A Statue Honoring the Murderous Vasco Nuñez de Balboa in San Diego’s Balboa Park? No Way!

by on November 2, 2017 · 2 comments

in San Diego

By Steven Newcomb / Indigenous Law Institute

On November 2, 2017, at 6:00 p.m., the Balboa Park Committee will meet at Balboa Park, in San Diego. During the meeting, the House of Spain is scheduled to ask the Committee for a decision regarding a proposal to build a statue honoring a Spanish conquistador named Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. The Committee ought to tell the House of Spain “No, it’s 2017.”

These days, at a time when many statues in the South are being taken down because they honor a legacy of slavery, the House of Spain wants to erect a statue in honor of a Spaniard who excelled at dominating, dehumanizing, and murdering Native people so as to advance the Christian Empire, which Pope Alexander VI called “imperii Christiani” in Latin. The goal as revealed by Vatican documents was to “constitute Christian domination where it did not yet exist.”

The House of Spain and a number of other advocates for the statue have been putting forward the claim that Balboa was a “humanitarian” when it came to his treatment of the Native people he dealt with. The advocates for the statue claim that Balboa was someone who had a concern for the welfare and well-being of the Native people. Let’s critique that claim, shall we?

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 source among many 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 supporters of the Balboa statue proposal are of the view that Balboa tortured the Native people in a humanitarian manner, or that he had them torn apart by dogs and otherwise killed in a humanitarian manner.

Imagine my surprise to discover that a sketch of the proposed statue includes one of Balboa’s dogs. Perhaps, the proposal ought to include a depiction of the hundreds of dead Native people that Balboa, his men, and his dogs of war murdered. 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.”

Sir Arthur Helps acknowledged this claim 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 in that very same sentence Helps revealed that claim to be a lie. He did so by acknowledging 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.” Perhaps he slaughtered the people using “humane” methods of dehumanization and murder.

In a letter to Columbus, Balboa revealed one example how he dealt with the Indians “mercifully.” He told Columbus, that he, Balboa, had at one point hung thirty caciques [leaders]. Balboa said he was determined to  –

“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, as discussed below, certain people who now want to build a statue dedicated to Balboa have shamelessly 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 in order to repeat 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, such as torture and murder.

Engstrand’s contention that Balboa was merely an explorer and not a conquistador is a false distinction given that 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 an “exploring” “conqueror,” and specifically refers, in my view, to any one of the leaders of subjecting Native nations to Spanish domination. 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 limited to that particular expedition, and did not mean Balboa’s bloody career as a whole. And, when Balboa met with any resistance by Native leaders he and his men proved themselves to be deadly killers bent on dominating every Native nation they invaded in their effort to “pacify” and “reduce” 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 him, 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.”

Perhaps the House of Spain, the Spanish crown, and the Spanish government would support a statue to Balboa that also depicts the hundreds of slain Indians—women, children, and men—including those torn apart by dogs, and some being fed to dogs.


Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of the best-selling book 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 from 38Plus2Productions.com.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

rose February 25, 2019 at 1:20 pm

why are you so weird


SOFÍA July 8, 2021 at 2:05 am

Thank you SO MUCH for addressing this!! It seems the government seemed more concerned with awarding this monster than teaching actual history…


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