Blog: Latin America

Vasco Núñez de Balboa

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Balboa was a regular Spaniard living in the large Caribbean island Hispaniola, attempting a life as a farmer and having gotten into significant debt, who snuck aboard a boat bound for conquest under the flag of King Ferdinand of Spain. He was escaping his debt and hopefully paying it off with won riches. His boarding the boat took place by him hiding in a wooden barrel with his war dog Leoncito, who plays a small role in his story as a vicious and useful member of the conquistador force, as war dogs commonly were. The leader of the boat was also his debtor, who he confronted and was accepted by as a member of the mission. They were initially trying to make conquests in northern Colombia (around what is now Cartagena, but was then the newly founded settlement of San Sebastian de Uraba in Nueva Andalucia). The natives there were very hostile, however, and used poison arrows, and Balboa suggested they try someplace easier, namely moving the settlement of San Sebastian to Darien (Panama), which they did.

After the initial victory in the what the Spanish made to be the settlement of Santa Maria la Antigua del Darian (in Panama), Balboa became leader of the Spanish crew. He had become popular with the crew earlier, for his personality, his knowledge of the area they were sailing, the time they all spent together in battles against the poison-arrow wielding indians of Colombia while waiting for their leader to return from Hispaniola after being injured in the leg. And now, the popular Balboa took leadership from Enciso as alcalde mayor by legal means. Because Enciso was actually on a mission for a leader who controlled a different part of the Spanish Caribbean territory, his mandate in Darien was illegitimate, and 'should be' arrested. Balboa acted as spokesperson in this action, and was afterwards elected as one of two alcaldes there (the other was Martin Samudio, who doesn't play a role in this story). There was almost another change in government when those actually entitled to rule that part of the Carbbean heard about the action's of Balboa at al, and vowed to punish him and take over, but they weren't allowed to set foot on land by the mob that appeared to greet them, and the unseaworthy boat, ill-supplied, was not heard from again.

Balboa's leadership was cemented when, while he was away attacking another village, the malcontents in his party who were left behind formed an insurrection in order to appropriate the large quantity of gold they had all won, and distribute it among them. The leader of this insurrection, however, wanted a greater portion for himself, and this led to dissatisfaction with his leadership, and recalled the usefulness of Balboa as leader, who had been fair in distribution of spoils. Balboa was passing his refuge away from the village with a party of his supporters in the jungle, and when the envoy from the settlement reached him to ask him to return as leader, and swore to obey him as leader thereafterward, he initially acted like he didn't want to go back to the thankless job, but after seeing a letter about how he was being tried as a criminal against the crown in Spain, he did return (is that the letter or am I forgetting?)

This led him to undertake the mission he is famous in history for. They had discovered by chance, from one of the offhand remarks of one of the princes they were dealing with, of a very gold-rich land to the south, which they could reach by "the other sea." Balboa sent for more men to undertake this mission (he had been told by the prince that he would need at least 1000 men), and Balboa sent a request to Spain but these didn't come. Since his case was being heard in Spain and to his disfavor, he now (it was September 1513) made the journey of about 68 miles (110 km) across the Panamanian Isthmus, making battle here and there with various tribes. The journey all in all took 24 days to reach the mountain where he saw the South Sea, then another 5 days down to the coast, encountering with his band of 100 Spanish soldiers (accompanied by 1000 indian carriers, and not counting his other 90 soldiers he left in a defeated village to provide him with an escape route if later necessary), overwhelming them easily with the combined power of war dogs, fire arms, crossbows, swords, and plate armor, losing only a couple of men killed or injured. He reached the coast after dispatching three parties of 12 of his men first (the first man to enter the then-called "South Sea" was one of these men. He claimed the ocean for the Spanish crown. They arrived September 29 and named the place San Miguel. Because they had travelled south to the new sea, he named it "The South Sea." The tribes living there were respectful of his superior power, and gave him all the gold and pearls they had, showing him where more could be found. In return they were happy to receive European shirts, glass beads, etc., which had more value to them than gold and pearls, which had barely any value. He conquered a few villages to the south on the coast, then tried to push on to the islands of pearls nearby, but was canoe-wrecked right away since it was the season of storms, and returned back to the beach. He took a different route back to Antigua, and on the way back to the Spanish settlement, laden with so much gold and pearls the party wasn't able to carry enough food and water (and some died of this along the way), they encountered other tribes which fled or put up little fights.

Meanwhile, back is Spain, the public matter of Balboa's actions had been discussed for about a year (I think), since some enemies of his returned and charged him with illegally taking control of Darien (Panama and northern Columbia today). He was seen in the light of criminal, which was a strong impetus for his finally leaving the Caribbean coast where he had established his local power (the site of a preexisting tribe's village, composed now of 200 straw-thatched huts, 500 Spaniards, and 1500 indians, growing richly with gardens of produce, the site of his first conquest, where he had married the daughter of the local ruler in his hut after the day's battle, and by accounts was basically in love with her) to find for Spain the farther ocean, which none had yet found (at the same time, Magellan was circumnavigating the globe, travelling down the Atlantic Coast of South American, rounding Patagonia northwards a little, but then directing himself Westward to the Pacific Islands and then Indonesia, and it wasn't until half a century later in the 1570s the English sea captain Drake sailed around South America from the easternmost point of Brazil and around and north all the way to California (or perhaps Canada, we don't know the details of his secret mission for Queen Elizabeth).

However, Balboa was now able to dispatch to the queen a couple of his men, laden with the fifth of gold entitled to the King, the largest and best of the pearls, and news of Balboa's "great discovery" and claiming for Spain the South Sea, and opinion of how to frame Balboa as a Spaniard changed.

Now Darian shone with a new light to Spaniards, too. It was now to be referred to as the "Golden Castile," (before that it was being called "New Andalusia") and since for Europeans gold was the driving purpose for activity in the New World, that for which they went, which they volunteered, braved risks, fought, died, and killed for, which purchased peace with the native tribes, which purchased favor in the Spanish court, which was the subject of conversation in Spain,

Before Balboa's own emissary could reach the king with his gifts and story, Kind Ferdinand had spent 50,000 crowns on a mission there, in which there were to be 2,000 soldiers with arms, equipment and money, and a person more fit in the eyes of the king to take over control of the realm instead of Balboa. (Also religious men, and an order that no lawyers should be permitted to practice there, however one lawyer did go, as alcalde mayor (chief judge), Gaspar de Espinosa.

When Pedrarias (the man appointed by the king to rule Darian) arrived, he found the present leader, Balboa, overseeing the rethatching of his fairly humble straw house, rather than seated in golden opulence.

In the months that followed, Balboa was imprisoned by Pedrarias and in all events that followed Balboa was nothing but meek and subservient to all sources of authority, at length protesting to the priest who on his behalf arranged a marriage to Pedrarias' and his wife Dona Isabel's eldest daughter by signing an contract (the daughter was in Spain) and sending for her to solemnize the wedding when she arrived. Through this a peace was formed, which may have benefited Pedrarias as Balboa's potential future achievements would serve both.

During this time, King Ferdinand had sent a messenger with news that he had made Balboa adelandtado of the great South Sea, and governor of the provinces of Coyba and Panama, while Pedrarias was left governor of the Caribbean side, with a note that in this position Pedrarias was to expand the king's interests as befitted his position. Balboa's position, however, while he had been placed over the valuable lands while Pedrarias' were fairly valueless, was subject to the authority of Pedrarias, and Balboa agreed to a term with Pedrarias whereby Balboa would not exercise the authority he had without approval of Pedrarias.

During this time, other envoys were sent out to the tribes, but these did not find the easy victories Balboa's first encounters had had. Many were defeated and returned defeated, among some victories. Balboa, too, when he was released and allowed to undertake another mission (to construct ships, assemble them on the Pacific, and sail south to the land of riches many tribes had told him about) met with his first defeat to the natives. In this defeat, he had a co-commander appointed by Pedrarias, who died by a spear to the chest while Cortez was only injured after a force of indians attacked their canoes in their own canoes, and many drowned when the indians plunged in the water to overturn their boats, or died from the arrows of the indians. The natives also attacked and harried the land in and around the Spanish settlements, so that people lived in fear of their houses all being burned down. Indian chiefs united in some cases to drive the Spanish out of their lands. In part this was said to be due to the behavior of the Spanish, worse than Balboas, with regard to torture and taking of women and children.

The 2,000 Spanish who came brought a good amount of provisions, but a large portion were found to have rotted, and a serious famine was felt in the settlement. 700 died. Some others left for Cuba in a boat. Others returned to Spain. Others hired themselves out as laborers to eat, and could be seen selling their last valuables in the streets. All without ever starting on any missions or using the weapons and equipment they had brought.

The means by which Pedrarias was able to get rid of Balboa finally was this: Another governor had been dispatched from Spain to take over for Pedrarias (not sure about 'take over'), but died in the harbor. Balboa was not sure where he sat in all these changes, because if the new leader took over for Pedrarias, the new leader's favorites might be appointed to take over instead of Balboa. He therefore sent a messenger back to get a clear picture of what was going on in the settlement. He chose a man who he had long served with but who, according to the stories, bore him a grudge because while paying court to Balboa's indian princess wife was seen by Balboa and reprimanded. When this man, one Garabito. A condition of Balboa's marriage to the governor's daughter was that he cut off relations with his indian wife, which Balboa had of course agreed to. However, when Garabito was apprehended in Antigua and treated as a spy, he let slip that Cacita (the princess who had still not returned to her father, perhaps partly because she may have been viewed as a traitoress after betraying her brother, who had been trying to save her before the impeding planned attack of Balboa's first settlement, into torture at Balboa's hands, in which he was forced to relate the entire military strategy, which was then foiled by a preventative attack by the Spaniards)... that Balboa had sent for her to come to the Pacific. The idea was that Balboa was setting up his own station of government there, which doesn't seem likely to be true, but was true enough for Pedrarias, who charged him with treason (punishable by death). When Cacita was questioned she confirmed it. A message was sent to the coast to Balboa that he come to Antigua, and although he questioned the messengers, they did not tell him what was going on there, and despite the protests of his men, he went. He was put in shackles immediately by Pizarro (who had also long served under him), tried, and executed, along with four of his men who had participated in warning or supporting Balboa.

He was executed (decapitated) in 1519 at age 43 or 44. He had been by that time ten years in the Darian, having left Hispaniola in 1509, and it had been six years since he discovered the South Sea. By the time he left Hispaniola in 1509, however, he already had experience in conquest and sailing around the Caribbean, as he had crossed from Spain in 1501 on a treasure-finding mission for the king, and it was with his share of this mission that he had settled as a farmer in Hispaniola.

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William Walker

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May 8, 1824 in Nashville, Tennessee – September 12, 1860 in Trujillo, Honduras, by firing squad at age 36.

By age 25, he had studied, graduated and practices medicine, studied and practiced law, and worked as a co-owner and editor of a newspaper on the East Coast before moving to California. Walker is noted to have engaged in three duels with guns, one with a notorious Wild West gunman after he insulted him in the paper he was editor of in San Francisco. During these years before beginning his enterprises in Latin America, Walker was involved in owning and running a newspaper.

In 1953, he set out to conquer lands in Latin America, first in Mexico (and took over some of sparsely-populated Baja) with 45 men, and then after retreating in fear of the Mexican government, he was tried in California for waging an illegal war but was acquitted by jury of his very popular act in 8 minutes.

In 1854, Walker went with an army to Nicaragua to aid one of the contending (and warring) political parties ("The Democrats," who were fighting "The Legitimists") as a hired army. Nicaragua had been in a civil war for decades at this time. Also notable was that Vanderbilt (the first "tycoon" of America) owned transport the San Juan river that was the main route for goods and travellers (an alternative to Panama) in the country, linking the Caribbean and the Pacific with the lake in the middle.

William Walker's book, "War in Nicaragua" written before 1860

Didn't take notes from the first 180 pages. I might go back and do that at some point.

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There was a longstanding civil war in Nicaragua before Walker and his (150?) men were hired by one of the contending political parties, "The Democrats" who were the liberal party based in Leon. The Americans landed near San Juan del Sur (I think in El Gigante because they couldn't safely enter the San Juan bay). Their first fight came shortly thereafter, after a march to Rivas. After several battles, consisting of a few hundred participants each, the American and "Democratic" force defeated the force of the rival political party called "The Legitimists." Conflict continued to a degree.

Costa Rica declared war against the Americans in Nicaragua specifically. Costa Rica then caught the troops in Santa Rosa Guanacaste, unawares in an afternoon attack, and routed them. The army was depressed, many left or wanted to leave for America. Walker was preparing for a war with Costa Rica that the other three Central American states were likely to join Costa Rica against the Americans. The main strength of the army was moved to Rivas.

Although significantly dispirited, the Americans were able to add to their forces with new recruits making the passage between San Juan del Norte and San Juan del Sur (from the Caribbean to the Pacific). He added a couple of hundred that way. Also, it was proven that the large Costa Rican force was inferior to the American force combined with the ravages of disease. Various strains of Cholera were killing and laying low people everywhere in outbreaks. (The Americans had been attacked by a strain, Walker thought the probably the same strain, at Virgin Bay. He noted that "the spasms of this form of the disease are not so violent as those of the Asiatic cholera, nor does the patient sink so rapidly.) After their defeat by the Americans, the Costa Ricans (now many sick): "Its fatal effects were increased in the Costa Rican camp by the general depression of spirits which pervaded the officers as well as the men after they saw the results of the first conflict with the enemy they had come to drive, as they imagined, by easy marches, and by the mere force of their numbers, out of Central America."

At that juncture in his story, Walker comments that, "To destroy an old political organization is a comparatively easy task, and little besides force is requisite for its accomplishment; but to build up and re-constitute society -- to gather the materials from the four quarters, and construct them into an harmonious whole, fitted for the uses of a new civilization -- requires more than force, more even than genius for the work, and agents with which to complete it. Time and patience, as well as skill and labor, are needed for success; and they who undertake it, must be willing to devote a lifetime to the work."

The Provisional President moved to Leon, in large part to establish friendly relations with San Salvador (a place called "Cojutepeque" was where the San Salvador cabinet resided) but the commission to Cojutepeque was met with coldness and a statement was issued that "the presence of the Americans in Nicaragua threatened the independence of Central America." The tone was received as very insulting. But the tone of San Salvador became more peaceful when word reached them the Costa Ricans had retreated from Rivas. But soon news came that Guatemala was preparing troops to march on Nicaragua.

Walker was in Masaya when he received letters about events in Leon, where Rivas' government was. According to Walker's story, the military governor there had asked the Americans to guard an arms and ammunition storehouse, and when they were guarding it the government officials left their building hastily and rode through the streets proclaiming that the Americans were about to take Rivas prisoner and assassinate the ministers and chief men of the city. Restless locals took up arms. Rivas left the city, reportedly. The Americans prepared for a fight. Rivas was almost apprehended by American soldiers called to Leon on the road and thought the politicians making this movement was suspicious, but the American soldier in charge was counselled not to because "it would not be proper for a simple lieutenant to arrest the President and one of his Ministers." Walker left for Leon when notified. Rivas and his company were preparing to fight in Chinadega. Walker, not sure how many local leaders were going to ally with Rivas, planned to wait the arrival of his other forces and then formally march on Granada which then happened.

In Granada, Walker (at that time his title was 'general-in-chief') published a decree re-constructing the provisional government by virtue of an existing treaty that made it so naturalized Nicaraguans got equality of privileges with the native born, which President Rivas was not advocating. Walker then made a statement that he was denying the existing Provisional Government: after citing the 'unconstitutional crimes' of the government, he stated "With such accumulated crimes--conspiring against the very people it was bound to protect--the late provisional government was no longer worthy of existence. In the name of the people I have, therefore, declared its dissolution, and have organized a provisional government, until the nation exercises its natural right of electing its own rulers." Walker installed a new provisional president until the vote.

A few weeks later an election was held, "the voting was general in the Oriental and Meridional Departments" but other places didnt vote because some were controlled by Rivas (who was in Chinadega) and the Guatemalans had already entered Nicaragua in the north (the "Occidental Department"). The new provisional president declared the win for Walker, who had received "a large majority of the votes."

Walker was inaugurated on July 12, and his cabinet formed (a Minister of Relations, a Minister of War, a MInister of Hacienda and Public Credit). The government resided in Granada.

Two of the first things that happened after his inauguration. 1) A Costa Rican schooner, the San Jose, was seized in San Juan del Sur and condemned by a court for using the American flag and forfeited to the government of Nicaragua and converted into a schooner-of-war and armed with cannons. 2) he began diplomatic relations with an American Minister who had just arrived to do so (although the American government had thought Rivas was in charge when they dispatched him).

A few more arrivals of a hundred or so American men each arrived, one of them in Leon which was barricaded by Guatemalan forces.

To be continued ...

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The preface to Walker's book


Cast of Characters, countries and Locations:

The National War of Nicaragua, as was called the contest between Nicaragua's two political parties in the 1800s, which were the liberal government (called "Democrats" and based in Leon, led at the time by Patricio Rivas) and the conservative government (called "the Legitimists" and based in Granada and led by ?? at the time). This contest often broke out into violence (ie civil war) in the 1840s and 1850s. It was part of this contest that the "Democrats" invited Walker to help them in 1955. Walker succeeded in defeating the conservative forces and made Patricio Rivas president. This civil war is not to be confused with the Nicaraguan civil war of 1926–1927.

Patricio Rivas, leader of the "Democrats," the liberal party in Nicaragua, based in Leon, engaged in civil war with conservative party, hired Walker and his force to defeat the conservatives party.

The Rifles - how the American forces under Walker in Nicaragua were called as a group. Walker arrived with (150?) men, but added to his forces several times as more Americans arrived, mostly in batches of a hundred or so as they crossed the San Juan Rivers between the Caribbean and the Pacific. They quickly became the most powerful (and main) military force in Nicaragua. Locals, according to Walker, were not interested in becoming soldiers for the civil war, and would rather do just about anything than fight with rifles. In this way, the American force was viewed by Walker as relieving the burden of conscripted fighting from the locals.

The Costa Ricans, the first force to enter Nicaragua (from the south) after the success of the American forces in the Nicaraguan civil war, after declaring war on Americans in Nicaragua while Rivas was still president. After initially routing the Americans in a surprise attack, their much larger force (over 1000? men), many of them having been infected with Cholera while in Nicaragua, fled after defeats by the American force. At the time, Costa Rica was led by President Juan Rafael Mora.

The Guatemalans, the second force to enter Nicaragua (from the north) to attack the Americans, who by then had elected Walker as president. At the time, Guatemala was led by President José Rafael Carrera Turcios (Rafael Carrera).

Contextual events of the era: Caste War of the Yucatan, American Civil War, liberals attempts to overthrow the Catholic Church and aristocrats power, Mexico Wars, boundary dispute between Belize and England, caudillos.

Previous to the Nicaraguan Civil War: Following the period of dramatic discovery and exploration in the New World in the first decades of the 1500s, the period of conquest began. In 1538, Spain created in its new territory the "Viceroyalty of New Spain" which included all of what is now Mexico and Central America except Panama. In 1570 this political entity was split and the southern half called the "Captaincy General of Guatemala." The land now known as Nicaragua belonged to this, and was at the time a group of administrative regions with its capital in Leon. (It was in 1610 that this "old" Leon was destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Momotombo, and afterwards Leon was reconstructed north of the original site). Between 1570 and 1821, the region had minor civil wars and rebellions which were subdued easily by the Spanish government there, as well as being the days of pirate raids, of which there were lots. Then in 1821 the land changed politically, first becoming part of the First Mexican Empire that year, then in 1823 part of the United Provinces of Central America, and in 1838 it became the independent republic of Nicaragua. From this point the rivalry between the two political parties in the country lead us to our subject with Walker.

The east of the country, the Caribean Coast or "Mosquito Cost" based on the town of Bluefields, has a separate political history from the western side of the land. Even today most of what happens in Nicaragua is all on the west side, where the biggest cities (and now the Pan American Highway) are, not only in Nicaragua but in Costa Rica to the south and El Salvador and Honduras to the north as well. There is a large space of mostly uninhabited land between this populated part and the Caribbean Coast. The Mosquito Coast was claimed by the UK between 1655 and 1838, then was designated to Honduras in 1859 and transferred to Nicaragua in 1860. But even after becoming part of Nicaragua in 1860 is remained autonomous until 1894. The Caribbean side doesn't feature much in our story, taking place around 1855: However, San Juan del Norte, the Caribbean end of the San Juan Rivers route between the two oceans, is in the south of Nicaragua on the Caribbean side.

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The dedication in his book

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