Conflicts of Ambition
The knowledge with which the foreign navigators are endowed and the superior quality of their ships at sea are two of the principal factors which make it impossible for me to affirm the solidity of the successes that one might have expected of the Russian fur-hunters .... there remains to us for a long time to come only the course of prudence and patience.
REPORT TO EMPRESS CATHERINE FROM THE
GOVERNOR GENERAL OF IRKUTSK, 13 FEBRUARY 1790
Britain had three rivals for the Northwest Coast— Russia, the United States, and Spain. Yet only Spain provided armed opposition to British designs. Spain's attempt to check British aggrandizement at Nootka Sound was only one act in a long series of such episodes between the two countries after the Seven Years' War ended in 1763. The Falkland Islands, Tahiti, and Nootka Sound are separated from each other by thousands of kilometres. Nevertheless, they formed focal points of Anglo-Spanish rivalry and integral parts of the contest for trade and dominion in the Pacific.
Spain claimed these and other realms within the Pacific as part of her imperial preserve. However, she was already overextended in Louisiana, Mexico, Central and South America, the Philippines, and west Africa. Given the resources at her disposal, Spain could not maintain her empire everywhere. The Northwest Coast lay on the fringe of her American dominions. She could not hope to check her rivals' ambitions here unless she had adequate naval and financial strength to meet any emergency that might threaten her interests in distant seas or, failing that, unless she had support from her ancient ally, France.
Spain's claims for the Pacific were unchallenged as long as Britain's interest in the southern ocean remained largely sporadic, as indeed it was before 1763. The long succession of English incursions into Spain's claimed oceanic preserve, including the voyages of Drake, Cavendish, Anson, and Byron, were fragile penetrations by armed enemy ships. Bold as they were, they hardly represented a grand design for English commercial and colonial hegemony in the southern ocean. In fact, they were little threat to Spanish claims.
After the Seven Years' War, the greatest chance for imperial aggrandizement lay with the paramount nation at sea. For the British, whose preponderant authority was now established, the way lay open to renew the old and largely unsatisfied Tudor ambitions. The nation had an expanding industrial base that needed