Even as Captain George Vancouver carried out his great survey of the Northwest Coast, the area was being transformed into a commercial frontier that was attracting traders from around the world. The initial trading voyages were sponsored by British merchants with interests in the Chinese port of Canton where, as sailors from Cook’s expedition had shown, sea otter pelts from the coast could be sold at great profit. Wealthy Chinese valued the furs for caps, fashionable trim to their garments and for winter wear. In return the merchants of Canton traded mainly tea, silk, cotton, porcelains, sugar and teak. Furs had been available since the 1740s from Russian traders based in Alaska, but the Chinese mistrusted the Russians and restricted their trade in ways that gave an advantage to British and American interests.
The first trader to follow up on Cook’s visit to the Northwest Coast was Captain James Hanna who, in 1785, sailed his small (15 metres) schooner the Sea Otter from Macao to Nootka Sound. Hanna got the trade off to an unhappy start. Details are inexact, but it appears that the captain sparked a violent confrontation with Maquinna and his people, either in response to their pilfering aboard the Sea Otter or because he had insulted Maquinna or misunderstood Muchalaht trading practices. For whatever reason, the Muchalaht launched an attack. Well armed with eight cannon, swivel guns and muskets, Hanna and his men repulsed Maquinna’s warriors, killing several of them. Then, as quickly as it flared up, the animosity died down. The local people resumed trading as if nothing had happened, and during a stay lasting a month and a half Hanna obtained more than 550 otter skins, a reasonable if not spectacular haul.
During the next two summer seasons, thirteen more trading vessels visited the coast, all of them financed by British capital though most sailing under the flags of other nations to avoid the restrictions of the large British trading companies that claimed to enjoy monopoly privileges in the Pacific. (The illustration above, by Gordon Miller, depicts a trading session.) One of these vessels was the Imperial Eagle, flying an Austrian flag but commanded by Charles William Barkley, an experienced British captain, and backed by the Bengal Fur Company. It was a honeymoon voyage for Barkley and his 17-year-old bride Frances who crammed enough adventure into their first few months together to last a lifetime of marriage.
The Eagle barely survived a raging storm on the voyage out, while Frances watched as her new husband almost succumbed to a bout of fever. Arriving on the coast in mid-June, 1787, the Eagle became the first vessel to venture into Barkley Sound, then located the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. Instead of entering the strait, Barkley crossed to the Olympic Peninsula where he had a run-in with a group of local Makah people; six of his crew were killed before he managed to escape back to sea. All in all, an eventful initiation into the seafaring life for Frances, the first white woman known to have visited the Northwest Coast.
The diplomatic scuffle between Spain and Britain over Nootka Sound did nothing to discourage the fur traders, who continued to carry on their business despite the sabre-rattling of the great powers. Though the British succeeded at the bargaining table, their traders were soon driven from the field by merchant ships originating on the eastern seaboard of the United States. The “Boston Men”, as the First Nations called them, were unfettered by the trading monopolies and showed more zeal for the otter trade. Between 1793 and 1825, when the fur business was past its peak, over 400 trading voyages were made to the coast; of these, 75 percent were made by American vessels.
Initially, Nootka Sound was the centre of the otter trade, the Muchalaht who lived there obtaining pelts not only from their own territory but trading them from surrounding tribes from as far away as the other side of Vancouver Island. But before long sea otter became scarce at Nootka and the harbour lost its pre-eminence. Ships continued to stop there to replenish their supplies of wood and fresh water, but the trade itself expanded to other harbours on the west coast of Vancouver Island and then, as the coastline became more familiar, north to the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Alaskan archipelago.
Next time: Terms of Trade