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Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475 - 15 January 1519), known as El Esgrimidor ("The Fencer"), was a Spanish conquistador and explorer, famous for founding the first permanent European settlement in the New World and arriving in the sea later known as the Pacific Ocean. He would also pioneer the exploration of South America, and would have undertaken himself the Spanish Conquest of the Inca Empire, the first of three men counting Aleixo García and Francisco Pizarro, had Núñez not been judged and executed on absurd charges by a rival governor who didn't quite share his friendly policies with the native populations. He is particularly relevant for the history of the lands now known as Panama, whose currency is called balboa in homage to him.
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As most conquistadores, Vasco was of low birth, but he received an education thanks to his service as a pageboy to the lord of his lands, growing to become an excellent swordfighter, hence his nickname. In 1500, encouraged by the discovery of Christopher Columbus, he joined an expedition to the Caribbean sea commanded by Rodrigo de Bastidas and Juan de la Cosa, the cartographer and Columbian veteran who drew the first map of America. However, Balboa's business enterprises in Hispaniola failed spectacularly due to the natural conditions of the island, with the consequence that he found himself essentially pauper. Running away from debtors, he embarked as a stowaway in a relief expedition to the post of Alonso de Ojeda in Nueva Andalucía (modern day Colombia), without any more company that Leoncico, a Canine Companion whose father had belonged to Juan Ponce de León. Although man and dog were eventually discovered, the crew convinced the captain, Martín Fernández de Enciso, to pardon them. This would prove to be the best decision, as Núñez turned out to be a great captain in the battles against the natives of Darién, in which he fought along Francisco Pizarro.

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It did not take much time for Balboa to become the unofficial big man of Darién, and after securing the support of everybody, he managed to get his position legally ratified by ousting both Enciso and the previous governor Diego de Nicuesa, who were hated by their despotism and greed. Núñez's first action as a governor of Santa María la Antigua del Darién was that of initiating an ambitious conquering campaign through Panama and expanding the Spanish settlements with the first corn crops of the land. His policy with the natives was the usual, that is, being nice to those willing to ally with him and conquering and sacking those who did not, often with the former's help; and even with the losers, his personal charisma helped him to play Defeat Means Friendship in a constant basis. He gained the alliance of the chieftains Coíba, Careta, Poncha and Comagre, and as it was the custom as well, he hooked up with Careta's daughter Anayansi, baptized as María Caridad de los Remedios, who become a sort of Panamanian predecessor to La Malinche. By this point, tired of hearing the Spaniards arguing about gold, Comagre's son Ponquiaco told them about the untold riches of the Inca Empire, beyond the southern coasts of a great ocean yet to discover.

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In 1513, Balboa was getting ready for a grand expedition, but he found out that Enciso had smeared his name in the Spanish court, denying him the reinforcements needed. Undaunted, he enlisted the help of his indigenous allies and went down anyways with their support, taking with him 190 Spaniards, 800-1000 of Ponquiaco's warriors, and a pack of the always effective Iberian war dogs, Leoncico's own entourage. Through the way, they suffocated a rebellion by Poncha's tribes and forcefully assimilated the tribe of Torechá, where they infamously executed a indigenous homosexual harem by aperreamiento or throwing them to the dogs (yeah, LGBTI rights weren't that fashionable back then), but the battles and the travel's hardships ended up leaving the army weary, so Núñez stationed them there and continued with a smaller team. In September, much to the expeditioners' delight, Núñez's squire Andrés Contero became the first European to sight the Pacific Ocean. The Balboans then conquered another local tribe, that of Chiapes, and with his help they acquired a great booty in gold and pearls from the aptly baptized Pearl Islands.

Balboa hoped to make a triumphal return, so he took a different route in order to explore, ally and conquer a bit more, and after being satisfied and arriving in Santa María, he sent one of his liutenants back to Spain with the king's tribute in pearls. However, although the discovery mostly cleaned up his name back home, this didn't stop King Charles V from superseding Balboa's regional authority by that of Pedro Arias de Ávila, also known as Pedrarias Dávila, who sailed off with a great Spanish flota to the Americas up to that point to capitalize on the new lands. Unfortunately, Pedrarias turned out to be exactly how the Spanish Black Legend describes conquistadors, and he ruined all of Balboa's efforts by laying an iron hand on all the indigenous, wreaking havoc everywhere, sacking without distinction of friend or foe, and executing everybody that looked at him funny, which tragically included Vasco's old friend Ponquiaco. Balboa appealed to the king to stop the slaughter, but this only translated on an endless legal litigation that, as always, solved nothing. Even sadder, Leoncico was killed in action at some point around this time.

In 1517, the situation seemed to calm down by the wacky intervention of Archbishop Juan de Quevedo, who forced a mail marriage between Núñez and a daughter of Pedrarias that lived in Spain as a mean to make peace between both (Balboa wasn't happy, apparently because he was really in love with María Caridad, but he had to accept). Dávila seemingly mellowed down and stopped giving trouble for a time, during which Núñez armed a fleet to better secure the Pearl Islands and gather intel about the Inca Empire, but Núñez was then recalled by letters urging him to race back... only to find himself arrested on Pedrarias' orders, and by his own partner Pizarro to add insult, for a supposed rebellion. As you can guess, it had been all a Batman Gambit by Dávila as soon as Quevedo turned his back, and he soon tried Núñez in a Kangaroo Court, had him executed him with all of his inner circle, and resumed making the lifes of everybody hell. María Caridad vanished, possibly by Dávila's action as well, the fleet he was preparing was finally commanded by Gaspar de Espinosa.

In fiction

Comic Book
  • El otro mar is an award-winning comic book by Alfonso Zapico about Balboa.
  • Huida hacia la gloria by Gol also tells his story.

Film

  • The fictional expedition from the film Gold (2017) takes inspiration from Balboa's, down to discovering the Pacific Ocean for Spain and carrying a big dog.

Literature

  • Balboa's own memories were published under the title of Cartas.
  • His life is told in Alber Vázquez's historical novel of the same name.

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