Balboa Essay - Critical Context

Ronald Syme

Critical Context

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.