THE RAGGED EDGE OF EMPIRE
In the summer of 1790 momentous events were occurring in Europe. France was in the throes of a revolution that had overthrown the Old Regime and set events in motion that would transform governments everywhere on the continent. In neighbouring countries, the revolution was greeted with either enthusiasm, by liberal elements, or apprehension, by the privileged classes who feared the spread of democratic ideas. England, meanwhile, was more concerned with the Caucasus, where Russia, intent on expanding its influence, was battling the Turks. Russia, Austria and Prussia had designs on Poland, while Sweden plotted to absorb a chunk of Finland.
Yet for all the high-stakes diplomacy and realpolitik expended over these traditional trouble spots, it was the fate of a tiny trading outpost at the ragged edge of the British Empire in what is now British Columbia that almost launched Europe into war that summer.
Nootka Sound is one of five large sounds that indent the west coast of Vancouver Island. It is a labyrinth of islands, channels and crooked, finger-like fjords, dominated by the looming presence of Nootka Island blocking its mouth. For several thousand years it has been home to different groups of Nuu-chah-nulth people and their ancient ancestors. Archaeologists have found evidence of human occupation at Yuquot, the main village site in the Sound, dating back to 2300 BC. In other words, people were living in Nootka at the same time as the Sumerians were inventing writing and the ancient Egyptians were building their pyramids.
For generations the inhabitants of the Sound passed the stormy winter months at villages located up the protected inlets of the inner coast. Then, in the spring, they moved to the more exposed outer coast to fish, gather shellfish and hunt waterfowl and sea mammals. Within this seasonal pattern, the people developed an elaborate material culture that depended in particular on the red cedar tree to provide the raw materials for their log canoes, their plank houses, their myriad utensils and weapons, even the clothes on their backs.
Sometime around 800 AD, hunters at two of these “outside” villages on Nootka Island began to pursue the giant whales that migrated offshore. Oral tradition says that these people took up whaling, dangerous as it was, because they lacked access to salmon-rich streams. Armed with long wooden shafts tipped with harpoon heads made of giant mussel shells, the hunters paddled out onto the ocean and waited for their prey to appear. Once the canoe was maneuvred almost onto the back of the animal, the harpooner stood and made his thrust. The stricken whale thrashed and sounded, towing a line of cedar bark that was attached to the harpoon and dragging a series of inflated sealskin floats designed to tire the wounded animal. The ensuing chase might last for many hours, even days, before the whale, weakened from exhaustion and loss of blood, could be approached and killed. Then came the grueling job of towing the carcass back to the village. Not only was a whale an important source of food, oil and bone for the villagers, the hunt itself was a source of prestige for male members of the tribe. As a result, it was surrounded by elaborate ritual and festivity that were a unique feature of Nuu-chah-nulth society.
After several millenia of minding their own business, the inhabitants of Nootka Sound intersected with European history quite by chance. Their territory happened to be the nearest haven when European explorers emerged from the fog in their sea-battered ships looking for a sheltered harbour to recover their strength. The Nuu-chah-nulth welcomed the newcomers, allowed them to replenish their supplies of wood and water, and began to trade with them. And so the Sound, and its summer “capital” of Yuquot, became the focus of European activities on the coast, and the eye of an improbable diplomatic storm.
Next time: the arrival of the Spanish