Martín Fernández de Enciso

1470 - 1528

When Columbus returned to Spain in 1504, after his fourth voyage to the New World, he reported on the rich goldfields in Veraguas on the Isthmus. This earned the name of Castilla del Oro to the area. All of Tierra Firme, West of the Gulf of Darien, was named Castilla del Oro, while all of the land to the East was named  Nueva Andalusia, which included the North Coast of South America.

At that time, there were two Spaniards interested in colonizing Tierra Firme. One was Alonzo de Ojeda and the other was Diego de Nicuesa. Ojeda, lacked the funds to attempt such an enterprise, and joined forces, while still in Spain,  with Juan de la Cosa, the famous navigator and cartographer, who had been with Columbus and others, on voyages to the New World, and had accumulated a small fortune from these exploits.  

Not being able to select which explorer to award the charter,  he appointed them both. Nicuesa was given the province of Castilla del Oro, from Cape Gracias a Diós to the border of Nueva Andalusia. Ojeda was given Nueva Andalusia from Cape de la Vela to the domains of Nicuesa. The dividing line between these two provinces was left for them to fight out.

In the fall of 1509, the two governors met in Española and started quarreling right away. Diego Colon, the governor of Española, did all he could to hinder the two governors, and refused to give them ships and men, as ordered by the King. With the help of Juan de la Cosa, they agreed to make the Darien River, as the boundary between their provinces.

Ojeda, still in need of additional funding, was able to enlist the Bachelor of Law (lawyer), Martín Fernández de Enciso (aka. El Bachiller Enciso) to his enterprise. This astute attorney had amassed a fortune in the few years of practicing law in Española. For his financial support, Ojeda made him, "Alcalde Major" (Chief Justice), of the vice-royalty of Nueva Andalusia.

El Bachiller Enciso was born in 1469, in the region of Calahorra, Spain. Soon after he graduated from Law School, he sailed to the newly discovered lands of the West Indies. During the first decade of the sixteenth century, he had accumulated the sum of some 2.000 castelllanos in gold, with his successful law practice in Santo Domingo and Española. But, like all Spaniards of this era, he was unhappy with just sitting and making money on the enterprises that were taking place in this new land. He was determined to be part of conquests and enrich himself even more, in the pursuit of adventure and explorations.

On November 12, 1509, Ojeda set sailed from Española, with two ships, two brigantines, three hundred men and twelve brood mares. Enciso remained in Santo Domingo, recruiting more men and purchasing supplies. He was instructed to sail to Nueva Andalusia and the settlement of San Sebastian with reinforcements, as soon as possible.


Enciso sailed from Española on September 1, 1510 with 2 ships, a caravel and a brigantine, 150 men, 12 mares, some stallions, pigs to breed, plenty of food and clothes, weapons and 2 stowaways, to join Ojeda.  Once they were far out to sea, away from Española, the stowaways revealed themselves. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and his dog, Leoncico (Little Lion), were hiding in two large caskets, left his hiding place and presented himself to Enciso.  Balboa had tried to join the expedition of Ojeda, but was prevented from doing so, because the governor of Española had passed a law, forbidding any resident, that was indebt, to leave the island, without first paying off their debt. Since he was still in debt, he conspired with his friend Bartolomé Hurtado to hid him in a casket, and put it on board the ship. Enciso, at first, ordered that Balboa be put in chains; but, Balboa's friends convinced him that Balboa knew the land where they were going, and was an excellent soldier. Enciso realized that Balboa had much to offer and allowed him to join the expedition.

They first arrived in the Bay of Cartagena, where the saw a brigantine, heading back to Española. On board, there were 35 colonist, and they were commanded by Francisco Pizarro. He informed Enciso that they were the only survivors of the settlement of San Sebastián, and were headed back home. That it was impossible to support oneself on Tierra Firme and the area was very inhospitable and the natives were very belligerent. Enciso did not believe Pizarro, and thought that they were lying and had just abandoned the settlers. Pizarro had to produce a document, signed by Ojeda, ordering the settlers in San Sebastian, to wait 50 from the day Ojeda returned to Santo Domingo for more supplies. If Enciso or Ojeda did not show up, than abandon the settlement and take the settlers back to Española.

Not wanting to lose his investment in the enterprise, Enciso, the Major Mayor, ordered Pizarro to turn around, and head back to the Gulf of Urabá or Darien. As they approached the Caribana Point, against the recommendations of Balboa and the pilot, Enciso, sure that he could do noting wrong, ordered the ships to move in close to the point. The caravel on which he was on (and Balboa), hit a reef and started to sink very rapidly. The passengers were able to save themselves with the help of the other two ships, and their row boat. They lost all of the horses, pigs, and most of the provisions, since they were mostly on the caravel. 

Enciso then continued on to San Sebastián, where they discovered that the settlement had been burned to the ground by the natives. Lacking provision, they had to live off the land, hunting peccary and eating fruits. Wanting to get food from the natives, Enciso, ordered and led his party inland, hoping to capture a native village, and take their food. But the natives were prepared, and attacked the Spaniards as they approached with poison arrows forcing them to retreat. 

Enciso became very discouraged because they had lost all of their food, clothes and weapons. His settlers were divided in what they wanted to do and were rebelling against him. To resolve the problem, he held a town meeting with all of his men. There options were to either go back to Española in defeat, join the expedition of Diego de Nicuesa that was trying to establish a settlement in Veraguas, or remain in San Sebastián and try to rebuild the community. Every man (Spanish,  Catholic male) was asked to give his opinion on what they should do. When it came to Balboa's turn, he suggested that they move the settlement to the western side of the gulf. 

Balboa said:
Once, when I coasted this gulf with Rodrigo de Bastides, on the western shore we found the country fertile and rich in gold. Provisions were abundant; and the natives, although warlike, do not use poisoned arrows. It lies just beyond the great river which the Indians called Darien."

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was about 35 years old, when he directed the Spaniards to their first secure foothold on Tierra Firme (Continent of America). His suggestion to try the western shore of the Gulf of Darien was accepted by acclamation. Enciso saw this option as another way to salvage his investment in the expedition. Not being able to fit all of the men into the one remaining brigantine, some of the men were left at San Sebastian, in a hastily reconstructed stockade for their defense. They then crossed the gulf, where Balboa directed them to a territory ruled by the Cacique Cemaco.

Cemaco was a man that remembered the problems with the Spaniards the first time they visited his territory. In the Spanish Chronicles of the period, his name appears again and again, for being a thorn in the side of the Spaniards. Remembering the problem with Bastidas, and prepared to receive the Spaniards. As soon as he saw the long boats approaching land, he sent the women and children into the jungles to hide. After they were protected, he went to the beach with 500 warriors to meet the invaders.

When Enciso landed, he proceeded with the Spanish custom, of proclaiming all of the land for the King of Spain and the Holy Catholic Church.. This ceremony was attended by his notaries, priests, officials, soldiered and some of the sailors. He had a notary read aloud the same proclamation use by Ojeda (and all Spaniards) to the natives. This was the proclamation where he took the land for the King of Spain, and the natives had to abandon the ruler and take the King of Spain, as their new ruler. He then had the priest read another proclamation where he promises to baptize all of the heathens. He promised the Virgin Mary, that this heathen town would be hers in name, if she would make it his in substance, along with Cemaco's gold, he will build on Cemaco's land a church, and dedicate it to her adored image, Antigua of Seville. He also promised, that if she would do that for him, he would take a pilgrimage to her holy shrine. While all of this was going on, more men were disembarking from the ships. This ceremony had the function of legalizing  what ever the Spanish did against the natives, who were not Christians.

Once all the formalities were dispensed with, the Spaniards yelled their war cry "Santiago y a Ellos" and charged the natives with such ferocity, that they quickly routed them. They chased the fleeing natives to Cemaco's village and captured it. Making good his promise, he re-christened the village, "Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien". With in the next couple of days, they had confiscated large quantities of food and over $50,000 in gold from the natives.


Once the Enciso had fortified his position in the village to prevent counter attacks from the natives, he sent the brigantines back to San Sebastian to bring the rest of the settlers. Enciso, being a lawyer, went about writing new laws and code for governing this land of gold. To him it was more important to establish the laws and rules by with the colony would be governed, than to plant crops to feed the community. of organize work details. Since Ojeda, who was the governor, was not there, and had abandoned them, or may possibly be dead, they did not know. Enciso took on the job of the governor, with all of its rights and privileges.  He enacted laws that were designed to rule a civilized city in Spain, not a small village in the middle of the uncivilized jungle.  As acting governor, he demanded that all booty belonged to him, and the people that did the fighting, would get a small share. The colonist were not prepared to lose, to Enciso, by his laws, what they had won by their sweat and blood.

The settlers became upset with these new laws, and some talked about revolts, arresting Enciso and sending back to Santo Domingo, or killing him, etc. As the rhetoric increased in fervor, and the hostility towards Enciso was at its peak, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, advised the settlers to calm down, that there were other recourses they could follow. He informed them, that they were now in the province of Castilla del Oro, not Nueva Andalusia. That Castilla del Oro, was the domain of Nicuesa, while Ojeda was the governor of Nueva Andalusia. He reminded them that Ojeda's domain was on the other side of the bay and south of the Darien River. He told them, that Enciso was the Alcalde Mayor in San Sebastian, province of Nueva Andalusia, and Enciso had no legal authority in the new settlement of Antigua. 

The colonist's attitudes changed when they realized that Enciso had no power in Castilla del Oro, and immediately held elections for new leaders. They elected two Alcaldes (Mayors), Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Martín Zamudio. Unfortunately for the new community, new leaders did not mean an end to its problems. They still had to build a city, with roads, churches, houses, parks, and fortifications. They had to plant crops so they could feed themselves in the future.

Balboa, being a soldier, aligned himself with the soldiers. He was more interested in military matters, than the civil duties of running the community. He had remarkable tact for smoothing out quarrels between the settlers when they occurred. He was very just in divisions of the spoil insuring that everybody got their share, whether they took part in the battle, or stayed home taking care of the crops. And above all, he was tireless in providing for the comfort of his men. The Spanish historian Oviedo, who always slandered every act of Balboa, admitted: "No chieftain who ever went to the Indies equaled him in these respects."    

One morning in the middle of November, 1510, the settlement of Antigua were startled to hear the sound of cannons across the bay from San Sebastian. The settlers started large fires to attract attention of the ship in the bay. Enciso became very excited, thinking that it was Ojeda, coming back with reinforcements. It would mean that with Ojeda back, Enciso would get his position back.

As the ship approached, they realized that it was Rodrigo Enriquez de Colmenares with a relief expedition for Nicuesa. When he arrived at Antigua, he was received with great excitement. Colmenares left some of the provisions in Antigua, and then left to continue his journey to find Nicuesa. Two members of the community were sent with him, to invite Nicuesa to come to Antigua, and rule the colony.

When Colmenares found Nicuesa at Nombre de Diós, there was only a handful of men left from the seven hundred that left Española. Nicuesa was excited to hear that there was a successful and rich settlement in Castilla del Oro, and they were inviting him to go and rule it. He immediately made plans for going there, and showed signs of displeasure toward the emissaries that came from Antigua. He threatened to confiscate all of the treasures collected by the residents of Antigua and take complete control of the community. He sent the emissaries back to Antigua, to make preparations for his arrival. 

When they got back to Antigua, they informed the councils of all they saw and heard. Both from Nicuesa himself and some of the surviving members of his expedition, who really hated him. The citizens of Antigua voted to keep Nicuesa out of their settlement. When he arrived in Antigua,  he was warned that they did not want him, and to return to from where he came. He landed anyway, and was promptly arrested. In March, 1511, he was put on the most rotten ship, and set off to sea along with 17 of his most ardent supporters. They were never heard from again.

Shortly after Nicuesa's departure, Enciso was arrested and tried for illegal usurpation of authority. He was duly convicted, but set free by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa., with the understanding that he would leave for Spain on next available ship. Zamudio was also sent to plea their case to the King.

Balboa prepared the best of his brigantines, and put Enciso and Zamudio aboard it, and gave the command to Valdivia. He gave Valdivia the King's fifth of all their booty, and letters and treasures to Diego Columbus, the Governor of Santo Domingo, and to Passamonte, the Royal Treasurer at Santo Domingo.

There is some question as to when Enciso left Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien. Some historians believe that he was expelled from Antigua soon after he was removed from power there. Other historians believe that he left within days of the departure of Nicuesa, while others believe that left months after, as described in my narrative.

Enciso returned to Spain in 1512 and with the help of the bishop, Juan de Fonseca, brought charges against Balboa in the Spanish Court. He was accused of the miss-treatment of Nicuesa and possible cause of his death. He also brought charged against Balboa for his treatment of Enciso. While he was addressing the wrongs done to him by Balboa and his cohorts, he never mentioned that the land on which these transgressions took place on, was not the vice-royalty of Nueva Andalusia but Castilla del Oro. These accusations took place at the time that Balboa was on his expedition across the isthmus and the discovery of the South Sea. Enciso, who was more at home in a court of law, that in the wilderness, was able to convince the Spanish King that he had been wronged, and property was unlawfully taken from him. The king gave Enciso a grant of 20,000 maravedís, to compensate him for his losses. He was also allowed to return to the Indies and the colony of Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien, with all of his titles that were taken from him. He was allowed to take with him, five slaves, and an additional payment of 25,000 maravedís as compensation. He was instructed to leave Spain, on the fleet of Pedro de Arbolancha, that was soon leaving Spain, to Española. Enciso was not happy with this arrangement, and waited for the next opportunity to return to the Indies.

A new governor was appointed for Castilla del Oro in 1514, Pedro Arias de Ávila, aka. Pedrarias. Enciso accompanied Pedrarias back to Antigua, as Alguacil Mayor (Bailiff). By then, he had extracted the privileges of taking with him, 10 employees, 5 soldiers, 2 fishermen, 2 monteros, and 1 woman servant. He was also granted an additional 35,000 maravedís and 15,000 more for his wife, Doña Juana de Rebolledo. 

In 1515 he was in charge of an expeditionary force of over 200 soldiers, which also included Pedrarias's nephew, into the province of Cenu, (near the site of Cartagena) where it was reported there was a lot of  gold. He tired to persuade the natives to trade for their gold, and was unsuccessfully in this endeavor. Since they would not trade, he tried to take it by force and make the caciques, submit to the king of Spain. He failed miserably in this task and lost most of his men to the ravages of the poison arrows used by the natives of that area. During these battles, he was able to capture the some slaves and the wife and son of an important cacique of the area. The cacique offered to traded his wife and son, for the promise to guide the Spaniards to a City of Gold, reported to be in the area. Enciso was only able to succeed in having his ships run aground on the reefs and sink, with the loss of most of the survivors of the earlier campaign. He knew a lot about the law, but very little about how to lead an army, or military strategy.

Soon after failing as a military commander, he returned to Spain. He left Antigua discouraged because the riches he expected, and the compensation by legal action against Balboa, never took place. Once again the managed to turn the inhabitants of Antigua against him with the great losses in Cenu. Even Pedrarias was unhappy with his leadership of the expedition into Cenu. His only reason to return with a smile on his face, was his ability to slander Balboa, and his contribution in Balboa's death sentence.


Soon after failing as a military commander, he returned to Spain. There he published his "Suma De Geografia Que Trata De Todas Las Partidas Del Mundo", the first account in Spanish of the discoveries in the New World, previously, everything published about the New World was written in Latin. The work was dedicated to the Emperor Charles V and published in Sevilla on September 5, 1518 and reprinted in 1530 and in 1549. In this book, he printed all that was know at the time of the art and science of navigation. He went into great detail on explaining about all of the instruments used for navigation, and the mathematic used. He provided great detail on all of the lands that had been discovered, (up to 1518) including the inhabitants, animals and plants. He gives the first description of the avocado.

 There is a possible error on Enciso's return trip to Española. Many historians believe that due to the prevailing currents and winds, they had to first landed in Jamaica, and then sailed on to Española. 
Copy of the Front Page, of the first edition of Ensico's manuscript "Suma de Geographia", published in Sevilla in 1519.

Two pages from Enciso's, "Suma de Geographia" showing the tables of solar declination and position of the stars. 
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Bruce C. Ruiz
June 18, 2002