Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

With Balboa in Darien


At the time he was permitted by Providence to behold that glorious panorama of sea and land, unfolded from the isolated peak in Darien, Francisco Pizarro was more than forty years of age, having been born in or about the year 1471. His birthplace was Truxillo, Spain, in the province of Extremadura, from which also hailed Hernando CortÚs, who, though fifteen years his junior, was to achieve the conquest of Mexico before Pizarro had even heard of Peru. The two were related, through the mother of CortÚs and the father of Pizarro; but they did not meet in their youth, owing to the fact that the latter, though acknowledging the paternity of Francisco, was never married to his mother. The elder Pizarro, Gonzalo, had distinguished himself in the wars of Italy, under the "Great Captain," Gonsalvo de Cordova; but he besmirched his family scutcheon by his amours with common women, and of his five sons could boast of but one who was legitimate.

Francisco was born in poverty and disgrace, though his father lived in Truxillo as a haughty hidalgo, and it is a tradition that even his mother neglected him, his life being saved by the nursing he received from a sow. At all events, his earliest recollections were of the swine among which he was reared and to the care of which his youth was devoted. He served as a swineherd until he had become a youth of goodly size, when his father took him to the Italian wars. He perceived that Francisco was a fighter; but he seems to have done nothing to advance his son from the ranks, and of his life as a soldier in Italy very little is known.

Accustomed from babyhood to cuffs and blows, neglect and hardship, and always with the curse of his birth upon him, Francisco seems to have led a hopeless sort of existence—at least ambitionless. No one had ever taken any interest in him, not even his mother, and though there were good schools in Truxillo, he grew up without learning either to read or to write. He never learned, in fact, for though he once or twice attempted it in after life, he soon gave up in disgust. He was certainly obtuse and pig-headed, though he had sense enough to perceive, when arrived at man's estate, that there was no fortune for either a swineherd or a soldier in Old Spain, and that to obtain one he must strike out in the new land discovered by Columbus beyond the Atlantic Ocean.

CortÚs had preceded him by several years, but they must have met in Santo Domingo, for it is a matter of history that the former came near going with Ojeda's expedition in 1510, when we have the first positive evidence of Pizarro being in the West Indies. At the point from which Ojeda's expedition started—the south coast of Santo Domingo—the paths of CortÚs and Pizarro diverged, for the former, prevented from embarking by illness, was saved for Cuba and the conquest of Mexico; while the latter, as we have seen, was making his devious way towards Peru and the west coast of South America.

Chance—blind chance—seems to have led these two young Spaniards towards their great careers, into which they stumbled as creatures of circumstance, impelled only by their courage, obstinacy, and constancy of purpose. At the outset of their New-World careers, however, neither had any hope of preferment beyond a captaincy; neither had definite views as to his future. CortÚs, when in Santo Domingo and Cuba, rather inclined to agriculture, especially as he could carry it on without personal labor, having received grants of Indians from the government; but Pizarro, after he abandoned his swine, seems never to have pursued any other vocation than that of the soldier. As a soldier we first find him in America; as a soldier he lived; a soldier he died.

Pizarro first heard of Peru, it is believed, when on that famous expedition which resulted in the discovery of the Pacific. Balboa was its commander, Pizarro a faithful captain, or lieutenant, in that perilous adventure. The cacique who had told them of the mountain whence they could view the ocean also told them of a great kingdom extending from its shores to the crests of the mighty Andes, but which would require more men to conquer than Balboa had with him then. More than a thousand men, he had asserted, even clad in armor, riding fiery steeds, and bearing the weapons that "spit forth smoke and lightning," would be necessary to reduce the powerful nation that occupied the Pacific slopes of the Andes.

Balboa took fire at the suggestion, and bent his energies towards accomplishing the subjugation of those unknown people—the Peruvians—of whom the cacique informed him. He, as commander, dominant man in Darien, was, of course, entitled to lead, to raise an expedition, to reap the glory of a conquest. These facts the obscure and plodding Pizarro recognized and assented to, though in his mind pondering the information received. Never for a moment, perhaps, did he entertain the thought that he might be commander of that expedition. But if he did he cleverly dissembled; at all events, he gave no sign that ambition stirred him, but performed his duties faithfully, as became the good soldier that he was.

Balboa had "taken possession" of the great "South Sea," the Pacific, by cutting down trees, erecting crosses, and piling up stones, in the name of King Ferdinand. Then he sent a body of men under Pizarro to find a trail to the coast. This was accomplished, and then he himself went down and made possession more actual by wading into the water up to his thighs. Brandishing his sword and shield, he called upon his men to witness that he thereby took possession of the great "South Sea" for the King of Spain, which, vast as it was, he pledged himself to defend against all the king's enemies.

An earnest of the riches the coast could yield was made manifest in a present to Balboa by Tumaco, an Indian chief, of golden ornaments and pearls to the number of two hundred and forty. The pearls had been injured by fire; but the Spaniards were shown the isles where others were to be found, and soon their losses were repaired.

Cacique Tumaco conveyed to them vague information of the great kingdom down the coast, and his words were treasured by Pizarro, as well as by Balboa, who resolved upon an expedition in search of it as soon as his circumstances would allow. With his wonted energy, he hastened back to the Darien shore, though so ill that he had to be borne in a litter by Indians, and set himself to prepare for the great undertaking. He also sent a messenger to Spain with the wonderful tidings that at last the "South Sea " had been found, though as yet no passage to it from the Caribbean.

While this messenger was on his way with rich gifts of gold for the king, as well as the news (itself of the highest importance), things were happening in Spain which boded ill for Balboa. A governor of Darien had been appointed, an elderly man named Pedro Arias de Avila, generally known to the history of his times as Pedrarias. He sailed for his post with a large fleet filled with soldiers and adventurers, to the number of fifteen hundred, and arrived at Darien the last of June, 1514. Balboa had under him about one-third as many men as Pedrarias had brought; but they were all seasoned veterans, and he felt confident that, if so minded, he could prevent the new governor from landing. He was moved to do so, because, in the first place, he had come to supersede him, and in the second had brought back the lawyer Enciso, who bore no good-will for Balboa, the man who had deprived him of command and sent him home to Spain.

But the new governor was welcomed by the veterans, including Balboa (who now had a force to reckon with beyond his strength), and was informed of all that had been done. He was also given descriptions of the places containing gold and pearls, and probably told of the rumors respecting the golden kingdom, since ascertained to be that of Peru.

Now, Pedrarias was crafty, haughty, and crabbed, and the wonder is that with these qualities he succeeded in controlling such desperate adventurers as the men of Darien. The most desperate of them, he knew, was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, and he resolved to rid himself of this rival, who had performed all the great deeds, while he himself held the power and had done nothing.

If Balboa had not been so active and enterprising, but content, like Pizarro, to hold a subordinate position until the chances were good for securing a higher, by the king's favor, he might have saved his honors and his head. As it was, through having seized upon the leadership when Enciso commanded, he incurred the ill-will of Pedrarias, who committed that crime which, by linking his name with that of Balboa, constitutes his chief claim to fame. Before committing that crime, however, he was destined to experience the terrible effects of fever and famine, which, combined, carried away seven hundred of his colonists. These were all new men, for the veterans were proof against disease as well as inured to hunger and privation.

It is not on record that Pizarro suffered from any disease, except such as was brought upon him by his indiscretions, nor that he was wounded in his many encounters with the Indians. He bore, if not a charmed life, one exempt from the penalties which other and better men were paying for wandering into a wilderness until that time unvisited by white men since the creation of the world.

Having become jealous of Balboa, Pedrarias refused to send him out on expeditions, even over his own routes of discovery, and, as he was not fit to go himself, he appointed his cousin, a man named Morales, to go in his stead. Morales proved as inefficient as Pedrarias, and as they could not, or would not, trust Balboa, Pizarro was sent as second in command, but, by reason of his skill and knowledge of the country, virtually be-came the leader. Under his guidance the first exploring party sent out by Pedrarias reached the Pacific shores and embarked in canoes for a group of islands which had been pointed out to Pizarro by the Indians as abounding in pearls.

The natives of these islands fought the Spaniards fiercely; but they were driven inland, and on the shores of the islands were found so many and such beautiful pearls that Pedrarias, on the return of the expedition, resolved to remove the seat of government from Darien to the opposite coast. There he founded the city of Panama, which, with San Miguel Gulf (discovered by Balboa) and the "Pearl Islands" (first exploited and named by Pizarro), may be found to-day on a map of the isthmus and its waters.

Terrible atrocities were committed by Morales, the nominal leader of the pearl-hunters, who massacred hundreds of Indians and threw the captured caciques to his blood-hounds. On the return march, finding himself hard pressed by avenging Indians under a cacique named Biru, Morales stabbed his captives at frequent intervals, and left their mangled bodies in the trails. This was in order to detain the pursuers, who, more humane than the white fiends, were constrained to pause and give the remains of their friends or relatives burial.

Whether Morales was led, or merely seconded, by Pizarro, is not known; but doubtless both were engaged in the atrocious work of murdering inoffensive natives merely because they possessed gold and jewels, which the Spaniards desired.

This was but one of several expeditions sent out by Pedrarias, in all of which combined—according to a monk who accompanied some of them—more than forty thousand Indians were destroyed, "killed by the sword, or thrown to savage dogs."

It seems incredible that so many human lives should have been sacrificed, merely to gratify the lusts of savage men who had no claim whatever to the territory they invaded nor any right to coerce its inhabitants. But, whether forty thousand were destroyed or only a few hundred, the fact that the lives of the natives were held of no account shows the disposition of the conquerors. That they were consistently cruel, barbarous, more savage than the so-called "savages" themselves, cannot be gainsaid; and the most relentless of them all was the subject of this narrative, Francisco Pizarro.

Few of them lived long to enjoy their ill-gotten, blood-stained treasures; most of them perished miserably, victims of violence, and the first of this rapacious company to fall was then the most conspicuous—perhaps not the most blameworthy—Vasco Nunez de Balboa. He had incurred the enmity of Pedrarias by aspiring to command, for which he was so eminently fitted, and it was charged by the governor that he intended to usurp his power. Still, with a cunning as despicable as it was deep, Pedrarias had enchained Balboa by bestowing upon him the hand of his daughter in marriage. The young lady was then in Spain; but at Darien was the cacique's daughter, beloved of Balboa, and herein lay a fruitful source of trouble, which we will not discuss.

Pretending to accede to Balboa's desire for active service, the vicious Pedrarias allowed him to build some brigantines on the Caribbean coast of the isthmus, which, after incredible toils, were transported piecemeal overland to the Pacific. The natives did most of the work, under the supervision of Balboa; but he himself suffered terribly, at one time being reduced to the verge of starvation and compelled to subsist upon roots and leaves. But his heroic endeavors to placate the governor and form a fleet in which to escape his persecutions, were unavailing. As soon as the last brigantine had been forwarded over the mountains, from the wild port of Acla, in which the timbers were shaped and fitted, the governor sent a company of soldiers to arrest him. An alguacil mayor, Enciso, accompanied the soldiers, and it may have been at his instigation that the deed was performed, for he had a grudge of long standing against Balboa; but the captain of the company had nothing of the sort. He was, in fact, until the arrival of Pedrarias, Balboa's right-hand man and boon companion, hitherto his faithful adherent, for it was none other than Pizarro, who captained that band of soldiers. When Balboa saw him, and divined the purport of his coming, he exclaimed, reproachfully: "What is this, Francisco? You were not wont to come out in this fashion to receive me!" But he made no resistance, and was escorted to Darien, where, charges having been preferred against him by a licentiate in the pay of Pedrarias, this father-in-law of Balboa sentenced him to death!

The sentence was unjust, and Balboa protested his innocence; but there was no appeal. It was carried out the very day it was pronounced, and a public crier preceded the governor's victim to the scaffold, proclaiming, so that all might hear: "This is the justice which our lord the King and Pedrarias his representative, in his name, commands to be done to this man, as a traitor and usurper of the lands subject to the royal crown!"

And this man, this "traitor and usurper," though he had made a discovery scarcely second to that made by Columbus, was dragged through the streets like a common malefactor, and publicly beheaded. This was Balboa's reward for too faithfully serving an ungrateful king.

As his head rolled to the ground, after having been severed from his body by the keen axe of the executioner, it was seized and placed upon a pole erected for the purpose in the public square. The vengeance of Pedrarias was not satisfied even with this, for the remains of Balboa were dishonored, as were those of the four companions beheaded with him, and their properties were confiscated.

The people who swarmed the square were aghast, dismayed, their lamentations filled the air; but they dared not intercede, for the governor had surrounded the scaffold with soldiers, and they were commanded by one who always obeyed the orders of his superior, Captain Francisco Pizarro!