Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Dec 20, 2009 - 5 comments










Part Five

Captain Cook's visit to Nootka, brief as it was, might have had as little impact as the earlier visit by Juan Perez had it not been for the plentiful number of sea otter pelts obtained in trade from the Nuu-chah-nulth. As he left the coast, Cook observed that "there is no doubt but a very benificial fur trade might be carried on with the Inhabitants". Stopping at Canton, China, on their way home, some of the British sailors sold their prime skins at a huge profit that signalled there was a fortune to be made on the Northwest Coast. The crews of the two ships had to be convinced not to return immediately to trade further. (Two men who were not convinced stole one of the Resolution's boats and set out back across the Pacific; they were never seen again.) By 1784, when the official account of the expedition was published, rumours had already piqued the interest of the merchant community and traders were preparing to launch a stampede to the coast that would last for the next twenty-five years.

Suddenly the Northwest Coast, ignored by Europeans for so long as a worthless wilderness at the end of the world, appeared to be a prize worth fighting for. In 1785 the first British trading vessel arrived in Nootka Sound, and within four years eight ships, both British and American, were active on the coast. In response, the Spanish in Mexico reinvigorated their northern project. Less interested in exploiting the otter trade themselves than in denying other countries access to it, the Spanish still believed that they had exclusive rights to the north coast and in 1788 the viceroy dispatched another naval expedition to find out exactly what was going on there.

As before, it was the Russians who worred the Spanish the most, so the commander of the expedition, Esteban Jose Martinez, who had been with Perez on his pioneering visit to the Queen Charlotte Islands fourteen years earlier, was ordered to sail directly to Alaska. After visiting Russian trading establishments in the Aleutian Islands, Martinez returned to Mexico with the alarming news that the Russians intended to colonize Nootka Sound the following summer. Martinez's excesses during the voyage -- other officers accused him of being drunk, abusive and incompetent -- were ignored in the rush to respond to the Russian challenge.

Early in 1789 the Viceroy sent him with two vessels and 31 soldiers to occupy Nootka before anyone else arrived. At this point the Spanish were unaware that traders had been using the harbour for several years, so Martinez must have been surprised to encounter not the Russians he expected but rather several vessels belonging to British and American merchants.

Initially the Spanish commander played it cool. Arriving at Nootka on 5 May 1789, he was content to make peaceful overtures to the Nuu-chah-nulth and to make it clear to the traders that he considered Nootka to be a Spanish port. Once a second Spanish vessel arrived, however, Martinez took a more aggressive posture. First, he seized the Ifigenia Nubiana, a British ship that was masquerading under Portuguese colours, on the grounds that it was in a Spanish port without a licence. He arrested its captain, William Douglas, and imprisoned its crew on his own vessels. Next he set his men to work building Fort San Miguel on an island in the bay at Yuquot. At the end of May, Martinez released the Ifigenia and ordered it away from the coast, then a week later he seized a second vessel, the Northwest America, when it arrived in the Sound after a trading cruise.

The Northwest America was a small sloop that the British trader John Meares had built the previous year on the beach adjacent to Yuquot, with the help of a party of 50 or more Chinese artisans, making it the first European vessel launched on the BC coast. The Spanish renamed it Santa Gertrudis and used it themselves to explore the area. Meanwhile, Martinez formally took possession of the coast for Spain by erecting a large cross on shore, firing a volley of cannon and hosting an elaborate banquet at which toasts were made to the Spanish monarch.

With the arrival of yet another trading vessel, the Argonaut, events at Nootka took first a farcical, then a tragic, turn. The captain of the Argonaut was James Colnett, a character straight out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. A veteran of Cook's second Pacific expedition, Colnett had left the navy to engage in the maritime fur trade. He had made his first visit to the coast in 1787, after which he and John Meares had joined with a group of London financiers to form the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast of America. The Argonaut belonged to this company; so did the Ifigenia and the Northwest America. Colnett was in command of all three, with plans to establish a series of trading posts on the coast, and he made no secret of his mission from Martinez.

Impossible, countered the Spaniard. He was in command at Nootka. Tempers flared and after much shouting, histrionics and appeals to national honour, Martinez arrested Colnett and overpowered the Argonaut, confining its crew in the brig. Colnett was imprisoned in his cabin where he nursed his wounded pride and became steadily more depressed. Twice he tried to escape by leaping overboard, once almost drowning; most witnesses agreed that he was trying not to get away but to kill himself.

During all this, the highest ranking Mowachaht leader, Maquinna, tried to maintain neutrality so as not to jeopardize his standing with either group of strangers, no matter how oddly they behaved. On the other hand, his brother-in-law Callicum, a chief from Tahsis Inlet and second in rank among the Mowachaht, openly favoured the British. On 13 July, while canoeing past Martinez's ship, Callicum began haranguing the Spanish commander. Martinez had a short fuse and was not willing to endure such a display of insolence. Perhaps he felt his authority was being challenged; perhaps he simply lost his temper. Regardless, he seized a musket and pointed it at Callicum. The gun failed to go off, but a sailor standing nearby, taking the lead from his captain, fired his own musket, killing the chief instantly.

Afterwards, Martinez justified the murder of Callicum as necessary to maintain his authority. No one was punished, and for the Spanish things went on as normal. Early the next morning the Argonaut left for San Blas with a Spanish crew and Colnett and his men under guard. But the Nuu-chah-nulth were traumatized by the incident. Maquinna and his family fled south to Clayoquot Sound where they sought refuge with Wickanninish, the leading chief there, and did not return to Yuquot until the Europeans had left. The murder was not forgotten, or forgiven, and continued to affect relations between the Nuu-chah-nulth and newcomers at Nootka for many years.

Next time: A Diplomatic Incident