There is a movement underway to erect a statue in honor of Vasco Nunez de Balboa in Balboa Park, in that part of the Kumeyaay Nation territory commonly called “San Diego.” San Diego Union Tribune columnist Logan Jenkins calls attention to the campaign to create a bronze statue for Balboa in his March 8 2016 column, “Time to put Balboa on a pedestal.”
The idiom “to put someone on a pedestal” has quite a number of synonyms including “worship, dignify, glorify, exalt, idealize, ennoble, deify, apotheosize.” A question arises: Does Balboa’s legacy warrant building a monument holding him in high regard? I’ll return to this question in a moment, but first let’s set the context which explains what’s going on with the U.S. society. After all, we need a context that helps explain this mad proposal for a statue honoring Balboa, a conquistador who performed a superstitious ceremony claiming possession of the entire Pacific Ocean for Spain because he managed to be the first Spaniard, and thus, the first representative of Christendom and “humanity” to lay eyes on it from the Isthmus of Panama.
In his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), Chris Hedges says that the society of the United States is a “culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality” (p.44). The desire on the part of some people in San Diego to build a statue to Balboa, including the wealthy patron who wants to spend more than $300,000 on the statue, perfectly illustrates the point made by Hedges. The proposal for such a statue is an example of the dominating society’s illusion being separated from reality. For it is only by ignoring the reality of what David Stannard calls the “American Holocaust” in his book by the that title, that a statue celebrating Balboa can be proposed with a straight face.
Present day efforts to build a monument to a bloody conquistador such as Balboa need to be immediately dismissed as the kind of delusional behavior that results from historical denial. Such a statue ignores the massive amount of death brought about by Western Christendom’s colonization of this hemisphere. Dr. Iris Engstrand, a history professor emeritus at the University of San Diego appears to steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the dark side of the history of the Spanish colonization of “the Indies.” By force of habit she contributes to societal amnesia in the United States.
In his March 8 column, Jenkins says that “if you click on Wikipedia, you’ll read that Balboa reportedly fed 40 homosexual Indians to a pack of dogs.” He continues: “It’s a salacious story, but it’s also untrue says Iris Engstrand, San Diego’s historian emeritus who’s helping lead the fight for a Balboa statue.” According to Jenkins, Engstrand calls the story is an “apocryphal narrative” which she chalks up to “propaganda against the Spanish Empire.” She considers it part of a false “Black Legend” that was developed by the enemies of Spain.
In an email, I asked Jenkins whether there is some historical source that Dr. Engstrand cites as the basis for her calling into question the account about Balboa in which Native people are killed and fed to the dogs. Or are we supposed to simply take her word, I asked, when she says the story is untrue? In my email, I made the point that Engstrand’s well known emotional attraction to Spain is not history. Then again, maybe historical evidence is not the basis upon which Dr. Engstrand denies the story. Clearly, that and other accounts of atrocities are unlikely to help her make her case for a Balboa statue. Maybe Jenkins didn’t realize she was wearing her pro-Balboa statue hat and not her historian hat when she said the story is untrue.
In American Holocaust (Oxford University Press, 1992), historian David Stannard has something to say about Balboa, and he provides a mental context for the heinous acts that conquistadores such as Balboa committed. He points out that the Spanish at that time used “assertions” that amounted to “fabrications” that were designed to achieve the dominating ends of the Spanish Empire. The Spaniards from another part of the globe invaded and imposed their concepts, categories, and judgments on the basis of self-serving standards held by them as Christian Europeans. The Spaniards were “conquering [dominating] Europeans who were purposefully and systematically dehumanizing the people they were exterminating” (p. 218). Some historians who claim this is all part of a “Black Legend” about Spain apparently lack the inclination or the capacity to deal with such subtleties and thereby gain a more complete and detailed account of that era. As Dr. Stannard says that
. . .the specific categories of behavior for these accusations [against the Indians] were openly derived from traditional Christian and earlier Roman and Greek ideas regarding the characteristics of fundamentally evil and non-rational creatures, from Hesiod’s Bronze race to the medieval era’s wild men and witches. Thus, time and again, the enslavement and terroristic mass slaughter of Indians by the Spanish was justified by pointing to the natives’ supposed ignorance of their allegedly despicable and animalistic behavior—such as, for example, when Balboa’s troops murdered hundreds of native people in one locale, hacking them to death and feeding them to the dogs, because Balboa claimed that some of their chiefs were addicted to the “nefarious and dirty sin [of] sodomy” (Ibid).
In his book Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale University Press, 2009), Ben Kiernan provides the following quote from Balboa, dated January 20, 1513:
These Indians of Caribana, have well deserved death a thousand times, because they are a very bad people and have at other times killed many Christians and some of ours at the time we lost the ship there, and I do not say make them slaves according to their evil breed but even order them burnt, to the last, young and old, so that no memory remains of such evil people. . .Returning from his discovery of the Pacific, Balboa tortured and murdered Indian chiefs who denied having any gold. Oviedo added that “the cruelties were not stated, but they were many” (p. 81).
Pedro Arias Dávila, the Spanish governor of Darién, falsely accused Balboa of treason and had him executed. Yet Dr. Engstrand told Jenkins that “Balboa was executed because he was too friendly to Indians.” How are we to account for a bonafide historian fabricating this idea about Balboa being “too friendly to the Indians,” especially given Balboa’s own words that he ordered them “burnt, to the last, young and old”? When do the lies stop? When is the U.S. society going to recognize the need for honesty in the history of colonization which leads to a resounding “Hell no!” as the only sensible answer to the proposed statue honoring Vasco Nunez de Balboa.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery(Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).The movie can be ordered from38Plus2Productions.com.