Meares : The launch of the North West America at Nootka Sound [plate]


Meares, John, 1756?-1809.

Voyages made in the years 1788 and 1789, from China to the north west coast of America: to which are prefixed, an introductory narrative of a voyage performed in 1786, from Bengal, in the ship Nootka; observations on the probable existence of a north west passage; and some account of the trade between the north west coast of America and China; and the latter country and Great Britain.

London: Printed at the Logographic press, 1790.

Meares, a naval officer and entrepreneur, like many others, was inspired by news of Cook's discoveries in the north Pacific and he formed a company for opening or developing a trade with north-west America. On 12 March 1786 he sailed in the ship Nootka of 200 tons, not knowing that two other expeditions to the area were being mounted at the same time. On 25 September he arrived in Prince William Sound, where he wintered in extremely harsh conditions. Most of the crew of the Nootka were dead by the time George Dixon and Nathaniel Portlock arrived in the sound in the Queen Charlotte and the King George the following spring. As an officially sanctioned expedition sent from London, they were surprised to find Meares already on this coast, and they only offered to help him in his difficult situation if he undertook to leave at once. This later prompted a bitter dispute between the two parties which became known as the Dixon–Meares controversy.

When Meares reached Macau in October 1787, he laid plans for a return to north-west America and a small group of interested entrepreneurs funded two ships for a voyage. In January 1788 he sailed for Nootka Sound in the ship Felice, arriving there in May. In June he was joined by the Iphigenia, with William Douglas as master; and after some traffic with the indigenous people, land was bought and a trading post was established. Having obtained a promise of free and exclusive trade, Meares sailed for China in the Felice in September, leaving the Iphigenia and her tender, the North-west America, with orders to winter in the Hawaiian Islands.

In 1789 Meares and his partners dispatched two ships, the Argonaut and the Princess Royal, to join the Iphigenia in Nootka Sound in order to establish a permanent factory there. The Iphigenia was in the sound when the Spanish frigate Princesa of twenty-six guns arrived, followed later by the sixteen-gun corvette San Carlos. The Spaniards seized the Iphigenia and the North-west America. On their arrival the Argonaut and Princess Royal were also seized, on the grounds that the coast was in the possession of Spain, and that any foreign ships trading and establishing settlements there were violating Spanish rights.

When news of the incident in Nootka Sound reached Meares, he returned to Britain, and laid the details of the case before the government After the cabinet had assessed the information from Meares, a message from the king (drafted by Pitt) was laid before parliament on 5 May noting that ships flying British flags had been taken by the Spanish and that Spain had established an exclusive right to trade on that coast. This provoked public uproar and a fleet of forty ships was assembled, which became known as ‘the Spanish armament of 1790’. In the face of this threat, the Spanish government acceded to British demands, and the Anglo-Spanish Convention of 28 October 1790 saw the restoration of all land taken from British subjects and the opening of trade on the north-west coast of America to all nations.

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