THE CONQUERORS OF CENTRAL AMERICA, I

With all these obstacles which Nature seemed to have rejoiced in placing in Balboa's path, there was yet another no less formidable, and this was the resistance which the savage inhabitants of this inhospitable shore would offer to his progress. Balboa set out without caring for the risk he ran in the event of the guides and native auxiliaries proving faithless; he was escorted by a thousand Indians as porters, and accompanied by a troop of those terrible bloodhounds which had acquired the taste for human flesh in Hispaniola.

Of the tribes that he met with on his route, some fled into the mountains carrying their provisions with them, and others, taking advantage of the difficulties the land presented, tried to fight. Balboa marching in the midst of his men, never sparing himself, sharing in their privations and rousing their courage, which would have failed more than once, was able to inspire them with so much enthusiasm for the object that was before them, that after twenty-five days of marching and fighting, they could see from the top of a mountain that vast Pacific Ocean, of which, four days later, Balboa, his drawn sword in one hand and the banner of Castille in the other, took possession in the name of the King of Spain. The part of the Pacific Ocean which he had reached is situated to the east of Panama, and still bears the name of the Gulf of San Miguel, given to it by Balboa. The information he obtained from the neighbouring caciques, whom he subjugated by force of arms, and from whom he obtained a considerable booty, agreed in every particular with what he had heard before he set out.

A vast empire lay to the south, they said, "so rich in gold, that even the commonest instruments were made of it," where the domestic animals were llamas that had been tamed and trained to carry heavy burdens, and whose appearance in the native drawings resembled that of the camel. These interesting details, and the great quantity of pearls offered to Balboa, confirmed him in his idea, that he must have reached the Asiatic countries described by Marco Polo, and that he could not be far from the empire of Cipango or Japan, of which the Venetian traveller had described the marvellous riches which were perpetually dazzling the eyes of these avaricious adventurers.

Balboa discovering the Pacific Ocean
Balboa discovering the Pacific Ocean.

Balboa several times crossed the Isthmus of Darien, and always in some fresh direction. Humboldt might well say that this country was better known in the beginning of the sixteenth century than in his own day. Beyond this Balboa had launched some vessels built under his orders on the newly-discovered ocean, and he was preparing a formidable armament, with which he hoped to conquer Peru, when he was odiously and judicially murdered by the orders of Pedrarias Davila, the governor of Darien, who was jealous of the reputation Balboa had already gained, and of the glory which would doubtless recompense his bravery if he carried out the expedition which he had arranged. Thus the conquest of Peru was retarded by at least twenty-five years, owing to the culpable jealousy of a man whose name has acquired, by Balboa's assassination, almost as wretched a celebrity as that of Erostratus.

If we owe to Balboa the first authentic documents regarding Peru, another explorer was destined to furnish some not less important touching that vast Mexican Empire, which had extended its sway over almost the whole of Central America. In 1518, Juan de Grijalva had been placed in command of a flotilla, consisting of four vessels, armed by Diego Velasquez, the conqueror of Cuba, which were destined to collect information upon Yucatan, sighted the year before by Hernandez de Cordova. Grijalva, accompanied by the pilot Alaminos, who had made the voyage to Florida with Ponce de Leon, had two hundred men under his command; amongst the volunteers was Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the clever author of a very interesting history of the conquest of Mexico, from which we shall borrow freely.

After thirteen days' sailing, Grijalva reached the Island of Cozumel on the coast of Yucatan, doubled the Cape of Cotoche, and entered the Bay of Campeachy. He disembarked on the 10th of May at Potonchan, of which the inhabitants defended the town and citadel vigorously, in spite of their astonishment at the vessels, which they took for some kind of marine monsters, and their fear of the pale-faced men who hurled thunderbolts. Fifty-seven Spaniards were killed in the engagement, and many were wounded. This warm reception did not encourage Grijalva to make any long stay amongst this warlike people. He set sail again after anchoring for four days, took a westerly course along the coast of Mexico, and on the 19th of May entered a river named by the natives the Tabasco, where he soon found himself surrounded by a fleet of fifty native boats filled with warriors ready for the conflict, but thanks to Grijalva's prudence and the amicable demonstrations which he made, peace was not disturbed.

"We made them understand," writes Bernal Diaz, "that we were the subjects of a powerful emperor called Don Carlos, and that it would be greatly to their advantage if they also would acknowledge him as their master. They replied that they had a sovereign already, and were at a loss to understand why we, who had only just arrived, and who knew so little of them, should offer them another king." This reply was scarcely that of a savage!