Rio San Juan about thirty leagues there is a province called Abenamaque to the right [west] which has very great promise of gold," the information given by the son of the cacique of that province whom he brought back. (2) "At thirty leagues [apparently the same thirty leagues], there entered a very beautiful and large river on the left [east] side, and two days’ travel up this latter the cacique Dabeiba could be found." (3) "I have sure news that fifty leagues up this Rio San Juan are very rich mines on both sides."

Colmenares gave Peter Martyr more information, including distances. Having gone with Balboa up the Rio De Redes, Colmenares evidently left there to go up the Rio San Juan while Balboa returned to Santa Maria before beginning his second exploration. Colmenares therefore should have entered the delta by channel nearest to the mouth of the Rio De Redes, which provided him also with the shortest passage of the delta. Colmenares went up the Rio San Juan for twelve leagues to a riverbank settlement named Turui after its chief, there to wait for the arrival of Balboa. Las Casas had it that Balboa came up by a different river arm. From Turui the party continued another such distance (forty miles) to an island of fishermen where there were wild cinnamon trees, and sixty small villages, each of about ten clustered houses. At this place a black water river came in from the right (west), so open that it could have been navigated by brigantine. At this Rio Negro and Isla De Canela they changed canoes, called urus. Fifteen miles farther they came upon a settlement of five hundred dispersed houses of the Quevi Abenamauqe, whom they captured. Las Casas called him lord of the Rio Negro. At sixty miles from the Rio Negro and Isla De Canela they reached the pueblo of the chief Abibeiba in a region of lakes, where they reached a country of cannibals, who had abandoned their huts and fled.

There have been various reconstructions of the exploration of the Atrato basin to which I may add another until someone familiar with it provides an informed interpretation. The first topographic point is the site of Turui twelve leagues, or forty miles, from the Golfo De Uraba. If Colmenares took his party from the mouth of the Rio De Redes to the Atrato by an eastern arm, the distance would put Turui where he awaited Balboa, about where the Rio Sucio about where the Rio Sucio joins the Atrato, which would have been a sensible spot to wait. The next leg of the of forty miles was to the Rio Negro and Isla Canela. At this distance the United States Aeronautical Chart shows a large area of islands formed by branching of the main river, with one major branch at the west and another at the east. They followed a western channel of open and black water, indicating that it was dark colored by humic matter and free of sediment which the eastern channel derived from the great cordillera to the east. The five hundred dispersed houses of Abenamaque suggest that they were strung along natural levee banks. Sixty miles or so farther, it not being certain from what point, they reached the land of Abibeiba, a land of lakes, where a large and beautiful river entered from the east. Either the Rio Murri or the Rio Arquia may be considered as the possible seat of Abibeiba. Both rise in the higher parts of the Cordillera Occidental, and between them a mountain spur nearly three thousand meters high extends to about a dozen miles onto the Atrato. When the chief was pressed for gold he offered to go to the mountains nearby and procure it. That his great house was built in a tree does not prove that it was on land subject to inundation. Colmenares was told that the store of wine was kept on the ground, servants entertaining the guests in the tree house by running up and down ladders to bring the wine, the explanation being that the tree house shook too much for in the wind for the wine to be stored aloft. Having been well fed and wined, the Spanish party went on up the river for another thirty miles until they came to the country of the ‘cannibals’. By this tentative reckoning the exploration may have gone as far as the vicinity of Quibdo.

Oviedo considered the discovery of the Rio San Juan one of the most important and renowned deeds carried out overseas, and gave Balboa credit for foresight and the care of his men, no captain equaling him in this respect. The natives were roughed up on occasion but the purpose of the expedition was to discover a feasible water route to new gold lands rather than to pillage. No penetration into an unknown interior equaled it until Cortes. The entry was made into an area that has remained to the present day as one of the least known areas of the New World.

 

El Oro De Dabeiba

To the west of Darien, Balboa opened a gateway at Comogre that would give him additional attractive and amenable natives states to control, as well as a way to the other sea. He then turned back in the opposite direction to find out what lay south of the Golfo De Uraba where there was said to be the lord of golden treasure called Dabeiba. Having seen and heard enough to feel sure there was such a lord and land, he returned to Santa Maria. Balboa operated on a strategy of limited objectives. Having advanced his right flank to a favorable position at Comogre, he led a deep penetration on his left to make sure that he could take his men up the Rio San Juan when the time came to move against the land of Dabeiba. He tested out the long water route to his satisfaction and thought that he had gathered enough information about the country beyond it for a future campaign. He had both the prudence to investigate before taking action and not to commit his limited resources beyond their capacity.

In his letter to the King he thought that the ‘great and beautiful river’ out of the east (Rio Murri?) would lead by a journey of two days to the cacique Dabeiba,

"a very great lord of a large territory and inhabited by many people. He has gold in large quantity at his house, so much that anyone who does not know the condition of this land will hardly believe it. I know from sure news. From the house this cacique Dabeiba comes all the gold that goes through the Golfo De Uraba and all the caciques of the surrounding areas. The report is of many pieces in strange forms and of great size. Many Indians that have seen it tell of this cacique Dabeiba has certain chests of gold each requiring a man to lift. This cacique collects the gold found at a distance from the mountains and the manner he gets it is thus: at two days journey farther on these beautiful land of very Carib and bad people who eat humans when they can get them. They are people without a ruler and give obedience to no one. They are a war-like people, each living as he wishes. These are the owners of the mines which according to the information are the richest in the world. These mines are in a country that appears to have the highest mountains in the New World, [which leads to the account of the Cordillera Central previously quoted, forested to the north and treeless farther south, Dabeiba living in the latter country. Continuing with the subjects of mines, he located these at two days from the place of Dabeiba towards sunrise, the rising sun shining upon them.] the manner of collecting gold is effortless and is done in two ways. The one is that they wait until the rivers have risen in their narrow valleys and turn dry after the floods pass, at which time the gold is exposed in what is washed out of the ravines, carried from the sierra in very sizable nuggets, the Indians indicating the size of oranges or of a fist, and according to their gestures also pieces in the shape of flat plates. There is another way of collecting gold, to await the time of the drying of the herbaceous vegetation in the mountains and then sets fire to them. After the burning they go look for it in the heights and likeliest parts and collect the gold in large amounts of fine nuggets. These Indians who collect this gold bring it to be melted and traded with the cacique Dabeiba. As pay in the trade, he gives them Indian boys and girls to be eaten and Indian women to serve as their own women and these are not to be eaten. He give them pigs of which are many in this land. He gives them a lot of fish, cotton clothes, and salt. He gives them objects of fabricated as they desire it. Those Indians trade only with this cacique Dabeiba and not with any other place. This cacique has a great collection of gold in his house and a hundred men continually fabricating gold. All of this I know dependable information because I am never told anything different wherever I go. I have learned thus from many caciques and Indians, as well as from subjects of this cacique Dabeiba as from other sources, finding it to be true by many ways, putting some to the torture, treating others with love, and giving others presents of things from the castle."

This is a remarkable document in what it tells of Balboa as well as Dabeiba. The information was secured from Indians about a country no Spaniard had seen. On Golfo De Darien, Balboa having heard that their gold jewelry came from Dabeiba, he continued to collect notes about that cacique and his land. The topographic information was that the seat of Dabeiba was in a somewhat level area within the long cordillera east of the Rio San Juan, a champaign country without monte, meaning trees and brush. There are such basins of subtropical and temperate climates about the upper drainage of the Rio Sucio and Rio Murri, favored by much less rain than the adjacent lowlands to the west. Later Spanish explorers observed treeless basins and ridges in that region and in other parts of Antiquia. They still exist and are, possibly, the result of burning practices. The area controlled by Dabeiba in the cordillera was of unknown extent, and by word of Colmenares extended through the lowlands to the Golfo De Uraba at the Rio Leon.

The information Balboa had was good news, but it also told him that it was time to turn back, although it was only two days to the east to the seat of Dabeiba, the lord of gold . they got close enough to the cordillera to see the grasslands. This land of Dabeiba, however, they had been told, was not where the gold was found but where it was processed into jewelry and figurines that had been seen in Darien. Dabeiba had the workshops of the artisans of gold and the center of an extensive system of native trade, not the gold mines. Had Balboa been a different sort of captain he would have marched his men off to Dabeiba and looted it, but would have failed his objective to find the gold fields. These he had been told lay two days’ journey to the east of Dabeiba, facing the rising sun, and in the hands of a ‘very Carib’ people. He did not have the men or the means to invade or occupy a land farther overland and inhabited by hostile natives. Balboa had experienced the attacks of such at Uraba; those of the interior were reported to be even worse and to engage in cannibalism.

The hearsay accounts that he collected were true to the main. The eastern slopes of the Cordillera Occidental that drain into the Rio Cauca were, in fact, occupied by a very different and uncommonly ferocious lot of natives. A march of two days beyond the cordillera would have taken a party from the temperate western highlands of Frontino-Dabeiba or Urrao to the Rio Cauca about Antioquia. Gold placers were worked here aborigonally, became one of the most productive gold regions of colonial times, and still are exploited. The word that these gold fields faced the rising sun, places them west of the Rio Cauca. Buritica, most famous of the early workings, exploited by natives before it was taken over by the Spaniards, is in such a location. Balboa had the right information and prudently decided to defer its application to a later and proper time.

In 1536 Cesar, Vadillo and Cieza De Leon began their entrances from the Golfo De Uraba across the cordillera to the Rio Cauca. Shortly Robledo repeated the passage in the reverse direction. Thus twenty five years after Balboa, the Spanish occupation of Antioquia began by placing mining camps along that part of the Rio Cauca from which Dabeiba had been supplied with native gold. the name Dabeiba became a legend, an earlier El Dorado, and in time was even held to have been a native divinity to whom golden offerings were brought (a god or goddess of a golden temple).

 

 

Planning The Discovery Of The Pacific Ocean

After returning from the Atrato expedition gave his attention again to the western prospect. His letter of January, 1513 to the King outlined in some detail his plans, which are here abstracted or excerpted in their order in the letter. He asked for five hundred or more men from Hispanola so that with the men he had, less than a hundred of whom were fit for war, he might "enter the country inland and pass to the other sea on the side of the south." Referring to his earlier visits with the caciques Comogre and Pocorosa, the farthest west and inland he had been told of a mountain country extending into parts as yet unseen. "In those sierras are certain caciques who have gold in quantity in their houses. They say those caciques keep it in cribs like maize, because they have so much gold that they do not wish to keep it in baskets. They say that all the rivers in sierras carry gold, and that there are large nuggets in quantity. The manner of taking it is seen in the water and picked up and put into baskets, also they take it from the arroyos when these are dry." In support of his statement he sent an Indian who was accustomed thus to get the gold. (He had been referring to the Serrania along the Caribbean side of the Isthmus.)

From the base of theses sierras very smooth plains extend southward, the Indians saying that the other sea is reached in three days. All of the caciques and Indians that provide Comogre tell me that there are so many pieces of gold in the houses of the caciques on the other sea as to make us lose our minds. They say the gold is found in quantity in all the rivers of the other coast and in large nuggets. They say that the Indians come to the house of this Cacique Comogre by canoe from the other sea to trade their gold and that these people are of good conduct. They tell me that the other sea is very good to navigate in canoes, being always pacific and does not turn wild as it does on this coast. I believe that in the sea there are many islands and pearls in quantity and large ones that the caciques have chests full of them. This river which flows from this Cacique Comogre to the other sea, before it gets there, forms three branches, each of which discharges separately into the sea. They say that the pearl are brought by the western most of these branches by canoes to the house of the Cacique Comogre. They say that by the branch towards the east the canoes enter into all parts with gold.

If he were given the required men, he offered to procure riches enough "to conquer a large part of the world." At this point he raised his request of men needed to a thousand, listed the arms that would be needed, the small ships that should be built, and where forts should be constructed, one to be at Comogre, well palisaded and moated with walls of well tamped earth.

The geography Balboa had learned from the Indians was factual and fairly specific as to topography. The distance from the land of Comogre to the nearest bay of the Golfo De San Miguel on the Pacific side was at most fifty miles overland. This gulf protrudes inland in a series of drowned valleys. The largest river thus discharging is the Chucunaque, which has its sources in the land of Comogre and was navigable by canoe to the seat of that chief. Its estuary is joined by the Rio Turia, which flows out of the southeast, also navigable by canoe in numerous affluents that yielded gold. The Pearl Islands lie well out to sea west of the Golfo De San Miguel. Comogre would serve as his interior base to get south to the Golfo De San Miguel and locate the Pearl Islands. To the west of Comogre the Bayano basin, by way of the native state of Pocorosa, would give access to a farther lowland receiving numerous gold-bearing streams out of the northern Serrania, the amount of gold greatly exaggerated in his mind. His eye for the proper strategic location was sure. For west or south, Comogre was the proper starting point for his next operations. The first task would be to take possession of the yet unseen other sea which was of common native knowledge.

 

Unexpected Reaction

In composing his letter to the King, Balboa overplayed the prospects of Darien and his own role. It was true, as he claimed, that he had succeeded where Nicuesa and Hojeda had failed. He had, however, usurped authority and had thrown out Enciso, who was lodging complaints against him at court. In the absence of properly constituted authority, the King had named Balboa interim governor in provisional acceptance of an act that was in fact insubordination. Now Balboa asked for a thousand men and formidable military equipment and offered such means and entry into the other ocean the riches which would conquer a large part of the world. If these things were true, he was asking for a position of power unheard of for a person of his origin and station since Columbus. The tie had not yet come for a Cortes or Pizarro to break the bonds of official preferment. Balboa tried too soon and made the mistake of putting his grand design fully and brashly before the King and Fonseca.

Instead of getting the acceptance and support he had asked, his letter had the opposite result. On May 31, 1513, Ferdinand ordered the officials at Sevilla not to lose a single day in getting an armada ready for embarkation of eight hundred to a thousand men under "a principle person whom I shall order to go from here." On June 11 he notified the vecinos of Darien that he would sent someone to take charge of the government as they had asked, there being a faction in opposition to Balboa. On June 18 addressed Pedrarias Davilla as ‘our Captain and Governor of Tierra Firme." On July 28 he ordered the latter to start proceedings against Balboa in the matter of the complaints made by Enciso. At the same time Pedrarias received a formal and noble title of captain general and governor of Castillo Del Oro in Darien. One of his first steps would be to hold a formal inquirery or residencia of Balboa’s conduct. The overly ambitious upstart would be replaced by an aged officer of rank and aristocratic origin, also belonging to the circle of Fonseca.

 

The Journey To The South Sea

Whatever Balboa might do to protect himself had to be done quickly. There was no time to discover the western gold mines or do the things about which he had written so confidently. The reality might be much less than he had advertised, but one thing could be sure. The other sea awaited discovery and he would gain honor by taking possession of it for Spain. The great rainy season was on, and he could not await its ending. Having gotten his party ready, he set off from Darien on September 1. This would be his page in history; for he kept record day by day. It passed into the hands of Oviedo to be transported by him to the Historia General.

The expedition lost no time in uncertain wandering. Balboa remembered all that he had been told two years before at Comogre and fitted into the topography as he went along. The preparations had been properly made. Usually he led or sent up an advance party to lay out the route by which the main party moved up. In the four and a half months of the expedition there was no disaster and hardly a mishap.

The start from Santa Maria was by nine large canoes trailed by a galleon. According to Oviedo there were eight hundred persons, which meant that Indians were in a large majority. They landed at the port of Careta twenty leagues up the coast, where Balboa founded the Spanish village of Acla. From this friendly locality they crossed the Serrania De Darien in two days to go on to the seat of Ponca, whom they had trounced two years earlier. The place was in the upper Chucunaque basin, probably in the foothills drained by the Rio Subcuti or the Rio Morti. They reached it on September 6 and left it on the 20th. The province of Ponca supplied provisions, information, and guides freely. Two weeks were thus spent learning about the unknown country ahead.

The first objective was to cross the lowland of the Balsas by as direct route as possible, which was southwesterly. The four days thus spent were the most difficult of the journey, "by bad road and across rivers which the Spaniards crossed on rafts and at great risk," for the rivers were at flood. Peter Martyr noted that the natives were taken along to open narrow and difficult passages; there were no beaten paths due to infrequent communication, but the Indians knew how to follow obscure trails. There was no identification of rivers crossed and no mention of settlements. In four days they covered only ten leagues, which would suggest that the difficult going made the distances seem greater than they were, or that they were forced to make detours because of flooded land.

The objective on the far side of the basin was the land of the cacique Quareca, or Torcha, who was an enemy of Ponca, for which reason the Poncans were willing to go along. There is no identification where the seat of Quareca was, other its distance from that of Ponca. The region is at present an almost unknown wilderness. The Carta Preliminar (1957) of the Republica De Panama, based on air photographs, shows a long ridge rising to more than two hundred meters east of Rio Sabanas and northeast of the village of Santa Fe on that river, directly across the Rio Morti and the Rio Subcuti. Location and elevation suggest that this may have been the land of Quareca. The seat of the chief was attacked and taken on the night of the 24th. Peter Martyr took note of the occasion because he heard that the court of the chief included transvestites, forty of whom were killed by mastiffs, also that there were Negro slaves who had been taken from a province that lay two days distant. These, he surmised, might be the progeny of a ship from Ethiopia that had been wrecked. The province of Quareca he thought poor in gold, sterile and cold because it was a treeless country. (A ridge-top Savannah may have been formed by clearing and burning.)

From Quareca the route turned south. Oviedo obviously made a mistake in his transcription of Balboa’s journal. Quareca was seized the night of the 24th. Gold and pearls were taken, information was secured as to the route ahead and local natives were assembled to serve as guides. Balboa went on with a party, passed south through the land of the cacique Porque and its bohios, and at ten o’clock on the morning of the 25th, according to Oviedo, climbed the bare ridge from which he had the first view of the South Sea.

The march had begun at Ponca on the 20th. The sea was discovered on the morning of the 27th, using this correction. The time available was between six and seven days. Four were required to cross the flooded lowlands between Ponca and Quareca. The events at the Quareca took at least another day, leaving less than two days to get to the point of discovery by way of the land of Porque. This tight schedule was made possible only by good leadership and knowledgeable Indian guides. Balboa wanted to get to the Pacific Ocean as fast as he could, and he did so. The geographical knowledge that he had from the Indians and arranged correctly on the map of his mind gave him proper direction to follow without deviation or delay except for the sack of Quareca.

Late maps of Panama that were not available to earlier studies served as a basis for relocation of the route of discovery. The most direct and convenient route across the Serrania De Darien from Acla led to the western slopes by the Rio Subcuti or Rio Morti and thus to the foothill location of the seat of Ponca. From Ponca to Quareca a number of rivers were crossed in making a traverse of the lowland basin. Quareca was situated in a Savannah, is tentatively placed on the ridge east of the Rio Sabanas; the subsequent crossing of that river is inferred as taking place near the village of Santa Fe, below which a marshy muddy estuary extends into the Golfo De San Miguel; The United States Aeronautical chart 769 gives it highest point of 1,200 feet near it’s tip, across from the town of La Palma and with a point of view of the Golfo De San Miguel. The distance from the inferred ridge of Quareca by way of Santa Fe crossing to the beginning of the second ridge is about ten miles, with a similar distance along the latter to the high lookout over the Golfo De San Miguel. The land of Porque, then, would have been entered to the west of the Rio Sabanas as they approached the southern ridge. From a high point on the latter, Balboa has his first look to ‘the other ocean’. This was the nearest and most accessible place for hi to see the open sea. Indeed, there was no other such lookout on the north of the Golfo De San Miguel except to the west at Cabo San Lorenzo.

In Oviedo’s version, "Vasco Nunez going ahead of the rest up a bare hill (monte raso) beheld from the crest thereof the South Sea." Balboa wished to have the first sight himself. Thereafter, the rest of the party was called up to join in the first ceremony of possession. They had come by way of a long ridge to a place where they knew they would have sight of the sea, the party being halted so that Balboa might go alone to look out at the sea.. it is hardly a guess that they had been following an Indian trail south, led by Indian guides who had been told to take the white captains to a high open space from which he could see the great water. The grassy eminence suggests another savanna ridge.

They had seen the sea from the high point and having recording the discovery by formal ceremony, finished the day by turning westward and seaward. "They continued on the road to some bohios near the South Sea and in the land of the cacique Chape, there to await the men that had been left at Quareca." This was still the day of discovery. On September 29th Balboa took a party a half a league from the bohios of Chape to the shore of the gulf which he then named Golfo De San Miguel. Here, on a great wooded bay, they observed a large rise and ebb of the sea. There were wide mud flats at low tide, covered at a rush at a rising sea. The second rites of possession were performed here "by the first Christians who put their feet into the South Sea, all trying the water with their hands and proving that it was salt." The place may be suggested as the bay adjoining the promontory of the discovery at the west. It was close by the latter and not a mangrove swamp, such as are found almost continuously along the shores farther west. Until the building of a modern La Palma this locality of the north shore served as embarcadero.

More than two weeks were spent at the seat of Chape, informing themselves of the secrets of this country, sending messengers to different parts, and putting the land at peace. Chape was a major cacique seated in the strategic hub of water communication about the Golfo De San Miguel and the Turia, Chucunaque and Sabanas river systems. The current administration seat of Panama’s southern province of La Palma is using the same advantages but from the opposite shore. The Golfo De San Miguel was named at Chape. The small river entering the bay is still called the Rio San Miguel.

Two days of long, hard, and dangerous travel in canoes manned by experienced Indians took them across the gulf and north up the open ocean shore to the bohio Tumaco. Balboa called its small bay San Lucas, considered the reentrant of the sea behind Punta Brujas. Here they learned about pearl fishing and saw the manner taking them demonstrated, though there were few to be had. They spent two weeks here learning about the habits of the pearl oyster. Their hopes to get to the pearl islands, twenty miles out to sea, were disappointed by the roughness of the water. The third act of possession took place on a local headland, perhaps Punta Brujas, on October 29th, thereby completing the mission on which the expedition had gone. They were six weeks out from the start at Ponca, hardly a fourth of which was traveling time.

The coast beyond Tumaco was mangrove swamp through which they followed open channels or cut their way to reach the place of a cacique called Thevaca on the banks of a river in strong flood (the present day town of Chiman). At this point the canoes provided by the friendly cacique Chape returned with word that the Spaniards who remained behind should come overland.

At Thevaca, Balboa left the sea to turn north into a mountain country in search of the cacique Pacora, who was reputed to control a gold-bearing land. Balboa gave it the name Todos Santos, which may be taken to mean that it was entered on the first of November. The whole of that month was spent looking for the supposed gold mines. Behind Chiman and paralleling the Pacific coast for about fifty miles is a low and isolated mountain region called Serrania De Maje or Canazas, both being names of streams rising on its northern slopes. This highland is little known and virtually uninhabited at present. The province of Pacora or Todos Santos lay on the Pacific side of these mountains somewhere to the north of Chiman. There is no known gold ever produced there.

Caciques came to the November camp with presents of gold, offerings of good will which probably were worked pieces. Pacra kept on insisting that he had no gold mines. Peter Martyr wrote that Pacra, who was deformed and ugly, and three sub-chiefs were finally thrown to the dogs and their bodies burned, without getting any information from them. Oviedo said that the papers left by Balboa "the cruelties were not stated, but there were many and he put many Indians to torture and set dogs to the other while on this journey," also that Balboa took their wives and daughters and set a bad example for others. Oviedo was not motivated by animus. The exploration had turned outrage.

Balboa left Todos Santos on December 1 to cross the mountains into the interior basin of the Bayano drainage. This was the only time when the party suffered because a chief on whom they had counted on supplies had fled and taken his stores with him. On December 8 they reached the familiar bohios of Pocorosa, where they took their ease for the rest of the month. Chiefs or their messengers came to Pocorosa from near and far bearing gifts to placate the Christians, in whose fear they would live thereafter.

In his earlier letters to the King, Balboa had referred to the cacique Tubanama reported to have gold mines and living beyond Pocorosa. He now made a raid, accompanied by eighty men, into the foothills of the Serrania northwest of Pocorosa. Attacking the bohio of Tubanama before daybreak, as was a favored Spanish tactic, Balboa captured the chief and held him for ransom. His Indian subjects complied by bringing their pieces of gold; one of them, Oviedo wrote, brought fifteen patenas (disks) of gold. According to Peter Martyr, the bohio of Tubanama yielded thirty pounds of gold jewels and his subjects brought in sixty more for the ransom; the cacique explained that the treasure was inherited from ancestors. Meanwhile Balboa sent men out to search arroyos and rivers round about for placer gold. It was reported that there was some show of color in all the bateas, this being the first known mention of panning for gold in the Isthmus, a practice however, probably previously used in the placer workings west of Santa Maria.

Having reassembled his entire party, Balboa reached the seat of Comogre on New Years Day, 1514. The old chief had died and had been succeeded by the son who had earlier told of the South Sea as he approached the Spaniards for their lust for gold. On January 4 they reached Ponca, where the journey into unknown lands had begun three and a half months before.

The expedition had various objectives and succeeded in all of them. Tactically most important was the discovery of the South Sea and the ceremonies held at three places by which it was claimed for the Crown of Spain. It was shown that the Isthmus could be crossed by a large party in a few days. A richly promising source of pearls was determined. The venture seems to have paid off well also booty and gifts, so called. Oviedo said that they returned rich in gold and pearls, in ale and female naborias, and in cloth and hammocks of cotton.

Balboa had again proved himself to be a great captain. He brought his men through in good condition and apparently without loss. En-route, he might drive his them hard, with himself taking the lead, but the greater part of the time was spent at ease in advantageous native localities, at Ponca, Chape, Tumaco, Thevaca, Pacra and Pocorosa. With his many Indian followers, guides and captives the party numbered in the hundreds and was only once in want of food. At no time did it flounder about uncertain where to go or what road to take. This was then a country of numerous and undepressed people, with settlements, communications, and protective agriculture and fishing. Of these things Balboa took care to inform himself beforehand. Also he appraised shrewdly the structure of the native society. The people were obedient and devoted to their chiefs, as was pathetically evident when they stripped themselves of their gold in order to ransom their cacique Tubanama. Once Balboa had a cacique in hand he could ask and do whatever he wished.

Corruption by power had however also become evident. Balboa killed some native chiefs, scared others, and made friends of some; Chape was an illustration of one who gave great and willing aid. Except in the strange and bubious case of Quareca, Spaniards met with no hostility either as a party or as individuals. Pacra and his sub-chiefs were put to death because they could not reveal where their non-existent gold mines were. Oviedo, best informed and not inclined to tilt the scales of justice in favor of the Indians, and not an enemy of Balboa, concluded that gross and wanton cruelties were practiced on the journey.

Balboa, like all captains of the time, was a seeker after of gold. More clearly than most, he realized that the objects owned by the natives would soon be at an end and that it was important to locate the source of gold. In the mountains behind Santa Maria he had established the first placer of mining on the Tierra Firme. The expedition to locate Dabeiba was made in order to discover the source of the supply of gold to the artifacts of gold. When he learned that Dabeiba was only manufacturing gold that came from a farther and hostile interior he turned back. On the expedition to the South Sea, bateas were carried to pan placer gold. The cruelty at Todos Santos was exasperated because he believed that Pacra was concealing gold mines, and he held Tubanama for ransom for the same reason. He left Tubanama with some proof that there was a native gold and the hope that it would become a gold district, an expectation that was later to be revived with scant success.

At the return to Santa Maria in the beginning of 1514, Balboa had fairly adequate knowledge of the map, people, and resources of the eastern part of the Isthmus. Eastward the Atrato basin had been explored to the Cordillera Occidental.


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