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The Life of an Explorer
My name is Vasco Nunez de Balboa and I was born in Jerez de los Caballeros, Spain sometime in the year 1475. I don’t know the exact day or month I was born and I probably never will, just as I will never know my mother’s name. In fact, I don’t remember much of my early years at all, but the few pieces of information that I do know are enough to piece together my childhood.
My father is named Don Nuno Arias de Balboa. My family is a noble family, but by the time I was born we had lost our wealth, power, and influence on Spain. My father, being a former knight himself and wanting the best for his son, sent me away to become a knight at age six. I worked as a page for a wealthy family for many years. During those years I learned much about defending others and myself as well as fighting in battles. Eventually I decided to work at the Spanish port in Moguer, a coastal city. It was there that I learned quite a bit about sailing.
Before I continue, I’m going to tell you what I am writing and why. Right now I am sitting on the cold floor of my prison cell writing my life story. I have accomplished many things in my life that I wish to share with many people, and as I am within a few hours of my death, this seems the only way to do this. I asked the guard to fetch me some paper and something to write with, and the poor young fellow quickly obeyed me. I don’t have much time left, but I will write what I can.
As I was saying, I worked at that port until a man by the name of Rodrigo de Bastidas came along. He was going to lead an expedition across the sea to explore South America and the coasts of Columbia and Panama. Spain was going to sponsor this voyage because they wanted to know information about the military forces there. Bastidas was looking for men to accompany him on this journey, and I soon became interested. I was twenty-five years old and looking to earn some money, respect, power. I signed onto the voyage as an escudero. An escudero is a warrior that goes on a voyage to provide protection, power, and security. There would usually be about twelve of these men on one voyage, depending on the size of the crew and the needs and requirements of the captain.
We set off on this voyage June of the year 1500. There were two ships: the Santa Maria de Gracia and the San Anton. Between them they carried about fifty men. We sailed along the northern coast of South America and landed on the Isthmus of Panama. In case you don’t know, an isthmus is a strip surrounded by water connecting two larger landmasses. Upon landing our two vessels we met the natives there and found them to be rather hostile. We decided not to trade with them.
A little while later we decided to head back to Spain. While out on the vast ocean we noticed that our two vessels were infested with shipworms. Shipworms are parasites that eat through the wooden hulls of ships. We panicked because we realized that these two ships might not make it back to Spain. We had a meeting and soon agreed that we would change our route and set sail for Hispaniola instead.
We didn’t get far, though. In February of the year 1502 the Santa Maria de Gracia and the San Anton sank, and we were forced to flee to the nearest shoreline. Some of the crew didn’t make it, but I did. I do have to say, though, that we might as well have been stranded in the ocean; we survivors were left bankrupt without any goods or money.
I soon wandered into the town of Salvetierra de la Sabana. I was clueless as to how to earn a living. Helpless, I decided to become a hog farmer. Now, looking back, I have to say that I was much better at being a sailor. I had never learned how to farm and therefore I didn’t have the skills that the locals had. During the next few years in that town I became extremely deep in debt. I had to think of some way to avoid my creditors, and after quite a while of watching and listening I thought up a plan.
In 1509 I heard rumor that a ship commanded by a man with the name of Martin Fernandez de Enciso was going to set sail within the next week. This vessel would be sailing to San Sebastian, a town had constantly been attacked by hostile natives. The ship would be bringing soldiers and supplies to help this colony in need. The Spanish government was sponsoring this voyage.
This sounded like the perfect opportunity to escape Salvetierra de la Sabana, so I quickly prepared myself for the journey. On the day that the ship was to set sail I grabbed my sword and my dog, Leoncico (yes, within the many years I had been in that town I had somehow acquired a dog) and I set my plan to work.
I crept quietly into the cargo of the vessel and hid in an empty wooden barrel. As soon as the captain and crew boarded the ship and everything was okay the expedition started. I don’t know how long I sat there; but I do know that it was the most miserable time of my life. I sat scrunched up in that barrel with Leoncico on my lap. You can imagine the trouble I had getting him to stay calm and quiet. Poor Leoncico didn’t have any food or water, but then again, neither did I.
Eventually one of the crewmembers found us and took us to Enciso, the captain. Enciso was very upset to find out that I had been hiding on his ship without his knowing about it. It also didn’t help that I hadn’t brought any supplies but the clothes on my back, my sword, and Leoncico. I was sure that he was going to throw me into the ocean that very instant, but he didn’t. Instead, he kept me on his ship and I became a part of his crew. He would’ve thrown me overboard had it not been for the fact that I was a sailor with experience with a bit of knowledge about those parts and a good leader.
So I continued to work with him as we sailed southeast along the Isthmus of Panama. One day someone shouted, “Land! I see land! It is San Sebastian!”
Well, he was sort of right; it was land, but it wasn’t San Sebastian. It was actually Cartegena, a Spanish settlement in part of Columbia. One of the men on the ship started to tell me about San Sebastian as we neared this other town. He said that San Sebastian was a strong town built by the Spanish. He also said that it stretched from about the coast of Columbia to Panama. I thought that this town sounded pretty good. So why was it that it was defeated by natives?
As our boat eased onto the shoreline we noticed a group of men running towards us. Enciso and the crew and I quickly ran off the ship and up to the men. The leader told us that his name was Francisco Pizarro and he introduced the other men as his loyal followers. He soon proceeded to tell us what had recently been going on in San Sebastian.
According to Pizarro, the local natives had constantly attacked this town. Alonso de Ojeda, the governor of the province had abandoned the town after a nasty battle with the natives. Ojeda left the town under the command of Pizarro himself. But the town was now burned and left in ruins, and Pizarro didn’t want the responsibility, so he also abandoned the town. He gathered his most loyal men and decided to flee the town with them.
Enciso was shocked. This man was just going to leave the helpless townspeople of San Sebastian in a burned down settlement without any supplies! Enciso was silent for a few moments before speaking.
“I am disgusted that you would even think of leaving those poor people in that broken town!” Enciso said sternly. “How can you live with yourself?”
When Pizarro didn’t answer, he went on.
“Well, it doesn’t matter now. Just lead us to San Sebastian so we can give the people the supplies that we brought.”
Pizarro didn’t know what to say, so he just obeyed Enciso. It took us a while to unload all of the soldiers and supplies from the ship, but we did it. After we each took some supplies we started to march to San Sebastian. It wasn’t that far of a walk, and with Pizarro leading the way we soon came to our destination.
Pizarro was right after all; the town was a complete mess. People were sitting around wondering just what to do. Enciso looked at me and I could tell that he had no clue what to do about the situation. It was then that I knew that I had to take over and become the leader. I soon thought up a plan.
I knew that there was more favorable land near the town of Darien, close to the Gulf of Uraba. My plan was to start a new settlement with the people and supplies that we had. Everyone agreed, and soon we were all on the ship ready to set sail to Darien.
It was hard, changing our course; the maps weren’t all that reliable. We had to put our trust in our tools and technology, as well as my experience. With us we had a compass, an astrolabe, and a logbook. We used the compass to find magnetic north, while the astrolabe was helpful in finding our latitude. Both of these items made navigation easier and more accurate. We recorded our speed, our daily inventory, any weather patterns we noticed and any unusual sightings in the logbook. My knowledge of the surrounding lands and waters also aided us quite a lot.
Finally we reached the coast of Darien. After sailing closer to the coast for a bit we came to the place in which I was to create a new settlement.
The making of the new settlement went rather smooth. It was named Santa Marta. I became well known in both Darien and Santa Marta for my leadership skills and my adventurous attitude. King Ferdinand heard of me and made me governor of Darien, and in the spring of the year 1511 I declared myself dictator.
In 1513 I heard word that King Ferdinand wanted me to go back to Spain to appear in court. Apparently, someone had accused of me several charges. I did plan to go to Spain, but not before I did some more exploring. Spain sponsored my voyage so that I could sail back to Spain, but I tricked them and did not go back right away. I gathered 190 men, 1000 native warriors and Leoncico to come on my next voyage. I wanted to explore Central America in order to gain wealth and power.
We set out that very year and began our expedition. We sailed along the coast of Darien until we were out on the vast ocean once more. It was then that I truly realized how hard it was to pack supplies for a journey. I had to estimate how much clothing, food, and drink we were to bring. The food was the hardest part. To drink I brought much ale and beer and less water, because water goes stale while ale lasts a good long while. We had to salt all of the meat that we brought because the salt keeps it fresh for longer. We often faced hunger, (a bit too often for my liking) and sometimes the crew became drunk on ale.
On September 27, 1513 we landed in North America. After exploring a bit and trading with the natives there I looked out into the ocean (with faithful Leoncico at my side, of course) and I did not recognize it. I realized that we had stumbled upon new waters. I named this ocean the South Sea and I claimed it for Spain. It was on that day that I became the first European to gaze upon the South Sea from North America. In other words, I discovered the South Sea.
But my voyage did not stop there. I kept on sailing. I explored Central America a bit before discovering the Pearl Islands, where I found plenty of pearls and riches. Taking my hoard of treasure with me I sailed back to Darien. After traveling through the horrid jungles of Darien (it took us quite a while, let me tell you!) we finally came back to Santa Marta.
I must add here that I encountered many natives on my journey, and with every tribe I had a different experience. I was friendly to some natives, such as Chief Chima. I stayed with Chima’s tribe for quite a while, and I even married his daughter. This marriage was not about love, for even though I did enjoy her company I would not marry her for just my pleasure. This marriage was really about making an alliance between Spain and Chima’s tribe. To be honest, I don’t even remember her name and I haven’t seen her since!
As you already know I took 1000 natives as warriors at the start of my voyage in 1513, and I traded with many others for food and riches beforehand. But there were some natives that I was not nice to. I treated the hostile natives with disrespect by killing them in battle and taking over their territories. Some natives just have to be set straight.
Anyways, back to the story.
Upon returning a royal representative named Juan de Valdivia came from Spain. I gave him most of my riches (but I saved some for myself) and he planned to take it back to Spain to show King Ferdinand. Unfortunately, I later heard word that his ship sank somewhere near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and that the gold sank with it. Rumor has it that Valvidia and his crew were captured by the Mayan Indians and sacrificed to their gods. It’s a good thing I didn’t give them all of my gold!
While I was gone King Ferdinand had heard of my plans for not showing up in the court in Spain. He had removed me from the position of governor and had replaced me with a man with the name of Pedrarias Davila. Pedrarias became jealous of me, for I became extremely popular in Darien and Santa Marta. Despite his new position, he could never quite get as many people to listen to him as I could. I was also much more wealthy than he. And might I add, he was very surprised to learn that at the end of all my adventuring, Leoncico had earned the same amount of money as a regular soldier in my army!
It wasn’t long before Pedrarias accused me of treason, no doubt because of all his jealousy. He forced Pizarro to arrest me and I went to court. After being found guilty (I don’t know why…. perhaps Pedrarias talked to the judge beforehand?) I was thrown into prison.
That is where I am right now.
All in all, I am very pleased with my life. I survived all my voyages, became wealthy, explored new lands, discovered the South Sea and people say that I have become a leading figure among Spanish conquerors and explorers. It is January 20, 1519, and tomorrow I will publicly be beheaded in the square of Acla, another town near Darien. I will surely be dead.
So I say good-bye to you now.
Vasco Nunez de Balboa