Distant Dominion: Britain and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1579-1809

By Barry M. Gough | Go to book overview
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1
Tyranny of Distance

Through or over the deathless feud
of the cobra sea and the mongoose
wind you must fare to reach us.
Through hiss and throttle come,
by a limbo of motion humbled,
under cliffs of cloud
and over the shark's blue home.
Across the undulations of this slate
long pain and sweating courage chalked
such names as glimmer yet.

EARLE BIRNEY, PACIFIC DOOR

From Tudor times until late in the nineteenth century, the Northwest Coast of North America was for the British the ocean's farthest shore. Though girdled by mountains and approachable only by sea via Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, that remote shore was of compelling interest to explorers, merchant traders, scientists, and governments. Its resources and lands spawned an international rivalry dating from the sixteenth century that had important consequences in establishing political boundaries on the Pacific coast of North America and in changing the lives of native inhabitants—Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos.

The Northwest Coast was a dominion, a future sphere of empire, whose distance at once shaped its development and kept it secret from the wider world until the late eighteenth century. Fifteen hundred years before this the Chinese had known of "Fousang." They called it the country of the extreme east. 1 But they chose not to pursue their discoveries across the Pacific and instead contented themselves with an active maritime commerce in their own immediate seas.

Even if the Chinese had possessed the deep-water capability to cross the Pacific, they might not have had the will to establish long-lasting contact with the Northwest Coast. A few trans-Pacific voyages would be insufficient in themselves to establish permanent trade and, in turn, sovereignty on the ocean's opposite shore. However, by the late eighteenth century, European maritime technology was sufficiently developed to enable traders and rulers to undertake expeditions to trade half a world away or to explore any of the ocean's far frontiers.

Yet the sheer size of the Pacific, one-third of the world's surface, was often enough to deter regular commerce. At 165,000,000 square kilometres the Pacific

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