Authors: Jennifer Crump
Tags: #JNF000000, #JNF025000
The area at the centre of all of these claims was a series of inlets along the rugged western edge of Vancouver Island, known as Nootka Sound. An early resident of the area captured its rugged, dangerous beauty:
On the ocean coast outside, between the entrances to the great inlets the line of the shore there is broken by low headlands which project from the seaboard, and appear, with their shapeless, outlying rocks, not unlike the shattered angles of a fortified work; between these capes are narrow beaches, backed by a curtain of rock, over which hill upon hill appears, woody and ragged. As the coast lies exposed to the uninterrupted western swell of the North Pacific, the waves are generally large, and even in calm weather they break with noise on the shore and roar among the caverns.
Friendly Cove was a natural harbour within the Sound, one of very few along the uninviting shoreline. It served as the perfect vantage point for anyone wanting to make forays into the Pacific west coast of Canada and offered immediate access to the Pacific Ocean and the rich developing markets of the Far East.
The Spanish claim to the Pacific Northwest was initiated in the 15th century with a papal bull that had divided the western hemisphere between the Spanish and Portuguese and gave the entire New World to the Spanish. The Spanish bolstered their claim to the region by pointing out that Vasco NÃºÃ±ez de Balboa had laid claim to all the shores touched by the Pacific Ocean when he had crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513. Subsequent explorations by other Spanish explorers were used to cement the Spanish claim to the Pacific Northwest.
James Cook was the focus of the British claim. He had made an extensive exploration of the area of Nootka Sound in 1778, but had made no formal claim of sovereignty over it. He did spend a little over a month in Nootka Sound repairing his ships the HMS
and the HMS
. He may not have laid claim for the British but he did, perhaps inadvertently, encourage an imperialist interest in the region. When they were published in 1784, Cook's extensive journals aroused an intense British interest in the area's rich fur trade. Interestingly, one of the gifts provided to Cook by the Nootka was a set of two silver spoons that looked suspiciously Spanish in origin and may have been traded up the coast or come from the explorations of Balboa some years earlier.
As early as the 1740s the Spanish began to hear rumours of Russian incursions into the Nootka Sound area. These rumours grew more threatening when it was suggested that the Russians intended to establish settlements in the area to cement their claim. Those rumours, whether true or not, were compounded by the Russian penchant for secrecy and their refusal to confirm or deny the rumours. Since it could take years for information to travel between Russia and its isolated Alaskan outposts, it is possible that even they did not know for sure. As a response to potential Russian settlement of the area, in 1774 the Spanish sent the explorer Juan PÃ©rez, along with a Spanish frigate called the
, to secure their claim. PÃ©rez's instructions were to travel to 60Â° north (which is near the site of present-day Cordova, Alaska) and to ascertain the extent of Russian settlements and British incursions in the area. He was also given instructions to land in order to cement Spanish rights to the area, and to treat any Natives he encountered with respect to secure their co-operation. Once on land, according to instructions preserved in the diary of PÃ©rez's companion, Friar ThomÃ¡s de la PeÃ±a, he was to establish the Spanish presence by “using the standard form attached to his instructions, and erect a large wooden cross supported by a cairn of stones hiding a glass bottle, stoppered with pitch, containing a copy of the act of possession signed by the commander, chaplain, and two pilots, âso that in future times this document will be kept and will serve as an authentic testimony.'”
PÃ©rez reached the southernmost tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands, but he turned back while still several hundred kilometres from his destination because of his own ill health and illness among his crew. He had seen several Haida but had not landed or made contact with them.
In 1788, an entrepreneurial British lieutenant named John Meares purchased two ships and decided to pursue these possible riches. He sailed under the Portuguese flag since the only British ships legally allowed to sail the Pacific were those sailing with licenses provided by the South Sea Company or the East India Company. At Friendly Cove, Meares encountered the Nootka chief, Maquinna, who he later claimed had sold him an acre of land and agreed to give him a monopoly on the fur trade in the area. Maquinna would later deny both, but he did allow Meares to erect a small house on the island and to complete work on a new ship that Meares would christen the
North West America
The Launch of the North West America at Nootka Sound, 1790.
Between the voyages of Cook and Meares, hundreds of British, Spanish, American, and Russian vessels had ventured into Nootka Sound in search of furs and other valuables. Their relationship with the Nootka was friendly although businesslike, with one notable exception. In August 1785, a ship captained by James Hanna arrived in the Sound. While the Nootka chief Maquinna visited the ship, a practical joker ignited a bag of gunpowder placed beneath his seat. Maquinna's injuries were more to his pride than to his physical well-being, but the Nootka were nonetheless furious and attacked the ship. Hanna and his crew barely escaped; their days of trading with the Nootka were over.
The Armourer's Escape
By the turn of the 19th century, Chief Maquinna had helped establish a vibrant trade
relationship between his people and the Europeans. But his relationship with the Europeans
was not always cordial. In the spring of 1803 an American trading ship, the
Boston, arrived in Nootka. The ship's captain insulted Maquinna by suggesting that
the gift of a musket the chief had complained was defective had, in fact, been broken
by the chief himself. The captain did not realize that Maquinna spoke English, but
a blacksmith employed on the ship, John Jewitt, knew immediately that the chief had
understood the insult.
A furious Maquinna attacked the ship and slaughtered most of the crew, sticking
their heads on pikes around the ship. Jewitt was spared because of his skills as a
blacksmith and another survivor was spared when Jewitt claimed the man was his
father and threatened to kill himself if he was harmed. Despite the fact that many
in the tribe would have preferred him dead, Jewitt spent three years with Maquinna
and his tribe, initially as a slave and later as an adopted member of the tribe, slowly
accepting their customs and even marrying and fathering a child. But even while he
reluctantly became a part of the tribe, Jewitt longed for home and during trading
expeditions with other tribes he wrote and left letters in the hopes that they would be
relayed to a potential rescuer.
Finally, in 1806, another American ship arrived in the bay. Some of the chiefs
thought that Jewitt, a witness to the massacre and a potential liability for the tribe,
should be killed or at the very least taken kilometres from the shore and the rescue
ship. Instead, Maquinna insisted that Jewitt write him a letter of introduction. Even
while he assured the chief he was writing an introduction, Jewitt was writing a
warning to the captain that immediately after reading the letter he should take
Within hours, Maquinna was in chains and Jewitt was safe on the American
ship. In recognition of Maquinna's protection of him over the last few years, Jewitt
argued that the chief be released unharmed. Jewitt himself returned to the United
States where he published two books and a play about his adventures.
During the winter of 1788â89, Meares wintered in China, where he and his partners established a company, the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast of America. They gathered a fleet of ships under the command of James Colnett and instructed him to establish a permanent fur trading post at Nootka Sound. The ships in their fleet included the
North West America
, and the
. Also in 1789, still worried about the Russians, the Spanish laid plans to send Esteban JosÃ© MartÃnez to establish some semblance of a permanent settlement at Nootka Sound. MartÃnez was given two ships to secure the coast: a warship, the
, and a supply ship, the
. When MartÃnez arrived in Nootka Sound on May 5, 1789, he encountered two American ships. The captains quickly informed him of Meares's activities and of the presence of another ship, the
, flying a Portuguese flag but manned by an entirely English crew. MartÃnez tracked down the
, captured her, and arrested her crew and captain, William Douglas. After a few days MartÃnez released the ships and its crew, instructing them never to return to the area. They complied but more British ships were already on the way.
On June 8, the
North West America
sailed smoothly into Nootka Sound, completely oblivious to the events that had occurred just over a month before. MartÃnez seized that ship too, on the pretext that he was owed money by Meares' company for the supplies he had given to the
before he had sent it on its way. The
North West American
, renamed the
Santa Gertrudis la Magna
, was refitted and its command was given to one of MartÃnez's subordinates, who promptly sailed his prize south to Mexico. A few weeks later, MartÃnez performed an elaborate ceremony staking Spain's claim to the region and forced the British and Americans to participate. On July 2, two more of Meares' company ships arrived. The first, the
, was ordered to turn back to China and never return. The second, the
, was seized by MartÃnez after its captain shouted insults at the Spanish. Its crew and the Chinese workers on board were all arrested. Maquinna and another Nootka chief named Callicum arrived in his war canoe to protest MartÃnez's treatment of the British, with whom Callicum and the Nootka had enjoyed lucrative trade. MartÃnez fired his pistol to warn off the chief. One of the Spaniards, who believed his leader had missed, fired and killed Callicum. Maquinna and the remainder of his tribe fled to the other side of the island.
The Spanish Insult to the British Flag at Nootka Sound.
When MartÃnez discovered thae
also carried the equipment and materials needed to establish a permanent British trading post on the island, he was furious. This was, in his estimation, a direct violation of Spanish sovereignty. MartÃnez decided to use the supplies and workers brought by the
He had the Chinese workers construct Fort San Miguel on Hog Island to guard the mouth of Nootka Sound. On July 4, the American ships fired two salvos in recognition of their independence from Britain and the Spanish returned their salute from the fort.
defied MartÃnez' instructions and returned to Nootka Sound on July 12. The ship's captain, Thomas Hudson, had not intended to enter the Sound but his ship was becalmed and the Spaniards quickly boarded and took control of the ship.
Despite the friendly relationship between the Spanish and early American arrivals in the Sound, two ships that arrived late in the summer were attacked. The
was boarded and captured, the
barely escaped. Then, just as suddenly as he had been ordered to occupy the Nootka Sound, MartÃnez was ordered to leave and return to Mexico, abandoning all of his fortifications. MartÃnez found himself out of favour with the new Spanish military command in the Pacific, and when a new expedition, the largest ever mustered by the Spanish in the northwest, arrived in Nootka Sound in the spring of 1790, he was not among them.