Vasco Nunez De Balboa | 10 Facts On The Spanish Explorer


Vasco Nunez De Balboa was a Spanish explorer and conquistador most famous for founding Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien, the first permanent European settlement in mainland of the Americas; and for his discovery of the Pacific. He also served as governor of Darien for a period and was given the title of Adelantado of the South Seas. Know about the life, family, voyages, exploration, discoveries, accomplishments and death of Vasco Nunez De Balboa through these 10 interesting facts.


#1 His place of birth was also the birthplace of Hernando de Soto

Vasco Núñez de Balboa was born in Jerez de los Caballeros, a small town in the province of Extremadura in south-western Spain. Jerez de los Caballeros is incidentally also the birthplace of Hernando de Soto, another famous Spanish explorer and conquistador. Vasco’s exact date of birth is not known though most historians put his birth year as 1475. His father Nuño Arias de Balboa was an impoverished nobleman while his mother was a lady of Badajoz in south-western Spain. Vasco was the third of four boys in his family. His brothers were named Gonzalo, Juan and Álvaro.

Hernando de Soto engraving
Engraving of Hernando de Soto


#2 He first sailed to the New World in a voyage led by Rodrigo de Bastidas

Rodrigo de Bastidas
Rodrigo de Bastidas depicted on a stamp

In his early years Balboa worked in the household of Don Pedro de Portocarrero, lord of Moguer, a port on Spain’s south-western coast. Balboa served initially as a page and then probably as a fencing master. As the news of the voyages of Columbus spread through Spain, like many of lower nobility who were struggling to prosper in Spain, Balboa also decided to seek his fortune in the New World. In 1500, he joined Rodrigo de Bastidas’s expedition to explore the northern coast of South America.

#3 He spent eight years in Hispaniola working as a planter and pig farmer

The expedition of Bastidas explored along the coast of present-day Colombia gathering riches till their decaying ships forced them to sail to the island of Hispaniola, the home base for all Spanish expeditions. Balboa gained valuable knowledge through the expedition regarding the natives, routes etc. After the expedition, Balboa decided to settle in Hispaniola and worked there as a planter and pig farmer. But this enterprise proved to be disastrous for Balboa and he ended up in great debt. Also Balboa couldn’t leave the island as the law said no person could leave Hispaniola without paying his debts.

#4 He escaped his creditors in Hispaniola by hiding on a ship

In 1510, Spanish navigator and geographer, Martín Fernández de Enciso, prepared to set sail from Hispaniola on an expedition to bring aid and reinforcements to San Sebastian, a colony founded by conquistador Alonso de Ojeda on the coast of Uraba in modern Colombia. Balboa saw this as an opportunity to escape his creditors. He offered Enciso grain who readily bought it. Balboa then hid himself on one of the casks of grain along with his faithful hound Leoncico and was carried to the ship. By the time he was discovered by Enciso, the ship was already at sea. Enciso initially threatened to leave Balboa on the first uninhabited island on route but Balboa’s earlier knowledge of the region convinced him otherwise.

Balboa's escape from Hispaniola
Depiction of Balboa’s escape from Hispaniola


Vasco Nunez De Balboa
Vasco Nunez De Balboa depicted on a Panama stamp

#5 He founded the first permanent European settlement in mainland of Americas

When Enciso’s expedition arrived at San Sebastian, they found that the settlement had largely been abandoned by the colonists after hostilities with the natives had led to numerous deaths. At Balboa’s suggestion, the colonists decided to move across the Gulf of Uraba to Darien on the coast of Panama, where the soil was more fertile and the natives were less hostile. There Vasco Nunez De Balboa founded in September 1510 the first permanent European settlement in mainland of the Americas and called it Santa María la Antigua del Darién.

#6 Vasco Nunez De Balboa became governor of Darien in 1511

The relationship between Enciso and Balboa had always been hostile. With time the members of Enciso’s crew developed a liking for Balboa due to his charisma and knowledge of the region while Enciso became unpopular. The colonists hence soon deposed Enciso and elected a town council with Balboa one of its two magistrates. With the subsequent departure of Enciso for Hispaniola, Balboa became the undisputed head of the colony. In 1511, the king of Spain, Ferdinand II, sent orders to make Balboa the interim governor of Darien.


#7 Balboa’s 1513 expedition led to the European discovery of the Pacific

Balboa received information from the natives about a sea that lay in the south and a kingdom rich in gold. He sent news back to Spain but his request for men and supplies was denied. With the available resources of 190 Spaniards and a few native guides, Balboa started his journey across the Isthmus of Panama on September 1, 1513. Late that month, Vasco Nunez De Balboa sighted the Pacific Ocean while standing on a peak. The Spaniards called the Pacific the Mar del Sur (South Sea). The expedition descended the mountain and become the first Europeans to navigate the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the New World.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa - Pacific Ocean
Vasco Nunez de Balboa claims the Pacific


#8 Balboa married Maria de Penalosa but they never met

Balboa returned to Santa Maria from his expedition in January 1514. In mid-1514, the elderly nobleman Pedrarias Dávila arrived in Darien. He had been appointed by the Spanish king as the new governor of Darien. This led to a period of rivalry between Balboa and Pedrarias during which Pedrarias had Balboa arrested several times for various charges but he was not found guilty. Their rivalry ceased due to mediation by others and Balboa married María de Peñalosa, one of Pedrarias’s daughters. However the couple was never to meet as she was in Spain and Balboa would never return to his homeland.

Pedrarias Davila
Pedrarias Davila


#9 Vasco Nunez De Balboa was executed in January 1519

In 1517, Balboa began a new expedition and explored the Gulf of San Miguel. By this time his relationship with Pedrarias had again deteriorated. Due to charges of misconduct and incapacity leveled against Pedrarias by Balboa and others, the Spanish king ordered a judicial inquiry into his conduct as leader of Darien. Pedrarias feared that Balboa would speak against him and was also wary of his influence. He summoned Balboa home on the pretext of discussing matters of common concern. Halfway to Santa Maria, Balboa was arrested for trying to usurp Pedrarias’s power. His was tried for rebellion and high treason in mid-January, 1519. Pedrarias’s ally Gaspar de Espinosa presided over the trial and found Balboa guilty of the charges. Vasco Nunez De Balboa was condemned to death and was beheaded, along with four alleged accomplices, in January 1519 in the town of Acla.

Execution of Vasco Nunez de Balboa
Depiction of the Execution of Vasco Nunez de Balboa


#10 A lunar crater has been named after him

In 1514, Balboa was conferred with the title of Adelantado of the South Seas. He is credited in Spain for opening the way for later Spanish exploration and conquest in South America. In Panama, numerous places bear his name and several monuments honor his discovery of the Pacific. Places named after him include Balboa, Panama’s main port city and Balboa Park in San Francisco, California. Balboa, one of the official currencies of Panama, is named in his honor. Also the Order of Vasco Núñez de Balboa is one of the highest orders granted by the Panamanian government and a lunar crater has been named Balboa after him.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa statue
Monument to Vasco Nunez de Balboa in Panama City


Vasco Nunez de Balboa’s execution of homosexuals

During their exploration of the New World, the Spanish frequently came to knew about the homosexual practices which were prevalent among the native tribes. This was an offense to their limited views about sexuality. The European religious thought associated homosexuality with sin and the Devil leading to the Spanish persecuting any native found guilty of the act. Vasco Nunez de Balboa had forty ‘sodomites’ eaten alive by his dogs during his expedition to Panama and was widely praised for this violent act.

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