Vasco Núñez de Balboa, within days of discovering the Pacific Ocean in 1513, learned from a local guide of nearby islands rich with pearls. Balboa was anxious to visit, but he was told that a hostile chief ruled them and cautiously decided to postpone the trip. Nonetheless, Balboa named the archipelago ‘Islas de las Perlas,’ and declared it and all its undiscovered riches the property of Spain. He vowed to return one day to kill the chief and claim his pearls for the king of Spain.
Before he could fulfill his vow, Spanish governor Pedro Arias de Ávila dispatched his cousin Gaspar de Morales to the islands for the pearls. Morales captured 20 chieftains and gave them to his dogs. The purportedly hostile chief, a man named Dites, saw the futility of resisting these conquistadors so instead presented Morales with a basket of large and lustrous pearls. With their greed unappeased, however, the Spanish took just two years to exterminate the 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 years that followed, the Spaniards harvested the islands’ oyster beds. Having slain the entire native population, they imported slaves from Africa to pearl-dive. Their descendants live on the islands today.