Europeans had anchored in Nootka Sound and near the village of Yuquot on Nootka Island during several successive expeditions. Spanish Captain Perez stopped there in 1774 and Cook made arrangements to trade sea otter pelts with the Mowachaht people in this Vancouver Island harbour. When the Spanish grew wary of Russian movement southward from the northern Pacific, Esteban Martinez was dispatched to Nootka Sound based on information collected during these prior visits. The orders from Spanish Viceroy Flores, the Spanish representative in the Americas, were to set up a formal Spanish claim and to construct a building ashore that would serve for trade and shelter.

Martinez arrived in Nootka Sound with the Princesa and the San Carlos. In 1789, his crew set about constructing a battery, complete with mounted guns, on the island at the entrance to the sound. They continued by building a large hut. A steady stream of visiting vessels entered Nootka Sound and the guns were frequently fired as a form of salute. However, Martinez made a formal claim on behalf of th Read More
Europeans had anchored in Nootka Sound and near the village of Yuquot on Nootka Island during several successive expeditions. Spanish Captain Perez stopped there in 1774 and Cook made arrangements to trade sea otter pelts with the Mowachaht people in this Vancouver Island harbour. When the Spanish grew wary of Russian movement southward from the northern Pacific, Esteban Martinez was dispatched to Nootka Sound based on information collected during these prior visits. The orders from Spanish Viceroy Flores, the Spanish representative in the Americas, were to set up a formal Spanish claim and to construct a building ashore that would serve for trade and shelter.

Martinez arrived in Nootka Sound with the Princesa and the San Carlos. In 1789, his crew set about constructing a battery, complete with mounted guns, on the island at the entrance to the sound. They continued by building a large hut. A steady stream of visiting vessels entered Nootka Sound and the guns were frequently fired as a form of salute. However, Martinez made a formal claim on behalf of the Spanish and began to treat all visiting vessels as trespassers on Spanish territory. The viceroy sent a letter ordering Martinez and his men to return to the naval base at San Blas, Mexico, for the winter season. Martinez lingered until October. By that time, he had seized British ships and their crews, and he sailed the prisoners and their captured vessels back to San Blas as well.

Captain Francisco de Eliza arrived during the spring of 1790 and added a bakery and workshops and restored the battery, bolstering Martinez’s abandoned establecimiento or fortified outpost. “Fort San Miguel” became a base of explorations and an outpost for the Spanish. The actions of Martinez sparked an international controversy known as the Nootka Crisis and the Spanish once again left the outpost. Only a few bricks from the ovens remain.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Brick from the ovens at Fort San Miguel

Brick from the ovens at Fort San Miguel

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


The Nootka Crisis was a conflict between the British and the Spanish surrounding the Pacific Northwest. Set off in 1789 by the confiscation of British ships by the Spanish, it brought the rivalry over the Pacific Northwest to the brink of war. Nootka Sound had been the landing spot for many European explorers, and for traders who had come to see Maquinna and the Mowachaht people at Yuquot on Nootka Island. In 1789, the Spanish erected buildings and a fortified outpost at Yuquot to oversee the harbour traffic, with a careful eye to the comings and goings of their competitors, the British. There is some question of the British having purchased land in the area from Maquinna in 1788.

Under orders from the Spanish viceroy, Captain Martinez formally occupied the land and began checking the papers of visiting vessels. The Argonaut under Captain Colnett of the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast of America was seized and the crew and captain were arrested and imprisoned. Martinez wrote in his journals of personal insults slung at him by Colnett, who was attempting to sail under a Portuguese instead of a British fla Read More
The Nootka Crisis was a conflict between the British and the Spanish surrounding the Pacific Northwest. Set off in 1789 by the confiscation of British ships by the Spanish, it brought the rivalry over the Pacific Northwest to the brink of war. Nootka Sound had been the landing spot for many European explorers, and for traders who had come to see Maquinna and the Mowachaht people at Yuquot on Nootka Island. In 1789, the Spanish erected buildings and a fortified outpost at Yuquot to oversee the harbour traffic, with a careful eye to the comings and goings of their competitors, the British. There is some question of the British having purchased land in the area from Maquinna in 1788.

Under orders from the Spanish viceroy, Captain Martinez formally occupied the land and began checking the papers of visiting vessels. The Argonaut under Captain Colnett of the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast of America was seized and the crew and captain were arrested and imprisoned. Martinez wrote in his journals of personal insults slung at him by Colnett, who was attempting to sail under a Portuguese instead of a British flag. Captain Hudson, sailing the Princess Royal, had already been warned by Martinez about visiting the area but returned to the sound. His crew were likewise imprisoned.

The ships were taken to the naval base at San Blas, Mexico. The English King George III and Prime Minister Pitt soon learned of what had happened to the British ships and crews. Angered by the incident and by ongoing competition with Spain for the Pacific Northwest, they threatened war. France, a Spanish ally, was coping with the Revolution and would not be able to fight for Spain in an armed conflict: the Spanish could not realistically secure their massive North and South American territories on their own. The Spanish agreed to sign the Nootka Convention in Europe in 1790, ending the Crisis and beginning the first phase of the Spanish withdrawal from the Pacific Northwest.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Malaspina, New South Wales and the Nootka Crisis

Robert King, Historian, Canberra, Australia, Discussing Malaspina, New South Wales and the Nootka Crisis

Malaspina’s second left Cadiz in July, 1789 and, at that very time, Spanish representatives, the Spanish Commander at Nootka Sound was arresting three English fur trading ships, under the command of James Colnett. That sparked the famous Nootka Sound controversy of 1790, during which Britain and Spain almost went to war over the question of sovereignty, rights to settlement, rights to fish for whales in the Pacific. Malaspina was in the Pacific at that time when the crisis reached its full strength with his two ships, the Descubierta and the Atrevida, named after Cook’s ships, the Discovery and the Resolution. His two ships were, in fact, two very well-armed warships. So when matters turned war-like, began to wear a "war-like" aspect, The British government became very concerned of what these two warships would possibly do to British interests in the Pacific, they might even attack New South Wales. And in fact, Malaspina told the Viceroy of Mexico that he was quite prepared to use his ships to attack the British anywhere in the Pacific. So the British Government decided to send a secret expedition into the Pacific to almost surreptitiously, as it were, found a British settlement at Nootka. They decided to use three warships to do that, sent secretly. Two of them from England and a third, a frigate, from India, from the Indian station. They were to use Port Jackson settlement as a base; they were to rendezvous at Port Jackson and pick up settlers, convict settlers, to form the nucleus of the new settlement at Nootka.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


When the Nootka Convention was drawn in Europe in 1790, the details of the Nootka Crisis far off in the Pacific were not known. The Convention insisted that property seized by the Spanish be returned to the British and that Spain, Britain, and any other European nation, for that matter, could access and settle the Pacific Northwest. In signing the Nootka Convention, the Spanish gave up what the British thought to be their “pretension” to “exclusive sovereignty, navigation, and commerce” in the Pacific.

It took a few more years before the Convention documents made their way to Nootka Sound. Spanish captains Bodega y Quadra and Malaspina arrived to continue Spanish charting through 1792, and Captain Vancouver was sent to enact the territorial transfer at Nootka. Captain Malaspina, assisted by Captains Galiano and Valdés, circumnavigated the island on which Nootka Sound was located. It was named in honour of Captains Bodega y Quadra and Vancouver, but the island eventually came to be known by Vancouver’s name only. The ultimate result of the Nootka Crisis and Convention was the eventual evacuation of the weakened Spanish and dominance ove Read More
When the Nootka Convention was drawn in Europe in 1790, the details of the Nootka Crisis far off in the Pacific were not known. The Convention insisted that property seized by the Spanish be returned to the British and that Spain, Britain, and any other European nation, for that matter, could access and settle the Pacific Northwest. In signing the Nootka Convention, the Spanish gave up what the British thought to be their “pretension” to “exclusive sovereignty, navigation, and commerce” in the Pacific.

It took a few more years before the Convention documents made their way to Nootka Sound. Spanish captains Bodega y Quadra and Malaspina arrived to continue Spanish charting through 1792, and Captain Vancouver was sent to enact the territorial transfer at Nootka. Captain Malaspina, assisted by Captains Galiano and Valdés, circumnavigated the island on which Nootka Sound was located. It was named in honour of Captains Bodega y Quadra and Vancouver, but the island eventually came to be known by Vancouver’s name only. The ultimate result of the Nootka Crisis and Convention was the eventual evacuation of the weakened Spanish and dominance over the region by the British.

Following confirmation that Vancouver Island was indeed an island and the adjacent strait did not provide access to a Northwest Passage, major European exploration came to a close and settlement and colonization under the British began. The Hudson’s Bay Company established trade outposts in the 19th century. In 1846, the Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the border between the American and British territories. The British North America Act in 1848 created an official British colony along the Pacific, and Vancouver Island was made a colony in 1849. Russia sold the state of Alaska to the United States in 1867.

The language most commonly spoken in the Pacific Northwest today is English and the names of captains like Cook and Vancouver can be found on street signs, points of land, and building fronts. The Spanish names can be found, too: the Spanish Banks, Cordova Bay, Gonzales Hill, Hecate Strait, and Quadra Street point to the presence of the Spanish in the Pacific.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Spanish Map of the Pacific Northwest

Vancouver Island is still considered part of the mainland

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 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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