Empires In The Northwest

PrintPrintEmailEmail Nootka Sound and The Fury

Today it is possible to unravel the sequence of those distant events. But it is not always possible to reconstruct motives. The actors were passionate, autocratic men, far from home. None of their orders had been designed to meet the situations that developed. They improvised as they went; and as a result their deeds seem more frequently the result of caprice than of plan. Surely they would not have behaved as they did if they could have foreseen the international complications which their whimsies would later produce in the startled courts of London and Madrid.

Key man in the situation was Estévan José Martínez —the same Martínez who had anchored in Nootka Sound with Juan Ferez fifteen years before and from whom two silver spoons had been stolen. As had been the case with that earlier voyage, suspicion of the Russians lays behind Martínez’s present sailing. Three years before, in 1786, a French admiral, returning from an examination of the North Pacific, had put into Monterey, California, with reports of Russian expansion toward the American mainland. This word was relayed to Mexico City, and in 1788 Viceroy Flórez dispatched Martínez and L’f6pez de Haro to investigate. What the two Spaniards heard from the Russians on Kodiak and Unalaska islands sent them hurrying home in high excitement. The Empress Catherine, it was said, planned to send four frigates south to occupy Nootka.

Actually this was garbled rumor of an entirely different expedition recently authorized by the Russian empress, but Fl’f4rez had no way of knowing that. Not daring to wait until he could receive instructions from Madrid, the Viceroy ordered Martínez and Haro to take over Nootka ahead of the Russians. Nor was this to be a mere token occupation. Martínez carried with him, as Spanish colonial expeditions always did, priests for converting the Indians, as well as the artisans and soldiers necessary for establishing a garrison. A supply ship was to follow shortly; and as soon as possible (indicative of Spain’s ignorance of the coast she claimed) a land force would march along behind! If foreign ships did put in at Nootka, Martínez was to show them, politely but firmly, the superior claims of Spain to the district. He was also “to prevent as far as possible their intercourse and commerce with the natives.”

So much for the immediate threat. There was a more distant one. With a flash of prescience it was recognized by Flórez, who had recently removed the commander of Juan Fernández Island for aiding Kendrick in the Columbia . Writing his home government on December 23, 1788, the Viceroy said, “We ought not to be surprised that the English colonies of America, being now an independent republic, should carry out the design of finding a safe port on the Pacific and of attempting to sustain it by crossing the immense country of the continent. … It is indeed an enterprise for many years, but I firmly believe that from now on we ought to employ tactics to forestall its results.” Lewis and Clark, Astoria, the Oregon Trail—all are immanent in those words. And that, too, is another reason why Spanish armor was sent to Nootka, where Americans already had arrived in the persons of Robert Gray and John Kendrick.

Though Flórez might be suspicious of the Americans, Martínez was not—at least not when it came to making common cause against the English. From his meeting with Gray outside the sound, the Spanish commander had learned that one sizable English vessel was already in the harbor, a small schooner was coasting around the neighborhood, and at least one more ship was due shortly from China with supplies. Meanwhile Martínez was alone, his consort vessel not yet having come up. Consequently he entered Friendly Cove all smiles. He wined and dined both Douglas and Kendrick on his ship, and each returned the favor. Soon Kendrick was won completely—or perhaps it was the other way around. The Yankee captain had no love for the English, against whom he had helped fight a war not long before, and he could hardly be expected to grieve if an English rival now ran afoul of the Spanish. Indeed, there were ugly whispers later among the English that Kendrick’s gloved hand pushed Martínez into some of the radical moves the Spaniard made. But none of that can be proved.

At last Martínez’s supporting vessel, the San Carlos , appeared. Kendrick being safely neutralized, Martínez now demanded the Iphigenia ’s papers, kept them overnight for translation, and then peremptorily ordered Douglas and Viana, the Iphigenia ’s ostensible captain, aboard his ship—for Douglas was still pretending to be operating for the firm of Cavalho & Co. Flinging the Englishman’s instructions on the desk, Martínez demanded explanation of a clause which his interpreter had translated as follows: If any Russian, Spanish, or English vessel tried “to divert you from your voyage … resist by force. … If, perchance, in such conflict you should have the superiority, you will take possession of the vessel and its cargo, conducting them, with the officers, to Macao in order that they may be condemned as legal prizes and the officers and crew punished as pirates.”

Martínez’s lip curled. He was a pirate, was he? Or would it not be more accurate to say that Douglas, operating under such orders, was the one open to the charge? Furthermore, what about these false Portuguese colors and registration papers?

Squirming, Douglas said that the translation presented matters in a false light, that——