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Vasco Nunez de Balboa

Spanish Explorer, Conquistador, & Adventurer

Born: 1475

Died: 1519

Balboa began his career as a sailor on a voyage to South America in Spanish navy. Instead of returning to Spain at the end of his voyage, he settled on the Island of Hispianola in 1500. He was unsuccessful as a settler, and in 1510, to escape those he owed a great deal of money to, he stowed away on a ship carrying Martin de Encisco’s relief force to the Central American coast, where the Spanish settlement of San Sebastian was struggling to survive.

Being a charismatic and forceful personality, Balboa convinced the colonists to relocate their settlement to a new site. The new site was located in a more stable region, near friendlier natives, better food resources, and was quickly ratified by the settlers. Balboa quickly became the leader of the new colony, supplanting the former leader Encisco, who had been sent to aid and organize the settlement.

Balboa renamed the new colony “Santa Maria de l’Antigua del Darien”, later known simply as “Darien.” The Colony easily flourished in its new location. Despite his illegal seizure of the colony from Encisco, Diego Columbus, then the governor of the Spanish New World possessions, legitimized his authority in 1511.

Early in the settlement’s history, Balboa made friends, and ultimately allies with all of the local natives. From these natives, he heard tales of a vast sea located to the southwest of the settlement. In 1513, he set out with a few hundred men over the mountains of Panama. Within a month, he spotted the Pacific Ocean from a mountaintop. Balboa named this new mysterious body of water the South Sea, and claimed the Ocean, as well as all the lands that surrounded it, as property of the Spanish crown.

News of the eventually reached Spain of Balboa’s illegal takeover and relocation of the settlement as well as his harsh treatment to rebellious settlers, who drowned after being forced by Balboa to sail back to Hispianola in an un-seaworthy vessel. King Ferdinand removed Balboa from office and appointed Pedro Arias Davila (also called Pedrarias) as the new governor of Darien. Pedrarias, mindful that Balboa was still a very powerful and popular member of the community in Balboa, soon became jealous of Balboa and had him beheaded in 1519 on false charges of treason.

Panama chose to honor Vasco Nuñez de Balboa in 1975 by naming their money after him.  Panama's circulation dimes, quarters and halves have consistently featured a portrait of Balboa, but the Balboa coin shown to the right has a value of 100 centésimos.  The exchange rate to American dollars is approximately one to one.

With one interesting but minor exception, Panama has not issued any paper money and uses American dollar bills. American coins also circulate freely side by side with their Panamanian counterparts. Since 1929, Panamanian circulation coins have been designed to match the size, shape and metal content of American coins.

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