Document 25: José Moziño Analyzes the Nootka Controversy, 1792

José Mariano Moziño, Noticias de Nutka: An Account of Nootka Sound in 1792, edited and translated by Iris H. Wilson Engstrand (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1970), p. 81-84, 87-95.

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[Editor's note: The so-called Nootka Controversy, a dispute between Spain and England about control of the Northwest Coast, began in 1789. The Spanish government ordered Estéban José Martínez, the commander of the fort at Nootka, to stop English ships from trading in the area. He enforced the orders zealously. When the English ship Argonaut, commanded by Captain James Colnett, arrived in Nootka Sound, Martínez and his men seized the ship and arrested its crew. Callicum, a Nuu-chah-nulth chief who wanted to trade with Europeans from all nations, asked Martínez to reconsider his decision. Before Callicum could finish his speech, Martínez shot and killed him in a fit of anger. Captain Colnett and his men were sent to Mexico as prisoners, thought they were released shortly after their arrival there.]

As soon as [Captain John] Meares learned the unfortunate outcome of Colnett's expedition [Meares had helped to fund Colnett's voyage], without attempting beforehand to examine in the least the motives and circumstances of the arrest, he immediately presented a resolution against the Spanish nation in the [English] House of Commons, exaggerating Martínez's unjust proceedings, and the enormous losses English trade had suffered for this reason. In order to give even more force to his presumptuous claims, Meares said that he had taken possession of that port [Nootka] in the name of His Britannic Majesty, having preceded this with a formal purchase. [See document 13 for Meares's description of that purchase]. Meares claimed that the Spanish had violently taken possession of it and ruined the corresponding interests of various stockholders in the value of more than six hundred thousand pesos.

Meares succeeded in inflaming his nation and stimulating preparations for war which were not carried out because of the agreement signed at San Lorenzo el Real in [17]91 by their Excellencies Señor Conde de Florida Blanca and Fitzherbert, plenipotentiaries [ambassadors] of the two monarchies. The ministers agreed between themselves that the Spanish would make restitution to the British subjects for the portions of land which the latter complained had been taken from them at Nootka and Clayoquot during the month of April, 1789, and would compensate them for all losses which they said they had suffered.

To carry out this commission, the English government gave orders to Captain George Vancouver, who, a few months before, had left [London] in command of the frigate Discovery and brigantine Chatham. His purposes were to reconnoiter the Northwestern Coast of North America, examine the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and continue to survey the continent up to Cook Inlet in order to solve finally the problem of the passage to the Atlantic Ocean [that is, to confirm that Northwest Passage did not exist].

On our part, Captain of the Royal Navy Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra was commissioned to draw up, in [cooperation] with the English, a geographic chart [of the coast] from the aforementioned strait [Cook Inlet] to the Port of San Francisco of New California. To observe the various items that nature might present in these new discoveries, his Excellency, the Count of Revilla Gigedo, was pleased to confer upon me the honor of this [botanical] commission. . . . I was able to gather more than two hundred species of plants and various animals which I will add to the investigations of this kind on which I am now working.

We actually arrived on that island [Nootka] on April 29, 1792, and at that moment began the friendship and good feeling between ourselves and the natives. Never during all the time of our long residence did they give us the slightest reason for displeasure.

Almost as soon as we anchored, Maquinna came to welcome the Spanish commandant. He still detested the memory of that officer who had killed Quelequem [Callicum] and offered to pay any price for his [Martínez's] gun, in case we might have it. Maquinna was received with the greatest appreciation and civility on the part of all, and he [was] fully satisfied because of this and because of the gifts we presented not only to him but also to the catlatis [brothers of the chief] who accompanied him. Beginning the next day we saw ships surrounded with canoes, and the islanders, filled with happiness, were ready to conduct our sailors to the shore for nothing more than the small token of a piece of bread.

. . .

Captain Vancouver, who had entered to explore the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the beginning of April [1792], did not arrive until the end of August. At the outlet of the strait in 51° North latitude, Vancouver received the first news of the commission that awaited him, and of the provisions brought for his ships in the merchant vessel Daedalus. Señor [Bodega y] Quadra had not lost the opportunity to clarify the justice of the English demands for restitution nor to ascertain the truth of the losses which Meares's trade had suffered.

Meares bases his principal claim upon the purchase he made from Maquinna, and the chief consistently denies such a purchase. On the other hand, he [Maquinna] affirms, without pressure or persuasion, that [John] Kendrick [an American trader] was the only one to whom he had sold a piece of land at Maquinnas [Nootka]; and he also affirms that [Francisco de] Eliza [who replaced Martínez as the Spanish commander at Nootka] and [Bodega y] Quadra were those to who whom he had given another in Yuquatl [south of Nootka]. I believe that the English themselves should recognize the falsity with which Meares proceeded. Maquinna calls him "Aita-Aita Meares" ("Liar Meares").

No less absurd are the benefits Meares claims to have derived from his commerce, since by merely reading the reports of many others following the same trade at that time one can easily verify the deep slump which the price of sea otter skins had taken. Those of the best quality could scarcely be sold for forty-five pesos, yet even so Meares charged the Spanish one hundred pesos for each one. The skins are a luxury article for the Chinese, who pay for them in proportion to their scarcity, and since they were filling the warehouses of Canton, they had been losing value annually. Even Colnett himself had the misfortune of not being able to sell one skin in Asia and of finding himself obligated to carry them on to London.

By virtue of all this and in accordance with the instructions our commandant had received, he offered the English commissioner [Vancouver] the possession and ownership of the land on which Meares had built his hut, at the same time permitting them to use that which Maquinna had given to the Spanish and which they had cultivated with prodigious labor.

But the Englishman was never willing to reconcile himself to partial possession, He always insisted upon demanding, in the name of his monarch, sovereignty over all that land and free access to the rest of the coast down to ten leagues [a league is three miles] north of San Francisco. . . . [Negotiating sovereignty over the whole of the Northwest Coast] certainly exceeded the expressed powers of the Spanish commandant. He was therefore unable to carry out the agreement and resolved to suspend it until the courts of Madrid and London reached a new decision based upon the reports which their respective commissioners [Vancouver and Bodega y Quadra] would make.

The English commandant was no less humane toward the Indians than the Spanish had been. Both left an example of goodness among them. "Cococoa [like] Quadra," they say, "Cococoa [like] Vancouver," when they want to praise the good treatment of any of the captains who command the other ships. May God grant that they may never be dealt with except by men about whom they can say the same, and may this fine example have thousands of imitators from this time forward.

Assuming that the English, as it seems from the facts to which we have referred, did not have any right to claim the possession which they demanded, and that the Spanish had proven their right legally in the terms authorized by public law, it becomes a political problem: . . . Is it convenient for Spain to maintain that establishment [at Nootka], or on the contrary would it be more beneficial to her interests to abandon it?

Forgive me for the boldness of frankly expressing my opinion about a situation which other persons have considered in a very different manner, and for which I perhaps lack the indispensable knowledge of the various views which the governments may have.

Up to now this establishment [at Nootka] has not produced any advantage in favor of the crown, but, on the contrary, the enormous expenses it has had to pay out are notorious. Even private individuals have achieved nothing more than a miserable trade in furs. The hopes of making the trade absolutely lucrative, besides being extremely remote, could be realized just as well, as the Boston-men [American traders] have done and are still doing, if the port were independent. Nootka is a place where one finds very few furs, and these come from [nearby inlets and bays]. The great collections are made on Prince William [Sound], the [Queen] Charlotte [Islands], and the Strait of [Juan de] Fuca. . . . Nootka attracts foreigners at present only because they can supply themselves with water and firewood there at no risk.

The security of our possessions in New Spain and California is neither insured more, nor endangered less, by our being owners of this island [Nootka], since if our enemies should seek to establish a site next to our territories, in order to invade us with greater facility, there is a distance of two hundred leagues between Nootka and San Francisco which is left free for them. There are various coves such as Gray's Harbor, Ensenada de los Mártires [probably the Hoh River], Entrada de Heceta [Columbia River], Sidman [probably the Umpqua River], la Bodega [Tomales Bay], and so forth in which to protect a considerable number of ships. Furthermore I consider they would gain a better post on any one of the Sandwich Islands [now called the Hawaiian Islands], where they could supply themselves with local provisions without difficulty and where many Europeans could establish themselves. . . .

If my observations do not deceive me too much, England's intentions are directed principally toward extending and invigorating her commerce. Consequently she would expose herself to ruin if she should try to multiply her colonies without taking into consideration that the more land she occupied, the more scattered would be her subjects, who, united, have the power of the entire nation.

The present circumstances do not permit us to fortify Nootka in such a way that it could put up a vigorous resistance that would compel respect for our flag. For this purpose at least a battalion would be necessary, and it can be seen that its maintenance . . . would cost nearly one million [pesos] in each of the first three or four years that would have to be invested in clearing the land and preparing it for cultivation. Meanwhile it is generally necessary to bring all provisions from San Blas [a major Spanish port in Mexico]. Added to this are the expenses necessary for supply ships, and those which are indispensable to maintain control of the bay, since there are more than fifty English ships of various types, armed for war, which cruise through that sea.

In addition to all this, it would be impossible to cut off the commerce engaged in by the foreigners with the natives. They can anchor in Esperanza Inlet, at Nuchimanes, and even come up to Maquinnas without our artillery being capable of hindering them. But suppose we fortified all these entrances in such a manner that no one could approach them without our permission? Could this be done with Queen Charlotte Island, from which it is possible to go to California with the same or greater facility, and in the same number of days, as from Nootka? And what would we do with Bucareli Inlet? And farther to the south would not Clayoquot, the Archipelago de Carrasco [Barkley Sound], and others remain unguarded?

Anyone can see that six or eight thousand men would scarcely be enough to guard these points, and that, even if we took exclusive possession of the fur trade, it probably would not defray the enormous expenses which our defense would require.

The first object of our attentions should be California. There our conquest has taken roots, our religion has been propagated, and our hopes are greatest for obtaining obvious advantages to benefit all the monarchy. The Port of San Francisco . . . is the best of any that have been seen on the entire coast, according to the testimony of the celebrated navigator Vancouver. . . .

Throughout most of New California, the landscape is very beautiful, the soil fertile, the mountains wooded, and the climate benign. There is no European product that could not be successfully grown there. There is pasturage for all kinds of livestock. These have multiplied so prodigiously that between the Presidio of Monterey and the Mission of Carmel are counted more than ten thousand head of cattle and a considerable number of horses and sheep. In the sea that bathes its coasts, fish swarm and whales, sea otters, and sea lions abound. In short, God is generously offering an immensity of wealth which we are not enjoying [because of our] lack of people. Five hundred leagues of territory do not have as inhabitants even two thousand persons who can be regarded as [subjects] of our monarchy, and of these not even five hundred, including women and children, can be called civilized people.

The garrison of San Francisco is composed of only fifteen soldiers, and that of Monterey scarcely exceeds thirty. The same is true of San Diego and the [Santa Barbara] Channel, respectively. There is no presidio that includes a battery of guns, and, even if there was one, it would be useless because they [our soldiers there] are all unskilled in the handling of cannon.

In no other place could our enemies establish themselves more advantageously, and consequently none demands more the attention of our diligent government. Dividing our forces into small garrisons weakens us more and more. Not only Nootka, but all those posts of the north ought to be also abandoned to protect California and promote there the branches of industry for which it is suitable; so that far from being a liability to the state, as it has been until now, it could sustain itself and contribute to the needs of the Crown.

One of the quickest means to achieve this end would be the fur trade, which, if taken up with diligence by the Spanish [traders], should belong to them exclusively within a very few years. We have, in our possessions, all the items that circulate in this trade; abundant copper in Michoacán; many textiles in Querétaro and Cholula [these are Mexican cities]; crude hats throughout the kingdom; abalone shells in Monterey; and so forth. Navigation ought to be less costly for us and closer to the port of departure and points of arrival. We have an abundance of foodstuffs which can be obtained from the Californias and the facility to purchase these easily. We can therefore pay more to the Indians for the furs and sell them to the Chinese more cheaply.

Anyone who wishes to follow prudently . . . the fur trade . . . should concentrate on acquiring the major collection of the most excellent sea otters [off the coast of] California . . . while making only occasional forays to [northern ports like Nootka]. . . .

The exportation of grain and livestock will make agriculture flourish in New California, and the exportation of copper and cloth will multiply the looms of New Spain and promote the shipping industry. . . . As the Spanish traders along the coast increase in number, necessity itself will make the English and other foreigners retire. In this way, by reaping benefits instead of incurring expenses, we will succeed in securing our possessions and bringing about happiness and prosperity.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest