The Balboa Statue Controversy Continues

Jody Wilson is the former Education Program Manager for the “San Salvador” build site of the San Diego Maritime Museum.

She recently found on the Internet a 2014 proposal to build a statue to honor the Spanish conquistador Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. The proposal seeks to locate the statue in that part of the Kumeyaay Nation territory now typically called “Balboa Park” and “San Diego, California.” The proposal includes a number of support letters claiming, among other things, that Balboa was a “humanitarian” in his treatment of the Native peoples. Let’s examine that claim.

Sir Arthur Helps published an excellent book in the mid-1800s entitled, The Spanish Conquest in America and Its Relations to the History of Slavery and to the Government of Colonies. His is just one of many sources that enables us to see the bizarre nature of the claim that Balboa exhibited “humanitarian concerns for the Native people of Panama,” or anywhere else he went for that matter. Take for example, page 243 of Helps’ book. There we find the heading, “Vasco Nuñez [de Balboa] Tortures Indians.”

Perhaps the statue supporters are of the view that Balboa tortured the Native people in a humanitarian manner, or that he had dogs tear the Native people apart, albeit in a humanitarian manner, a topic I’ve written about in two other columns. Imagine my surprise to discover that a sketch of the proposed statue includes one of Balboa’s dogs.

The proposal for a Balboa statue quotes one historian named Hurbert Herring as saying that Balboa was “one of the wisest and most merciful of conquerors.” Arthur Helps expressed a similar idea when he wrote: “Vasco Nuñez has been held to be a man who dealt very wisely, and, upon the whole, very mercifully with the Indians” but Helps goes on to say in the very same sentence that Balboa was accustomed to torture the Native people to make them reveal the location of “those towns which had most gold and provisions.” Balboa would then “attack those towns by night,” no doubt slaughtering the people in a humanitarian manner.

Balboa revealed one example of his “merciful” treatment of the Indians in a letter to Admiral Christopher Columbus. He told Columbus, that he, Balboa, at one point had hung thirty Native caciques (leaders). Balboa said that he “must hang as many as he should take, for the Spaniards, being few, had no other way until he should be supplied with more men.” Helps further explained that for Balboa terror was his only means of supplying himself with additional men. Yet supporters of the statue have claimed that the Natives accompanied Balboa because they trusted him and believed in what he was doing.

Letters from the House of Spain, and the Honorary Counsel of Spain, and a number of individuals appear in the statue proposal. The packet includes a letter from University of San Diego (USD) Professor Iris Engstrand. Her letter is printed on university letterhead, and she ignores Balboa’s record of terror and torture, while repeating the claim that Balboa had “humanitarian concerns for the Indigenous people of Panama.” Engstrand then writes: “Balboa was not a conquistador but an explorer who was guided through the difficult terrain across the isthmus by the natives of Panama because of their trust in his endeavors.” As already noted above, Balboa used horribly dark methods of persuasion.

Engstrand’s contention that Balboa was merely an explorer and not a conquistador is an odd statement on her part. The word “conquistador” is derived from both the term conquistar, ‘to conquer,’ and, conquirer, ‘to search for,” which also suggests, “to explore.” An “explorer” for the Spanish crown at that time was a Spaniard who, by definition, went forth in a bloody and rapacious manner, in search for non-Christian lands to claim and dominate (“conquer”) for the Catholic Spanish crown.

The word conquistador communicates the notion of both an “exploring” and “conqueror.” It specifically refers, in my view, to any one of the leaders of the Spanish domination of the Western Hemisphere. Most people associate the term conquistador with bloody deeds in an effort to take over a country by force. Balboa’s behavior certainly matches that understanding. However, there are moments of ambiguity in the historical record, such as the one mentioned above, which may have something to do with Engstrand’s confusion.

For example, Helps says of Balboa’s ventures: “but Vasco Nuez, whose first thought in his present undertaking was discovery, not conquest, sent messengers” to a Cacique (leader) named Poncha. (Emphasis added) The phrase “in his present undertaking” was solely focused on that particular expedition, and not on Balboa’s career as a whole. And, when Balboa met with any resistance by Native leaders he and his men proved themselves to be murderers bent on dominating every Native nation they invaded in an effort to “pacify” them.

In one account, a Native leader named Quarequa made known his intention to resist Balboa’s forces. As a result of Spanish firepower, “a total rout ensued,” meaning that the Native people fled. “The rout was a bloody one,” writes Helps. It is, says Helps, “described by an author, who gained his information from those who were present at it, as a scene to remind one of the shambles,” a word that means “a slaughterhouse.”

This incident, along with the horrible manner in which he had Indians torn apart by dogs reveals that Balboa’s psychopathy resulted in him writing, “I have tried everywhere that I have gone, that the natives of this land be treated well, not allowing harm to them whatsoever.” We can compare this claim with the account given of he, and his men, creating a slaughterhouse: “Even as animals are cut up in the shambles, so our men, following them [the Indians], hewed them in pieces, from one an arm, from another a leg, here a buttock, there a shoulder.” Helps states: “The King and his principal men were slain to the number six hundred.”

While I am opposed to a statue to Balboa, at a minimum the House of Spain, the Spanish crown, and the Spanish government ought to support a statue to Balboa that depicts slain Indians—women, children, and men—including those torn apart by dogs. The Spanish government could have (but didn’t) announce its support for such a historically accurate depiction when it gave Dr. Ray Ashley Spanish knighthood on May 7. He was awarded for his “special services” to the history of Spain for spearheading the building of a replica Spanish galleon, the ship San Salvador (“Holy Savior”) that first brought Spanish domination to the still unceded territory of the Kumeyaay Nation.

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