Dealing with the Dons
Superiority in naval power will henceforth consist in keeping up a proper naval establishment in discipline. The first naval nation to fall will be the one that is first caught napping. So that instead of resting upon our former naval renown it will be much more to the purpose to watch vigilantly that the renown is not made to suffer from the neglect of Governments to train fleets.
SIR CHARLES NAPIER, QUOTED IN
ADMIRAL SIR HERBERT RICHMOND,
STATESMEN AND SEA POWER
The immediate cause of the dispute between Britain and Spain for the distant dominion of the Northwest Coast was the thorny question of freedom of the seas. Spain, reactionary and defensive, wanted to exclude rivals. Britain, industrial and expansive, championed the rights of all nations to trade on the high seas. Nootka Sound saw these two principles in conflict. The same place subsequently witnessed the tide of the Spanish empire fall and that of the British empire rise. Ships of each empire, plying the distant seas of the Pacific, reflected the ambitions of their homelands. On the Northwest Coast, British merchant ships such as the Iphigenia Nubiana, commanded by William Douglas, posed no match for the armed might of Spanish naval vessels such as the corvette Princesa. By virtue of this local naval predominance Spain could exercise control at Friendly Cove. So far no British sloops-of-war loomed on the distant horizon of what still remained a backwater to English commerce.
Nonetheless, the merchant ships engaged in the maritime fur trade of the Northwest Coast in the five years beginning in 1785 were mainly English. Not counting Russian ships in Alaskan waters, of the thirty-three voyages of traders to the coast in this interval twenty-six were made by Englishmen; only seven were American. 1 When this profitable branch of seaborne trade became threatened by Spain in a manner they regarded as high-handed, the British government exercised its naval preponderance to force the Spanish to accept British commercial expansion in the Pacific. In the Nootka Sound crisis the British played a skilful game of diplomatic chess. Their sizeable fleet enabled them to make their moves from strength. No matter how exaggerated the claims of the intemperate trader John Meares, the cabinet of William Pitt the Younger believed that British merchants ought to be able to trade unmolested in what Spain regarded as her exclusive sphere of influence. In fact, these British statesmen intended to have their