Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was one of the driving forces for the Spanish settlement of Central and South America. By 1500, when he was in his mid-twenties, Vasco Nuñez was exploring the Columbian coastline. Ten years later, he escaped debts that he accrued in Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic) by joining—or hiding in—a ship heading for a failing colony in Columbia. By 1511, Vasco Nuñez was able to convince the battered, struggling Columbian colonists to relocate to Darién, in Panama, and he became the colony’s interim governor.
In 1513, Vasco Nuñez launched another exploratory expedition. He sailed to the narrowest part of the Isthmus of Panama, and then trekked across land to see the Pacific Ocean. When Vasco Nuñez de Balboa returned to his colony by early 1514, he received bittersweet news from Spain. On the positive side, Vasco Nuñez had been promoted to Governor of the South Sea, and a force of around 1,500 soldiers was sailing to reinforce the colony. The bad news, however, was that the king had sent with the reinforcements a new governor to take control of the Panama region. The king’s pick, Pedro Arias Dávila (or Pedrarias Davila) was an unlikely choice—he was in his early seventies at the time, and many believed him to be well past his prime. In contrast, he was meant to replace the energetic Vasco Nuñez, the rising star of Panama who had earned the respect of many veteran colonists and local conquistadors.
When Pedro Arias Dávila arrived with his army, it did not take long for tensions to rise. Even so, the two rivals managed to coexist for several years. Interestingly, Pedro Arias Dávila arranged for Vasco Nuñes to marry his daughter, but the marriage was by proxy—the bride was not present. Vasco Nuñez was even given permission by the new governor to go on another expedition between 1517 and 1518, in which he carried ships across land to explore the Pacific Gulf of San Miguel.
Yet, though they coexisted for several years, the two men were always suspicious of each other—and for good reason. In 1519, whatever had been keeping the peace between the two finally disappeared. On likely fabricated evidence, Pedro Arias Dávila charged his son-in-law with conspiracy to rebel against the governor. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was beheaded, along with at least four of his loyal friends. Around the time of the execution, the king of Spain was considering an inquiry into Pedro Arias Dávila’s conduct in Panama. Many suspect Vasco Nuñez was executed so that he could not testify against his father-in-law. Nevertheless, Pedro Arias Dávila suffered no repercussions for his actions (except criticism by historians) and he continued to govern colonies in Central America and the Caribbean until his death in 1531.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Francisco Pizarro and conquistadors, by Juan Lepiani (1864–1932), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.