Tag Archive | Nootka Sound

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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I Met Captain Cook at the Dock in Gold River

Captain Cook and yours truly

Captain Cook and yours truly

After a summer of cruising the waters off the east coast of Vancouver Island in search of history, I traversed the island on a hot and sunny September day, and headed to the west coast with several members of the Captain Cook Society; this time in search of the site where Cook landed in March of 1778.

The trip was instigated by an enterprising fellow by the name of Randy Komar, who in March this year, held the first formal meeting of the West Coast Captain Cook Society in Courtenay.

The Society itself http://www.captaincooksociety.com, has been in existence for several years, with various chapters throughout the world – in fact, anywhere that Cook travelled, but there wasn’t a group on Vancouver Island, even though Cook had visited its shores.  Randy thought he would correct this oversight, assuming that there must be a number of ‘Cookies’ as Cook fans are affectionately known, in our vicinity.

Randy addressing the group

Randy addressing the group

In all, 29 people joined together on this expedition to see the place where Cook arrived in HMS Resolution at Nootka Sound, the site of the historic meeting between Cook and the chief of the Mowachat Nation, Chief Maquinna.  The meeting is believed to have been the first contact between these natives of British Columbia and Europeans.  As the Mowachat were eager to trade with the British sailors, this resulted in Cook being given a number of sea otter pelts which unbeknown to him would precipitate an avalanche of trade over the next 25 years, effectively wiping out the northwest coast sea otter population.

Joseph Banks coin

Joseph Banks medal

Our group met for dinner in Gold River and the first people I saw were Leona and Don who I knew from the BC Historical Federation Conferences and Bonnie and Maureen, who had been on the Museum’s Thurlow Islands trip that I was interpreter for.  Of course, like minds!

At Randy’s suggestion, after dinner several of the members introduced themselves and explained how they had come to be interested in the intrepid Cook.  One couple had come all the way from New Zealand to share in the adventure – a numismatist (a numismatist is a type of coin collector) Graeme Brown and his wife Avis.   Graeme had brought with him a fascinating and rare medal called the Resolution and Adventure medal.  The medals were struck by Joseph Banks, the famous naturalist who had travelled with Cook, and the 2000 pieces made were meant to be distributed anywhere that Cook travelled.   Some have been recovered from around the globe; eight are known to exist in New Zealand, and one was found on Nootka Island.

All present had a different reason for being interested in Cook – some were like Melanie Bagley of Courtenay who hadn’t thought much about Cook since high school, but was eager to learn more from the well informed group.  Other attendees came from Campbell River, Quadra Island, the Comox Valley, Victoria, the BC mainland, and California. We spent the night at the Ridgeview Motel, then travelled down the next morning in time to catch the 10:00am departure of the Uchuck III from the Gold River dock.  Much to our surprise and delight, Captain Cook (aka Alberto) was there in person!  Many of us eagerly took photos and had our photos taken – a once in a lifetime opportunity!  What an auspicious way to begin our journey!

At Gold River dock

At Gold River dock

On that happy note, we boarded the vessel – in itself an important piece of coastal history documented in David Esson Young’s book, ‘The Uchuck Years’.  It was Young’s father who founded the Uchuck coastal freighter service.  I hadn’t been aboard the Uchuck in 12 years, and was very gratified to see that they were continuing in the tradition of serving good wholesome food and home baking, thanks to Elaine, the cook.

IMGP0924I was also pleased that Chuck Syme was on board – an extremely knowledgeable historic interpreter from Gold River, who was available to answer any questions passengers on the Uchuck might have about the history of the area we were passing through, and the history we had yet to encounter. We stopped at a fish farm to unload supplies, and that brought back memories of a fun time I had had staying with my son Jean-Luc at the site he worked at in the Muchalat Inlet next to Bligh Island seven years earlier.

It was a full boat – 99 people, and our group and everyone else had plenty of time to mingle and visit, enjoy the food

Uchuck and Lighthouse

Uchuck and Lighthouse

and scenery and take pictures.  We came out of the Inlet and around the top end of Bligh Island and as we cruised down the Sound, the iconic lighthouse at Yuquot/Friendly Cove came into view.  Just as we were getting off the boat, I began a conversation with a lady named Berthe who told me she had lived at Greene Point Rapids, where I go each summer to a family cabin.  How auspicious!  Here was an opportunity to add to that history that has been an ongoing part of my research for the last eight years.

But we were here to learn more about Nootka Island, and Margarita James from the Mowachaht Band, had travelled over with us so that she could welcome visitors to the Island and explain its overall history.  Inside the little white church with its astonishing totems and the stained glass windows presented by the government of Spain, the shared story of the native inhabitants and the European visitors was WhiteChurchtold.  The church itself had been built in 1954, after the original church constructed in the late 1890s by a Belgian priest by the name of Father Brabant had burned down.  (Brabant was intent on educating the native people in European ways, and was responsible for starting residential schools.)

Thunderbird inside church

Thunderbird inside church

The Mowachaht lived on Nootka Island until the early 1960s when it was becoming more difficult to live a traditional lifestyle and work had to be found elsewhere.  Almost the entire band, which by this time had amalgamated with the Muchalat Nation who inhabited the Inlet and Gold River, was relocated to Gold River to reserve lands near the dock and former mill site.

Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Only two people remained on Nootka Island and still live there today, guardians to the sacred landscape, their centre of the world – Ray and Terri Williams.  Their son Sanford, a master carver, resides with them there in summer where he produces astonishingly beautiful pieces from his carving shed located on the beach, just below the William’s house.

Where Spanish built a fort

Where Spanish built a fort

After Margarita’s welcome, we took a group picture then disbursed in different directions.  Some of us joined Chuck on a walk up to the lighthouse, from where we could view the Cook memorial*, sitting right at the southern point of the island. All too soon, it was time to go back to our ship.  We were given a special treat though – once we were underway, the skipper took us around the west side of the island, which I had never before seen from the water.  Then we left the Sound to head back up the Inlet, slowing down to view the plaques that had been put into place in the 1970s to commemorate Cook’s stay at Blight Island where his ship Resolution had undergone a refit.

It couldn’t have been a more perfect day and I think many of us felt grateful to Randy for instigating this adventure and bringing together such a diverse group of people who were united in a fascination with the adventures of Captain James Cook.

Cook Memorial

Cook Memorial

*For an interesting article on the Cook Memorial from the BCHF read here