Balboa Discovers Pacific, 500 Years Ago Today

Today is the five hundred year anniversary of the “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean by Vasco Nuñéz de Balboa. Although the exact date is disputed, it says so on today’s little square on my Porto Rico Importing Company calendar that the clerk gave me when I bought a pound of coffee there around Christmas, and that’s as definitive as we need to get.

Balboa discovers the Pacific.

Balboa discovers the Pacific.

During my pre-P.C. childhood (in more senses than one), I absolutely loved the maps of the Age of Exploration. Da Gama keeps turning left to round Africa. Cabot. Magellan. What a bunch of lunatics. But I always had a special place in my heart for Balboa, because his “discovery” seemed so sad. What happens when we find a vast new land and destroy its people? Anything is possible. We are, like Herzog’s great conquistador he created during the Vietnam War era, the wrath of God.

One day, though, we discover that on the other side of that enormous lump of paradise is another ocean. There is only so much conquist-ing one guy can do. Our dreams are finite, and no matter how little we thought the world was, it’s even littler than that. In my 2nd Grade imagination Balboa was putting his armored feet in the water somewhere around San Diego, and his achievement seemed like the final American discovery: the end of the continent.

I showed a comedy script* to a director named Soham Mehta a few years ago. It had a supernatural element, and some magical moments, and in the last act it sprawled out right where it should have gotten tighter. Mehta’s most insightful comment was that when anything is possible, you don’t know the parameters of the possible outcomes you are hoping for. It’s something storytellers should keep in mind – or at least a principle we should observe by not introducing game-changing elements too late in the story. Give the reader/listener/viewer the pleasure and the respect of knowing the whole terrain of the land before proceeding to the final confrontation.

No one is raising a glass for Balboa today, and it’s not the same lightning rod of an anniversary that Columbus Day, 1992 was. Maybe exposés of the actual, genocidal nature of the Age of Exploration are passé. Maybe there just isn’t a Spanish-American community with a knee-jerk attachment to Balboa the way the Italians took to Columbus. (When the Bay Ridge Italians first suggested naming the Brooklyn-Staten Island bridge after the explorer Verrazano, Robert Moses scoffed that he’d never heard of him.) To me, though, today does define the Age of Exploration. It’s the day you realize you can’t have it all, and have to make real choices.

*Script as in screenplay. Screenwriting has been going on almost daily. More news soon.


  1. I have directed the Balboa 500 for the Pacific birthday, It is great to imagine such platitudes of reasoning, but the fact is the common ignorance everywhere is our lost paradise never discovered. It is. email,

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