Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Dec 6, 2009 - 4 comments

Part Three

At San Blas, shipbuilders launched a wooden frigate purpose-built for the northern project. Christened the Santiago, it was 25 metres long, making it smaller than many yachts seen on the coast today, though it was the largest vessel built at San Blas to that time. When it set sail in the spring of 1774, it carried a complement of 84 officers and crew, including 14 gunners to manage the vessel's half-dozen cannon. Jostling for deck space with the sailors were 12 bulls, 24 sheep, 15 goats and 79 chickens, all to provide to supplement the usual diet of beans, rice, biscuit, cheese and dried fish. The noise produced by this floating menagerie must have been cacophonous.

The captain of the Santiago was Juan Jose Perez Hernandez, an officer with several years experience as a commander of supply vessels on the coast, assisted by Esteban Jose Martinez, a more controversial figure who would feature prominently in later events at Nootka Sound. Two Franciscan missionaries were also aboard -- 31-year-old Father Tomas de la Pena and 53-year-old Juan Crespi. The journals they kept give the best accounts of the events of this pioneering voyage.
After leaving Monterey on June 14, the Santiago struggled northward through a miserable succession of storms. Constant rain and heavy fog drenched the vessel, while high winds whipped the ocean into a frenzy. The priests were down with sea-sickness most of the trip, and by the time the ship arrived in the upper latitudes many members of the crew were suffering with scurvy. It must have reminded the Spanish why they had been content to ignore this isolated edge of their empire for so long.

The Santiago was not suited to inshore sailing and, being alone, Perez had to be especially careful about going aground along the uncharted coastline, so he kept the vessel well away from land until he reached about latitude 55 degrees north where the peaks of the coastal mountains loomed into view. On July 18, through a screen of fog and drizzle, the lookout spied a rocky headland which Perez mistakenly took to be the continental shore. He named the spot Cape Santa Margarita; it is know today as St Margaret Point at the north end of Langara Island, the most northerly of the Queen Charlotte Islands. (It is named for a prominent Spanish admiral; the local people called it Kiis Gwaii.)

Perez lingered off Langara for three days but poor weather made it impossible for him to land and take formal possession of the region as he had been instructed. On July 20, at about three o'clock in the afternoon, as the Santiago rocked in the swell, a canoe carrying nine Haida paddlers approached the ship. A man stood in the prow of the canoe and sprinkled feathers in the water, making what the Spanish interpreted as gestures of welcome. Father Pena described what happened. "This canoe drew near to the vessel, the pagans in it singing; but they would not come near enough for us to communicate by means of signs. Having followed us for some time, they returned to the land. About five o'clock this canoe, and another in which there were six pagans, caught up with us, both drawing right up to our stern. The captain made them a present of some strings of beads and they gave us some dried fish. But they would not come on board the ship."

This was the first recorded encounter between First Nations and Europeans on the coast of what is now British Columbia. In some ways it set the pattern that other meetings would emulate in the years ahead. Each side was cautious but friendly, at least outwardly respectful, and eager to exchange goods. We don't know what the Haida made of the Spanish and their vessel, presumably the first Europeans they had seen, but if they were afraid or awestruck they must have gotten over it because the next afternoon during a break in the weather about 200 men, women and children returned in a total of 21 canoes, bringing with them furs, fish, cedar garments and blankets which they traded for metal goods, clothing and beads.

At this point weather drove the Santiago away from the coast and the expedition did not come within sight of land again for two weeks. By this time they were beating down the west coast of Vancouver Island. On August 8, Perez dropped anchor near the entrance to Nookta Sound, the first time this important harbour was approached by Europeans. The ship was badly in need of fresh water, and Perez still had not erected the wooden cross signifying Spanish possession of the area. When they spotted the strange vessel, the local Nuu-chah-nulth apparently took it to be a floating house and were terrified. Jose Mozino, a Spanish botanist who was at Nootka eighteen years later, reported: "The sight of this ship at first filled the natives with terror, and even now [i.e. 1792] they testifty that they were seized with fright from the moment they saw on the horizon the great 'machine' which little by little approached their coasts. They believed that Qua-utz [the creator] was coming to make a second visit, and were fearful that it was in order to punish the misdeeds of the people. As many as were able hid themselves in the mountains, others closed themselves up in their lodges..."

However, once again curiosity overpowered fear and several canoes of Nuu-chah-nulth paddled out to inspect the Santiago and to trade. Perez prepared to go ashore but when a strong wind blew up, threatening to drive the Santiago onto the rocks, he quickly hoisted his anchor and sailed away to the south.Beyond making initial contact with the indigenous people, Perez's expedition failed to achieve any of its objectives. He produced no charts of the coast, which he largely avoided for fear of shipwreck. He missed locating the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait and mistook the outer islands for the mainland. He failed to find out anything useful about Russian activities and also failed to enact the customary ceremony of possession. Indeed, not one of his men had so much as set foot on dry land the entire voyage. The Spanish were left as much in ignorance of the north coast as they had been before Perez set sail.Still, the viceroy was not discouraged. He dispatched two more naval expeditions, one in 1775 and another in 1779, to pursue Spanish objectives in the north. Both expeditions reached Alaska where they landed to enact the customary rituals of possession, but neither stopped on the coast of what would become British Columbia. Their complacent reports about the lack of a Russian presence in the areas they visited served to calm Spanish fears in that direction and led to a brief hiatus in the northward push from Mexico.

Next time: Captain Cook arrives