The Coveted Pacific Coast

The Nootka Crisis

The Role of France

France's stand on the Nootka crisis was the key. The French Revolution had broken out in July 1789, but in the summer of 1790 the most serious consequences of this event were yet to come. The armed forces were still relatively intact and King Louis XVI was still on the throne, even though true power rested increasingly with the National Assembly. As a precautionary measure, France mobilized its navy before considering the main issue, whether to respect its alliances and to support Spain in its claims regarding Nootka, that faraway piece of land in its colonial empire. At the end of August, believing that public opinion would never agree to its becoming involved in such a dispute, the National Assembly declared that France would not go to war against freedom and the rights of man. This clearly meant that it would withdraw from the alliance.

Without France's support, the Spanish position was untenable. Fortunately for Spain, the British anger had subsided as the weeks went by, and it became possible to negotiate. On October 28, 1790, in Madrid, Spain and Great Britain signed the Nootka Bay Agreement. The threat of war was over. Under the terms of the treaty, each of the two colonial powers recognized that the other had rights on the northwest coast, to the north of California, and that each would have access to the other's settlements. Commissioners were to be appointed by each nation to work out the details of the agreement.

The agreement has often been interpreted as a commitment on the part of the Spanish to withdraw from the northwest coast. In fact, nothing required them to leave Nootka. On the contrary, they improved the land fortifications and build a floating battery in the port. What the Nootka Bay Agreement changed was the idea that the Pacific coast belonged solely to the Spanish from Chile to Alaska. Great Britain would henceforth have rights to this coast to the north of California, rights which remained to be defined by the commissioners of the two nations.