Balboa and Pizarro: Mutual Ascent To Immortality

Most reasonably well read people know that the Pacific Ocean was discovered by an expedition led by Vasco Nunez de Balboa. They might know that the discovery occurred in 1513. Most would realize that this discovery, one that eluded Christopher Columbus, vastly extended the potential reach of the Castilian/Spanish Empire, most particularly down the west coast of South America due to the exploits of Francisco Pizarro, Diego de Almalgro and Hernando de Soto. But, few seem to recall or know that Balboa’s second in command of this historic discovery was Francisco Pizarro!

It was his first big break in being recognized as a serious player by the Castilian senior leadership in Santo Domingo, Darien and in Seville. Pizarro was smart enough to leverage that recognition later when he first applied for a license to explore the “Mar del Sur”south in pursuit of the rumored but unverified rich nation in what is now Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Pizarro and Balboa were fast friends before and immediately after their epic discovery.

But, as so often happened with the Castilian conquistadors in the New World, their personal goals came into conflict. Both had heard the rumors of what turned out to be the empire of the Incas and both were intent on launching a sea and land based expedition to track down the veracity of the rumors. In fact, Balboa personally financed the construction of four, well-built ships that were poised on the west coast at the city of Veragua well before Pizarro had even sought a license from the wily, greedy Governor Pedro Arias Davila (a/k/a Pedrarias).

Due to a variety of political, risky maneuvers,  Balboa became a pariah of Pedrarias (who was his father-in-law by a proxy marriage to a daughter in Castile).  Pedrarias ordered none other than Pizarro to make the arrest. Though he did so, he later expressed guilt about his role because he viewed the treason charges pressed by Perdrarias and his underlings as trumped-up. He came to believe that Balboa’s trial was a farce. He deeply regretted the execution of his old friend by beheading, which he witnessed. Adding more clarity to the motives of Pedrarias was his subsequent seizure of the four Balboa ships for use by one of his subordinates.

Pedrarias did eventually issue a license to Alamalgro and Pizarro to pursue their southern expedition in 1523. Ironically, at least one of the ships they leased was one of the ships that Balboa had built! Some of the crew were spooked by that fact.

The saga of the conquest and settlement of the Caribbean Basin and South America presents multiple examples of conflicting ambitions sundering friendship and alliances of convenience, often ending in one party’s demise. Often as well was the conversion of the devil you know to an ally of convenience as was the Pizarro-Pedrarias long, uneasy relationship.

The September, 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine offers an interesting article by Franz Lidz about a modern retracing of Balboa’s route to his discovery.                                            (http://www.smithsonianmag.com)

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