The Coveted Pacific Coast

The Nootka Incident

Trouble, and a First European Settlement

Soldier, Primera Compañía franca de Voluntarios de Cataluña at Nootka, 1790-1794

Caption: Soldier, Primera Compañía franca de Voluntarios de Cataluña at Nootka, 1790-1794

Until this point the Amerindians had stayed out of these disputes between whites. But the Spanish seizures prevented them from trading with the British, which royally displeased them! Unhappy and irritated, one of their chiefs, Callicum, went to meet Commander Martinez, and his cries from his dugout canoe were interpreted as insults. Giving in to his impulsive nature, Martinez fired a shot in the air to intimidate him. Then, one of the sailors in the crew, believing that his commander had missed his target, took aim, fired, and killed Callicum! The British propagandists later would not fail to make use of this disastrous mistake. Martinez remained at Nootka with his men until the fall, and was then given orders to return to San Blas to explain to the authorities why he had seized the English ships in peacetime.

In spite of these incidents, the Spanish decided to make permanent their military post at Nootka Bay. On April 3, 1790, three ships under the command of Lieutenant Francisco de Eliza y Reventa dropped anchor, and the construction work immediately began. Soon a battery of cannon defended the entrance to the port, while barracks were built for the soldiers, a villa for the officers. Close to 80 soldiers wearing blue uniforms faced with the yellow of the first company of the Voluntarios de Cataluna, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Pedro de Alberni, moved in. These volunteers were Catalan in name only, however; they were in fact a corps of the regular army of New Spain, and most of the men had been recruited in Mexico.

This presidio, as the Spanish called their frontier forts, was the northernmost post of their whole empire. This military and naval base was also the first European settlement on the Canadian west coast.