Juan David Morgan

Balboa’s Head

Novel. Alfaguara, 2021

Liar, traitor, hypocrite, false, ambitious, thief, were some of the adjectives with which Pedro Arias Dávila referred to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the “discoverer” of the South Sea, before the king. In these same terms, Balboa accused Pedrarias in a series of letters that, between 1513 and 1519, gave an account of the disputes that took place in the first years of the conquest and colonization of the mainland. The trial of Pedrarias against Balboa, which the chronicler of the Indies Pedro Mártir de Anglería will recount in detail to the Medici Pope Leo X, is a faithful reflection of these battles that took place in the governorship of Castilla del Oro.

Balboa’s Head is a nonfiction novel in which Juan David Morgan takes us from Renaissance Rome to Darién, an unknown jungle land that brings together interest and resources, ambition and power. An exciting story that takes place years before the arrival of Hernán Cortés in the Mexican coast and Pizarro in Peru.


“…The issue of Balboa versus Pedrarias took a lot of heat in 2019, precisely because of that predisposition we Panamanians have to take sides. I remember that there were several forums where the role of both Spaniards were scrutinized; one who arrived as a stowaway at the Panamanian coast, a native of Jerez de los Caballeros, in the province of Badajoz, and the other Pedro Arias de Ávila, Pedrarias to many, Segovian, from the region of Castilla y León, who became governor and captain general of Castilla de Oro (as Tierrafirme was named after the sighting of the Pacific ocean) from 1514 to 1526 and who later became Governor of Nicaragua from 1528 to 1531, where he died.
Balboa’s Head, the latest book by Juan David Morgan, published in September of last year by Alfaguara, is a much needed story that helps to fully understand both the rivalry between these two characters and the events that occurred during those hectic years when the Spanish arrived on our continent, not always guided by the best intentions when it came to to treatment of the native population. The mandate to “Christianize” the natives led many to enslave and sometimes eliminate them due to the conditions they were subjected to.”

Mariela Sagel – Architect and literary critic

“…I just finished reading an excellent book by Juan David Morgan called La Cabeza de Balboa. A fictitious story framed within a historical novel that narrates a conversation between Pedro Mártir, chronicler of the Indies, author of the “Decades of the New World”, and Pope Leo X where he recounts the historical events that happened from the arrival of Vasco Núñez de Balboa on the mainland as a stowaway , the forcible seizure of the settlement of Santa María in the Gulf of Urabá located today in Colombia, the forced dispatch to a certain death of the King appointed governor Diego de Nicuesa, his adventures plundering indigenous peoples by taking advantage of an overwhelming military power, especially the use of firearms against the native groups who were armed only with arrows and sticks, the sighting o the South Sea with the help of native guides, to his beheading ordered by the King appointed governor of Castilla del Oro, Pedrarias Dávila…”

Fascinating account by Juan David Morgan’s prodigious pen which submerges the reader in the story to the point where one is not able to let go until the end of the book is reached.

Ever since I read El Zorro by Isabel Allende, I have become aware that even when the outcome of the story is known the way it is told is even more important than the story itself. In the case of historical novels it is evident that facts cannot be made up or the way events happened altered, however it is possible, as in the case of this novel, to have a fictitious conversation such as the one between Pope Leo X and the chronicler Pedro Mártir serving as host to the story without losing historical accuracy, even after giving a legitimate perspective in favor of the beheaded.
Thus, Juan David Morgan not only refers to the events of Balboa and Pedrarias from his perspective, but also takes the opportunity to put into context the fact that at the same time the saga of the Spanish invasion in our continent was unfolding, the construction of the Basilica of Saint Peter was taking place and Michelangelo was sculpting the Pietá…”

Felipe Argote – Economist and writer

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