Friday, November 22, 2013

Balboa and the South Sea

Vasco Nunez de Balboa is credited for being the first European to "discover" the Pacific Ocean.  During my stay in Panama, I marveled at how glassy calm this ocean was.  Living in California where the Pacific is turbulent, freezing cold, and filled with kelp and scary creatures like Great White Sharks, I could never understand why on earth the Spaniards called this ocean pacifico.  Until now.

"This is not the Pacific Ocean I know," I kept remarking.  This was the first time in my life where I swam out sans wetsuit in this ocean and actually stayed in the water for an entire hour without turning blue.  I simply could not get over it.
The first thing I did upon my return home was to go to the library and check out the Life and Letters of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, an excellent biography by Charles Anderson.  The above statue of Balboa has a prominent place in Panama City.  Balboas are everywhere.  Avenues.  Coins.  Beer!  So just who was this man and why is he so honored down here?

As always, the short, romantic version you get as a tourist is a far cry from the horrors of reality.  I urge anyone who is planning a trip to Central America, to read this book.  Anderson goes into great detail about Balboa's excursions across the isthmus and the help he received from the local natives.  There were times when he resorted to torture to acquire information and gold, but unlike the conquistadors who followed, his strategy was to offer his hand in genuine friendship first.  He gained the trust of both soldiers and natives by doing so.

There are many illustrations and paintings of Balboa wading into the ocean in full armor on that day in 1513 and declaring all he could see for Spain:  "Long live the high and mighty monarchs, Don Fernando and Dona Juana, sovereigns of Castile and Leon and of Aragon, in whose name and for the royal crown of Castile I take and seize, real and corporal, actual possession of these seas and lands, and coasts and ports and islands of the South . . ."

Balboa was both admired and vilified.  In the end, his enemies won.  Lies were sent back to King Ferdinand and in 1519, Balboa was beheaded for treason--falsely accused of plotting to sail to Peru and set up a dictatorship.  Pedrarias Davila tried to take credit himself for discovering the Pacific Ocean.  Pedarias tried to erase all proof that Balboa even existed.  He removed his name from all documents, but the men who served under Balboa would not let their leader's name be lost.

Balboa named this new ocean the South Sea.  It was actually Ferdinand Magellan who sailed around the tip of South America seven years later who changed the name to the Pacific.  But history gives Balboa the credit  for its actual discovery, and he is considered a great man in Panama.  He envisioned the building of a canal and its great potential for commerce.  That it actually happened 400 hundred years later makes me realize how much a visionary he truly was.

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