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

By Barry M. Gough | Go to book overview
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Beachhead of Empire

We made these chiefs sensible in how many moons we should return to them; and that we should then be accompanied by others of our countrymen, and build more houses, and endeavour to introduce our manners and mode of living to the practice of our Nootka friends. This information seemed to delight them beyond measure; and they not only promised us great plenty of furs on our return, but Maquilla thought proper, on the instant, to do obedience to us as his lords and sovereigns.


The first maritime fur traders on the Northwest Coast recognized the need for store establishments to enable them to pursue their business activities. Ships on distant voyaging needed places for repair; crews needed places for rest and refreshment; traders needed secure, fortified stations where commodities could be stored and traffic conducted with the natives. In short, such places, "factories" as they were commonly called in the eighteenth century, seemed essential to a profitable commerce on the Northwest Coast.

On the coast's far northern and southern extremities, the Russians at Unalaska and the Spanish at Monterey already had their respective bases of operation. Unalaska served the Russian coasting trade as far east as Prince William Sound; Monterey succoured the Spanish sea otter trade at the Farallones and other islands off the California coast. Between these Russian and Spanish areas of activity was a lengthy shoreline still unoccupied by European nations or the United States in the spring of 1788. Nootka Sound, lying midway between Russian and Spanish possessions, offered a tempting prize to the first nation that could gain control of it not only for use as a fur trading station but, more important in the long run, as a beachhead of empire.

Though his predecessors and rivals planned to build at Nootka Sound, John Meares was actually the first to plant an establishment there, and since his claims to having done so assumed major importance during subsequent Anglo-Spanish antagonisms, it is necessary to examine his shore activities in some detail. On 13 May 1788, Meares's two ships, Felice Adventurer and Iphigenia Nubiana, cast anchor off Yuquot, Friendly Cove, after a passage of three months and twenty‐ three days out of Macao. Both ships carried carpenters and smiths, almost all of whom were Chinese and who were intended to become settlers. "They have been generally esteemed a hardy, and industrious, as well as ingenious race of people," Meares wrote of the Chinese, "they live on fish and rice, and, requiring but low wages, it was a matter also of economical consideration to employthem; and during the whole of the voyage there was every reason to be satisfiedwith their services."

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


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