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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Spain in America

by
Edward Gaylord Bourne

in the
Barnes & Noble edition,
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9

p104 Chapter VIII

The Search for a Strait
(1508‑1514)

The New World had proved a source of surpassing interest for Europe, but thus far of little wealth for Spain. There was to be sure, after nearly ten years of effort, a small importation of gold amounting to some 400,000 pesos a year;1 but in the mean time Portugal had reached the Indies and their spice markets, while in the west the ships of Spain ran up against a mysterious barrier of land which at every point baffled further advance. If, as Columbus supposed — and his view was still generally shared — this barrier was the extremity of Asia, there must be a strait between the tropical main-land, or Novus Mundus, of which the ancients knew nothing, and this supposed projection of Asia. Or if all these new lands were detached from Asia, there must be a sea beyond which led to the spiceries. It was in search of such a passage that the p105larger part of the coastal exploration of North and South America was carried on during the sixteenth century.

One of the earliest enterprises of Queen Isabella's short-lived successor, Philip I (1504‑1506), was to plan in 1506 an elaborate expedition to discover the Spice Islands. The energetic and experienced Vicente Yañez Pinzon was selected to command it, but two years, however, elapsed before it finally got off (June 29, 1508).2 Pinzon was accompanied by Juan Diaz de Solis and Pedro de Ledesma. Starting from Cuba, he coasted along its southern shore till he rounded the western end, thus proving it to be an island.3 Before Pinzon returned, however, it was officially circumnavigated by Sebastian de Ocampo, 1508.4 From thence they struck across the Gulf of Mexico to the scene of Columbus's fourth voyage, the Bay of Honduras. From Honduras Pinzon and Solis went carefully over the coast-line of Central and South America as far as the fortieth degree south latitude, the longest continuous voyage that had then been made in American waters.5

p106 The next advance in knowledge of American geography was to come from the establishment of the first permanent settlements on the main-land, undertaken at their own expense by the indefatigable Hojeda and by Diego de Nicuesa, a planter who had acquired wealth and prominence in Española. Hojeda was granted the coast from Cape Vela to the Gulf of Urabá under the name of New Andalusia. Nicuesa received the Isthmus of Panama and the coast beyond to Cape Gracias á Dios, the eastern point of Honduras, and the name Castilla del Oro6 (Golden Castile) was given to the region. Hojeda started in November, 1509, in four ships, with three hundred men and twelve horses. With him were the veteran Juan de la Cosa, and a new adventurer whose achievements were to inscribe his name in the roll of explorers and conquerors, Francisco Pizarro.

Effecting a landing where later stood the city of Cartagena, with customary rashness Hojeda made a dash into the territory of hostile natives to get some slaves to sell to meet his expenses.7 Their fierce resistance with poisoned arrows cost him some seventy men, including Juan de la Cosa,8 and almost his own life. Forsaking this inhospitable region, he moved on to the west, and at the extreme p107end of his territory built a fort, which he called St. Sebastian, to enlist the saint's protection against the death-dealing arrows that rained upon them.9

The appeal was vain. A few days later, for the first time in his life, Hojeda was wounded, an arrow piercing his thigh. By promptly cauterizing the wound with white-hot iron plates he escaped death this time, but his fortunes were declining. His band of followers had wasted from three hundred to sixty, and it was necessary for him to go to Española for supplies. After extraordinary hardships he reached Santo Domingo only to die broken and penniless.10

Nicuesa's superior resources, personal attractiveness, and the more alluring promise of the region of Veragua brought together a large force of seven hundred men and six horses in five ships and two brigantines, which set sail from Santo Domingo about ten days after Hojeda.11

But his fate was equally hapless. After a long search for Veragua, during which he was wrecked, Nicuesa resolved to transfer his settlement farther east, and fixed upon a spot near the present town of Aspinwall, which he called Nombre de Dios. The climate, the lack of food, and their arduous labors rapidly thinned the little colony down to sixty men.

As if to rescue them from extinction, two vessels p108belonging to Nicuesa loaded with supplies appeared in November, 1510, under the command of Roderigo de Colmenares. From him Nicuesa learned of the failure of Hojeda, and that his own colonists had moved across the Gulf of Urabá from St. Sebastian to Darien, where gold had been found and a fairly prosperous settlement established. As this lay within the boundaries of Nicuesa's province he naturally expected to exercise authority over its inhabitants, but they refused submission and the unhappy governor was forced to set sail for Spain with only seventeen men in a rotten brigantine, an alternative to instant death. Nothing was ever heard of him again.12

The struggle for existence after Hojeda's departure had brought to the front in his colony Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, a man of great resourcefulness and courage, whose career if not so early cut off might have anticipated that of Pizarro. He had been a planter in Española, but the spirit of adventure was strong and the burden of his debts oppressive; hence, when Hojeda's lieutenant, the lawyer Enciso, was about to sail for Tierra-Firme, Balboa, not being able to evade his creditors otherwise, had himself nailed up in a barrel and put on board with the provisions.13 It was at his suggestion that the colonists moved over to Darien, and thenceforth he was a leader.14

p109 Balboa's activities embraced an energetic campaign against the natives for provisions, and an offensive and defensive alliance with one of the native rulers, including the taking of his daughter to wife. A joint expedition followed against the enemies of this chief, and then a foregathering with one of his allies at some distance to the west, who gave the Spaniards about fifty pounds of gold, worth nearly $12,000. As they were measuring it out and wrangling over it the eldest of the seven sons of this allied chief lost his patience, dashed the scales from their hands, and rebuked them for their greed, adding: "I will shewe you a region flowing with golde where you may satisfie your ravening appetites. . . . When you are passing over these mountains (poynting with his finger towarde the south mountaines) you shall see another sea where they sayle with ships as big as yours."15

Balboa was not able at this time to verify these assertions, but in the summer of 1513, upon receiving the news that a new governor was coming out from Spain to render judgment upon him, he resolved to forward his own cause as far as possible by a brilliant stroke. With a picked body of one hundred and ninety Spaniards and several hundred Indian porters and dogs he set out September 1 p110to discover the sea of which the Indians had told him. Although the isthmus is only about forty-five miles wide at the place he tried to cross, and the ridges on the average only about a thousand feet high,16 yet so dense is the tropical forest that gloom reigns almost perpetual. Impenetrable thickets, tangled swamps, slippery cliffs, enormous trees, and interlacing vines block the way at every turn.17 After a most arduous progress of eighteen days, a wonderful achievement as modern explorers have found out, at about ten o'clock in the morning of September 25, 1513, Balboa reached the ridge from the summits of which "he might see the other sea so long looked for, and never seene before of any man comming out of our worlde."18 This dramatic moment may best be described in the words of Peter Martyr, whose account is based on Balboa's letters.19

"Approaching therefore to the tops of the mountaines, he commanded his armie to stay, and went himselfe alone to the toppe, as it were to take possession thereof, where, falling prostrate upon the grounde, and raysing himselfe againe upon his knees, lyfting up his eyes and handes toward heaven he hales the South and powred forth his p111boundless gratitude to God and all the Heavenly Host who had reserved the prize of so great a thing unto him being a man but of small wit and knowledge, of little experience, and lowly parentage. When he had thus made his prayers after his warlike manner, hee beckoned with his hande to his companions to come to him, showing them the great maine sea heretofore unknowne to the inhabitants of Europe, Aphrike, and Asia."20 Four days later, upon the shore of the bay which he named San Miguel, he waited the rising tide. When the billows came rolling in over the flats he rushed in, flourished his sword, and took possession of the sea with a ringing proclamation.

Eight years passed after Columbus unlocked the bars of the Ocean Sea before he was sent to Spain in irons. The star of Balboa sank more rapidly. In four years he was relentlessly put to death by a jealous and suspicious governor, Pedrarias Davila.21 Columbus's work was really done; the career of Balboa was in its beginning. He had made the most important discovery since the third voyage of the admiral, and he had displayed qualities as a leader thus far unequalled by any of the conquistadores. He was not only a considerate and inspiring commander of Spaniards, but, in addition, he showed extraordinary ability in dealing with the p112natives. By a judicious mingling of severity and tact he won the friendship of the chieftains and the attachment of the tribesmen. Had he lived they would have been spared countless horrors, and he might have anticipated either Pizarro or Cortés.22 Could his discovery have been reported a little sooner, Pedrarias Davila, whose jealousy brought him to ruin, would hardly have been appointed, and the history of the main-land of South America might have been very different.

The news of Balboa's discovery of the great sea beyond the main-land reached Spain soon after the departure of Pedrarias in April, 1514, and immediately aroused the greatest interest. A despatch was promptly forwarded to the new governor of Castilla del Oro to establish a settlement on the shores of the Gulf of San Miguel and to build three or four caravels for making a thorough exploration of the coast of the South Sea. King Ferdinand next turned to the veteran navigator Solis, the ablest sailor in Spain23 now that Pinzon had retired, and familiar with the South American coast from his great voyage six years before; and on November 12, 1514, gave him a commission to take three ships, one of seventy tons and two of thirty tons, with seventy men and provisions for two years and a half, to go to explore the waters beyond Golden Castile (the isthmus) to the distance of seventeen p113hundred leagues, or more if possible, yet without intruding upon any of the lands of the king of Portugal.24 This voyage, if brought to a successful issue, must find the long-sought strait, the much-desired western route to the Spice Islands, and settle the vexed problem whether or no the New World was adjacent to the eastern verge of Asia.

The voyage proceeded with hopeful prospects until the discovery of the broad estuary of the later Rio de la Plata, which they called the "Mar Dulce" (Fresh Sea). The shores were inhabited, and Solis, expecting to find the natives friendly, landed with seven companions. No sooner had they landed than "sodenly a great multitude of the inhabitantes burst forth upon them, and slue every man with clubbes even in the sight of their fellowes. . . . They cut the slayne men in peeces," preparing to eat them. "Their companions being stricken with feare through this example, durst not come foorth of their shippes or devise how to revenge the death of their Captayne and companions. They departed therefore from these unfortunate coastes, and by the way lading their shyppes with Brasell, returned home agayne with losse, and heavie cheare."25

The goal at which Solis had aimed was already in the hands of the Portuguese. They reached Malacca, p114the great emporium of all eastern Asiatic commerce, in 1509. Two years later the city fell before the Portuguese viceroy Alfonso d'Albuquerque. This splendid conquest was announced by the king of Portugal to Pope Leo X in glowing language almost exactly twenty years after the news of Columbus's first voyage. The long race had been run and the glittering prize of such unparalleled efforts was at last in the hands of King Emmanuel: "The Golden Chersonese, called Malacha by the inhabitants, situated between the Gangetic and the Great Gulf, a city of wonderful size with upwards of twenty-five thousand households, the land most fertile and most productive of merchandise in India by means of that most famous market where not only abound the different spices and all kinds of perfumes, but also gold and silver, pearls and precious stones."26 To seal this conquest, Albuquerque despatched a fleet under Antonio d'Abreu in December, 1511, to the Spice Islands themselves, which lay farther to the east. Early in 1512 Abreu visited in turn Amboina and Banda, and, loading with cloves, returned to Malacca.


The Author's Notes:

1 Under the year 1506 Herrera estimates the annual product at 460,000 pesos (Historia General, dec. I, lib. VI, chap. XVIII). Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, 118, puts the annual product at 300,000 pesos. The peso d'oro was 450 maravedis, or about one-sixth of an ounce, or approximately $3.

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2 Harrisse, Discovery of North America, 731.

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3 Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, 181 (ed. of 1574).

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4 Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. VII, chap. I.

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5 Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, 181‑185; Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. VII, chap. ix; Peschel, Zeitalter der Entdeckungen, 335, 336. In Errera, L'Epoca delle Grandi Scoperte, 304, 305, and Winship, Cabot Bibliography, xvii and No. 342, will be found the reasons for supposing that Sebastian Cabot explored the northern coast of North America in 1508 in charge of an English expedition.

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6 This name King Ferdinand transferred in 1513 to that portion of the northern part of South America commonly called Tierra-Firme and usage subsequently followed his mandate. Navarrete, Viages, III, 337.

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7 Las Casas, Historia, III, 290.

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8 Ibid., 293.

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9 Las Casas, Historia, III, 298.

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10 Ibid., 301‑310.

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11 Peschel, Zeitalter der Entdeckungen, 336‑338.

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12 Las Casas, Historia, III, 329‑346.

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13 Ibid., III, 313.

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14 Ibid., III, 318.

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15 Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, 151; Edens' translation from Hakluyt, Voyages, V, 229, 230. Las Casas follows Peter Martyr's account, which was derived from Colmenares and Quicedo (also spelled Caicedo) upon their return from the Isthmus. De Rebus Oceanicis, 176; Hakluyt, Voyages, V, 240.

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16 Peschel, Zeitalter der Entdeckungen, 370, 371.

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17 Prevost in 1853 found the forest so dense that for eleven days they did not see the clear sky. Ibid., 371.

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18 Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, 210; Hakluyt, Voyages, V, 225.

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19 Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, 205.

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20 Eden's translation in Hakluyt, Voyages, V, 255, here slightly changed to a closer conformity to the original.

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21 The name is sometimes written Pedro Arias de Avila.

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22 Cf. Markham, Narrative of Pascual de Andagoya, ii., iii.

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23 Herrera, Historia General, dec. II, lib. I, chap. VII.

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24 Navarrete, Viages, III, 134.

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25 Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, 316‑318; Hakluyt, Voyages, V, 307. Based on the accounts of the survivors.

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26 Translated from the Latin text in Roscoe, Leo X, I, 521, 522 (London, 1846).


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