On this day: Balboa and the Gender Binary


On September 25, 1513, Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa became the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean. But two days before, he earned himself infamy by letting his dogs lose to tear apart 40 native Americans suspected of sodomy.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa was a treasure hunter of the worst possible kind. He stole without compunction and massacred anyone who stood between him and treasure. The voyages of Christopher Columbus inspired him to seek his fortune in the ‘New World’ — America.

After failing at both plunder and pig farming in the Caribbean, he ended up in the Isthmus of Panama. He set about stealing gold from the native inhabitants, ransacking their houses for ornaments and jewellery.

Modern-day apologists attempt to rehabilitate his image by pointing to his kindness towards certain locals. But that was predicated on their accepting his word as law and volunteering their valuables without any annoying quibbles.

During his expedition to the Pacific, Balboa encountered resistance at the village of Quaraqua. He and his men killed the village king and 600 warriors before the locals sued for peace.

Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, a historian in the Spanish court, recorded what happened next.

Abominable and unnatural lechery

“[Balboa] found the house of this king infected with the most abominable and unnatural lechery. For he found the king’s brother and many other young men in women’s apparel, smooth and effeminately decked, which by the report of such as who dwelt about him, he abused with preposterous venus.

“Of these, about the number of forty, he commanded given for prey to his dogs.”

Balboa’s dogs were not pets. They were fighting dogs, trained to kill and deployed as a weapon of war.

According to Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, the dogs “hewed…in pieces as the butchers do flesh…, from one an arm, from another a leg, from him a buttock, from another a shoulder, and from some the neck from the body at one stroke.”

America and the Gender Binary

The tolerance of gender diversity in the Americas greatly offended Balboa and other colonists. They came from a Europe ruled by the strictures of the Catholic Church. Boys were boys and girls were girls and each would dress, act and love accordingly. No ambiguity. No tolerance for difference.

But the native peoples of the Americas thought differently. Many native American societies accepted genders beyond male and female. And as Professor Sabine Long notes “Gender variance is as diverse as Native American cultures themselves.”

Non-binary individuals undertook different roles in different cultures. They were denigrated in some, celebrated in others but accepted in most.

Balboa, of course, did not pay much heed to the Ten Commandments. He coveted his neighbour’s house, stole, murdered and committed adultery. But he was okay with his own supposedly wholesome heterosexual adultery.

Demonising difference

However, typical of human beings, Balboa thought everyone else should behave just like him. Anyone different was therefore wrong.

Some will argue until the conquistadors come home whether his victims were homosexual cross-dressers, gender fluid, non-binary or transgender people. We don’t have enough detail to know. And it doesn’t f_cking matter. They were human beings, identifying as they chose, in a culture that accepted rather than demonised difference.

Balboa provides an invaluable lesson for modern-day social media trolls with their incessant yelping about the gender binary.

Think outside the box. Stop thinking your own experience defines other people’s. Stop demanding everyone conform to your expectations. In other words, GTFU!

Put your dog back in its kennel and let people get on with their lives.

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