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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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THE SPANISH Explore the West Coast

Juan Pérez Hernandez ( ? )
Dionisio Alcalá-Galiano (1762 - 1805)
Francisco de Bodega y Quadra (1743 - 1794)
Estebán José Martinez ( ? )
Cayetano Valdés Flores Bazán y Péon (1762 - 1835)
Francisco A. Mourelle de la Rúa (1750 - 1820)

The first explorers of British Columbia were Spanish -- in fact, the West Coast of Canada came close to temporarily falling under Spanish control. Between 1774 and 1795, the Spanish explored its shores and built the first permanent post on Vancouver Island. Having settled in Mexico, they feared losing their hegemony on the Pacific coast when they heard of the Russian expeditions and of Samuel Hearne's voyage to the mouth of the Coppermine River on the North Sea. These expeditions had revived interest in the Northwest Passage among both the English and the Spanish.

The first Spaniard to undertake the exploration of the Pacific coast, in the summer of 1774, was Juan Pérez Hernandez. Leaving San Blas, Mexico, he sailed as far as the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands, where the Haida came to meet him. Turning south, he stopped at point Estevan on Vancouver Island, where the Nootka came to the ship to trade with the crew. The meeting was friendly but Perez dared not compromise the results of his discoveries by leaving the ship.

The following year, two ships left San Blas. Don Bruno Hezeta captained the first and Perez was its pilot. Francisco de Bodega y Quadra captained the second, piloted by Francisco Mourelle. They were to find the Russian establishments and officially take possession of the territory for Spain. At Point Grenville, in present-day Washington State, seven sailors who had been sent on land to bring back water and wood were massacred by 300 Native people within sight of the crew, who were too far away to help. Hezeta decided to return home. Bodega carried on north on his own, disembarked at 58º N and took possession of the area in the name of Carlos III, King of Spain and the West Indies. Then, not having seen a single Russian, he went back down the coast, making topographical surveys.

Image: Title Page of Mourelle's account   Image: Page from Mourelle's account

" As we thus lay at anchor, [...] our Captain gave me orders (being himself indisposed) that I should land with some of our crew, and with the same precautions as at Los Remedios. He also directed me to take possession for his Majesty of this part of the coast, and name it Bucarelly. I accordingly obeyed his instructions in all particulars, without seeing a single Indian, though there were the following proofs of the country's being inhabited: viz a hut, some paths, and a wooden outhouse."

(Mourelle 1781, 509)

In 1778, the English captain, James Cook, came to the Pacific coast to take possession of "territories useful" to England without contesting the rights that the Spanish had established. In March, he stopped in Nootka harbour, where he set up a temporary observatory. He studied the coast to beyond Bering Strait. The Spaniards only reacted to Cook's voyage in 1779, by sending two frigates under the command of lieutenants Ignacio de Artega and Bodega to give an account of the situation on the northwest coast. They then surveyed the coast as far as the Russian posts in Alaska. Spain started exploring again following the publication of Cook's voyages in 1784 and the French count Lapérouse's in California in 1786. The latter not only confirmed the Russian presence in Alaska but also that of English ships on the coast. Carlos III ordered a new expedition.

In 1788, ship's ensign Estebàn José Martinez went as far as the Russian posts. Returning, his encounters with several English and American merchant ships on the coast recommended to him the construction of a Spanish establishment in Nootka Bay. On his arrival at this bay, on May 5, 1789, he found three merchant ships there, and then Captain James Colnett arrived with Chinese workers, confirming that he had received orders from England to build a post at Nootka. An argument ensued between Martinez and Colnett. Martinez arrested the latter and ordered the seizure of two other English ships, which had arrived later. The Native people, who had previously been indifferent to these disputes, protested as the seizure of the English ships prevented them from trading. Martinez fired in the air to frighten them but one of his soldiers, thinking that he had missed his mark, killed a First Nation chief. In spite of this delicate situation, the Spaniards managed to build a "presidio", a frontier fort that included barracks, a battery of cannons and a villa for the officers. This was the first European establishment on Canada's west coast.

The ships' capture created a diplomatic incident between England and Spain. After several negotiations, on October 28, 1790, in Madrid, the two countries signed the Nootka Bay Convention. According to the terms of this treaty, the two colonial powers recognized that they both had rights to the northwest coast north of California and that each would have access to the other's establishments. Commissioners from each country would be named to settle the details of the agreement. This convention has frequently been interpreted as an agreement, on the part of the Spaniards, to leave the northwest coast, although there was nothing in it forcing them to leave Nootka. Rather, the Spanish improved the land fortifications and installed a floating battery in the port.

Image: Native cliff-houses at Nootka Sound

The two commissioners named were George Vancouver, captain in the Royal Navy and Bodega y Quadra, now captain in the Spanish navy. They met at Nootka in August 1792. In spite of their good relations, they could not agree on the details of the transfer of properties specified in the Convention and, by mutual agreement, submitted the problem to their respective governments.

During these discussions, scientific expeditions were also being launched. During his explorations in the interior of the Georgia Gulf, Vancouver met Dionisio Alcalá-Galiano and Cayetano Valdés Flores Bazán y Péon, who were also conducting research as part of the Spanish scientific expedition of Captain Alejandro Malaspina. When these explorations showed that there was no water passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic, the European nations lost interest in the north-west coast and, on January 11, 1794, England and Spain signed an agreement declaring that both were leaving the region. On March 23, 1795 the Nootka "presidio" was dismantled. So ended the Spanish reign on the northwest coast. Names of straits and islands all around Vancouver Island remain as testimony to the Spanish presence on this coast.

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