In Balboa, Syme has clearly endeavored to write a book that will engage the young reader’s imagination and sense of adventure even as it communicates the basic information and concerns of Balboa’s life. Much of the power of Syme’s portrait of Balboa derives from the vivid depiction of the world in which he lived. Syme devotes much attention to the rigors of the seagoing life, to the dangers that sailors and explorers faced, and to both the uncertainty and excitement of exploring a new continent. He describes in explicit detail the constant warfare with the native populations and the dissent among the Spanish, as well as the battles waged against disease, hunger, weather, and ubiquitous pests such as bats, mosquitoes, and toads.
The evocation of this wild world has two effects. First, it provides the natural background for Syme’s portrayal of the human world, where ambition and deceit run rampant. The glory of exploration is reduced to greed, profiteering, and the lust for gold, pearls, and land—a true reflection of historical fact—and the society in which Balboa lived appears to be as dangerous as the natural world. It is indeed ironic that, after braving storms and jungles, Balboa is executed by his own vicious countrymen. Though Syme relates Balboa’s end abruptly, it comes as no surprise because the story is littered with evil and envious men who wish to destroy Balboa.
The second effect is the juxtaposition of violent nature with the basic calmness, goodness, faithfulness, and...
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Sir Neville Ronald Syme, who is not to be confused with the noted University of Oxford scholar of the same name (19031989) who was an expert on classical Rome, is the author of more than eighty books, including more than fifty volumes of non-fiction—biography, geography, and history—and more than twenty volumes of fiction. Syme’s Balboa is one of his several dozen juvenile biographies focusing on historical figures, especially New World explorers and colonizers. Among his other subjects are Christopher Columbus, Henry Hudson, Francisco Pizarro, Ferdinand Magellan, Samuel de Champlain, and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Balboa appeared in 1956 to a favorable reception. Library Journal praised the constant action and adventure and recommended the book for its clarity, simplicity, and attractive format. The New Yorker gave high marks for Stobbs’s vigorous illustrations and Syme’s uncomplicated prose. Other reviewers agreed on the book’s accessibility and accuracy.
Literature on Balboa is not scarce, as his name has long been connected with the “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean. Syme’s choice to present Balboa as a generous and sympathetic leader presents only part of the story. Other biographical volumes, such as Kathleen Romoli’s Balboa of Darién: Discoverer of the Pacific (1953), present a less attractive side of the great explorer, reporting on practices of torture, enslavement, looting, and repression practiced by Balboa and his troops in their conquest of Darien. Syme’s decision to exclude such information no doubt reflects his target audience, yet it places him firmly on one side of the Balboa tradition.