In these COVID times it’s good—no, necessary—to escape the headlines now and then, and the best way to escape modern times is to journey into history. I do that more than most: for some time I’ve been working on an historical novel set on Canada’s west coast. Its working title is The Wind From All Directions.
I’ve posted previously about the project, it’s locale, and some of its themes. Today I’ll set the true historical context for George Vancouver’s encounter with a Spanish commodore in remote Nootka Sound in 1792. What follows is adapted from a piece I wrote more than a decade ago. (Yes, this project has been around for a while.) It was originally published in the Spring 2010 edition of The Burney Letter.
I’ll post more historical context, and more about the fictional story set within that context, in the future. In the meantime, here’s the straight goods. No Fake News here.
In 1493, via a Papal Bull, Pope Alexander VI awarded the Spanish Crown titular sovereignty over a vast swath of territory that included the entire west coast of the Americas. Alexander was a Spaniard himself and the non-Catholic world paid no attention to his bull. For three hundred years the Spaniards busied themselves pillaging Mexico and Peru and did little to assert their claim to the area north of California. They made few voyages of exploration into the area and no attempts at settlement. But a few bold foreigners traversed the region. The English corsair Francis Drake was the first, in 1588, during his extended, round-the-world raid on Spanish dominions. (To this day Drake is considered a swashbuckling hero by the British, a vicious pirate by Latin Americans and Spaniards.) Then a succession of Russian adventurers probed south from the Aleutians. And, in 1778, Britain’s James Cook became the first European to land in present day British Columbia, when he anchored in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island to make repairs to his ships Resolution and Discovery. Accompanying Cook on the voyage was a 20-year old midshipman named George Vancouver.
Cook’s brief sojourn in what he called Friendly Cove would provide Britain with grounds for a territorial claim to the region. His expedition returned home to tell of the plentiful sea otter population in the Pacific northwest, and the two thousand percent profit their furs fetched in China. This latter tidbit spawned a veritable gold rush. Adventurers and traders—mostly Britons and newly-independent Americans—set out on the long and arduous voyage to cash-in on the bounty.
One of them was a former Royal Navy officer named John Meares. In 1788 he built a trading post at Friendly Cove. Meares claimed he bought the site from Maquinna, chief of the local Mowachaht nation, for two pistols; one of his men said it cost ten sheets of copper and some trinkets. It was not the only inconsistency in Meares’s tale. Maquinna later called Meares a liar and denied there’d been any sale at all. Whatever the truth, Meares traded from his post all that summer, abandoned it in the fall and sailed for China, intending to return the following spring to resume operations.
Spain had learned of the presence of foreign traders in the area it called Neuva California. In early 1789 the Viceroy of New Spain dispatched two warships under Estevan Jose Martinez to establish a fortified post in Nootka Sound as a show of Spanish might. Martinez was a veteran of the few Spanish voyages into the region, an experienced mariner, but he was temperamental and volatile and had a liking for drink that impaired his judgement.
Martinez arrived in Friendly Cove in May 1789. He found no evidence of prior European activity (i.e. Meares’s trading post) upon the land. There were, however, several British, American and Portuguese trading vessels present in the area.
Martinez boarded and inspected these traders, questioned their captains about their activities, closely examined their papers. In short order he seized a Portuguese-flagged vessel whose captain’s papers were not up to snuff. Next he interviewed a British captain named James Colnett. At first Colnett declined to present his papers (which would not have withstood close scrutiny) and was evasive as to his plans. Later, in the great cabin of Martinez’s flagship Princesa, the two men had a violent argument. Colnett stomped on the deck, swore, called Martinez a “Goddam Spaniard,” and drew his sword. Colnett, it seems, was as hot-headed as Martinez, who arrested him at gunpoint, seized both his ships and detained their crews.
Their quarrel, in remote Nootka Sound, brought their two countries to the brink of war.
The impounded ships belonged to none other than John Meares and his partners. Meares had chosen not to return to the northwest that year, but to remain in China. Colnett, he thought, was eminently capable to lead the trading mission among the natives. He had not contemplated an encounter with the Spanish Empire.
Months later, when word of the seizures reached him in China, Meares realized he was facing financial ruin. He saw a single option and took it. He set off for England, where he arrived in April 1790 and lodged a complaint with the British government, claiming substantial losses from the seizure of his shore establishment and his two ships. Whatever the legitimacy of his claim to property on shore, his trading losses were real, and his case of British commerce unfairly restrained by an arrogant foreign power was received sympathetically. It happened to be timely, for the government, led by William Pitt, perceived its long-time foe Spain to be weak and saw an opportunity to weaken it further.
Public sentiment against Spain was quietly stoked. Angry speeches soon resounded in parliament and the press piled on. On April 30—just weeks after Meares first made his case—Cabinet responded to the furor by ordering mobilization of the fleet. Britain, it appeared, was ready to go to war over an argument between two hotheads in far off Nootka Sound.
John Bull was bluffing. Pitt and his ministers knew that Spain could not afford war. It was isolated diplomatically and militarily; its traditional ally France was in the early stages of a revolution and would not come to its aid.
As Pitt had calculated, the Spanish acceded to negotiations to avoid conflict. By late October an agreement was concluded. The Nootka Convention provided for full restitution of the ships, property and tracts of land seized by Martinez. The Spanish Armament (as the mobilization came to be known) ended with Britain winning all its diplomatic objectives, not least being recognition of the existence of British property on the northwest coast of America. This alone would undermine Spain’s claim to exclusive possession and sovereignty over the Pacific coast.
The outcome was sweet for Britain, given the support Spain had afforded the American revolutionaries not so long before. The loss of the American colonies still stung.
Even before the Convention was inked the Spaniards had released the impounded British ships and their crews. But an item of diplomacy remained to be transacted: the return of British-owned buildings and tracts of land on shore at Friendly Cove. George Vancouver, only 33 but a veteran of two of Cook’s voyages, had already been assigned command of a voyage of exploration to the region. He was now given an additional task: to satisfy the terms of the Convention, he would rendezvous with a Spanish counterpart in Nootka Sound to formally receive the British lands and territories seized by Martinez.
Vancouver’s expedition, comprising the sloop Discovery (his first command) and the brig Chatham, sailed from England in April 1791.
His original mission was ambitious enough. He was to chart an area spanning more than thirty degrees of latitude, thereby placing an immense tract of territory on the map of the known world. It is tempting to consider his diplomatic role an afterthought to that demanding goal—as the killing of two birds with one stone. But consider the inflamed passions of the period: his diplomatic mission was clearly as important to Britain’s interests as his survey mission.
Despite George Vancouver’s relative youth, he had already served 20 years in the Royal Navy, most of them at sea. He was an accomplished officer and hydrographer, intelligent, capable, dutiful—but completely unprepared for the role of diplomat. He was the son of a minor customs official—not high born but middle-class: definitely without pedigree. His ascension to command, like that of his mentor James Cook, and William Bligh, another of Cook’s officers, mirrored the slow evolution of British society and its institutions, to the point where men of capability could rise to command men of privilege. Common seamen had to put up and shut up with their captain’s authority. Officers, though, operated within a milieu of class distinction, and well-bred gentlemen bridled at the orders of social inferiors elevated over them—and there was no shortage of well-bred gentlemen on Vancouver’s Discovery. An extended voyage was considered a leg-up for the ambitious young sons of the elite, and strings were pulled to secure a goodly number berths on Vancouver’s vessels. In some cases pedigree trumped talent. It was ever thus.
Vancouver’s orders regarding his diplomatic role at Nootka were vague and incomplete. He was told that en route for the northwest the transport Daedalus would meet him in Hawaii to resupply his ships and deliver detailed instructions for completing his diplomatic mission.
But Daedalus missed the rendezvous. When it finally joined him at Friendly Cove in August 1792, just as he himself arrived from his first season of survey work, it delivered no additional instructions. George Vancouver, Master and Commander of Discovery, discovered he was on his own; and unbeknownst to him, the Spanish had resolved to win back their losses under the Nootka Convention. They had dispatched a seasoned officer, a Peruvian-born commodore named Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra to the northwest to finesse their strategy and achieve their goals. Vancouver arrived in Nootka Sound to find a Spanish settlement, a garrison of troops and a fleet of Spanish men-of-war under Quadra’s command.
More to come when I have time! In the meantime stay safe and have a great summer.