Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Dec 13, 2009 - 3 comments


Part Four

Meanwhile, a more imposing rival than Russia was becoming interested in the North Pacific, a rival that turned out to be much more inimical to Spanish interests. The British Parliament had been offering a 20,000 pound reward to any commercial vessel that located a Northwest Passage. In 1775, Parliament extended its generosity to include ships of the Royal Navy as well, and added a 5,000 pound award to the crew of the first ship to get within a degree of the North Pole. The Admiralty responded by organizing a naval expedition to the northwest coast of America, led by Captain James Cook to seek out an entrance to the passage.

This would be Cook's third excursion into the Pacific and the earlier voyages had already established his reputation as a national hero, Britain's most famous navigator during the Age of Sail. Sir John Pringle, president of the Royal Society, said of Cook that he "fixed the bounds of the habitable earth, as well as those of the navigable ocean." To the novelist Fanny Burney, whose brother sailed with him, Cook was "the most moderate, humane and gentle circumnavigator who ever went upon discoveries." There was intense public interest in his career. When the account of his Pacific voyages was published in June, 1784, it sold out in three days. As far as they could, given the state of the media at the time, the public followed his exploits much as Americans were captivated by the voyages of their early astronauts. This was partly due to the period's fascination with remote, exotic parts of the world, which the Pacific definitely was; it was also because Cook himself had been transformed into a potent symbol of all the British wanted to believe was good about their imperial ambitions.

One of the things that endeared Cook to the public was his humble origins. He was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1728, the son of a labourer. After obtaining a rudimentary education, he became a shopboy and then, at age eighteen, went to sea as an apprentice on a coalship. For a decade he crewed on merchant vessels that plied the east coast of England and across the North Sea to the ports of the Baltic, working his way up through the ranks until , in 1755, his employer offered him command of his own ship. Instead Cook abruptly quit the merchant fleet and joined the Royal Navy as an able seaman. Within two years he qualified as a master, the officer responsible for the ship's navigation.

Cook entered Canadian waters for the first time in 1758 when the ship on which he was serving took part in the capture of the French fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton. The Seven Years War as raging between the two European superpowers, and in 1759 Cook was responsible for the survey of the St. Lawrence River that allowed the British fleet to take part in the capture of Quebec City. Subsequently he charted parts of the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and in 1768 the Admiralty chose him to command an expedition to the South Pacific, first to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, then to go in search of Terra Australis Incognita, the undiscovered southern continent which geographers believed must exist toward the South Pole. During this, and a subsequent voyage, both of which lasted three years, Cook revealed to Europeans vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean that they had not known existed and became, with his men, the first to sail south of the Antarctic Circle.

Following these two epic voyages, Cook might have retired to enjoy his honours, his fame and his young family. Instead he volunteered to lead yet another Pacific expedition, this one destined for the northwest coast of America to locate the western opening of the Northwest Passage. Cook was given the Resolution, the same converted collier that he had had on his previous voyage. It was fitted out as a twelve-gun sloop of war with a crew of 113 officers, sailors and marines, and was accompanied by a second, smaller ship, Discovery, with a crew of seventy commanded by Captain Charles Clerke. Among the crews of Resolution and Discovery were several mariners whose names are large in the annals of British maritime history; including William Bligh, master of the Resolution and later the captain of the mutinous Bounty; George Vancouver, midshipman aboard the Discovery, who later would make his own voyage of discovery to the northwest coast; and John Webber, official draughtsman to the expedition, whose sketches are among the first artistic representations of the British Columbia coast.

The expedition left England in July 1776. After sailing south through the Atlantic and around the bottom of Africa, the vessels travelled across the Indian Ocean to Tahiti, where they arrived in mid-August 1777. Once repairs were made and supplies loaded, they set sail once again and in January 1778 Cook became the first European to visit a group of islands he called the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich, but which we know as the Hawaiian group. Pausing only briefly in Hawaii, he continued across the Pacific, arriving within sight of the coast of America at latitude 45 degrees north on March 7. Poor weather kept the ships well away from the shore as they tacked northward until on March 29 conditions improved enough to allow Cook to seek out a safe harbour. It so happened that the opening in the coast that Cook located was none other than the entrance to Nootka Sound, where four years earlier Juan Perez had made contact with the local people.

As Cook made his way under sail into the Sound, he was met by a welcoming party of local Nuu-chah-nulth people. David Samwell, surgeon aboard the Discovery, described the scene in his journal: "As we were coming [in] we were surrounded by 30 or 40 Canoes full of Indians who expressed much astonishment at seeing the ship; they stood up in their Canoes, made many strange Motions, sometimes pointing to the shore and at other times speaking to us in a confused Manner very loud and shouting, and presently after they all sung in concert in a wild Manner...we made Signs of Friendship to them and invited them along side the Ship where they soon ventured and behaved in a peaceable manner, offering us their Cloaths and other things they had in their Canoes, and trading immediately commenced between us."
Samwell did not understand that the "strange Motions" and "confused" singing were the Nuu-chah-nulths' way of welcoming the strangers to their territory. The Europeans were entering a green and rain-drenched world that looked familiar enough but in fact was beyond their comprehension. The two groups interacted, but in profound ways they remained separate, each with its own objectives and understandings that the other group did not share or even know about. To the Europeans, the Nuu-chah-nulth provided an exotic backdrop to their scientific and imperial objectives. They were pleased to find the local people hospitable, but as they went about the business of naming and claiming all that they saw, the Europeans misread much of what was going on around them.

To take one famous example, Cook was said to have asked some Nuu-chah-nulth what they called their part of the world, motioning with his hand to indicate the immediate vicinity. Thinking he was asking for directions, the people told him to sail around the island, using a word that sounded like nootka. As a result Cook called them the Nootka, a name that stuck for many years. (When the Spanish botanist Jose Mozino was in the Sound in 1792 he reported: "I do not know through what error this island [Nootka Island] has been given the name of Nootka, since these natives do not know the word and assure me that they had never heard it until the English began to trade on the island.") In fact, Nootka Sound was home to many different local groups of Nuu-chah-nulth, each with its own name and territory. Cook had anchored in the territory of the Muchalaht people, but interacted mainly with the people at Yuquot, the Mowachaht.

Oral accounts collected from the Nuu-chah-nulth indicate that they too did not always understand what they were seeing, sometimes thinking the white men were mythical beings and their ships were moving islands, floating houses or large birds. In the end, the Nuu-chah-nulth welcomed the strangers as a source of valuable objects and manipulated them to gain social status and political power, but the local people had little inkling of how the arrival of outsiders would change their world forever.

Cook anchored inside Nootka Sound at a small harbour now called Resolution Cove on Bligh Island, several kilometres from the village of Yuquot. Here he remained for twenty-seven days making repairs to this vessels, taking on wood and water and learning what he could about the surrounding area. Europeans and Nuu-chah-nulth mingled together freely, trading and socializing. On April 20, Cook and a party of marines rowed over to Yuquot, making them the first Europeans actually to visit, and later to describe, a Northwest coast Aboriginal village. Cook reflected the amicable relations between inhabitants and visitors by naming the village "Friendly Cove". His attitude to the Nuu-chah-nulth was careful, curious and patient. He was irritated at their incessant pilfering ("they were as light fingered as any people we had before met with") but contained his temper and avoided any confrontations. He seemed to be aware that he was a guest who was reliant on the goodwill of the local inhabitants not just for supplies but for survival.

Finally, on April 26, with mast and rigging repaired and water casks filled, Cook and his men completed their last transactions with the local people and sailed away from Nootka to pursue their search for the Northwest Passage. During the summer that followed the two ships cruised through the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea before they were stopped by ice north of Bering Strait and had to turn around. At the end of the year the expedition was back at the Sandwich Islands where, on 14 February 1779, Cook was killed during an armed encounter with Polynesian natives. After another season of arctic navigation, the Resolution and Discovery returned to England.

Next time: Confrontation at Nootka Sound