The origins of the crisis at Nootka Sound dated back 165 years before the Spanish and the British locked horns there. It was in 1625 that Samuel Purchas, an English priest, published a large collection of manuscripts of travellers' accounts left to him by the geographer and editor Richard Hakluyt. Titled Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes, these documents included an account of an alleged meeting in Venice in 1596 between the merchant Michael Lok, fresh out of debtor's prison, and a Greek ship's pilot named Apostolos Valerianos, also known as Juan de Fuca.
According to Lok, Fuca described a voyage he had made four years earlier while in the employ of the Spanish in Mexico. Fuca said that he was instructed by the Spanish Viceroy to sail north up the west coast of America to seek out the entrance to the fabled Strait of Anian, a passage long rumored to link the Pacific with a Northwest Passage across the top of North America to the Atlantic Ocean. According to Fuca, his vessel reached 47 degrees north latitude where he entered just such a strait, following it for "more then twentie dayes" before entering a large inland sea, the shores of which were "very fruitfull, and rich of gold, Silver, Pearle, and other things..."
True or not, Fuca's story proved to be remarkably durable. For more than 150 years, his "discoveries" were included on maps of America. Nor was Fuca's the only northwest passage said to originate on what is now the coast of British Columbia. In 17o8 a London magazine published a letter by Bartolomew de Fonte, "Admiral of New Spain and Prince of Chile", describing a voyage de Fonte claimed to have made in 1640 to the vicinity of the Queen Charlotte Islands where he found and penetrated a waterway leading eastward into the interior of America. Not only that, de Fonte claimed to have met a ship from Boston coming in the opposite direction, thereby proving the existence of the Northwest Passage. The de Fonte letter is now considered to have been a hoax, but for many decades it provided one more piece of evidence pointing to the existence of a northern passage.
For all the interest generated by these voyages, both real and surreal, the northwest coast remained a terra incognita for Europeans. Since 1513, Spain had claimed sovereignty over the entire Pacific basin and was reluctant to have the area explored for fear that any discovery of a northwest passage would do more to harm than benefit its national interest. The Spanish were quite content to encourage ignorance of their domain.
As well, explorers who did venture into the Pacific faced a long list of practical problems. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the northwest coast was, quite literally, at the ends of the earth; 28,000 kilometres from Europe via Cape Horn. It took two to three years to complete a Pacific voyage, much longer if an expedition was interested more in piracy than exploration, and most were. It was all but impossible to keep a crew healthy for such a long period. Effective antiscorbutics did not come into use until the mid-eighteenth century. Before that time, scurvy was a certain passenger on long voyages. As was the dreaded shipworm, or teredo, a species of clam which bored into the hull of a wooden sailing ship making it as porous as Swiss cheese. It was not unusual for a vessel in the Pacific to have its bottom simply fall out. European mariners began coating their hulls with a mixture of tar and animal hair to discourage these voracious "worms", but again it was the mid-eighteenth century before vessels began using the more effective technique of copper sheathing.
Add to these dangers the ignorance of prevailing winds and currents and the lack of reliable charts, and why would a European mariner bother to set sail for the Northwest Coast? Between Francis Drake's landfall somewhere on the coast in 1579 and Vitus Bering's arrival at the Aleutian Islands in 1741, the entire littoral of North America from California to Alaska remained unvisited by any European.
It was the ambition of the Russians that at last brought this long isolation to an end. Following Bering's expedition, Russian traders began to visit the Aleutian Islands to collect valuable sea otter pelts from Aleut hunters. As news of their activities spread, the Spanish in Mexico began to worry that the Russians had territorial ambitions on the north coast. With all the arrogance of an imperial power, and despite the fact that they had never visited the region and had no idea what was there, the Spanish considered themselves to have the only legitimate claim. (Richard Hakluyt had Spanish pretensions in mind but he might have been describing every other imperial nation as well when he observed: "For the conquering of fortie or fiftie miles here and there and erecting of certaine fortresses, [they] think to be Lordes of halfe the world.")
In 1768, the Spanish established a naval station at San Blas, a pestilence-ridden swamp at the mouth of a river on the west coast of Mexico. Next, they sent expeditions to San Francisco Bay and Monterey as the first stage of a plan to colonize Alta California, and prepared to investigate what the Russians were up to on the north coast.
Next time: The Spanish are coming!