The Fortune Seekers
Commerce is universally known to be the chief source of the prosperity, and also the power, of the British empire.
ANNALS OF COMMERCE ( 1805)
Cook's third and final voyage had hinted to the wider world the great commercial prospects for a maritime fur trade between the Northwest Coast and China. The Russians, of course, had been secretly involved in a similar trade since 1740, but the Russo-Chinese Treaty of 1648 restricted their access to Canton; the Muscovites were obliged to trade only on the Chinese-Siberian border. 1 They thus had to content themselves with a cross-border traffic of marginal value. The Spanish, too, knew of the sea otter but satisfied themselves with the bountiful trade in the immediate Alta California area, not needing to venture much farther northward than the Farallone Islands near San Francisco Bay to hunt seal and sea otter. They took no steps to exploit the China market directly because it was the understood preserve of the Portuguese, and Spanish ships were nominally barred by the Portuguese from returning to Europe via the Indian Ocean. Until the late 1780's the Spanish kept to a coasting trade on their Pacific seaboard of the Americas, never stretching across the vast ocean separating America from Asia except on the Manila galleon that yearly took treasure and other western commodities on the long and hazardous track from Acapulco to Manila and the Moluccas and then returned with oriental produce for Spanish America. Finally, in 1786, Spain exported to China the first sea otter cargo from California under the auspices of a Spanish version of the East India Company, the Royal Philippine Company, chartered the year before as a state monopoly. 2
Neither Russia nor Spain had explored the Pacific and its littoral in any systematic way. Their discoveries had been occasioned by trading ventures or by accident. No judicious plan had been adopted by either nation to examine the ocean's shores except where their traders or mariners might go. Russian sea routes from Kamchatka to Unalaska were used by the seaborne promyshlenniks alone, and the dangers of Pacific navigation in these northern latitudes were not published in a reliable chart or sailing directions before Cook's time. Similarly, coasting voyages and the trans-Pacific galleon route appeared in no well-documented or accurate report. In fact, any announced discoveries caused debates