After the Spanish Conquest, our Inca ancestors often shrugged after hearing the name ‘Peru’. Deep in their minds, Incas must have thought: No! It is not Peru! Our land is Tawantin Suyu! More ironic was that most Spaniards, in a way, also agreed. Spaniards believed ‘Peru’ was too obscure of a name to describe the beautiful Inca land. The fact that both Spaniards and Incas disliked the term was not a coincidence. The etymology of Peru was foreign to both cultures and nobody felt truly identified by it.
How, then, did the name Peru prevail?
Vasco Nunez de Balboa and the Gulf of Darien
Vasco Nunez de Balboa was one of the first explorers who reached the Gulf of Darien, on the border of Panama and Colombia. After defeating various tribes, Balboa founded the town of Santa Maria La Antigua, in 1510. Focused on expansion, Balboa befriended some tribes down south but also exterminated others. His troops set out on various expeditions, searching for gold and pearls.
Despite his achievements, Balboa did not obtain recognition. Unsatisfied with this fact, he sought to gain more power. Among conquistadors, mischief and betrayal were common ways to rise above the rest. Balboa behaved this way to dethrone the governor of Darien and seize his post. The Spanish Crown, however, did not agree with his actions. The crown sent nobleman Pedro Arias de Davila to replace him. Once Pedro Arias (or Pedrarias) assumed office, Balboa felt slighted. But Balboa still received royal favors and faced power conflicts with Pedrarias.
When Pedrarias first arrived in Darien, in 1514, he was accompanied by explorer Pascual de Andagoya. The 20-year old Andagoya set out in expeditions across the Gulf of Darien. In his trips, Andagoya befriended a young soldier who had earned a reputation for being bloodthirsty: Francisco Pizarro.
Meanwhile, Balboa continued his expeditions. Yet, many of them failed. Balboa was a compassionate man who, unlike his colleagues, refrained from murdering natives. His troops were intent on befriending tribes, but natives often attacked them. Seeing the ‘weakness’ in Balboa’s behavior, Pedrarias undermined his reputation. Pedrarias wrote letters to Spain, informing authorities that Balboa had softened, and preferred to befriend the enemy.
Balboa lost popular support, but he still focused on his expeditions. Around 1516, Balboa built four vessels to keep exploring the region. The vessels eventually sailed and navigated down south. As we will see below, one of those ships had an important encounter with some natives.
Pedrarias, driven to murder Balboa, hired the services of Francisco Pizarro. On his way back from an expedition, Balboa was intercepted by Pizarro and taken into custody. Balboa was later tried and beheaded, in 1519.
Pascual de Andagoya Meets the Chief Birú
In 1922, Pascual de Andagoya entered a foreign territory in Bay of San Miguel, south of Panama. Fierce native warriors came forth and engaged them in battle. Led by an indigenous Chief named ‘Birú’, the warriors nearly defeated Spaniards. After retreating, Andagoya and his wounded soldiers visited the ‘Chochama’, a friendly tribe nearby. The Chochama chief told Spaniards that Birú was very powerful and courageous. Andagoya backed away from fighting Birú and abandoned that region.
‘Birú’s daring actions impressed Spanish conquistadors. Spaniards never cared to remember their conquered Chiefs. But they certainly remembered Chief Birú.’
Who was this so-called Chief Birú? In the Panamanian Jungles, there were dozens of tribes. Spaniards easily subjugated them through diplomacy or war. But Chief Birú, displaying courage and pride, refused to be intimidated. Settled on the border of Panama and Colombia, Birú recruited skilled warriors and halted Spanish colonization by erecting an impenetrable bulwark. His daring actions impressed Spanish conquistadors. Spaniards never cared to remember their conquered Chiefs. But they certainly remembered Chief Birú.
Around 1523, Francisco Pizarro’s troops attempted to invade the land of Birú. Biru’s men fiercely resisted, and Pizarro was forced to retreat. This time, Pizarro saw the need for more weapons and soldiers. He returned to Panama, in search of support to conquer the southern land of Birú. Pizarro assured their comrades that, in the south of Birú, there was a kingdom rich in gold. Rumors about the wealth of Birú spread and the name became prominent. Thereafter, Spanish soldiers simplified the phrase “southern land of Birú” for just Birú, Berú or Pirú.
In 1526, Francisco Pizarro returned to Birú with more troops. On this occasion, Birú and his warriors were crushed. Spaniards now had a free route to reach the Inca land.
Is Peru Named After an ‘Anonymous’ Native?
Chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega holds a different version. In his book Comentarios Reales de Los Incas, Garcilaso refers an encounter between Spaniards and an indigenous man. As mentioned earlier, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa sent four ships to navigate the seas surrounding the Gulf of Darien. Garcilaso claims that the crewmen of one ship saw a native fishing by the mouth of a river. As the ship approached the shore, the native became petrified. Spaniards unboarded the ship and captured him.
Using hand signals, Spaniards asked the native about the name of his territory and, also, his own name. He nervously replied: Berú…Pelú…Berú…Pelú. Garcilaso said that the native misunderstood the questions. What the native meant to say was “If you ask me what my name is, they call me Berú, and if you ask where I was, I say I was in the river (Pelú).” In the native language, Pelú meant river, according to Garcilaso. Afterward, Spaniards somehow used both Berú or Pelú to refer to the new land.
Serious historians have discredited Garcilaso’s version. Historical Institute ‘Raul Porras Barrenechea’ confirmed that no extant document certifies such account. In sum, everyone struggled to identify with the word ‘Peru’, since it did not come from Quechua, or Spanish, or Aymara, or any regional language. Rather, Peru was a new word produced by the fusion of Spanish and native languages, thus being one of the first mestizo words. Centuries later, Spanish authorities tried to obliterate the name of Peru. But their efforts were in vain. Although nobody felt truly identified by it, the name of Perú mysteriously prevailed.
If Perú brings the connotations of either a valiant Chief or the mild friendliness of a native is irrelevant. The relevant point is what it represents now: its strength and pride.𝔖
Image Source: Andina