International Posturing

September 3, 2009

Juan Perez was the first verifiable European contact with British Columbia’s indigenous people. A Spaniard by birth, he grew to prominence as an enlisted navy officer at a Spanish base in San Blas, Mexico.

Commanding the Santiago, Juan Perez embarked San Blas with 88 officers and men, plus 24 passengers, many of whom were bound for Monterey. As they reached the outskirts of Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island on August 7, 1774, they attempted to take ashore a 14-foot cross made by the ship’s carpenters, but was prevented from doing so because of the heavy winds.

As the winds abated, a single canoe ventured towards the Santiago. Father Juan Crespi, a fifty-three year old priest of the Franciscan order and possible the oldest man on board, recorded the following: “While it (canoe) was still distant from the vessel, we heard the people in it singing, and by the intonation we knew they were pagans, for it was the same sung (sic) at dances of pagans from San Diego to Monterey. They were eight men and a boy. Seven of them were paddling; the other, who was advanced in years, was upright and making dancing movements. Throwing several feathers into the sea, they made a turn about the ship.” As a second and third canoe arrived, Crespi noted that one had a harpoon with an iron head “and it looked like that of a boarding-pike.”

This added to their confidence that the natives had prior contact with other cultures that produced iron. He added, “Some had pieces of iron and copper and pieces of knives.” He further noted that they could hear a “mournful crying out” from the shore. 

Perez learned that first sight of the ship filled the natives with terror, and even now they testify that they were seized with fright from the moment they saw on the horizon the giant “machine” which little by little approached their coast. They believed that Qua-utz [the creator] was coming to make a second visit and were fearful that it was in order to punish the misdeeds of the people. As many as were able to hide themselves in the mountains, others closed themselves up in their lodges, and the most daring took their canoes out to examine more closely the huge mass that had come out of the ocean. They approached it timorously, without sufficient courage to go aboard, until after a while, attracted by the friendly signs by which the Spanish crew called them, they boarded the ship and inspected with wonder all the new and extraordinary objects that were presented to them. They received a number of gifts and in return gave the captain some otter skins.”

Perez traded with the local natives, at which a number of silver spoons were allegedly pilfered. Four years later, Captain James Cook recorded seeing two spoons hanging about the necks of natives as ornaments, in the Nootka area. To validate Cooks suspicion that he had been preceded by the Spanish, he purchased the two spoons as evidence.

It was the practice of the Spanish government to confiscate the journals prepared during these voyages upon  their return home, with the belief that if the knowledge they had procured were to find its way into the hands of other countries, they would lose their opportunity to secure this new land for the King of Spain.

When Captain Cook arrived he noted the importance of music within their culture. “The greatest number of the canoes remained in a cluster around us till ten O’clock, and as they had no arms, and appeared very friendly, we did not care how long they staid to entertain themselves, and perhaps us: a man repeated a few words in tune, and regulated the meaning by beating against the canoe sides, after which they all joined in a song, that was by no means unpleasant to the ear.

“A young man with a remarkable soft effeminate voice afterward sung by himself, but he ended so suddenly and unexpectedly, which being accompanied by a peculiar gesture, made us all laugh, and he finding that we were not ill pleased repeated his song several times.

“As they were now very attentive and quiet in list’ning to their diversions, we judg’d they might like our musick, and we ordered the Fife and drum to play a tune; these were the only people we had seen that ever paid the smallest attention to those or any of our musical instruments, if we except the drum, and that only I suppose from its noise and resemblance to their own drums; they observed the profoundest silence, and we were sorry that the dark hindered our seeing the effect of this musick on their countenances. Not to be outdone in politeness they gave us another song, and we then entertained them with French horns, to which they were equally attentive, but gave us no more songs in return and soon after went away, excepting a few boats that kept paddling around us all that night which was a very cold one.”

While all this may seem trivial in the course of events, the race for occupying the Pacific Northwest was starting to heat up.

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