Tag Archive | Captain Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra

The Nootka Crisis – A history talk

Spanish Fort San Miguel in Nootka Sound 1789

I have always been fascinated by British Columbia’s west coast history and I see that Canada’s 150 Anniversary has brought attention to first contact between Europeans and Indigenous people on this coast.  As far as is known, first contact took place at Nootka Sound in 1774 between the Spanish and the Mowachaht people, although it is believed that Sir Francis Drake visited these shores in the 1500s.

I presented a talk on the Nootka Crisis this spring at the Museum at Campbell River, then again at the Courtenay Museum on Wednesday, May 10. As this talk was sold out I will be returning again in October to repeat it.  On Saturday, May 13 at 7:00pm I will present the talk on Cortes Island at Mansons Hall. In September I will give the talk in Tahsis, and this summer on one or two occasions in Port Alice – times and dates not yet confirmed.

An excellent book I read about European visitors to Nootka Sound, First Invaders by Alan Twigg is an excellent resource about this history.  It answered some of my questions, but raised some as well. I didn’t fully understand why the Spanish didn’t stay in this part of the world once they had a foothold. Through my studies at the University of Victoria, where I am currently pursuing my Masters in History (got through the first year, yeah!) I had an opportunity to really delve into the research of who got to Nootka Sound first and what they were doing, and as it turned out, not doing there. I wrote a paper entitled Nootka Unsettled where I discuss the various writings about an event known as the Nootka Crisis or Controversy that took place in 1789. I was pleased to find William Manning’s book written in 1904, The Nootka Sound Controversy, that was likely the first scholarly investigation into the Crisis. The Crisis or Controversy was a standoff between the Spanish and British about who in fact, had the right to occupy Yuquot (Friendly Cove) on Nootka Island. This of course, was irrespective of the fact that the Mowachaht had been occupying the region for over 4,000 years!

Spanish exploration into the Pacific Northwest began in earnest in the 1770s, with the Spanish sending ships on surveying expeditions out of San Blas, Mexico their Pacific port.  The first known visitor to the Nootka region was the chief naval officer at San Blas, Captain Juan Pérez, sailing in the Santiago.  He didn’t set foot on Nootka Island, but did meet the native inhabitants. Captain James Cook was to discover that some of the people he encountered four years later in 1778 wore silver spoons, that would have come from the Spanish. The Crisis is a complicated story that arose several years later. It is a matter of claim and counter-claim, with the Spaniard Esteban Jose Martinez asserting that the Spanish were the first to occupy Yuquot with their fort San Miguel, and the British represented by trader James Colnett wondering what happened to the buildings erected by his partner, John Meares the year before. The two governments battled it out in a document known as the Nootka Convention, which drew of the history of exploration to the area.

Ultimately, Captain George Vancouver would be tasked with trying to bring resolution to the occupation in 1792, when he visited Nootka Sound to discuss the matter with Juan Fransisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Neither Captain felt they could resolve the issue and left it to their respective governments. The interesting thing is, that in the end, both countries decided not to stay there and the Mowachaht happily took back the property where the Spanish fort had been erected once the Spanish left.

My presentation is pictorial, and I discuss the ins and outs of European notions of occupation in detail. The Crisis was a drama played out at a location remote from any European government, that almost resulted in war. Perhaps because Quadra and Vancouver were excessively polite with each other and like each other, war was averted. Who knows what might have happened if either man became heavy-handed about the issue?

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Mermaids In the Passage

Campbell River has long had a reputation as a place for sighting exotic marine mammals.  While visitors and residents alike often spot pods of Killer Whales making their way through Discovery Passage, from time to time another type of large fin has broken through the surface of the water that doesn’t belong to a whale but to another kind of marine mammal that is more closely related to human beings.

Mermaid in passageCGLocals have dubbed these creatures ‘Mermaids of the Passage’.  Although today the public is quite skeptical about the existence of mermaids, in earlier times the existence of mermaids was an accepted fact.  Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, they were said to lure many a sailor to his death with their siren songs.  In fact, this could account for the large number of curious shipwrecks along our coast that can’t be explained by poor navigation or inclement weather.

One of the first documented sightings was in 1792.  On sailing past Quadra Island, Captain Vancouver wrote in his journal “Numberless mer-maidens, enjoying the season, were playing about the ship in every direction.”  This was corroborated by Captain Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra who wrote that many of his fiery blooded Spanish sailors were so enthralled by the sight, that they willing threw themselves into the sea with the purpose of cavorting with these maidens, only to drown in the whirling waters.

The local native inhabitants too, have a very old related story.  Long ago, when young men reached puberty, they were encouraged to ‘take the long swim’ from their village to a nearby small island where these maidens were said to cluster.  And from time to time, children with webbed toes appeared in the village who were said to be able to hold their breath under water for extended periods.

More recently, Ken Blackburn, Director of the Arts Council, whose office at the Sybil Andrews Cottage is located at the shoreline, had his own experience to relate.

“I was in the cottage, and thought I heard singing coming from outdoors.  Curious, I stepped outside.  It was hard to describe, it seemed to get right inside me.  Before I knew it, I was standing knee deep in the cold water, and I could have sworn I saw a silhouette of a naked woman sitting out on a rock.  It definitely wasn’t a cormorant.  Luckily, my assistant called me before I went out any further.  It was an eerie experience, and I don’t know what might have happened if I hadn’t been called.”

Blackburn is now advocating that Campbell River erect a monument to the Mermaids of the Passage in the spirit of the famous statue at Copenhagen, and he generously donated this photo that was given to him by a fellow artist who had a similar experience.

Anyone with a related sighting is encouraged to get in touch with the author.

By Catherine M Gill-Bert

Author of Shipwrecks and Polynesians on Our Shores.