Take a Number

September 1, 2009

There came a time when the sheer number of ships plying the waters of the Pacific Northwest gave cause to the native communities to adopt mixed feelings.

Some of the earliest were Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo in 1542, Sir Francis Drake 1579, who sailed the Golden Hind “to the very end of the world”, exposing the California coast as he searched for the northwest passage back to England. As a result he gave this country its first European-based name — Nova Albion, [New England]. There was also Lorenzo Moldanado who reported that he had sailed across the top of Canada, to the Pacific in 1588. There was the Portuguese navigator Joao de Gama in 1590, followed by John Nicol and Ebenezer Johnson.

Many sailors died due to foul conditions. Typhus and dysentery were the shore diseases of Europe and in the tropics the seaman got malaria, yellow fever, hookworm and typhus. Lice and fleas were taken for granted, and the lice carried typhus. Venereal diseases were considered an occupational ailment of sailors and in the 18th century, treatment was ineffective. Syphilis and gonorrhea were widespread. If a sailor was found guilty of killing another, he was often tied to the victim and thrown overboard. If the paralyzing cold didn’t get them, an form of complaint was met with block and chains, the lash or other such form of harsh discipline.

One such occasion was reported within Sven Waxell’s journal of a 1731 expedition. He was the second-in-command to Vitus Bering but the latter was stricken with scurvy early on in the voyage, so Waxell assumed command. He wrote, “By now so many of our people were ill that I had, so to speak, no one to steer the ship. Our sails, too, had worn so thin that I expected them to fly off at any moment. When it came to a man’s turn at the helm, he was dragged to it by two other of the invalids who were still able to walk a little, and set down at the wheel. There he had to sit and steer as well as he could, and when he could sit no more, he had to be replaced by another in no better case than he . . . Our ship was like a piece of dead wood, with none to direct it. We had to drift hither and thither at the whim of the wind and waves.” With 12 crew members already dead, a group decision was made on November 4, 1741, to try anchoring near some land they sighted, presuming they had reached Kamchatka on the Russian (Alaskan) Peninsula. Their ship was unable to properly anchor due to the harsh conditions of wind and surf and was gradually torn asunder as the death toll mounted. The blue foxes on Bering Island ate the hands and feet of the dead before they could be buried. “Men were continually dying. Our plight was so wretched that the dead had to lie for a considerable time among the living, for there was none able to drag the corpses away, nor were those who lived capable of moving away from the dead.”

John Meares, an Englishmen, sailed the Nootka from Calcutta in March of 1786, reaching the Aleutian Islands in the summer, where they spent a desperate winter in Prince Williams Sound, seeing 23 of his men die. To aid in some basic creature comforts, on of his officers traded an ax and a small quantity of beads for a young female captive.

Mears ship was stranded in the ice and his men continued to die all through the winter. By spring of 1787, 30 of his crew had scurvy. The ship’s surgeon and pilot had died and were buried ashore within ice chasms. The ill-equipped expedition was rescued by the rival trader Captain George Dixon on May 19 aboard the ship Queen Charlotte.

Mears made a return voyage to the Pacific Northwest in January of 1788 with 50 men under Portuguese colours to avoid British East India Company and South Sea Company trade restrictions.

Large syndicates were already forming to assume control of the trade and insure they received their fair share of the profits. Besides the two mentioned, there was the Associated Merchants of London and India, the King George’s Sound Company and then the Americans and Spanish had their own consortium’s.

Often times what little food they could carry, spoiled leaving them nothing more than salted fish and biscuits upon which to survive. It is well recorded how the ship captains and officers would feast on the best of what there was, leaving the rancid spoils for the lesser crew. Mutinies were not uncommon and for the most part, they were warranted. Nonetheless the decision cost the perpetrators their lives as they returned home.

While these early merchants offered trade and a whole lot of trinkets, they also left the local community unnerved as to where the white man’s demands may lead to next.

There were many men who made their way to this region prior to 1800 and fifty of those recorded their experiences. These included Captain Vancouver, Scientists Mozino and Menzies and the gentlemanly Bodega y Quadra. There was the scholar Malaspina, and the first Frenchman, La Perouse followed by a fellow countryman, Francois Peron.

Let us not forget Captain James Cook who was well written in 1784, John Rickman who published his travelogue in 1781, the German Heinrich Zimmerman in 1781, William Ellis in 1782 and the remarkable American adventurer, John Ledyard [Marco Polo of the United States] in 1783.

Let’s also acknowledge the fact that the Spaniard, Juan Perez, actually reached British Columbia well prior to Cook. Perez made contact with the blue-eyed Haida at the north end of the Queen Charlotte Islands on July 18, 1774 and his voyage yielded the first crude map of the coastline.

He wrote of the Haida, “They were of robust stature, cheerful in appearance, with beautiful eyes and handsome faces. The hair consisted of a queue, although some simply had it tied up. They have beards in the manner of the Chinese; they are white in color, and many of them have blue eyes. The women are good looking; they have the lower lip perforated in which incision is inserted an object that is a different size depending on whether [the wearer] is young or old; it appeared that only the married ones had them. Both sexes exhibited docility and agreeableness; the women were dressed in pelt tunics fitted to the body, with bracelets of copper or iron, and rings of the same metals.”

There was Capt. Charles Barkley in 1787, after whom Barkley Sound was named and Captain John T. Walbran. Fact is, most of these men have left their names affixed to some geographical landmark. Others include John Meares, James Hanna, Ebenezer Dorr, Bernard Magee, J. Aisley Brown and Thomas Manby.

Documents of early voyages are being brought forward still today from out of Spain, Russia and China for translation.

As a point to ponder, did you know that the individual, Juan de Fuca, was actually a Greek named Apostolos Valerianos? Did you know also that much of the literary fictional work; “Gulliver’s Travels”, by Jonathan Swift, was based upon the 1592 findings of William Dampier, as he documented his voyage and discovery of the west coast of British Columbia.


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