Illustration of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa taking possession of the Pacific Ocean, with inset bust profile
With all the attention that the blockbuster Pacific Rim attracted this summer, you’d think that the guy who discovered the Pacific Ocean would get some love on the 500th anniversary of his feat. When the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas came around in 1992, it received all manner of attention—much of it negative. As for Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s accomplishment being recognitized—not so much. Balboa was the Spanish conquistador who was the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean, which he named Mar del Sur (the South Sea) and claimed for King Ferdinand of Spain on September 25, 1513. Balboa led an expedition over land, cutting a 70-mile path through the tropical forest that covered the Isthmus of Panama to reach its western coast.
The existence of the Pacific Ocean was hardly news to many non-Europeans, of course; Polynesians and Micronesians were living in the midst of the Pacific, and countless coastal East Asians populated its western shores. But it was Europeans who were sailing the world’s seas during the Age of Exploration, and it was they who would explore the new ocean, map its extent, and begin traversing it on a regular basis. As natural-history guide Hernán Arauz, himself the son of an explorer, says of Balboa’s historic sighting: “Discovery implies uncovering and making the world aware.”
Panama City, Panama, was the center of the quincentennial celebration of Balboa’s discovery. Five days of fanfare involved hundreds of thousands of Panamanians, featuring parades with floats, conga-dancers, and plenty of Balboa beer (the national favorite). Juan Carlos Navarro, an environmentalist and presidential candidate to whom Balboa was a “childhood hero,” summed up the reason his people overlook the conquistador’s shortcomings: “He was the only one willing to immerse himself in the native culture.”
Image credit: © Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division
- Following in the Footsteps of Balboa
This interesting travelogue recounts a modern-day trip retracing the path of Balboa’s 1513 expedition across the Isthmus of Panama.
(Source: Smithsonian magazine, September 2013)
- 500: World Marks Balboa’s First Sighting of the Pacific Ocean in 1513
This website on holidays and festivals captures both the history and the present-day remembrance of Balboa.
(Source: Readthespirit.com, September 25, 2013)
- Vasco Núñez de Balboa
This biographical sketch puts the life of the conquistador into the context of early Spanish exploration of the Americas.
(Source: HISTORY.com; accessed October 1, 2013)