True to its name, it was pearls that initially brought the archipelago to the Old World’s attention. Vasco Núñez de Balboa, within days of his discovery of the Pacific Ocean, learned of nearby islands rich with pearls from a local guide. Balboa was anxious to visit the islands, but he was told that a hostile chief ruled them, and cautiously decided to postpone the visit. Nonetheless, Balboa named the archipelago ‘Islas de las Perlas, ’ and declared it and all its undiscovered riches Spanish property. The year was 1513, and Balboa vowed to return one day to kill the chief and claim his pearls for the king of Spain.
However, before he could fulfill his vow, Spanish governor Pedro Arias de Ávila, who loathed the great explorer for his popularity with the king, dispatched his cousin Gaspar de Morales to the islands in order to secure the pearls spoken of by Balboa. Once on the islands, Morales captured 20 chieftains and gave them to his dogs to tear to pieces. The purportedly hostile chief, a man named Dites, saw the futility of warring with the Spaniards, and instead presented Morales with a basket of large and lustrous pearls. Unfortunately, this only enhanced the Spaniards’ desires to control the archipelago and it took just two years to exterminate the islands’ indigenous population.
In 1517, the same year that Morales raided Las Perlas, Pedrarias (as the governor was often called) falsely charged Balboa with treason, and had him and four of his closest friends beheaded in the Caribbean coastal town of Aclá.
In the years that followed Morales’ arrival in the archipelago, the Spaniards harvested the islands’ oyster beds. However, since they had slain the entire population of the islands, they had to import slaves from Africa to collect the oysters. Today the descendants of the first slaves who came to the Archipiélago de las Perlas live on the islands.