Books: Peak of Glory

BALBOA OF DARIEN (431 pp.)—Kathleen Romoli—Doubleday ($5).

On a September day in 1510, two ships put out into the Caribbean from Santo Domingo (now Ciudad Trujillo), capital of the Spanish empire in the New World. They were headed for Urabá, on the South American mainland, with 150 settlers eager for land and gold. On one ship was a stowaway: Vasco Núñez de Balboa, an adventurer who came aboard in a provisions barrel to escape his creditors.

When the ships were a few hours at sea, Balboa emerged from his barrel and presented himself to the commander of the expedition. How he rose from...

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