Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Discovery and Exploration

In 1774 the Viceroy of New Spain at San Blas ordered Juan Perez, who had been active in the California settlements, to sail northward in his ship Santiago to at least 60 degrees of latitude. He was to claim all land for the Spanish Crown. Juan Crespi, a friar, was instructed by his Reverend Father, President of the Mission of San Carlos de Monterey, to accompany Perez and act as historian, to take observations of the latitude, to explore the land, and report of what might be in it. "I decided," Frair Crespi records, "to keep a diary of the sea voyage if the weather and sea sickness, which I never can escape at sea, would permit me." Poor Friar Crespi! Any mariner having had experience with the rough waters and boisterous weather often encountered in the North Pacific can well imagine his sufferings. The Santiago finally got away from San Blas on June 9th, after a wait of two days for a favourable wind, and by July 14th they were in 50* 24' latitude, and were encountering thick, damp fog and heavy swells.

On July 17th they were in 53* 3' latitude but the weather was still extremely squally, dark, and foggy. Friar Crespi's account continues:--

At about half-past eleven they said they made out land, and so it was that we began to see the coast . . . but it was so hazy and far away, at least twenty-five leagues, that it could not be seen distinctly. To the north it seemed to be low land, but to the north-east, on the contrary, it was seen to be very high, with a high flat rock on it all covered with snow.

Thus was the first sight of Haida Gwaii recorded by a European. The high mountains referred to might, of course, have been those of neighbouring islands nearer the Mainland. Perez followed the coast northward and found it trended to the east. He named the cape at this point Santa Margarita. Unable to land because of either rough or too calm weather, the Spanish explorers were visited by natives in canoes made, apparently, from one piece of wood "very well hewn." They were offered dried fish, well-plaited rush mats and hats as articles of trade, but only two natives had the courage to venture on board the strange vessel. During the next few days the Santiago was driven southward along a low-lying coast and sighted the highest peak of the Islands. This Perez named "San Cristobal." As they voyaged still farther south they must have seen most of the west coast of the Islands. But as Friar Crespi gives no further description one may infer that his seasickness had again overcome him.

Haida Gwaii had been briefly visited and as briefly described. Commerce of a kind had also been inaugurated, the forerunner of a half-century of profitable, if ruthless, maritime fur trade. Friar Crespi's impressions of the inhabitants of the western isles seem to have been the first ever recorded. Like so many visitors to Haida Gwaii, he particularly noted the strange lip ornament or Labret worn by the Haida women:--

They wear, hanging from the lip, a round piece of very thin wood which makes them very ugly, for at a distance it looks as though they have their tongues hanging out. They manage it with great facility and simply by a movement of the lip, they raise it and cover the mouth and part of the nose. Those who saw them nearer by said they have the lip pierced and hang the piece of wood from it. We do not know what their purpose is, whether it be to make themselves ugly, or to adorn themselves.

The next Spanish voyage navigator to sight Haida Gwaii, though even more briefly, was Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (to give him his full name). In 1775 the little ship Santiago was sent on a second voyage northward, this time under the leadership of Bruno Hezeta, with Perez second in command. It was accompanied by the small schooner Sonora under Lieutenant Quadra. Disaster dogged the path of the voyagers almost from the beginning. Near latitude 47* a landing party was massacred by the natives; storms and scurvy incapacitated the crews. Hezeta, discouraged, insisted on turning back. Young Quadra indomitably pursued his course, and reached a point near the present town of Sitka. He had attained a latitude 58*18' -- 200 miles beyond Perez's first venture. He took formal possession of the territory in the vicinity and named Bucarelli Sound in honor of the Viceroy of New Spain. Sailing southward in his tiny craft he crossed Dixon's Entrance, to which he gave the name Entrada de Perez, and passed within sight of Cape Santa Margarita (Cape North) on Haida Gwaii. After a fearful voyage, with massive waves almost swamping the small schooner and the crew so sick with scurvy that Quadra and one man alone were left to man the ship, the harbour of Monterey was reached. They had been eight months at sea in their hopelessly ill-equipped craft. Another epic of the north had been completed.

The expedition of Captain Cook to the Pacific Northwest in 1778 had, it is true, little direct bearing on the new history of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. During his return from explorations along the coast of Alaska and into Bering Strait he arrived at their upper extremity, but owing to terrific storms while passing through the sound to the east he did not even glimpse the coast-line of the Islands. This voyage, destined to be his last, for he was killed by the local people the following winter on the Sandwich Islands. After the tragic death of their commander, the crew continuing their voyage, offered for sale in Canton some sea-otter skins which brought an astonishing price from the agents of the wealthy Chinese mandarins.

Before trading-vessels arrived on the shores of Haida Gwaii one more explorer was to visit her coast. This was Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de Laperouse, in the employ of the French Government. He had been dispatched to discover, if possible, the North-west passage from the west. In the course of his voyagings he coasted along the shores of Haida Gwaii and was one of the first navigators to suggest their insularity. Although he named various points on his charts, Baie de Clonard at the north, Baie de la Touche to the south, and some small islands Isles Kerouart, he made no attempt to name the whole group of islands. Laperouse's explorations along the coast of Alaska were of little importance in themselves, it was his report on the activities of the Russians in that area that aroused Spain once more to a renewed interest in the North.

next:-- The Maritime Fur Traders