Empires In The Northwest


All in all, the single returning ship did not bring a profitable return on the owners’ original $49,000 investment. Still, there was prestige. The Columbia was the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe. When she entered Boston Harbor on August 9, 1790, the fort on the hill gave her a federal salute of thirteen guns and “three huzzas” rose from a “great concourse of citizens assembled on the various wharves.” Governor Hancock held a reception to which the leading men of Massachusetts came. Gray went in state, marching down the middle of the street, followed closely by “crown prince” Attoo, who was described as a living flame, clad in a crested feather helmet and a feather cloak of golden suns set in scarlet.

The seafarer had many a tale to spin at that reception. To his listeners not the least interesting was his eyewitness version of the squabble at Nootka.

Because of that squabble the western world was on tenterhooks. Seven or eight months before Gray’s arrival in Boston, Viceroy Flórez had written to Madrid a somewhat inaccurate account of Martínez’s seizure of British property. Picking up rumors of this, the outraged British chargé d’affaires in Madrid communicated with Prime Minister Pitt. Promptly there followed an exchange of stiff notes between the powers, but the bristling was done in diplomatic privacy until all at once egregious John Meares interjected himself into the furor with his famous Memorial of April 30, 1790.

The first inkling that something might be amiss in Nootka had been brought to Meares in Macao by William Douglas of the Iphigenia . The sailors of the North West America , returning to China on the Columbia , added the rest of the details. In fury and alarm Meares rushed to London to try enlisting the support of his government. Sanguine though he was, he none the less must have been surprised to find the Foreign Office already carrying a huge chip on its shoulder, and to be ushered straightway into the presence of no less a personage than Pitt himself.

The basic issue, of course, was not over one sea peddler’s tubs in the distant Pacific. Rather it was over the right of the Spanish to claim that whole ocean on the basis of a papal bull three hundred years old and to exclude, or try to exclude, ships flying the English flag. At stake also was the definition of what constituted effective discovery. With a confident show Spain trotted out indisputable evidence, including Martínez’s silver spoons, that her mariners had visited Nootka at least four years prior to Cook. But England had published the results of Cook’s explorations; Spain had kept her information largely secret. In open dispute before the world, which gave the stronger right? Spain called for help on Louis XVI of France under terms of the Family Compact between the two nations. Pitt countered by evoking the new Triple Alliance between England, Prussia, and the Netherlands. Ordering her fleet to mobilize, Spain received from Louis XVI a promise of fourteen ships of the line. The English Parliament reacted by voting a war chest of£1,000,000 and dispatching troops to the West Indies, close to Spain’s rich colonies. Prussia promised to stand by the Triple Alliance, and Holland sent ships to join the most formidable assemblage of naval armament the world had yet seen.

A this point one of history’s big “ifs” intrudes. If the French Revolution had not been gathering headway … but it was. The states general, scowling on Louis XVFs offer to help Spain, began a long debate on whether the right to make war lay with the people or with the king. As the summer passed and the rush of events in France made it obvious that no aid could be expected from that source, Spain took another look at the massed English fleet and began to back down. England, likewise worried by the happenings in France, decided to be gracious. Finally, on October 28, 1790, the Nootka Sound Convention ended the dispute —and, in effect, Spain’s pretensions as a colonial power in North America.

Though nowhere explicitly stated, the Nootka Convention’s most important point was the tacit abandonment by Spain of her former claim to exclusive control of the Northwest Coast. For in granting the right of British subjects to trade or settle on lands not currently occupied by Spanish subjects, Spain also granted by implication the same right to the peoples of other countries. England’s signature to the convention also held the same implication. Sovereignty, in other words, became a matter of occupancy—the hinge on which, before another half century was out, the whole Oregon question between the United States and Great Britain would swing.

None of this was lost on Thomas Jefferson. Always he had been keenly interested in the West. Now he became convinced that to keep the United States from being drawn into European wars, this country must drive a wedge between the quarrelsome neighbors on her flanks. In short, the west bank of the Mississippi, at the very least, must become American. And so faroff Nootka planted one of the seeds, though only one, that shortly would blossom into the Louisiana Purchase.