Explorers from Britain, Spain, France, Russia, and eastern North America came by ocean and river to the Pacific Northwest. During the 18th century, their interests in the fur trade, a Northwest Passage, and charting and claiming land involved calculated political moves that linked the governments of Europe with what they knew as the “New World.”

Royal families who reigned in Europe faced their own subjects as an emerging political force. Humanist philosophy spread from intellectuals to the masses, bringing about ideas of self-governance that would result in the election of leaders to take the place of overthrown monarchs. The new Enlightenment philosophy, during what some have labelled Europe’s “Age of Reason”, linked the world with scientific and cultural inquiry and an open pursuit of trade. An expedition could sail all the way around the planet and meet with practices, religions, languages, and saleable goods that were different in every harbour. Men such as the Spanish Captain Malaspina considered themselves thinkers and philosophers who could appreciate and learn from new encounters and experiences.

The philosophical messa Read More
Explorers from Britain, Spain, France, Russia, and eastern North America came by ocean and river to the Pacific Northwest. During the 18th century, their interests in the fur trade, a Northwest Passage, and charting and claiming land involved calculated political moves that linked the governments of Europe with what they knew as the “New World.”

Royal families who reigned in Europe faced their own subjects as an emerging political force. Humanist philosophy spread from intellectuals to the masses, bringing about ideas of self-governance that would result in the election of leaders to take the place of overthrown monarchs. The new Enlightenment philosophy, during what some have labelled Europe’s “Age of Reason”, linked the world with scientific and cultural inquiry and an open pursuit of trade. An expedition could sail all the way around the planet and meet with practices, religions, languages, and saleable goods that were different in every harbour. Men such as the Spanish Captain Malaspina considered themselves thinkers and philosophers who could appreciate and learn from new encounters and experiences.

The philosophical message of the “rights of man” (there was little place for women in these ventures) did not remove conflict from the world. As expeditions of exploration sought territory, European wars between Spain, France, and Britain extended all the way to the Pacific. The Spanish set up a fortified outpost in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island. They seized British vessels sailing nearby waters and sent them down to the Spanish naval base of San Blas, sparking the Nootka Crisis. This international dispute in the Pacific Northwest brought Spanish and English land claims to a climax, leaving much of the region under British control and setting the future path for trade, language, and government along the north Pacific coast.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Spain and Portugal led the ocean-going European explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Portuguese ships travelled to the southern Atlantic and the African coast while Columbus headed west in Spanish ships in 1492 to find a path to the trade centres of Asia. The Spanish and Portuguese looked to the Pope, head of the Roman Catholic Church, to legitimate their claims as they expanded their reach. In 1481, a Papal Bull, a special charter, granted the Canary Islands to the Castilians of Spain and rights to Africa for the Portuguese.

When it was revealed that lands lay across the Atlantic (Europeans would soon realize these were the expansive continents of North and South America), disputes arose as to who had rights to these territories. The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 split the “New World” between Spain and Portugal. Although very little of the new lands had been seen, lines were slashed across the globe, giving most of North and South America to Spain and the easternmost area of what is now Brazil to Portugal. The Treaty was sanctioned by a Papal decree, but future bulls moved this meridian back and forth, giving Spain control in Asia and allowing Portugue Read More
Spain and Portugal led the ocean-going European explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Portuguese ships travelled to the southern Atlantic and the African coast while Columbus headed west in Spanish ships in 1492 to find a path to the trade centres of Asia. The Spanish and Portuguese looked to the Pope, head of the Roman Catholic Church, to legitimate their claims as they expanded their reach. In 1481, a Papal Bull, a special charter, granted the Canary Islands to the Castilians of Spain and rights to Africa for the Portuguese.

When it was revealed that lands lay across the Atlantic (Europeans would soon realize these were the expansive continents of North and South America), disputes arose as to who had rights to these territories. The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 split the “New World” between Spain and Portugal. Although very little of the new lands had been seen, lines were slashed across the globe, giving most of North and South America to Spain and the easternmost area of what is now Brazil to Portugal. The Treaty was sanctioned by a Papal decree, but future bulls moved this meridian back and forth, giving Spain control in Asia and allowing Portuguese expansion in Brazil. The French and the British were restricted from those areas under Papal authority, but they soon disregarded the bulls. Those nations not under the Treaty launched the search for a Northwest Passage, or engaged in piracy, conflict, and trade monopolies in other areas.

The impact of the Treaty of Tordesillas on the Pacific Northwest came centuries later. The Spanish had settlements in Mexico and California, but had not expanded north into the colder regions of the northern Pacific. By the 18th century, the Portuguese were no longer leaders in exploration, but the Russians, British, and French were sending expeditions that threatened what the Spanish still believed to be their rightful territory, granted by the Pope. Spain finally sent vessels to the Pacific Northwest, to areas they had all but ignored for more than 275 years.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Although the Spanish settled other regions of North and South America during the 16th century, they paid little attention to the lands north of the Baja Peninsula. A Spanish expedition in 1542 under Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made its northernmost landings at Santa Barbara, California, but difficult currents and winds along with colder temperatures discouraged future Spanish interests in the Pacific Northwest. Lands from California south were considered part of the Spanish claims, ruled from Mexico City and ultimately by the government in Madrid, Spain. The Spanish assumed possession of territory further north on the Pacific coast under Papal decree, but they did not launch expeditions to explore, chart, or formally claim these lands until the 18th century.

New Spain existed in several different forms between 1525 and 1821. At its height, New Spain included the southwestern region of what are now the United States, Mexico, northern Central America, and the Philippines. A military approach to governing included naval bases, such as San Blas, founded in 1768 on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The leader appointed by the Spanish king was known as the viceroy and made decisio Read More
Although the Spanish settled other regions of North and South America during the 16th century, they paid little attention to the lands north of the Baja Peninsula. A Spanish expedition in 1542 under Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made its northernmost landings at Santa Barbara, California, but difficult currents and winds along with colder temperatures discouraged future Spanish interests in the Pacific Northwest. Lands from California south were considered part of the Spanish claims, ruled from Mexico City and ultimately by the government in Madrid, Spain. The Spanish assumed possession of territory further north on the Pacific coast under Papal decree, but they did not launch expeditions to explore, chart, or formally claim these lands until the 18th century.

New Spain existed in several different forms between 1525 and 1821. At its height, New Spain included the southwestern region of what are now the United States, Mexico, northern Central America, and the Philippines. A military approach to governing included naval bases, such as San Blas, founded in 1768 on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The leader appointed by the Spanish king was known as the viceroy and made decisions for the territory. This vast viceroyalty launched Christian missionary activities, which were intended to convert the indigenous peoples.

Spain was not concerned with state-sponsored military or private economic ventures in the Pacific Northwest until rumours of Russian expansion from Kamchatka in the 1760s began to circulate. King Carlos III confirmed these reports with his minister in St. Petersburg in 1773, and a new era of interest in the northern Pacific began. For two decades, the Spanish charted and even established a fort in the Pacific Northwest, but agreements with the British in the latter 18th century meant that Spain finally had to leave its Pacific interests behind.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Peter “The Great” was the Russian emperor from 1682 until his death in 1725. He looked to Europe as a model for his realm and founded the new Russian capital city of St. Petersburg in 1703 on the Neva River. Peter had expansionist plans for the Russian Empire, which at that time was a collection of Slavic provinces to the west and khanates to the east. Beyond was Siberia, under the capital of Sibir, which was taken by Russian Emperor Ivan the Terrible in 1582.

The greater part of Russia’s coastline was frozen through much of the year and access to the Pacific coast lay beyond the rivers and steppes of the east. Russian control of that territory was won with constant fighting: the Russians lost access to the Pacific-draining Amur River in a treaty signed with Manchurian resistors in 1689. Costly wars with the Cossacks were fought between 1707 and 1717. Rebellions in Kamchatka, reached by an ocean-going Russian expedition in 1716-17, took place in 1731.

An imperial decree by Peter led to the foundation of The Imperial Academy of Sciences and Arts in St. Petersburg in 1724. The Academy’s scientific research, teaching, and discovery were Read More
Peter “The Great” was the Russian emperor from 1682 until his death in 1725. He looked to Europe as a model for his realm and founded the new Russian capital city of St. Petersburg in 1703 on the Neva River. Peter had expansionist plans for the Russian Empire, which at that time was a collection of Slavic provinces to the west and khanates to the east. Beyond was Siberia, under the capital of Sibir, which was taken by Russian Emperor Ivan the Terrible in 1582.

The greater part of Russia’s coastline was frozen through much of the year and access to the Pacific coast lay beyond the rivers and steppes of the east. Russian control of that territory was won with constant fighting: the Russians lost access to the Pacific-draining Amur River in a treaty signed with Manchurian resistors in 1689. Costly wars with the Cossacks were fought between 1707 and 1717. Rebellions in Kamchatka, reached by an ocean-going Russian expedition in 1716-17, took place in 1731.

An imperial decree by Peter led to the foundation of The Imperial Academy of Sciences and Arts in St. Petersburg in 1724. The Academy’s scientific research, teaching, and discovery were intended to strengthen the Russian state and its resources, and to usher in European-influenced cultural developments. Much of the impetus for Russian exploration of the north Pacific emerged from the Academy, including Bering’s voyages of 1725-30, and 1733-43. Peter, who died just before Bering departed on his first journey to Kamchatka, wrote that these expeditions were “to find glory for the state through art and science.” Rather than intellectual discoveries, however, many historians continue to suggest that it was the promise of fur to replace the extinct Russian sable stocks, and an interest in safeguarding borders, that drove Russian expeditions.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Peter the Great

A painting of Peter the Great

Paul Delaroche
1838
© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


The royalty of France, Spain and England had fought (and intermarried) for centuries over European territory, royal succession, and other political issues. When these kingdoms became interested in controlling the growing settlements and trade in North America in the 18th century, tensions took on another dimension.

The Seven Years War was fought between 1756 and 1763. Ongoing rivalry between Britain and France carried over into conflict surrounding their North American possessions, resulting in battles in both the colonies and in Europe. The British Royal Navy cut off the French forces in North America, located throughout the Francophone regions of what is now Canada. The British also took Havana from the Spanish, but returned it under the Treaty of Paris. Fighting in Europe involved a French attack on the British-held island of Minorca. Located in the Mediterranean, Minorca had passed to the English from Spain following the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-17). Prussia also became involved, fighting France and Austria in the west, and the Russian army on the eastern front.

The fighting and intrigue of these nation-kingdoms was also growing to include ph Read More
The royalty of France, Spain and England had fought (and intermarried) for centuries over European territory, royal succession, and other political issues. When these kingdoms became interested in controlling the growing settlements and trade in North America in the 18th century, tensions took on another dimension.

The Seven Years War was fought between 1756 and 1763. Ongoing rivalry between Britain and France carried over into conflict surrounding their North American possessions, resulting in battles in both the colonies and in Europe. The British Royal Navy cut off the French forces in North America, located throughout the Francophone regions of what is now Canada. The British also took Havana from the Spanish, but returned it under the Treaty of Paris. Fighting in Europe involved a French attack on the British-held island of Minorca. Located in the Mediterranean, Minorca had passed to the English from Spain following the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-17). Prussia also became involved, fighting France and Austria in the west, and the Russian army on the eastern front.

The fighting and intrigue of these nation-kingdoms was also growing to include philosophical and political movements that were demanding that the kings and queens give power to elected representatives. The revolutions of the United States against Britain (1776) and France against the monarchy (1789) diverted troops and resources and frightened leaders. War between France and Britain resumed in 1792 with the Revolutionary Wars. The professional naval forces of Britain attacked the French Navy, which had suffered great losses of aristocratic officers who were executed by revolutionaries. The Spanish, allies of the British at the start of the wars, were not in a position to assist. The French continued their fighting under Napoleon, who occupied territory as far away as Egypt but faced incessant attacks and British blockades. In 1808, Napoleon placed his brother on the Spanish throne to the dismay of the Spanish. The British came to the aid of Spain, a nation that alternated between ally and enemy, and as a result, Britain developed its trade in the Spanish colonies of South America.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

A Suit of Armour

A suit of armour

Courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Civilization

© Canadian Museum of Civilization


The Enlightenment was a period of intellectual development in philosophy, scientific thought, and politics during the 1600s and 1700s. In France, a group of thinkers, writers, and intellectuals known as philosophes, philosophers, developed treatises and wrote letters that discussed and developed their views on society, humans and nature, and ideas of truth. René Descartes (1596-1650) developed theories on mathematics and philosophy. Philosophes like Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Rousseau (1712-78) were rejected by some and followed by others who continued their work. In Britain, a combination of theories of science and politics developed into discussions about fundamental questions such as fear of death and the foundation of societies.

The Enlightenment examined how culture and society had created laws and ways of behaving for people that were sometimes related to, and sometimes the opposite of, the laws found in nature. The study of human behaviour and of humans in nature, of “natural rights” and a “state of nature”, was a common theme. Linnaeus (1707-78) developed a s Read More
The Enlightenment was a period of intellectual development in philosophy, scientific thought, and politics during the 1600s and 1700s. In France, a group of thinkers, writers, and intellectuals known as philosophes, philosophers, developed treatises and wrote letters that discussed and developed their views on society, humans and nature, and ideas of truth. René Descartes (1596-1650) developed theories on mathematics and philosophy. Philosophes like Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Rousseau (1712-78) were rejected by some and followed by others who continued their work. In Britain, a combination of theories of science and politics developed into discussions about fundamental questions such as fear of death and the foundation of societies.

The Enlightenment examined how culture and society had created laws and ways of behaving for people that were sometimes related to, and sometimes the opposite of, the laws found in nature. The study of human behaviour and of humans in nature, of “natural rights” and a “state of nature”, was a common theme. Linnaeus (1707-78) developed a system of taxonomy for classifying living things. Hobbes’ (1588-1679) interest in uniting body, man, and state caused him to look at a social contract as the foundation of society. Locke (1632-1704) was interested in natural rights to government and to property.

This kind of thinking was reflected in the interest shown by explorers in categorizing and recording the natural world and the societies they encountered, and in their “natural right” to land and property. The growing interest in quantifying the world, which included weights and measures and calculating the natural passing of time, had a direct impact on maritime navigation and exploration in general. Perhaps of greatest importance was the effect of the Enlightenment thinkers on government. A leader’s responsibility to the people rather than the unquestioned right of the monarchy drove the French Revolution and the independence of the American colonies.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

The Enlightenment and 18th century Maritime trade

Dr. Dennine Dudley, Historian of 18th Century Visual Art and Culture, Discussing the Enlightenment and 18th Century Maritime Trade

So the Enlightenment, which was a new scientific way of looking at the world, included the empirical gathering of information, a logical, methodical way of looking at the world, and also a logical and rational way of looking at how information is really applicable to changes in Britain; in particular in the 17th and 18th century in connection with maritime trade. Because what it does, it is one of the impetuses that sends people out on these voyages of exploration, gathering information about the world, and it also influences the kind of information they are bringing back. And one of the ways we can tell this is really important is in looking at the art of the period. And so for example, we see a boom in scientific types of illustrations, of botanicals, of insects, of animal life, of maps and cartography, and also of portraits of people involved in the maritime trade. There are a lot of portraits of seamen themselves, and the fact that they show this in their portraiture, it’s not just a gentleman in his study, but a gentleman with the backdrop of the sea behind him, or showing him with the instruments of the naval trade, and really celebrating that as an achievement shows the way that people involved in this kind of endeavor were celebrated in the period.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


From 1775 to 1783, the thirteen British colonies along the east coast of North America, including Massachusetts and New York, and from Maryland south to Georgia, fought in the American Revolution or War of Independence. Frustrated with leadership and taxation laws coming from Britain, the colonies launched protests. This included reaction against the Tea Act of 1773, which allowed special concessions for the British East India Company. The Company was permitted to sell tea imported from China to the colonies without paying taxes, enraging the colonists.

The Continental Congress that represented the colonies gathered to draft a Declaration of Independence. Signed in 1776, it outlined their reasons for ending their colonial relationship to Britain. The military battles between the colonial militia and British soldiers continued for several more years. France joined the colonial forces and the war came to an end in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

When the war was over, the confederation of colonies became the United States of America. This new nation unsuccessfully attempted to gain territory in what is now eastern Canada and began to consider wha Read More
From 1775 to 1783, the thirteen British colonies along the east coast of North America, including Massachusetts and New York, and from Maryland south to Georgia, fought in the American Revolution or War of Independence. Frustrated with leadership and taxation laws coming from Britain, the colonies launched protests. This included reaction against the Tea Act of 1773, which allowed special concessions for the British East India Company. The Company was permitted to sell tea imported from China to the colonies without paying taxes, enraging the colonists.

The Continental Congress that represented the colonies gathered to draft a Declaration of Independence. Signed in 1776, it outlined their reasons for ending their colonial relationship to Britain. The military battles between the colonial militia and British soldiers continued for several more years. France joined the colonial forces and the war came to an end in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

When the war was over, the confederation of colonies became the United States of America. This new nation unsuccessfully attempted to gain territory in what is now eastern Canada and began to consider what lay to the west. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase from France added the central states, and in 1804, President Thomas Jefferson ordered the Lewis and Clark expedition across North America to the Pacific. This period coincided with many of the strategic and political developments in the Pacific Northwest, as well as with the burgeoning trade in furs that brought otter pelts to China and Chinese tea, silk, and porcelains to Boston Harbour.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

The Canadian province of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory sit next to the Pacific Ocean. In the 18th century, these westernmost regions were not part of the nation of Canada, which became a country following confederation in 1867. The Pacific Northwest was still governed by the First Nations peoples when the expeditions of exploration arrived. Further east, Upper and Lower Canada were founded in the 18th century, encompassing the English and French speaking regions that are now the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Upper Canada was established to give British colonists and British Loyalists coming from the newly formed United States a society under British Law. The Catholic, French-speaking Lower Canadians had access to French civil law.

The French had established colonies in the early 1600s that combined First Nations and French interests into a unique local government. The fur trade drove the economy and took the French westward from the St. Lawrence River. The British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company also established fur trading interests in the east of what is now Canada. King Charles II gave them title and a trade monopoly in the watershed around Hudson Bay Read More
The Canadian province of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory sit next to the Pacific Ocean. In the 18th century, these westernmost regions were not part of the nation of Canada, which became a country following confederation in 1867. The Pacific Northwest was still governed by the First Nations peoples when the expeditions of exploration arrived. Further east, Upper and Lower Canada were founded in the 18th century, encompassing the English and French speaking regions that are now the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Upper Canada was established to give British colonists and British Loyalists coming from the newly formed United States a society under British Law. The Catholic, French-speaking Lower Canadians had access to French civil law.

The French had established colonies in the early 1600s that combined First Nations and French interests into a unique local government. The fur trade drove the economy and took the French westward from the St. Lawrence River. The British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company also established fur trading interests in the east of what is now Canada. King Charles II gave them title and a trade monopoly in the watershed around Hudson Bay, which amounted to lands covering one third of modern Canada.
The struggle between the French and British increased to armed conflict during the Seven Years War. This was fought from 1756-1763 between powers in Europe, and between the French and their First Nations allies against the English in North America. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris allocated much of “New France” to the British and to Spanish interests closer to Mexico. This left the Pacific Northwest open to claims and settlement by European and colonial powers.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • construct, interpret, and use graphs, tables, grids, scales, legends, and various types of maps
  • locate and describe major world landforms, bodies of water, and political boundaries on maps
  • locate and describe current and historical events on maps

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