Nootka Crisis also known as the Spanish Armamment was an
international incident and political dispute between the Spanish
Empire and the Kingdom of Great Britain, triggered by a series of
events that took place during the summer of 1789 at
Nootka Sound in
present-day British Columbia, Canada. Spain seized some British
commercial ships engaged in the fur trade at an uncolonized coastline
area to which Spain claimed ownership. Britain rejected the Spanish
claims and used its greatly superior naval power to threaten a war and
win the dispute. Spain, a rapidly fading military power, was unable to
depend upon its longtime ally, France, which was in the throes of the
Nootka Sound is a network of inlets on the west coast of Vancouver
Island, today part of Canada's British Columbia. The crisis revolved
around sovereignty claims and rights of navigation and trade. Between
1774 and 1789, Spain sent several expeditions to the Pacific Northwest
to reassert its long-held navigation and territorial claims to the
area. By 1776, these expeditions had reached as far north as Bucareli
Bay and Sitka Sound. Territorial rights were asserted according to
acts of sovereignty - customary of the time.
However, some years later, several British fur-trading vessels entered
the area to which Spain had laid claim. A complex series of events led
to these British vessels being seized by the
Spanish Navy at Nootka
Sound. When the news reached Europe, Britain requested compensation,
and the Spanish government refused. Both sides prepared for war and
sought assistance from allies. The crisis was resolved peacefully but
with difficulty through a set of three agreements, known collectively
as the Nootka Conventions (1790–1795). British subjects were then
enabled to trade up to ten leagues from parts of the coast already
occupied by Spain and could form trade-related settlements in
unoccupied areas. Spain surrendered to Britain many of its trade and
territorial claims in the Pacific, ending a two hundred-year monopoly
on Asian-Pacific trade. The outcome was a victory for mercantile
interests of Britain and opened the way to British expansion in
the Pacific. Spain no longer played a role north of California
and transferred its historic claims to the
United States in the
Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819.
3 Nootka Incident
4 Diplomatic responses
5 Nootka Conventions
7 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
The events at Nootka Sound, apart from the larger international
crisis, are sometimes called the Nootka Incident, the Nootka Sound
Incident, and similar terms. The larger
Nootka Crisis is known
variously by names such as the
Nootka Sound Crisis, the Nootka Sound
Controversy, the Great Spanish Armament, and other variations.
Northwestern North America (the Pacific Northwest) was little explored
by European ships before the mid-18th century. But by the end of the
century several nations were vying for control of the region,
including Britain, Spain, Russia, and the United States.
For centuries Spain had claimed the entire Pacific coast of North and
South America. This claim was based on a number of events. In 1493
Pope Alexander VI had issued the
Inter caetera papal bull, dividing
the western hemisphere into Spanish and Portuguese zones, based on the
discovery of the Americas in 1492, in theory granting nearly the
New World to Spain. This was further defined in the 1494 Treaty
of Tordesillas. More importantly, in 1513 Spanish explorer Balboa
Isthmus of Panama
Isthmus of Panama and became the first European to sight
Pacific Ocean from the Americas, formally laying claim to all the
shores washed by the Pacific Ocean. As the years went by new criteria
for determining sovereignty evolved in European international law,
including "prior discovery" and "effective occupation". Spain made
claims of prior discovery for the northwest coast of North America
through voyages of Cabrillo in 1542, Ferrer in 1543, and Vizcaino in
1602–03. Before the early 17th century, these voyages had not
reached north of the 44th parallel, and Spain had no "effective
settlement" north of Mexico. Thus when, in the mid-18th century, the
Russians began to explore
Alaska and establish fur trading posts,
Spain responded by building a new naval base at San Blas, Mexico, and
using it for sending a series of exploration and reconnaissance
voyages to the far northwest. These voyages, intended to ascertain the
Russian threat and to establish "prior discovery" claims, were
supplemented by the "effective settlement" of Alta California.
Starting in 1774, Spanish expeditions were sent to northern
Alaska to reassert Spain's claims and navigation rights in the area.
By 1775 Spanish exploration had reached
Bucareli Bay including the
mouth of the
Columbia River between present-day
Oregon and Washington,
and Sitka Sound.
James Cook of the British
Royal Navy explored the Pacific Northwest
coast, including Nootka Sound, in 1778. His journals were published in
1784 and aroused great interest in the fur trading potential of the
region. Even before 1784 unauthorized accounts had already
familiarized British merchants with the possible profits to be made.
The first British trader to arrive on the northwest coast after Cook
was James Hanna, in 1785. News of the large profit Hanna made selling
northwest furs in
China inspired many other British ventures.
Cook's visit to
Nootka Sound would later be used by the British in
their claim to the region, even though Cook made no effort to formally
claim possession. Spain countered by citing Juan Pérez, who anchored
Nootka Sound in 1774.
By the late 1780s
Nootka Sound was the most important anchorage on the
northwestern coast. Russia, Britain, and Spain all made moves to
occupy it for good.
John Meares was one of the movers behind the early British fur trading
effort in the Pacific Northwest. After an ill-fated voyage to Alaska
in 1786–87, Meares returned to the northwest in 1788. He arrived at
Nootka Sound in command of the Felice Adventurero, along with the
Iphigenia Nubiana under William Douglas. The ships were registered in
Macau, a Portuguese colony in China, and used Portuguese flags in
order to evade the British East India Company monopoly on trading in
the Pacific. Non-British ships were not required to have licences from
the East India Company.
Meares later claimed that Maquinna, a chief of the Nuu-chah-nulth
(Nootka) people, sold him some land on the shore of Friendly Cove in
Nootka Sound, in exchange for some pistols and trade goods, and that
on this land some kind of building was erected. These claims would
become a key point in Britain's position during the Nootka Crisis.
Spain strongly disputed both claims, and the true facts of the matter
have never been fully established. The land and building aside,
there is no doubt that Meares's men, and a group of Chinese workers
they brought, built the sloop North West America. It was launched in
September 1788, the first non-indigenous vessel built in the Pacific
Northwest. The North West America would also play a role in the Nootka
Crisis, being one of the vessels seized by Spain.
At the end of the summer Meares and the three ships left.
During the winter of 1788–89 Meares was in
China, where he and others including
John Henry Cox and Daniel Beale
formed a partnership called the Associated Merchants Trading to the
Northwest Coast of America. Plans were made for more ships to sail
Pacific Northwest in 1789, including the Princess Royal, under
Thomas Hudson, and the Argonaut under James Colnett. The
consolidation of the fur trading companies of Meares and the Etches
(King George's Sound Company) resulted in
James Colnett being given
the overall command. Colnett's orders in 1789 were to establish a
permanent fur trading post at
Nootka Sound based on the foothold
accomplished by Meares.
While the British fur traders were getting organized, the Spanish were
continuing their effort to secure the Pacific Northwest. At first the
Spanish were responding mainly to Russian activity in Alaska. On a
1788 voyage to Alaska, Esteban José Martínez had learned that the
Russians were intending to establish a fortified outpost at Nootka
Sound. This, in addition to the increasing use of
Nootka Sound by
British fur traders, resulted in the Spanish decision to assert
sovereignty on the northwest coast once and for all. Plans were laid
Nootka Sound to be colonized. Spain hoped to establish and
maintain sovereignty on the entire coast as far north as the Russia
posts in Prince William Sound.
The Viceroy of New Spain, Manuel Antonio Flores, instructed Martínez
to occupy Nootka Sound, build a settlement and fort, and to make it
clear that Spain was setting up a formal establishment.
In early 1789 the Spanish expedition under Martínez arrived at Nootka
Sound. The force consisted of the warship Princesa, commanded by
Martínez, and the supply ship San Carlos, under Gonzalo López de
Haro. The expedition built British Columbia's first settlement
Santa Cruz de Nuca
Santa Cruz de Nuca on Nootka Sound, including houses, a hospital, and
Fort San Miguel.
Seizure of Capt. Colnett
Martínez arrived at
Nootka Sound on May 5, 1789. He found three ships
already there. Two were American, the
Columbia Rediviva and the Lady
Washington, which had wintered at Nootka Sound. The British ship was
the Iphigenia. It was seized and its captain, William Douglas,
arrested. After a few days Martínez released Douglas and his ship and
ordered him to leave and not return. Douglas heeded the warning.
On June 8, the North West America, under Robert Funter, arrived at
Nootka Sound and was seized by Martínez. The sloop was renamed Santa
Gertrudis la Magna and used for exploring the region. José María
Narváez was given command and sailed far into the Strait of Juan de
Fuca. Martínez later claimed that Funter had abandoned the
vessel. Martínez had given supplies to the Iphigenia and claimed
his seizure of the North West America was for the purpose of holding
the vessel as a security for the money owed by Meares's company for
On June 24, in front of the British and Americans present at Nootka
Sound, Martínez performed a formal act of sovereignty, taking
possession of the entire northwest coast for Spain.
On July 2, the British ships Princess Royal and Argonaut arrived. The
Princess Royal was first, and Martínez ordered its captain, Thomas
Hudson to abandon the area and return to China, based on Spain's
territorial and navigation rights. Later in the day the Argonaut
arrived and Martínez seized the ship and arrested Colnett, his crew,
and the Chinese workers Colnett had brought. In addition to the
Chinese workers, the Argonaut carried a considerable amount of
equipment. Colnett said that he was intending to build a settlement at
Nootka Sound, which was considered a violation of Spanish sovereignty.
After a hot-tempered argument Martínez arrested Colnett.
Later, Martínez used the Chinese workforce to build Fort San Miguel
and otherwise improve the Spanish post. The Argonaut also carried
materials for the construction of a new ship. After Narváez returned
in the Santa Gertrudis la Magna (the seized and renamed North West
America), the materials from the Argonaut were used to improve the
vessel. By the end of 1789 the Santa Gertrudis la Magna was in San
Blas, where it was dismantled. The pieces were taken back to Nootka
Sound in 1790 by
Francisco de Eliza
Francisco de Eliza and used to build a schooner,
christened Santa Saturnina. This vessel, the third incarnation of the
North West America, was used by Narváez during his 1791 exploration
of the Strait of Georgia.
On July 12, Hudson returned to
Nootka Sound with the Princess Royal.
He did not intend to enter, but was becalmed. This was seen as a
provocation and he was seized by the Spanish.
The Nuu-chah-nulth, indigenous to Nootka Sound, observed but did not
understand the disputes between the Spanish and British. On July 13,
one of the Nuu-chah-nulth leaders, Callicum, the son of Maquinna, went
to meet with Martínez, who was on board the newly captured Princess
Royal. Callicum's attitude and angry calls alarmed the Spanish and
somehow Callicum ended up shot dead. Sources differ over exactly how
this happened. Some say that Martínez fired a warning shot and a
nearby Spanish sailor, thinking Martínez meant to kill and missed,
fired as well and killed Callicum. Another source says that
Martínez aimed to hit Callicum but his musket misfired and another
sailor fired his musket and killed Callicum. Sources also differ over
what Callicum was angry about, whether it was the seizing of ships, or
something else. In any case the event caused a rift between the
Spanish and the Nuu-chah-nulth. Maquinna, in fear of his life, fled to
Clayoquot Sound and moved with his people from Yuquot to Aoxsha.
On July 14 the Argonaut set sail for San Blas, with a Spanish crew and
Colnett and his crew as prisoners. Two weeks later the Princess Royal
followed, with the San Carlos as an escort.
The American ships
Columbia Rediviva and Lady Washington, also fur
trading, were in the area all summer, sometimes anchored in Friendly
Cove. Martínez left them alone even though his instructions were to
prevent ships of any nation from trading at Nootka Sound. The
captured crew of the North West America was sent to the Columbia
before the Americans set sail for China.
Despite the ongoing conflict and the warnings, two other American
ships arrived at
Nootka Sound late in the season. As a result, the
first of these ships, the Fair American, under Thomas Humphrey
Metcalfe, was captured by the forces of Martínez upon arrival. Its
sister ship, the Eleanora, under Humphrey's father, Simon Metcalfe,
was nearly captured but escaped.
On July 29, 1789:295 the Spanish supply ship Aranzazu arrived from
San Blas with orders from Viceroy Flores to evacuate
Nootka Sound by
the end of the year. By the end of October the Spanish had
completely abandoned Nootka Sound. They returned to San Blas with the
Princess Royal and the Argonaut, with their captains and crews as
prisoners, as well as the Fair American. The captured North West
America, renamed Santa Gertrudis la Magna, returned to San Blas
separately. The Fair American was released in early 1790 without much
notice. The Nootka Incident did not spark a crisis in the relationship
United States and Spain.
By late 1789 Viceroy Flores had already been replaced with a new
viceroy, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd
Count of Revillagigedo, who was determined to continue defending the
Spanish rights to the area, including settling
Nootka Sound and the
Pacific Northwest coast in general. Martínez, who had enjoyed the
favor of Flores, became a scapegoat under the new regime. The senior
commander of the Spanish naval base at San Blas, Juan Francisco de la
Bodega y Quadra, replaced Martínez as the primary Spaniard in charge
Nootka Sound and the northwest coast. A new expedition was
organized and in early 1790
Nootka Sound was reoccupied by the
Spanish, under the command of Francisco de Eliza. The fleet sent to
Nootka Sound in 1790 was the largest Spanish force yet sent to the
News about the events at
Nootka Sound reached London in January
1790. The main statesmen involved in the impending crisis were
William Pitt the Younger, the British Prime Minister, and José
Moñino y Redondo, conde de Floridablanca, the chief minister of
Pitt made the claim that the British had the right to trade in any
Spanish territory desired, despite Spanish laws to the contrary. He
knew this claim was indefensible and would likely lead to war, but
felt driven to make it by "the public outcry" in Britain. The ultimate
outcome of the Nootka Crisis, publicized as a diplomatic victory in
Britain, increased the prestige and popularity of Pitt.
In April 1790
John Meares arrived in England, confirmed various
rumors, claimed to have bought land and built a settlement at Nootka
before Martínez, and generally fanned the flames of anti-Spanish
feelings. In May the issue was taken up in the House of Commons as the
Royal Navy began to make preparations for hostilities. An
ultimatum was delivered to Spain.
Meares published an account of his Voyages in 1790, which gained
widespread attention, especially in light of the developing Nootka
Crisis. Meares not only described his voyages to the northwest coast,
but put forward a grand vision of a new economic network based in the
Pacific, joining in trade widely separated regions such as the Pacific
Northwest, China, Japan, Hawaii, and England. This idea tried to
imitate Spain's centuries-old Pacific and Atlantic trade networks of
Manila Galleons and Atlantic treasure fleets which linked Asia and
Philippines with North America and Spain since the 16th century.
Meares' vision required a loosening of the monopolistic power of the
East India Company and the South Sea Company, which between them
controlled all British trade in the Pacific. Meares argued strongly
for loosening their power. His vision eventually came to pass, in its
general form, but not before the long struggle of the Napoleonic Wars
Both Britain and Spain sent powerful fleets of warships towards each
other in a show of force. There was a chance of open warfare had the
fleets encountered one another, but they did not.
The role of France in the conflict was key. France and Spain were
allies under the Family Compact between the ruling Bourbon houses. The
combined French and Spanish fleets would be a serious threat to the
Royal Navy of Britain. The
French Revolution had broken out in July
1789 but had not reached truly serious levels by the summer of 1790.
King Louis XVI was still the monarch and the French military was
relatively intact. In response to the
Nootka Crisis France mobilized
its navy. But by the end of August the French government had decided
it could not become involved. The National Assembly, growing in power,
declared that France would not go to war. Spain's position was
threatened and negotiations to avoid war began.
Dutch Republic provided naval support to the British during the
Nootka Crisis, a result of a shift in Dutch alliance from France to
Britain. This was the first test of the Triple Alliance of Britain,
Prussia, and the Dutch Republic.
Without French help, Spain decided to negotiate in order to avoid war,
and the first
Nootka Convention was signed on October 28, 1790.
Main article: Nootka Convention
The first Nootka Convention, called the
Nootka Sound Convention,
resolved the crisis in general. The convention held that the northwest
coast would be open to traders of both Britain and Spain, that the
captured British ships would be returned and an indemnity paid. It
also held that the land owned by the British at
Nootka Sound would be
restored, which proved difficult to carry out. The Spanish claimed
that the only such land was the small parcel where Meares had built
the North West America. The British held that Meares had in fact
purchased the whole of
Nootka Sound from Maquinna, as well as some
land to the south. Until the details were worked out, which took
several years, Spain retained control of
Nootka Sound and continued to
garrison the fort at Friendly Cove. Complicating the issue was the
changing role of the Nuu-chah-nulth in relation to Britain and Spain.
The Nuu-chah-nulth had become highly suspicious and hostile toward
Spain following the 1789 killing of Callicum. But the Spanish worked
hard to improve the relationship, and by the time of Nootka
Conventions were to be carried out the Nuu-chah-nulth were essentially
allied with the Spanish. This development came about in a large degree
due to the efforts by
Alessandro Malaspina and his officers during his
month-long stay at
Nootka Sound in 1791. Malaspina was able to regain
the trust of
Maquinna and the promise that the Spanish had the
rightful title of land ownership at Nootka Sound.
Negotiations between Britain and Spain over the details of the Nootka
Convention were to take place at
Nootka Sound in the summer of 1792,
for which purpose
Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra
Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra came. The
British negotiator was George Vancouver, who arrived on August 28,
Although Vancouver and Bodega y Quadra were friendly with one another,
their negotiations did not go smoothly. Spain desired to set the
Spanish-British boundary at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but Vancouver
insisted on British rights to the Columbia River. Vancouver also
objected to the new Spanish post at Neah Bay. Bodega y Quadra insisted
on Spain retaining Nootka Sound, which Vancouver could not accept. In
the end the two agreed to refer the matter to their respective
By 1793 Britain and Spain had become allies in a war against France.
The issues of the
Nootka Crisis had become less important. An
agreement was signed on January 11, 1794, under which both nations
agreed to abandon Nootka Sound, with a ceremonial transfer of the post
at Friendly Cove to the British.
The official transfer occurred on March 28, 1795. General Álava
represented Spain and Lieutenant Thomas Pearce Britain. The British
flag was ceremoniously raised and lowered. Afterwards, Pearce
presented the flag to
Maquinna and asked him to raise it whenever a
Under the Nootka Convention, Britain and Spain agreed not to establish
any permanent base at Nootka Sound, but ships from either nation could
visit. The two nations also agreed to prevent any other nation from
The Nootka Conventions are sometimes described as a commitment by
Spain to withdraw from the northwest coast, but there was no such
The Nootka Conventions undermined the notion that a country could
claim exclusive sovereignty without establishing settlements. It was
not enough to claim territory by a grant of the Pope, or by "right of
first discovery". Claims had to be backed up with some kind of actual
The British did not win all of the points they had sought. British
merchants were still restricted from trading directly with Spanish
America and no northern boundary of Spanish America was set.
Nevertheless, for Pitt the concession was an enormous victory for it
was interpreted that Spain had no rights by occupation North of San
Francisco. That region was then opened up to British trade, and in
the aftermath of the Crisis she became the dominant power in the
Spanish rights in the
Pacific Northwest were later acquired by the
United States via the Adams-Onís Treaty, signed in 1819. The United
States argued that it acquired exclusive sovereignty from Spain, which
became a key part of the American position during the
dispute. In countering the US claim of exclusive sovereignty the
British cited the Nootka Conventions. This dispute was not resolved
until the signing of the
Oregon Treaty in 1846, dividing the disputed
territory, and establishing what later became the current
international boundary between
Canada and the United States.
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