Author Tags: 1700-1800, Chinese, Maritime
“In their characters they are reserved and chaste; and examples of loose and immodest conduct were very rare among them.” —John Meares
John Meares has been described as the Machiavelli of the maritime fur trade. As the Englishman most responsible for the Nootka Incident, he was an untrustworthy conniver who built the first English trading post on Vancouver Island in 1788 and also oversaw construction of the first European-designed boat to be built in British Columbia, the North West America, using Chinese labour.
Born around 1756, and having served in the Royal Navy, Meares was one of many Englishmen who hoped to establish trade to Japan in sea otter furs. On behalf of the Bengal Fur Society, Meares sailed from Calcutta, then Madras, in March of 1786 on the Nootka. The Bengal Fur Company was newly formed in January of 1786 by a group of merchants headed by J.H. Cox, supposedly with the approval of the East India Company and Sir John Macpherson, Governor-General of India.
In tandem, William Tipping, another former lieutenant in the Royal Navy, was instructed to sail the Sea Otter by way of Japan. Meares instructed Tipping “to endeavour to open an amicable Intercourse with the Inhabitants of Corea or Japan, or the Islands to the North or South” after delivering his cargo of opium to Malacca. Meares reached the Aleutian Islands in the summer and spent a desperate winter in Prince William Sound where 23 of his men died.
In October one of his officers traded with the local chief Sheenoway for a young female captive. According to Meares she was acquired in exchange for an ax and a small quantity of beads. Meares wrote, “She remained with us near four months, and appeared to be very contented with her condition.” John Meares, the notorious liar, did not mention that this female slave later chose to escape rather than remain with the sailors, as recorded by Captains Portlock and Dixon.
Meares’ ship was stranded in the ice, and his men continued to die through the winter. By spring, 30 of his crew had scurvy. The ship’s surgeon and pilot died and were buried ashore (“the chasms in the ice their graves”).
The ill-equipped expedition was rescued by the rival trader Captain George Dixon on May 19, in his ship the Queen Charlotte. Meares’ ship also gained assistance from Dixon’s superior, Captain Nathanial Portlock, aboard the King George. [See John Nicol entry]
Dixon and Portlock, who had sailed with Captain Cook, both took a disliking to Meares, regarding him as illegitimate competition for furs. When Meares made a return voyage in 1788, he did so under Portuguese colours to avoid East India Company restrictions. He renamed his ship the Felice Aventurer. His former partner Tipping had been lost at sea with the Sea Otter, so Meares partnered this time with William Douglas who sailed the Iphigenia Nubiana.
The two ships embarked from Typa, near Macao, on January 22, 1788, but parted company after the Philippines. Meares reached Nootka on May 13, 1788. Douglas arrived in Cook Inlet on June 16, 1788 and did not join Meares at Nootka until August 27, 1788.
Meares opened a trading post at Nootka in 1788 and ordered the construction of the North West America. In varying accounts, Meares claimed he had brought 50 Chinese to Nootka, then later 70 Chinese. Martínez and Colnett reported there were 29 Chinese: seven carpenters, five blacksmiths, five masons, four tailors, four shoemakers, three sailors and one cook.
Although his ambitions were mainly commercial, Meares did record some of his own Eurocentric views of the Mowachaht for posterity in 1788.
“In their exterior form they have not the symmetry or elegance which is found in many other Indian nations. Their limbs, though stout and athletic, are crooked and ill-shaped; their skin, when cleansed of filth and ochre, is white, and we have seen some of the women, when in a state of cleanliness, which, however, was by no means a common sight, and obtained with difficulty, who not only possessed the fair complexion of Europe, but features that would have attracted notice for their delicacy and beauty, in those parts of the world where the qualities of the human form are best understood….
“Their hair, like that of the men, is black; their eyes are of the same color; and, in their exterior appearance, they are not to be immediately distinguished from the men. In their characters they are reserved and chaste; and examples of loose and immodest conduct were very rare among them.”
That same year Meares furnished Chief Maquinna with firearms in August for a successful war party. After the raid, Maquinna returned these guns to Meares. According to historian Robin Fisher, "Many of the trade muskets that Maquinna procured from Europeans he in turn traded with the Kwakiutl groups of northern Vancouver Island, and he was also in the habit of giving away guns to neighbouring groups whom he invited to potlatch feasts." Meares also provided a pistol to Chief Wickaninnish as a gift, but provided only two charges of powder. Some of the Mowachaht of today maintain Meares knowingly provided blankets that carried disease. Certainly Meares had an uneven relationship with Aboriginals. Several members of his crew were seriously wounded by arrows, stones and clubs when a long-boat from Meares' ship was attacked in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In 1789, two trading vessels sent by Meares to the West Coast from China were seized at Nootka Sound by Captain Martínez, resulting in the Nootka Controversy or the Nootka Incident. Captain Colnett was seized by the Spanish, as was his ship the Argonaut and his crew. They were forced to sail to San Blas as prisoners. Martínez also captured Meares’ ship the North West America and renamed it Santa Gertrudis la Magna.
Meares returned to England and eventually won reparations from Spain ($210,000), likely an inflated estimate of his losses, stirring anti-Spanish sentiment and publishing unreliable, anti-Spanish memoirs to capitalize on the Nootka Incident.
In addition to hastening a diplomatic showdown between Spain and Great Britain, Meares strenuously argued that China, Japan and Korea ought to be considered as markets for British woollens and other manufactured goods, especially since the Dutch were already sending four ships per year to Nagasaki.
Meares died in 1809, loathed by Captain George Dixon who accused him, correctly, of falsifying his seafaring accomplishments on the B.C. coast, taking credit for the accomplishments of others, particularly Captain Charles Barkley.
Meares Island off Tofino in Clayoquot Sound is named after him.
Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789 from China to the North West Coast of America (London, 1790; reprint. Amsterdam: N. Israel, 1967)
Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789, from China to the N.W. Coast of America with an Introductory Narrative of a Voyage Performed in 1786, from Bengal, in the Ship Nootka : To Which Are Annexed, 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 and sold by J. Walter.., 1983)
Morgan, Murray C. The John Meares Expeditions: The Last Wilderness (University of Washington Press, 1955).
Richard Nokes, J. & David L. Nicandri. Almost a Hero: The Voyages of John Meares, R.N., to China, Hawaii and the Northwest Coast (Pullman, Washington: WSU Press, 1998).
Howay, F.W. The Dixon-Meares Controversy (Amsterdam: N. Israel, 1969).
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "1700-1800" "English" "Maritime"