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New Worlds To Conquer – 1939 

Richard Halliburton had a keen interest in history, and often set off on remote paths to see just what explorers of long ago may have seen – from a personal perspective.  This is one such voyage wherein Halliburton determined to experience for himself, the historical “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean.  As he, himself, discovers, sometimes history gets it wrong.

Richard Halliburton with his Ocelot

It is unfortunate that in the one great poem which mentions the discovery of the Pacific Ocean, Keats made the mistake of naming Cortez as the discoverer instead of Vasco Nunez de Balboa who alone deserves the full measure of credit.

This event is almost as important to history as Columbus’ first voyage to the New World.  It took place in September, 1513, twenty years after the great admiral landed on San Salvador.  In that month Balboa, at the head of one hundred and ninety Spanish adventurers, set out to march across the isthmus of Panama.  He was seeking the empire of the Incas which the Panama Indians had told him was fabulously rich in gold.

To reach it Balboa had learned that he must first march inland from the Atlantic shores through what is now the province of Darien, until he came to another great ocean.  Then in ships he must sail many suns along the coast.

The other ocean – so the Indians said – lay to the south, only fifty miles away.

Fifty miles!  A two, at most three, days’ journey.  So it would seem.  But it took Balboa’s expedition twenty-three days of relentless struggle to cross the isthmus of Panama.

When one sees the country through which the Spaniards had to cut their way, it seems remarkable that they ever crossed at all.  Then, as now, this part of the isthmus was one endless tangle of jungle.  And the march was undertaken when the rainy season was upon the land, the swamps overflowing, the rivers turned to floods.

Through this pathless wilderness the expedition plowed its way.  Hostile Indians contested every step.  Porters fell by the wayside in scores.  The weight of the steel armor became ever more unendurable.  The one hundred and ninety Spaniards were soon cut to less than half that number.

But for Balboa there could be no retreat.  Ahead lay the mysterious ocean, an ocean no white man had ever seen, and, with the discovery of it, immortality – and the treasure realms beyond.  He had staked his very life on this one throw.  By all the saints, he was going to look upon the Southern Sea!

And at length on the twentieth day of marching the guides led the little army up the slopes of a densely forested mountain range.  As the weary Spaniards neared the top – only sixty-seven remained – the Indians told Balboa that from the summit of this mountain he could see his long-sought goal.

Breathlessly he hurried ahead – reached the crest – and behold! – sparkling in the summer sun, blue as indigo, lay El Mar del Sur, the greatest ocean in the world.

Speechless with wonder, Balboa beckoned to his followers.  They came and stood by his side.  With eagle eyes the indomitable leader

“…stared at the Pacific – and all his men Look’d at each other

          With a wild surmise – Silent, upon a peak in Daarien.”

 This happened on the twenty-fifty of September, 1513.  It was my own good fortune on a twenty-fifty of September to climb the peak in Darien in quest of the very same prospect that had brought Balboa his great moment.

Today the province of Darien, though within one hundred miles of the Panama Canal, is wilder and more desolate than it was four hundred years ago.  The Indians there are not one-tenth as numerous as in Balboa’s day.  One who seeks the peak must be prepared for all the hardships Balboa endured.  And there is no promise of a Land of Gold to spur one on.

Even so I was not discouraged.  Ever since first reading Keats’ sonnet I had wanted to stand upon the peak and rediscover the Southern Sea.  All the more reason to go if the region were primeval, if Balboa’s mountain were still inviolate.

To assist in my investigations I called upon the foremost historian in Panama.  He assured me the great discoverer first saw the Pacific from the summit of Mount Piri, a five-thousand-foot mountain and the highest for miles around, situated squarely in the middle of the isthmus.

My destination was then settled.

Once I had recovered from my Canal swim, a small steamer took me from Panama City down the coast to San Miguel Bay.  From here I hired an Indian boatman to transport me in a dugout forty miles up the Tuira River to the village of El Real in sight of which Mount Piri stood, fifteen miles away.

In El Real nobody had ever heard about Balboa or ever climbed Piri.  But I did find one grizzled old man who thought he knew the best way to the top, and under his guidance I plunged into the wilderness.

The first day, having progressed five miles along a trail, we came at sunset upon an Indian hut which offered shelter for the night.  The Indian family living there, a father, mother, and two grown sons, appeared as untouched by the outside world as were their ancestors when Balboa passed that way.  For beds they used only cane benches built a foot above the cane floor.  All about the hut the forest stretched dense and dripping, waiting with hungry, evil eyes for the family to relax its eternal vigilance that it might pounce upon the tiny clearing and devour every trace of human habitation.

When night came we had no light other than the open fire.  Once that had died our primeval little hut was let to dream in the jungle darkness.

I had been asleep on one of the cane benches for two hours – under a mosquito netting I’d brought along, you may be sure – when a most alarming adventure befell me.  I was suddenly and startlingly awakened by something heavy and yet soft crawling over my knees.

All I could think of was rattlesnakes.  In the blackness I lay like ice, not daring to move, for I was trapped on my bench by the netting.

This four pounds of clutching, terrifying, live thing from out of the jungle depths had crept up to my chest, though my heart was pounding hard enough to knock the intruder off had he not stuck his claws into my shirt.

Claws?  Then it wasn’t a rattlesnake.

Perhaps it was a vampire bat preparing to plunge its teeth into my throat.

I could stand the suspense no longer.  Taut with fright I moved my trembling fingers toward this dreadful visitation.

I touched something furry.  Then it wasn’t a bat.  It had a long tail – it had stiff little ears.  As my fingers moved cautiously over the body it began to purr furiously.

Some sort of a cat! – though certainly not a domestic cat.  It was too solid, too strong, too bond.  In any case the animal was friendly, for a hard, scraping tongue began to lick my fingers; a warm body snuggled down beside me.

There, whatever it was, it seemed to be satisfied and as the rain outside had brought a chill to the air I was quite willing to allow the purring hot water bottle to rest close by.  So with this strange and unseen bedfellow I tucked in the disturbed mosquito netting to keep out any more unannounced visitors, and slept, befriended and comforted, till morning.

At dawn my furry comrade disturbed me again by walking once more up and down my chest.  I awoke to look straight into the face of a baby ocelot.

Ocelots are the commonest variety of jungle cat found in Panama.  They most resemble the leopard without growing as large or having such a royal coat of spots.  The mother of my little playmate, I found, had been killed a few weeks before by the Indians in whose hut I was residing, and the baby captured to be brought up as a pet.  His apartment was a box among the rafters.  From there, driven out by the unusual coolness of the night, he had come to me seeking warmth and protection, and had made his first appearance in the somewhat startling manner I have related.

After our midnight rapprochement (reconciliation) the Thomas cat and I became inseparable friends, and the next day when the two Indian brothers, who were to act as porters, and Sam and I started for Piri, I did not have the heart to leave him behind.  So I put a cord about his neck and carried him with me in the tracks of Balboa.

The summit of the peak was still ten miles away, and there was not the faintest suggestion of a trail.  We had to hack one of our own.  Each of my three companions carried a heavy machete – a three-pound kitchen knife used everywhere in Latin America – and with these weapons tunneled through seas of vines, roots and underbrush.  I brought up the rear, carrying the rifle and the cat.

It was a beautiful jungle – for one day at least – filled with flowers and color, bright parrots and noble trees.  True, it poured rain interminably, and we had to plunge through water waist-deep in crossing the flooded streams.

By the first night I figured we had chopped our way four miles.  It was necessary to stop well before dark and build a camp.  Beneath a shelter of palmetto leaves we cooked our supper and rested comfortably though the rain poured down in torrents.  As before, Tommy curled up under my chin and purred himself to sleep.

Next morning we struggled on up the mountain, sympathizing more and more with Balboa and his armor-laden men.  The red bugs had assaulted me in legions until I was on fire from head to foot …but suppose on top of these itching insects I had been wearing a coat of mail…

All during the second day of our march the slope grew steeper, progress slower, and Tommy, riding on my shoulder, ever heavier.  For his own part, the cat seemed to be enjoying the adventure thoroughly – and indeed why not, since he never had to walk a step and was kept supplied with nice green parrots felled by my rifle.

There was little sleep the second night.  The sand flies and mosquitoes had bitten me in a thousand places.  All night long I tossed in torment.  But so had Balboa – though that thought gave me small relief.

Tomorrow, however, would compensate for everything – tomorrow was the twenty-fifth of September.  We were very near the top, and at ten o’clock I would behold the Southern Sea.

As ten o’clock approached we neared the summit, up the ridge facing El Real, along which Balboa must likewise have climbed.  I could picture him hurrying ahead of his companions, reaching the eminence, and staring, with eagle eyes, spellbound, at the great ocean.  I, too, hurried on and reached the summit of the sacred peak in Darien.  Here Balboa, at ten o’clock September twenty-fifth, more than four hundred years ago, stood alone.  Here he made his great discovery.  A gap in the trees opened to the South.  With pounding pulse I turned to gaze at the Mar del Sur – the Southern Sea – the illimitable Pacific…

Nowhere was it to be seen!

I stared a second time.  That ocean had to be there!  It must be there!

But it wasn’t, only endless leagues of smoky jungle – jungle, to the utmost horizon.  I might have been in the heart of darkest Africa.  Nor was it the weather.  At the moment the sun was shining brightly.  Nor were my eyes to blame.  There simply wasn’t any Pacific!

It is recorded Balboa sank on his knees before the wonder of the landscape before him.  I sank down on a fallen tree, weak from the reaction that now followed the intoxication of the idea that had lured me to the summit of this crazy mountain.

For the first time in three days I looked myself over.  The thorns had ripped the sleeves out of my clothes, and my bare arms were a mass of scratches and insect bites.   The diet of bananas and parrots now found me ill and faint.  I’d not enjoyed one dry garment in thirty-six hours.  The only thing about me intact was Tommy.  He squirmed down from my shoulder, stretched and yawned, as much as to say he’d never seen such an idiot as myself, splashing around in this wet jungle so far from home when there were perfectly good parakeets right at the front door.  As I sat on the tree trunk cursing Balboa and all the demented historians who had sent me off on this preposterous expedition, Tommy looked at me rather dolefully.  And no wonder – it had begun to rain again!

But rain or no rain, red bugs or no red bugs, I was going to have me my peak in Darien.  Obviously Balboa never climbed Mount Piri, history books to the contrary, for it is forty miles from the ocean and thirty from his logical line of march.  He had blazed a trail straight across the isthmus to San Miguel Bay.  It was into the waters of this bay that he waded, authentic history states that much – to claim the new ocean of the King of Spain.  He himself named the bay San Miguel.  A range of hills some thousand feet high slopes inland from its shores.  From the top of this range the Pacific was revealed to him.  Nothing could have ben more evident had I stopped to consider it.

So back down the river I went, still guided by Sam and still accompanied by the cat which I had secured from the Indians in exchange for a shirt with the buttons off and two cans of baked beans.

Reaching the bay again I found the radio station operated by the United States Navy.  With this as my headquarters I took a canoe to the inland shores up from which rises Balboa’s ridge, and once more engaged in a battle with the jungle.  All of another day and night, still carrying my mascot, Sam and I hacked our way across the savannas that spread between the ridge and the water, and on up the slopes.

It was again at ten o’clock in the morning when we approached the top.  Dense foliage hid everything.  I climbed a tree – with some difficulty, as I wanted Tommy to share the great moment and insisted on lugging him along – pushed aside a branch, and there was my South Sea at last.

Imagination was turned loose as I rested in my treetop and looked, perhaps the first visitor since Balboa stood nearby, out over the same seascape that he had seen.  As if in compensation for his sacrifices, Providence, realizing there was no denying him his ocean, lead him to it at a spot that for concentrated lyrical beauty has few rivals from Alaska to Cape Horn.  All his physical wretchedness must have gone away as this glorious sight burst upon his eyes – blue, blue jungles, and the green waters studded with a hundred island jewels.  He saw the colors in the bay, the tropic shores, the palms along the line of foam, the painted sky, the battlemented clouds upon the horizon of a great calm sea.  It was this beauty and this majesty that silenced the conquistador.  In that first enchanted moment he forgot it was discovery.

Back at the radio station, I found that Lieutenant Hayne Boyden, of the United States Marine Corps Aviation Force, had flown down the hundred miles from Panama City in his seaplane to take me back.

We climbed aboard, the lieutenant and the Thomas cat and I.  Then, Balboa’s spirit looking from his peak beheld a miracle that must have made him stare more eagle-eyed than he had ever stared on earth.  He saw this gigantic, gleaming bird that had appeared, like the magic thing it was, out of the heavens, rush with a roar across the waters of the bay, take flight, wheel higher and higher, and sail straight for the summit of his ridge.

From within the seaplane Tommy and I glanced down upon the familiar scene.  There was the peak below, there the waters of the bay into which the discoverer waded in the name of his king; beyond, the Southern Sea that led on to the Land of Gold.

The thought came to me that the nations given birth by Balboa’s discovery have grown rich and powerful; that ten thousand ships sail upon the waters he added to the map, and yet to this man who through his own magnificent courage gave the world so much, there is, in all the lands of both the Americas, not one monument.

With this fact in mind I looked back at the ridge top as our plane swept out across the great ocean, and pictured a spot, on the backbone of the immortal hill, cleared of jungle, and standing there in heroic size hewn from eternal stone, the indomitable figure of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, staring at the Pacific with eagle eyes, surrounded by his men looking at each other with a wild surmise – silent, upon a peak in Darien.

**Halliburton’s noteIt may interest readers to know that Tommy, the ocelot, is now in the Bronx Zoo.  I have paid him several visits, but our relations are not what they were.  He has reached his full growth and no longer remembers me.