THE CONQUERORS OF CENTRAL AMERICA, I

Before we speak of Balboa's wonderful expedition, we must notice the discovery of a country that forms the most northerly side of that arc, cut so deeply into the continent, and which bears the name of the Gulf of Mexico. In 1502 Juan Ponce de Leon, a member of one of the oldest families in Spain, had arrived in Hispaniola with Ovando. He had assisted in its subjugation, and in 1508 had conquered the island of San Juan de Porto Rico. Having learnt from the Indians that there existed a fountain in the island of Bimini which possessed the miraculous power of restoring youth to all who drank of its waters, Ponce de Leon resolved to go in search of it. Infirmities must have been already creeping on him at fifty years of age, or he would scarcely have felt the need of trying this fountain. Ponce de Leon equipped three vessels at his own expense, and set out from St. Germain in Porto Rico on the 1st of March, 1512. He went first to the Lucayan Islands, which he searched in vain, and then to the Bahamas. If he did not succeed in finding the fountain of youth which he sought so credulously, at least he had the satisfaction of discovering an apparently fertile tract of country, which he named Florida, either from his landing there on Palm Sunday, (Pâques-Fleuries), or perhaps from its delightful aspect. Such a discovery would have contented many a traveller, but Ponce de Leon went from one island to another, tasting the water of every stream that he met with, without the satisfaction of seeing his white hair again becoming black or his wrinkles disappearing. After spending six months in this fruitless search, he was tired of playing the dupe, so giving up the business he returned to Porto Rico on the 5th of October, leaving Perez de Ortubia and the pilot Antonio de Alaminos to continue the search. Père Charlevoix says, "He was the object of great ridicule when he returned in much suffering, and looking older than when he set out."

This voyage, so absurd in its motive but so fertile in its results, might well be considered to be simply imaginary, were it not vouched for by historians of such high repute as Peter Martyr, Oviedo, Herrera, and Garcilasso de la Vega.

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who was fifteen years younger than Ponce de Leon, had come to America with Bastidas and had settled in Hispaniola. He was only anxious for a safe refuge from his numerous creditors, being, as were so many of his fellow-countrymen, deeply in debt, in spite of the repartimiento of Indians which had been allotted to him. Unfortunately for Balboa a law had been passed forbidding any vessels bound for the mainland taking insolvent debtors on board, but his ingenuity was equal to this emergency, for he had himself rolled in an empty barrel to the vessel which was to carry Encisco to Darien. The chief of the expedition had no choice but to receive the brave adventurer who had joined him in this singular manner, and who never fled except from duns, as he soon proved on landing. The Spaniards, accustomed to find but little resistance from the natives of the Antilles, could not subjugate the fierce inhabitants of the mainland. On account of the dissensions that had arisen among themselves, they were obliged to take refuge at Santa-Maria el Antigua, a settlement which Balboa, now elected commandant in place of Encisco, founded in Darien.

If the personal bravery of Balboa, or the ferocity of Leoncillo his blood-hound—who was more dreaded than twenty armed men and received the same pay as a soldier,—could have awed the Indians, Balboa would have also won their respect by his justice and comparative moderation, for he allowed no unnecessary cruelty. In the course of some years he collected a great mass of most useful information with regard to that El Dorado, that land of gold, which he was destined never to reach himself, but the acquisition of which he did much to facilitate for his successors.

It was in this way that he learnt the existence six suns away (six days' journey), of another sea, the Pacific Ocean, which washed the shores of Peru, a country where gold was found in large quantities. Balboa's character, which was as grand as those of Cortès and Pizarro, but who had not, as they, the time or opportunity to show the extraordinary qualities which he possessed, felt convinced that this information was most valuable, and that if he could carry out such a discovery, it would shed great lustre on his name.

He assembled a body of 190 volunteers, all valiant soldiers, and like himself, accustomed to all the chances of war, as well as acclimatised to the unhealthy effluvia of a marshy country, where fever, dysentery, and complaints of the liver were constantly present.

Though the Isthmus of Darien is only sixty miles in width, it is divided into two parts by a chain of high mountains; at the foot of these the alluvial soil is marvellously fertile, and the vegetation far more luxuriant than any European can imagine. It consists of an inextricable mass of tropical plants, creepers, and ferns, among trees of gigantic size which completely hide the sun, a truly virgin forest, interspersed here and there with patches of stagnant water, where live multitudes of birds, insects, and animals, never disturbed by the foot of man. A warm, moist atmosphere exists here which exhausts the strength and speedily saps the energy of any man, even the most robust.