Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Dec 27, 2009 - 3 comments


Part Six

With all that he had done to establish the Spanish presence, Martinez was disappointed at the end of July (1789) to receive orders that he should abandon Nootka. The Viceroy had decided it was not worth the expense to maintain such an isolated settlement. Against his better judgement, Martinez dismantled the fortification and by the end of October not a single outsider remained in the Sound.

But the recent events that had transpired there escalated into a full-blown international diplomatic crisis when they became known in Europe. Early in 1790 the British embassy in Madrid reported that a ship had been seized at Nootka. The British government protested what to it was an act of piracy; Madrid responded that foreign vessels had no right to trade in territory occupied and claimed by the Spanish.

As the level of rhetoric intensified, Prime Minister William Pitt held to a hard line: he wanted British property restored, reparations paid, and Britain's right to make settlements on the northwest coast acknowledged. The Spanish were willing to talk about releasing the prize vessels, but they had no intention of giving up their claim to the coast. Both sides attempted to strengthen their position by making alliances with other European powers, and matters threatened to escalate into a continent-wide conflict.

While the diplomats haggled, John Meares, managing director of the company that owned the captured vessels, arrived back in London from China and began to wage his own campaign against the Spanish. His published account of events at Nootka -- one historian has called this document "an inflamed tale of insults and cruelties in which facts, distortions and manifest fabrications were inextricably woven" -- rallied public opinion behind the government position. British citizens had been brutalized, British property stolen, British honour insulted. Spain must either back down, or prepare for war.

After it was all over, Britain's King George III admitted: "I was convinced that there would be war." Navies were mobilized, overseas possessions were reinforced against attack, foreign alliances were shored up, and belligerent voices on both sides called for action. In the end, however, and just in time, Spain recognized British military superiority and backed down. In October its representatives signed the Anglo-Spanish Convention of 1790, also known as the Nootka Convention, abandoning its exclusive claim to the northwest coast of America and agreeing to pay reparations for the seizure of British property.

It was an embarrassing defeat. Indeed, the Spanish tossed their chief negotiator in jail for three years because of it. Many historians have identified the Convention as the beginning of the end for Spanish imperial aspirations. The British had successfully used events at Nootka to strengthen their diplomatic position in Europe and to further their commercial and territorial ambitions in the Pacific. The tiny harbour on the coast of Vancouver island, unknown to Europeans before the crisis and forgotten by most of them soon after, for a brief few months played a crucial role in adjusting the balance of power in Europe.

Because the northwest coast lay at such a great distance from Europe, events there followed their own course. In the summer of 1790, fur traders returned in search of skins and the Spanish returned from Mexico in three ships to re-establish their colony of Santa Cruz de Nuca. The volatile Martinez was replaced as commander by Francisco de Eliza, who was given a company of eighty Catalonian volunteers commanded by Captain Pedro Alberni. Along with fortifying Nootka and maintaining peaceful relations with its inhabitants, Eliza had instructions to continue the exploration of the coast.

At this time, Europeans were still unaware that Vancouver Island was not the mainland of North America. As far as any of them knew, Juan de Fuca's fabled strait existed and would prove to be the entrance to the Northwest Passage. In 1787 one of the maritime traders, Charles Barkley, located what is now called the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the southern end of Vancouver Island, but he did not sail into it. Anxious to follow up this discovery, Eliza dispatched Manuel Quimper in his sloop Princesa Real to investigate the strait. Quimper, along with his pilot, Lopez de Haro, made their way into the strait, charting several of the harbours (including Sooke Inlet and Esquimalt Harbour) and gathering information from the aboriginal inhabitants.

At the eastern end of Juan de Fuca Strait, the Spanish saw another strait leading to the north and named it after Haro. Was this the long-sought passage through the continent? Quimper decided it was too late in the season to find out and headed back to Nootka.

For the first time the Spanish spent a winter (1790-91) at Santa Cruz de Nuca. Relations with the Nuu-chah-nulth had deteriorated since the murder of Callicum and nerves were on a knife edge. Demoralized by the constant rain, fearful of attack and unable to depend on fresh food from the local people, the 250 overwintering Spanish passed a desperate five months. Nine men died, and when the supply ship arrived from Mexico in March it found most of the company ill with scurvy, dysentery and other less serious complaints.

Nonetheless, Eliza pressed forward with the exploration of Juan de Fuca Strait. With the return of better weather, and better health, he took personal command of the frigate San Carlos and, in company with the smaller (eleven metres) schooner Santa Saturnina, set off to continue the investigation of the strait. In a series of surveys, the Saturnina, under Captain Jose Maria Narvaez, and its longboat cruised through Haro Strait, becoming the first Europeans to see Georgia Strait (they called it Gran Canal de Nuestra Senora del Rosario la Marinera), then explored the Gran Canal as far north as 50 degrees N where the strait enters the jumble of islands that separate Vancouver Island from the mainland. Here they turned back for lack of supplies.

During their cruise the Spanish suspected that a large river flowed into the strait in the vicinity of today's Fraser River, though gloomy weather prevented them from seeing its mouth. Eliza concluded, correctly as it turned out, that Nootka was probably on the outer coast of a huge island, and he speculated, incorrectly, that if a Northwest Passage existed, it must originate in the Gran Canal. But once again the Spanish were forced to return to Nootka before they could solve the riddle of the interior waterways.

Next time: the arrival of Captain George Vancouver