The Spanish colonists on the island of Hispaniola made frequent visits to the mainland, searching for the rich cities of which Marco Polo had written.
Word reached the colonists that some of these gold hunters were starving at a place called Darien, and a ship was immediately sent to their relief. The cargo of the ship consisted of barrels of provisions and ammunition.
Imagine, if you can, the amazement of the commander of the expedition when, after his ships were under sail, a young and handsome man stepped out of one of the barrels. The young man was Vasco Nuñez Balboa. He had chosen this way to escape from Cuba, where he owed large sums of money which he could not pay. The commander was angry, and threatened to leave Balboa on a desert island; but at length he took pity on the young man, and allowed him to remain on board the ship.
When the mainland was reached, the Spaniards who were already there, having heard of the cruelty of the commander, refused to let him land. He therefore put off to sea, and was never heard of again. Balboa then took command of the men and began immediately to explore the country.
He made a friendly alliance with an Indian chief, who presented him with gold and slaves. The Spaniards were delighted at the sight of so much riches. They began to melt and weigh the gold, and at last fell to quarreling desperately about the division of it.
This the Indians could not understand. They knew nothing of money, and valued the metal only because it could be made into beautiful ornaments.
An Indian boy who had heard the dispute told the Spaniards that if they cared so much about that yellow stuff, it would be wise for them to go to a country where there was enough of it for all.
The Spaniards eagerly questioned him regarding this place. The boy then described a country across the mountains and to the south, on the shores of a great sea, where the metal was so plentiful that the natives used it for their ordinary drinking cups and bowls.
Balboa immediately started southward across the mountains in search of this rich country. On his way he came upon a tribe of hostile Indians, who attacked him, but who fled in alarm from the guns of the Spaniards.
Taking some Indians as guides, Balboa pushed on through the mountains, and on September 25, 1513, from one of the highest peaks, looked down upon the Pacific Ocean.
With his Spaniards he descended the mountain, and in four days reached the shore of that magnificent body of water. Balboa waded out into it with his sword in his hand, and formally took possession of it for the King of Spain. He called it the South Sea, because he was looking toward the south when he first saw it; and the Pacific Ocean was known by this name for many years afterward.
On this shore he met an Indian who repeated to him the same story that the Indian boy had told about the rich country on the border of this sea and farther to the south.
Balboa then made up his mind to find this country. Accordingly he returned to Darien, and sent word to the Spanish king of his great discovery of the South Sea.
He then began to take his ships apart, and to send them, piece by piece, across the mountains to the Pacific coast.
This was an enormous undertaking. The journey was a very difficult one, and hundreds of the poor Indians who carried the burdens dropped dead from exhaustion.
At length, after long months of labor, four ships were thus carried across the mountains and rebuilt on the Pacific coast. These were the first European vessels ever launched on the great South Sea. Three hundred men were in readiness to go with Balboa on his voyage in search of the rich country of the South.
A little iron and a little pitch were still needed for the ships, and Balboa delayed his departure in order to get these articles.
The delay gave his enemies, who were jealous because of his success, time to carry out a plot against him. They accused him of plotting to set up an independent government of his own, and caused him to be arrested for treason. In less than twenty-four hours this brave and high-spirited leader was tried, found guilty, and beheaded. So ended all his ambitious plans.