26th September 1513 was the day on which a European first set eyes on the Pacific Ocean, as far as is known. This was Vasco Núñez de Balboa (c.1475 – 1519), one of the Spanish “conquistadors”, although the 19th century poet John Keats, in his “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, mistakenly attributed the feat to “stout Cortez”.
Balboa had arrived at Darien on the isthmus of Panama in the hope of making money to clear his debts. He became the military commander of the small Spanish community there and was soon making trips inland in search of gold and slaves.
The reputation of the conquistadors in historical terms is not a good one, as they were responsible for many acts of murder and cultural vandalism in imposing their will on local populations. Balboa was probably one of the more enlightened of them, although he cannot be left off the hook entirely in this respect. He was not above using strong-arm tactics when it suited him, and once had 40 natives torn to pieces by dogs because they opposed him.
In 1513 Balboa heard that there were vast reserves of gold further inland, and he was determined to find them. It was neither the first nor the last time that a journey of exploration would be inspired by a story of treasure and riches to be found in a distant place. Usually the treasure turns out to be mythical, but sometimes a discovery of a different kind is made, as in Balboa’s case.
Balboa set off on 1st September at the head of 190 Spaniards and many more Indian guides and porters. The journey was extremely difficult, as they had to hack their way through thick jungle. For days on end they could not even see the sky through the forest canopy.
A peak in Darien
After 25 days they emerged in sight of a mountain (Keats’s “peak in Darien”). Balboa climbed the mountain alone and saw from the top the distant Pacific Ocean. He then invited the others to join him at the top. The expedition had crossed the narrow isthmus that connects North and South America and they could now see that there was another ocean that might, for all they knew, be even greater than the one the conquistadors has sailed across to reach the Americas from Spain.
Being a Spanish conqueror, Balboa’s first instinct was to carve the name of King Ferdinand on a tree, thus claiming the mountain for Spain. He reached the coast four days later and proceeded to wave his sword and claim the ocean for Spain as well.
Unfortunately for Balboa, his achievements caused jealousy in others. Six years later he was accused by the colony’s leader of treason, on a trumped-up charge, and he was beheaded in the main square of Darien. It was an ignominious end for one of the world’s most notable explorers.
© John Welford