500: World marks Balboa’s first sighting of the Pacific Ocean in 1513

View of city in Panama with skyscrapers in background and palm trees in foreground

View from Balboa Avenue, in Panama, where several monuments, parks and currency are dedicated to the Spanish conquistador. Photo courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 25: It’s been 500 years since that fateful day when Vasco Nunez de Balboa, exhausted from days of hiking through tropical forests, stood atop a hillside and saw—for the first time—the bountiful waters of the Pacific Ocean. Although he certainly was not the first person to see the Pacific—millions of Pacific-rim people had seen the vast ocean down through the millennia—Balboa’s sighting was a unique milestone in world history.

Balboa’s impact had to do with who he was—a European—and how he reached the Pacific—overland in the “New World.” The legacy of Balboa’s generation of explorers is hotly contested today with many—even Columbus—charged with cruelty to native peoples and with spreading diseases that devastated the New World population. But these explorers also changed the planet—bringing products like potatoes back to Europe and bringing others like horses to the New World.

In general, Balboa is beloved to this day throughout Panama. He has been the center of activities during this, his 500th anniversary year. In 2013, Panama is also celebrating the anniversary of the opening of the first Catholic diocese on the mainland American continent. (Learn more from the National Catholic Register.)

Vasco Nunez de Balboa was born in 1475 in Spain. By age 25, news of Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the New World was circulating in Balboa’s homeland, and the young Spaniard set off on a voyage. His first venture was as part of Rodrigo de Bastidas’ expedition, when Balboa traveled to Hispaniola and set up a small farm. When the experiment wound up in failure, Balboa hid as a stowaway on another expedition, and—narrowly escaping abandonment once he was discovered—Balboa was kept on board for his knowledge of the region. (Wikipedia has details.) Danger ensued and Balboa prayed to the Virgin Mary; the first permanent settlement on mainland American soil was named after her. Three years later, Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean.

Statue of Balboa holding flag and sword

A statue of Balboa, in Panama. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

BALBOA: IN SPANISH HISTORY AND IN PANAMA

The Spanish Navy recently sent a training ship to Panama to take part in the ceremonies, processions and fireworks for Vasco Nunez de Balboa’s 500th anniversary, and while the conquistador was a native of Spain, his legacy is renowned throughout Panama. Multiple parks and streets throughout Panama are named after Balboa; monuments pay homage to his “discovery;” Panamanian currency is called the Balboa; Panama City’s main port bears his name. Wreath-laying ceremonies have been taking place in Panama at the numerous statues of Balboa, as the 500th anniversary loomed on the horizon.

A writer from the Smithsonian recently reported on his trek through the dense jungles and unforgiving heat of Panama with Panamanian presidential hopeful and environmentalist Juan Carlos Navarro, who names Balboa as “my childhood hero.” In that region, Balboa is credited with somewhat more humane policies toward indigenous tribes, compared with the records of other Europeans. Navarro says Panamanians look with favor upon the Spanish explorer. He “was the only one willing to immerse himself in the native culture,” explained Navarro, in the Smithsonian article. “In Panama, we recognize the profound significance of Balboa’s achievement and tend to forgive his grievous sins.” Though Santa Maria La Antigua no longer exists, the spot where he stood—and first saw the Pacific—is still there.

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