The Conquest Of Central America
Castilla del Oro.—At the same time that the islands other than Española were being occupied, beginnings of settlement were made in Central America. In 1503 Christopher Columbus had attempted to establish a colony on the Veragua coast, but had failed. After several successful trading voyages had been made, however, two colonies were planned for the southern mainland. Ojeda received a grant called Urabá, east of the Gulf of Darién, and Nicuesa obtained a grant called Veragua, lying west of that Gulf. Ojeda founded a colony at San Sebastián (1509), which was shortly afterward moved to Darién, where Vasco Nuñez de Balboa soon became the leading figure and governor ad interim (1511). Nicuesa's colony was founded at Nombre de Diós (1510), but it did not flourish. The Darién region became known as Nueva Andalucía, and in 1513 the whole southern mainland, excepting Veragua, Honduras and Yucatán, to the west and Paria, to the east, was reorganized into one grand jurisdiction called Castilla del Oro, and made independent of Española.
Balboa.—Hearing of gold and a sea toward the south, Balboa led a band of men in 1513 across the Isthmus of Panamá and discovered the Pacific Ocean. The discovery was an important factor in leading to Magellan's great voyage, already recounted, and it set in motion a wave of explorations both up and down the Pacific coast, and led to the conquest of Peru. Balboa had made enemies, and he fell under the suspicion of the new governor of Castilla del Oro, Pedrárias de Ávila, who arrived at Darién in 1514 with a colony of fifteen hundred persons; but a conciliation occurred, and in 1515 Balboa was made Adelantado of the Island of Coíba, in the South Sea. To explore that water he built vessels on the north coast and had them transported across the Isthmus on the backs of Indians. The vessels proved unseaworthy, and while Balboa was building two more at the Isle of Pearls, he was summoned by Pedrárias, charged with treason, and beheaded (1519).
Exploration on the South Sea.—Balboa was succeeded by Espinosa in charge of the southern coast. He at once began plundering raids westward by land, seeking gold and slaves. The South Sea now became the chief center of interest, and, to provide a better base, in 1519 Pedrárias founded Panamá, moved his capital thither, refounded Nombre de Diós, and opened a road across the Isthmus between the two places.
Rapidly now the conquerors and explorers, under Pedrárias, pushed their way westward, by water and by land. With two of the vessels built by Balboa, in 1519 Espinosa sent an expedition under Castañeda which reached the Gulf of Nicoya, some five hundred miles from Panamá. In 1522 Andrés Niño and Gil González Dávila fitted out a joint expedition, planning to sail west one thousand leagues, to seek spices, gold, and silver. After sailing one hundred leagues westward, González proceeded west by land, while Niño continued with the fleet. González reached and conquered the country bordering on the Gulf of Nicoya and Lake Nicaragua, places so named from local chieftains. Niño sailed west to Fonseca Bay, thus coasting the entire length of Nicaragua. When the commanders returned to Panamá they reported thirty-two thousand baptisms, and presents in gold and pearls worth more than $112,000.
The Development of Central America, 1509-1543.
The Conquest of Costa Rica and Nicaragua.—These profitable explorations stimulated renewed interest, and were followed by conquest and settlement in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. González desired to return at once to occupy the country which he had explored, and, meeting hindrance from Pedrárias, he went to Española to organize another expedition, while awaiting royal consent. Meanwhile Pedrárias set about conquering Nicaragua for himself. With funds borrowed from Francisco Pizarro and others, he equipped a small expedition and sent it under Francisco Hernández de Córdova. One of the commanders was Hernando de Soto, who later became famous in Peru and Florida. Proceeding westward, in 1524 Córdova founded Bruselas, on the Gulf of Nicoya, and parceled out the natives among the settlers. Continuing into Nicaragua, he founded the cities of León and Granada. In the struggle which followed, Bruselas was abandoned and the settlement of Costa Rica proceeded slowly.
González in 1524, having secured royal permission, entered Honduras from the northeast, with an expedition destined for Nicaragua. De Soto, sent against him by Córdova, was easily subdued, but González was defeated by the agents of Cortés, who was now engaged in the conquest of Mexico. In Nicaragua Córdova revolted against Pedrárias and was executed. In 1527 Pedrárias became governor of Nicaragua, where he ruled till 1531. During all these wranglings the Indians were the chief sufferers. They were granted in encomienda, employed as beasts of burden, or branded and sold as slaves in Panamá, Peru, or the West Indies.
Guatemala, San Salvador, and Honduras.—Meanwhile the north-moving conquerors who went out from Panamá had met and struggled in Guatemala, San Salvador, and Honduras with the companions of Cortés, moving southward from Mexico. The history of the conquest of these disputed regions, therefore, becomes a part of the story of the exploits of Cortés and his lieutenants, recounted below.
Exploration of San Juan River.—One of the acts which relieve the bloody story of the career of Pedrárias was the sending in 1529 of an expedition under Estete to find the outlet to Lake Nicaragua. Estete descended the San Juan River until a glimpse was had of the sea, but hostile Indians prevented him from reaching it. It was believed that the lake and river drained a country rich with gold, and explorations continued. In 1536 the San Juan, with tributary branches, was explored by Alonso Carrero and Diego Machuco, under orders from the new governor of Nicaragua. Soon the lake and river became the principal highway from Nicaragua to the Atlantic Ocean, and to the Porto Bello fairs.
The Dukedom of Veragua.—It was a long time after Nicuesa's failure in 1510 before another attempt was made to settle Veragua, one reason being that the region was tenaciously claimed by the heirs of Columbus. In 1535 Alonso Gutiérrez was made governor of Veragua, as agent of the widow of Diego Columbus, but misfortune attended his efforts to found a colony. Shortly afterward (1537) the discoverer's grandson, Luis, was made Duke of Veragua; several attempts to colonize it failed, however, and in 1556 the region was surrendered for a small pension.
Continued struggle in Central America.—These conquests were but the beginning of a long struggle of the Spaniards with the natives in Central America. The first stages of the conquest were over by the middle of the sixteenth century, but many parts of the country were still unconquered at the end of the seventeenth. Some tribes, indeed, are unsubdued and uncivilized to this day.
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