Nootka Crisis: Wikis


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The Nootka Crisis was a political dispute between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Spain, triggered by a series of events that took place during the summer of 1789 at Nootka Sound. Nootka Sound is a network of inlets on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in the Pacific Northwest region of North America, now part of the Canadian province of British Columbia and the territory of the Mowachaht group of the Nuu-chah-nulth indigenous people.

The crisis revolved around larger issues about sovereignty claims and rights of navigation and trade. The British government demanded compensation for the seizure of ships, and the Spanish government refused to pay. Both sides prepared for war and sought assistance from allies. The crisis was resolved peacefully but with difficulty through a set of three agreements, known collectively as the Nootka Conventions, under which Spain gave up a number of claimed rights and had to pay compensation. The outcome was largely a victory for British mercantile and political interests.[1] The Nootka Conventions opened the way to British expansion in the Pacific.[2]

The events at Nootka Sound, apart from the larger international crisis, are sometimes called the Nootka Incident, the Nootka Sound Incident, and similar terms. The larger Nootka Crisis is known variously by names such as the Nootka Sound Crisis, the Nootka Sound Controversy, the Great Spanish Armament, and other variations.



Northwestern North America (the Pacific Northwest) was little explored by European ships before the mid-18th century. But by the end of the century several nations were vying for control of the region, including Britain, Spain, Russia, and the United States.

For centuries Spain had claimed the entire Pacific coast of North and South America. This claim was based on a number of events. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI had issued the Inter caetera papal bull, dividing the western hemisphere into Spanish and Portuguese zones, in theory granting nearly the entire New World to Spain. This was further defined in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. In 1513 Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and formally laid claim to all the shores washed by the Pacific Ocean. As the years went by new criteria for determining sovereignty evolved, including "prior discovery" and "effective occupation". Spain made claims of prior discovery for the northwest coast of North America by citing the voyages of Cabrillo in 1542, Ferrelo in 1543, and Vizcaino in 1602-03. However, none of these voyages had reached north of the 44th parallel, and Spain had no "effective settlement" north of Mexico. Thus when, in the mid-18th century, the Russians began to explore Alaska and establish fur trading posts, Spain responded by building a new naval base at San Blas, Mexico, and using it as a base for sending a series of exploration and reconnaissance voyages to the far northwest. These voyages, intended to ascertain the Russian threat and to establish "prior discovery" claims, were supplemented by the "effective settlement" of Alta California.[3]

James Cook of the British Royal Navy explored the Pacific Northwest coast, including Nootka Sound, in 1778. His journals were published in 1784 and aroused great interest in the fur trading potential of the region.[4] Even before 1784 unauthorized accounts had already familiarized British merchants with the possible profits to be made. The first British trader to arrive on the northwest coast after Cook was James Hanna, in 1785. News of the large profit Hanna made selling northwest furs in China inspired many other British ventures.[3]

Cook's visit to Nootka Sound would later be used by the British in their claim to the region, even though Cook made no effort to formally claim possession. Spain countered by citing Juan Pérez, who anchored in Nootka Sound in 1774.[5]

By the late 1780s Nootka Sound was the most important anchorage on the northwestern coast. Russia, Britain, and Spain all made moves to occupy it for good.[5]

John Meares was one of the prime movers behind the early British fur trading effort in the Pacific Northwest. After an ill-fated voyage to Alaska in 1786-87, Meares returned to the northwest in 1788. He arrived at Nootka Sound in command of the Felice Adventurero, along with the Iphigenia Nubiana under William Douglas. The ships were registered in Macau, a Portuguese colony in China, in order to evade the British East India Company monopoly on trading in the Pacific. Non-British ships were not required to have licences from the East India Company.[4]

Meares later claimed that Maquinna, a chief of the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) people, sold him some land on the shore of Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound, in exchange for some pistols and trade goods, and that on this land some kind of building was erected. These claims would become a key point in Britain's position during the Nootka Crisis. Spain strongly disputed both claims, and the true facts of the matter have never been fully established.[5] The land and building aside, there is no doubt that Meares's men, and a group of Chinese workers they brought, built the sloop North West America. It was launched in September 1788, the first non-indigenous vessel built in the Pacific Northwest. The North West America would also play a role in the Nootka Crisis, being one of the vessels seized by Spain.[5]

At the end of the summer Meares and the three ships left.[4]

During the winter of 1788-89 Meares was in Guangzhou (Canton), China, where he and others formed a partnership called the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast of America. Plans were made for more ships to sail to the Pacific Northwest in 1789, including the Princess Royal, under Thomas Hudson, and the Argonaut under James Colnett.[4] The consolidation of the fur trading companies of Meares and the Etches (King George's Sound Company) resulted in James Colnett being given the overall command. Colnett's orders in 1789 were to establish a permanent fur trading post at Nootka Sound based on the foothold accomplished by Meares.[6]

While the British fur traders were getting organized, the Spanish were continuing their effort to secure the Pacific Northwest. At first the Spanish were responding mainly to Russian activity in Alaska. On a 1788 voyage to Alaska, Esteban José Martínez had learned that the Russians were intending to establish a fortified outpost at Nootka Sound.[6] This, in addition to the increasing use of Nootka Sound by British fur traders, resulted in the Spanish decision to assert sovereignty on the northwest coast once and for all. Plans were laid for Nootka Sound to be colonized. Spain hoped to establish and maintain sovereignty on the entire coast as far north as the Russia posts in Prince William Sound.[5]

The Viceroy of New Spain, Manuel Antonio Flores, instructed Martínez to occupy Nootka Sound, build some kind of structure, and to make it clear that Spain was setting up a formal establishment.[7]

In early 1789 the Spanish expedition under Martínez arrived at Nootka Sound. The force consisted of the warship Princesa, commanded by Martínez, and the supply ship San Carlos, under Gonzalo López de Haro.[4]

Nootka Incident

Seizure of Capt. Colnett

Martínez arrived at Nootka Sound on May 5, 1789. He found three ships already there. Two were American, the Columbia Rediviva and the Lady Washington, which had wintered at Nootka Sound. The British ship was the Iphigenia. It was seized and its captain, William Douglas, arrested. After a few days Martínez released Douglas and his ship and ordered him to leave and not return. Douglas heeded the warning.[4]

On June 8, the North West America, under Robert Funter, arrived at Nootka Sound and was seized by Martínez. The sloop was renamed Santa Gertrudis la Magna and used for exploring the region.[4] José María Narváez was given command and sailed far into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Martínez later claimed that Funter had abandoned the vessel.[7] Martínez had given supplies to the Iphigenia and claimed his seizure of the North West America was for the purpose of holding the vessel as a security for the money owed by Meares's company for the supplies.[8]

On June 24, in front of the British and Americans present at Nootka Sound, Martínez performed an elaborate formal ceremony of taking possession of the entire northwest coast for Spain.[7]

On July 2, the British ships Princess Royal and Argonaut arrived. The Princess Royal was first, and Martínez ordered its captain, Thomas Hudson, to return to China and not return. Later in the day the Argonaut arrived and Martínez seized the ship and arrested Colnett, his crew, and the Chinese workers Colnett had brought.[4] In addition to the Chinese workers, the Argonaut carried a considerable amount of equipment. Colnett said that he was intending to build a settlement at Nootka Sound. To Martínez this was a violation of Spanish sovereignty. After a hot-tempered argument Martínez arrested Colnett.[9]

Friendly Cove

Martínez forced the Chinese workers seized with the Argonaut to build Fort San Miguel and otherwise improve the Spanish post.[6] The Argonaut also carried materials for the construction of a new ship. After Narváez returned in the Santa Gertrudis la Magna (the seized and renamed North West America), Martínez used the materials from the Argonaut to improve the vessel. By the end of 1789 the Santa Gertrudis la Magna was in San Blas, where it was dismantled. The pieces were taken back to Nootka Sound in 1790 by Francisco de Eliza and used to build a schooner, christened Santa Saturnina. This vessel, the third incarnation of the North West America, was used by Narváez during his 1791 exploration of the Strait of Georgia.[10]

On July 12, Hudson returned to Nootka Sound with the Princess Royal. He did not intend to enter but was becalmed and captured by the Spanish.[4]

The Nuu-chah-nulth, indigeneous to Nootka Sound, had benefited from the fur trade with the British and became disconcerted about the seizure of British ships by the Spanish. On July 13, one of the Nuu-chah-nulth leaders, Callicum the son of Maquinna, went to meet with Martínez, who was on board the newly captured Princess Royal. Callicum's approach and angry calls alarmed the Spanish and somehow Callicum ended up shot dead. Sources differ over exactly how this happened. Some[9] say that Martínez fired a warning shot and a nearby Spanish sailor, thinking Martínez meant to kill and missed, fired as well and killed Callicum. Another source[7] says that Martínez aimed to hit Callicum but his musket misfired and another sailor fired his musket and killed Callicum. Sources also differ over what Callicum was angry about, whether it was the seizing of ships or the Spanish misappropriation of lumber from the Nuu-chah-nulth, or something else. In any case the event caused a rift between the Spanish and the Nuu-chah-nulth which lasted for years. Maquinna, in fear of his own life, fled to Clayoquot Sound and moved his people from Yuquot to Aoxsha, away from the Spanish.[11]

On July 14 the Argonaut set sail for San Blas, with a Spanish crew and Colnett and his crew as prisoners. Two weeks later the Princess Royal followed, with the San Carlos as an escort.[4]

The American ships Columbia Rediviva and Lady Washington, also fur trading, were in the area all summer, sometimes anchored in Friendly Cove. Martínez left them alone even though his instructions were to prevent ships of any nation from trading at Nootka Sound.[5] The captured crew of the North West America was sent to the Columbia before the Americans set sail for China.[4]

Two other American ships arrived at Nootka Sound late in the season. The Fair American, under Thomas Humphrey Metcalfe, was captured by Martínez upon arrival. Its sister ship, the Eleanora, under Humphrey's father, Simon Metcalfe, was nearly captured but escaped.[5]

On July 29, 1789[12]:295 the Spanish supply ship Aranzazu arrived from San Blas with orders from Viceroy Flores to evacuate Nootka Sound by the end of the year.[4] By the end of October the Spanish had completely abandoned Nootka Sound. They returned to San Blas with the Princess Royal and the Argonaut, with their captains and crews as prisoners, as well as the Fair American. The captured North West America, renamed Santa Gertrudis la Magna, returned to San Blas separately. The Fair American was released in early 1790 without much notice. The Nootka Incident did not spark a crisis in the relationship of the United States and Spain.[5]

By late 1789 Viceroy Flores had already been replaced with a new viceroy, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, who was determined to continue the Spanish occupation of Nootka Sound and the Pacific Northwest coast in general. Martínez, who had enjoyed the favor of Flores, became a scapegoat under the new regime. The senior commander of the Spanish naval base at San Blas, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, replaced Martínez as the primary Spaniard in charge of Nootka Sound and the northwest coast. A new expedition was organized and in early 1790 Nootka Sound was reoccupied by the Spanish, under the command of Francisco de Eliza. The fleet sent to Nootka Sound in 1790 was the largest Spanish force yet sent to the northwest.[7]

Nootka Crisis

News about the events at Nootka Sound reached London in January, 1790.[13] The main statesmen involved in the impending crisis were William Pitt the Younger, the British Prime Minister, and José Moñino y Redondo, conde de Floridablanca, the chief minister of Spain.

Pitt made the claim that the British had the right to trade in any Spanish territory desired, despite Spanish laws to the contrary. He knew this claim was indefensible and would likely lead to war, but felt driven to make it by the public outcry in Britain. The ultimate diplomatic victory of the British during the Nootka Crisis gave a boost to the prestige and popularity of Pitt.[14]

In April of 1790 John Meares arrived in England, confirmed various rumors, claimed to have bought land and built a settlement at Nootka before Martínez, and generally fanned the flames of anti-Spanish feelings. In May the issue was taken up in the House of Commons as the Royal Navy began to make preparations for hostilities.[15] An ultimatum was delivered to Spain.[6]

Meares published an account of his Voyages in 1790, which gained widespread attention, especially in light of the developing Nootka Crisis. Meares not only described his voyages to the northwest coast, but put forward a grand vision of a new economic network based in the Pacific, joining in trade widely separated regions such as the Pacific Northwest, China, Japan, Hawaii, and England. His vision required a loosening of the monopolistic power of the East India Company and The South Sea Company, which between them controlled all British trade in the Pacific. Meares argued strongly for loosening their power. His vision eventually came to pass, in its general form, but not before the long struggle of the Napoleonic Wars was over.[5]

Both Britain and Spain sent powerful fleets of warships towards each other in a show of force. There was a chance of open warfare had the fleets encountered one another, but they did not.[15]

The role of France in the conflict was key. France and Spain were allies under the Family Compact between the ruling Bourbon houses. The combined French and Spanish fleets would be a serious threat to the Royal Navy of Britain. The French Revolution had broken out in July of 1789 but had not reached truly serious levels by the summer of 1790. King Louis XVI was still the monarch and the French military was relatively intact. In response to the Nootka Crisis France mobilized its navy. But by the end of August the French government had decided it could not become involved. The National Assembly, growing in power, declared that France would not go to war. Spain's position became untenable and negotiations to avoid war began.[15]

The Dutch Republic provided naval support to the British during the Nootka Crisis, a result of a shift in Dutch alliance from France to Britain. This was the first test of the Triple Alliance of Britain, Prussia, and the Dutch Republic.[16]

Without French help, Spain negotiated in order to avoid war, and the first Nootka Convention was signed on October 28, 1790.

Nootka Conventions

The first Nootka Convention, called the Nootka Sound Convention, resolved the crisis in general. The convention held that the northwest coast would be open to traders of both Britain and Spain, that the captured British ships would be returned and an indemnity paid. It also held that the land owned by the British at Nootka Sound would be restored, which proved difficult to carry out. The Spanish claimed that the only such land was the small parcel where Meares had built the North West America. The British held that Meares had in fact purchased the whole of Nootka Sound from Maquinna, as well as some land to the south. Until the details were worked out, which took several years, Spain retained control of Nootka Sound and continued to garrison the fort at Friendly Cove.[5] Complicating the issue was the changing role of the Nuu-chah-nulth in relation to Britain and Spain. The Nuu-chah-nulth had become highly suspicious and hostile toward Spain following the 1789 killing of Callicum. But the Spanish worked hard to improve the relationship, and by the time of Nootka Conventions were to be carried out the Nuu-chah-nulth were essentially allied with the Spanish. This development came about in a large degree due to the efforts by Alessandro Malaspina and his officers during his month-long stay at Nootka Sound in 1791. Malaspina was able to regain the trust of Maquinna and the promise that the Spanish had the rightful title of land ownership at Nootka Sound.[17]

Negotiations between Britain and Spain over the details of the Nootka Convention were to take place at Nootka Sound in the summer of 1792, for which purpose Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra came. The British negotiator was George Vancouver, who arrived on August 28, 1792.[4]

Although Vancouver and Bodega y Quadra were friendly with one another, their negotiations did not go smoothly. Spain desired to set the Spanish-British boundary at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but Vancouver insisted on British rights to the Columbia River. Vancouver also objected to the new Spanish post at Neah Bay. Bodega y Quadra insisted on Spain retaining Nootka Sound, which Vancouver could not accept. In the end the two agreed to refer the matter to their respective governments.[4]

By 1793 Britain and Spain had become allies in a war against France. The issues of the Nootka Crisis had become less important. An agreement was signed on January 11, 1794, under which both nations agreed to abandon Nootka Sound, with a ceremonial transfer of the post at Friendly Cove to the British.[18]

The official transfer occurred on March 28, 1795. General Álava represented Spain and Lieutenant Thomas Pearce Britain. The British flag was ceremoniously raised and lowered. Afterwards, Pearce presented the flag to Maquinna and asked him to raise it whenever a ship appeared.[4]

Under the Nootka Convention, Britain and Spain agreed not to establish any permanent base at Nootka Sound, but ships from either nation could visit. The two nations also agreed to prevent any other nation from establishing sovereignty.[4]


The Nootka Conventions are sometimes described as a commitment by Spain to withdraw from the northwest coast, but there was no such requirement.[15]

In the larger scheme of things the Nootka Conventions weakened the notion that a country could claim exclusive sovereignty without establishing settlements. It was not enough to claim territory by a grant of the Pope, or by "right of first discovery". Claims had to be backed up with some kind of actual occupation.[6]

The British did not win all of the points they had sought. British merchants were still restricted from trading directly with Spanish America. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Nootka Crisis Britain became the dominant power in the Pacific.[13]

Spanish rights in the Pacific Northwest were later acquired by the United States via the Adams-Onís Treaty, signed in 1819. The United States argued that it acquired exclusive sovereignty from Spain, which became a key part of the American position during the Oregon boundary dispute. In countering the US claim of exclusive sovereignty the British cited the Nootka Conventions. This dispute was not resolved until the signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846, dividing the disputed territory, and establishing what later became the current international boundary between Canada and the United States.

See also


  1. ^ Nootka Sound Controversy, The Canadian Encyclopedia
  2. ^ Pethick, Derek (1980). The Nootka Connection: Europe and the Northwest Coast 1790-1795. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. pp. 18. ISBN 0-88894-279-6.  
  3. ^ a b Pethick, Derek (1980). The Nootka Connection: Europe and the Northwest Coast 1790-1795. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. pp. 7–9, 12-15. ISBN 0-88894-279-6.  
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Fryer, Mary Beacock (1986). Battlefields of Canada. Dundurn Press. pp. 131–140. ISBN 1550020072.  
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Pethick, Derek (1980). The Nootka Connection: Europe and the Northwest Coast 1790-1795. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. pp. 18–23. ISBN 0-88894-279-6.  
  6. ^ a b c d e Frost, Alan (1999). The Voyage of the Endeavour: Captain Cook and the Discovery of the Pacific. Allen & Unwin. pp. 133–134, 138. ISBN 1865082007.   online at Google Books
  7. ^ a b c d e McDowell, Jim (1998). José Narváez: The Forgotten Explorer. Spokane, Washington: The Arthur H. Clark Company. pp. 31–41. ISBN 0-87062-265-X.  
  8. ^ Moziño, José Mariano; Iris Wilson Engstrand (1991). Noticias de Nutka: An Account of Nootka Sound in 1792. University of Washington Press. pp. xxxii. ISBN 0295971037.   online at Google Books
  9. ^ a b The Nootka Incident, pp. 1-3, Canadian Military Heritage
  10. ^ McDowell, Jim (1998). José Narváez: The Forgotten Explorer. Spokane, Washington: The Arthur H. Clark Company. pp. 167–169. ISBN 0-87062-265-X.  
  11. ^ Clayton, Daniel Wright (2000). Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island. University of British Columbia (UBC) Press. pp. 106. ISBN 0774807415.   online at Google Books
  12. ^ Thurman, Michael E. (1967). The Naval Department of San Blas, New Spain's Bastion of Alta California and Nootka 1767 to 1798. Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company.  
  13. ^ a b Black, Jeremy (2004). The British Seaborne Empire. Yale University Press. pp. 145. ISBN 0300103867.   online at Google Books
  14. ^ Rodger, N. A. M. (2004). The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 365. ISBN 978-0-393-32847-9.  
  15. ^ a b c d The Nootka Crisis, pp. 1-3, Canadian Military Heritage
  16. ^ Louis, William Roger; Alaine Low (1999). The Oxford History of the British Empire. Oxford University Press. pp. 185. ISBN 0198205635.   online at Google Books
  17. ^ Cutter, Donald C. (1991). Malaspina & Galiano: Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast, 1791 & 1792. University of Washington Press. pp. 105, 109. ISBN 0-295-97105-3.  
  18. ^ The Evacuation of Nootka, Canadian Military Heritage

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