Sunday, October 23, 2011

London Traders--Portlock and Dixon

In the same year [1787] the first traders to sail direct from London arrived at Nootka. They were representatives of "The King George's Sound Company." a strongly organized firm with trading licences from both the East India and South Sea Companies. The commanders of the two ships, the King George and the Queen Charlotte, were Captain Nathaniel Portlock and Captain George Dixon, both of whom had acquired knowledge of the west coast of America through having voyaged with Captain Cook. It is not known if Portlock and Dixon touched on Haida Gwaii on this initial voyage, though they reached as far north as Cook's Inlet and came upon a Russian trading-post. After wintering on the Sandwich Islands, they returned to the north the next year and commenced trading in Prince William Sound, from which they had been driven by contrary winds the previous year. In order to collect as many furs as possible the two vessels separated, Dixon going southward toward Haida Gwaii, across a wide channel which was later to bear his name.

It should be remembered that the voyage of Portlock and Dixon had been looked on in England as more than a mere trading adventure The promoters of the enterprise hoped to add to the scientific knowledge of the Far West Coast. Thus Dixon's "Journal," published in London in 1789, in the form of a series of letters, supposedly written by William Beresford, supercargo, was a most important publication. From its pages could be gathered the fullest description to date of the western islands, the manners and customs of their people, and the procedure followed when trade was in progress.

After touching at North Island, Dixon sailed southward once more along the west coast of the islands naming various islands and inlets. Of these, North Island, later named Isle de la Langara by the Spanish explorer Caamana, who was sent out from Nootka in 1791, has in present-day maps returned to the Spanish nomenclature. Others still retain the names assigned to them by this early trader. Cloak Bay derived its name from the great success Dixon had in obtaining sea-otter cloaks from the Haida there on July 2nd, 1787.

The description of that day of trade in the "Journal" gives a vivid picture of the methods used and the articles traded in those days:--

Page 99 [1787.]

In the forenoon of the 30th, the winds were moderate and favourable ; at noon we faw land to the north. At feven o'clock in the morning of the 1st of July, we had a frefh wefterly breeze, and ftretched to the fouth-eaft. About noon we faw a deep bay, bearing north-eaft by eaft. The winds, during the afternoon, were light and variable ; we therefore ftood to the north, determining, if poffible, to make the bay in fight, fuppofing it probable that we fhould find inhabitants there.

We had light variable airs during the night, with a heavy fwell from the fouth-weft, and in the morning of the fecond, found ourfelves unable to reach the bay : a moderate breeze afterwards fprung up at north- eaft, and we ftood in for the land.

At feven o'clock, feveral canoes appeared, full of natives, who were returning from fifhing. Some of them being clad in rich beaver cloaks, we tempted them with hatchets, adzes, toes [long flat pieces of iron], pans, and tin kettles. After gratifying their curiofity by furveying the veffel, and expreffing their aftonifhment at fo wonderful a ftructure, they began to trade with us, and we purchafed all their cloaks and fkins. By their fignificant geftures we alfo underftood that plenty of inhabitants and furs might be found on fhore.

At ten we were about a mile from fhore, and faw a village confifting of fix or feven huts. We fteered for a bay which now opened to the eaft. As we advanced up this bay, we faw an appearance of an excellent harbour ; but about noon the tide fet fo ftrongly againft us, that we could not poffibly make it ; we therefore hove the main top- fail to the maft, intending to traffic with the local natives.

No lefs than ten canoes, in which there were about an hundred and thirty people, were almoft inftantly about the fhip, all of whom had either beaver cloaks, or fome valuable fkins. They were indeed fo anxious about the difpofal of their commodities, that there were feveral quarrels and contentions among them about the priority of their coming along fide the veffel, and their claims of being entitled to be ferved firft. Perhaps they were apprehenfive that we had not a fufficient quantity of toes to pay for all the articles they had brought us, for hardly any thing elfe was taken in barter for them, and thofe were eagerly demanded. About three hundred and ten beaver fkins were purchafed of thefe Haida people in lefs than forty minutes. So flourifhing a trade we had never before experienced.

Captain Dixon then continued his voyage, again southward, coasting along the western shore of the islands, occasionally standing in for shore when signs of a village were seen. This method he reasoned would produce the best results in trade, for he concluded that: "The people did not live together in one social community but were scattered about in different tribes, and probably at enmity with each other." He was to find too, as did many later traders, that the people were fickle in their demands. Whereas toes were eagerly bartered in Cloak Bay, several days later some peoples on the west coast would have none of them, for trade seemed now to have taken a different turn; brass pans, pewter basins, and tin kettles being the articles most esteemed by these people.

On the afternoon of July 7th, Dixon reached and named another landmark on the west coast, "Hippa Island." The narrator thus describes their first sight of it:

The Indians having left us, we made fail about two o'clock, and flood along fhore. Standing in for land in the morning of the 7th, we faw a deep bay, and fteered directly for it ; but perceiving there was neither harbour nor inhabitants, we bore away to the fouth. At three in the afternoon, feveral canoes came off from fhore. They came from a fmall ifland, where they lived together in a large hovel. The afcent to this ifland from the beach is very fteep, and the other fides are fortified with pines, etc. This kind of fortification giving it the appearance of a Hippah, we conferred on it the title of Hippah Ifland. 

From feveral circumftances, we drew a conclufion that the favages of this place, were more ferocious than the others we had met with on the coaft : we even fufpected them to be canibals ; their hoftile appearance coincided in favour of this conjecture, being ftrongly armed with knives and fpears. They affumed, however, an appearance of gentlenefs and good-nature, and ftrongly importuned us to come on fhore ; where it is probable they would not only have butchered us, but we fhould have furnifhed them with a repaft. 

Captain Dixon no sooner saw the fortified hut just mentioned than he said . . . "it was built . . . exactly like the plan of the hippah [a fortified house] of the savages at New Zealand."

By July 24th the traders had reached the southern tip of the islands and began the hazardous business of rounding a range of broken rocks where here ran out more than a mile from the shore:

Not expedling any more trade on this fide of the iflands that were near us, Captain Dixon propofed ftanding round the point. At noon the rocky point bore north 27 deg. weft, about three miles diftant. It is ftiuated in 51 deg. 56 min. north latitude. The land, off which thefe rocks lay, we called Cape St. James's, this being St. James's Day. 

Passing northward along the eastern shores, trading as he went, Dixon, on the 29th, records:

The weather, on the morning of the 29th, was moderate and cloudy : we tacked occafionally, in order to ftand well in with the fhore. Towards noon the weather cleared up. We were now convinced, from obfervation, that the land we had been coafting along, almoft a month, was a group ot iflands. 

As the mariners, highly satisfied with their trading venture, passed southward once more, toward King George's Sound [Nootka], they decided on a name for the Islands which they said:

Having quitted the iflands, a few obfervations on them and their inhabitants may not be thought improper. From the number of inlets we met with, in coafling along the shore, and from our feeing the fame inhabitants on the oppofite fide of the coaft it is more than probable that this is not one continued land, but forms a group of iflands. In confequence of which they were diftinguifhed by the name of Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii), They are lituated from 51 deg. 42 min. to 54 deg. 24 min. north latitude; and from 130 deg. to 133 deg. 30 min. weft longitude.

When approaching King George's Sound, Dixon observed a sail to the south-east and, presently, that of a smaller vessel as well. The vessels were two of their own Company, however, the Prince of Wales, Captain James Colnett, and the sloop Princess Royal, Captain Charles Duncan. From these friends the voyagers had the pleasure of hearing of the welfare of kindred in England. From Dixon the newcomers obtained a copy of his chart of the waters surrounding the islands. Upon Dixon's advice also, Captain Duncan proceeded to the east side of Haida Gwaii as the best area to procure sea-otter furs, a reputation it was to enjoy among the traders for a good many years. The entry in the "Journal" at this point concludes:

The information we received from these veffels, convinced us that no advantage could be expected by our making King George's Sound ; and they were informed by us, that at Prince William's Sound, their next deftination, no encouragement could be expected. 

The two captains, and another gentleman from on board the Prince of Wales, came on board us, where they continued all night ; and in the morning of the 9th, we parted company, faluting our brother traders with three hearty cheers. 

This excerpt from Beresford's letters, or Dixon's "Journal" as it is called, suggests the whole procedure of these trading expeditions. If the vessels sailed from England or Boston (as most of the later American vessels did), it was thought best for them after doubling Cape Horn to steer directly for the Marquesas. Here they could obtain fresh food and supplies of water and wood.

After a respite on these hospitable shores Dixon steered for Canton. When joined by his partner, Portlock, in the King George, they sold their combined cargo of "2,552 otter skins, 434 cubs, and 34 fox" for over 52,000 Chinese dollars. Then, taking on a cargo of tea, the Queen Charlotte sailed for home and arrived in England in September, 1788.  The next year the narrative of her long voyage was published. This with its charts and excellent descriptions and sketches of the people, birds, and arts of "Haida Land" added considerably to the world's geographical knowledge of Haida Gwaii.

next:-- The Voyages of Captain Douglas