Spain--and Spanish Names--on the Northwest Coast

by Dan Harvey Pedrick

© 1994

Malaspina, Quadra, Galiano, Valdés, Cortés: these and many other romantic-sounding names belong to some of the most ancient and prestigious families of Spain, but they are household names to present-day coast-dwelling British Columbians. The names provide an almost lyrical evidence of an early Spanish presence in what are now Canadian waters. They are today a part of our culture because of the expeditions of discovery that explored the coasts of what is now British Columbia under the command of various Spanish navigators between the years 1774 and 1794. In fact, our very island once bore a Spanish name that is still familiar but was mysteriously removed from the honorable place it once occupied.

These Spanish names reflect a complex and, until recently, an often unrecognized history. But thanks to the efforts of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, The Maritime Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, and a dedicated corps of regional historians, the fascinating story of the Spanish on the British Columbia Coast is being dusted off and brought out into the light of day.

Freeman Tovell, a retired diplomat now living in Victoria, has translated the journals of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra of his voyages of 1775, 1779, and 1792. Vancouver historian John Kendrick has written "The Men With Wooden Feet: The Spanish Exploration of the Pacific Northwest", and translated Galiano's journals, "The Voyage of Sutil and Mexicana: 1792". In 1992, The Vancouver Maritime Museum, under the direction of Robin Inglis, organized the exhibition "Enlightened Voyages - Malaspina and Galiano on the Northwest Coast 1791 - 1792." Thanks to the generous co-operation of the Spanish government, this milestone bicentennial exhibition featured many priceless artifacts from the Malaspina expedition and others, some returning to their place of origin for the first time in two centuries.

The details emerging from these historical revelations show that, along with the other great voyages of discovery of the period, including those of Cook, Vancouver, and Lapérouse, the Spanish expeditions came in force to the Northwest Coast of America. Spain, like the other seafaring nations, was trying to fathom the enigma of the Northwest Passage, the mythical waterway known in some quarters by the romantic name of the Straits of Anian. While failing to achieve their intended (and it can now be said, quixotic) objective, these journeys established the geographical nature of the region, left an enduring written and artistic record of its native peoples, and determined its political destiny.

Between 1774 and 1788, several voyages to the Pacific Northwest departed from the newly established Spanish Naval Department at San Blas, in what is now Mexico. In 1779 one of these, under the command of Ignacio de Arteaga and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, formally completed the complex process begun earlier of claiming the Pacific Northwest (including the region we now call home) for Spain.

These preliminary voyages opened the way for the impressive expedition of Alejandro Malaspina (1789-1794). The Malaspina expedition, in every way the high-water mark of Spain's contribution to the epic voyages of the science-conscious "Age of Enlightenment", explored the coasts of what is now British Columbia and Alaska in 1791 as part of a much wider survey of the coasts of South America and islands large and small of the Eastern Pacific.

In 1789, Esteban José Martinez and Lopez de Haro left San Blas carrying orders from the Viceroy in Mexico City to physically occupy Nootka and reaffirm Spain's claim to the coast. The carrying out of these orders caused some conflict with British traders there when the Spanish asserted their authority by establishing a settlement and a fort. A serious confrontation between Great Britain and Spain loomed when two British owned trading vessels, Princess Royal and Argonaut, were siezed and taken to San Blas. In the end, cool heads prevailed and the situation gave birth to the Nootka Convention. This political accord was certainly worthy of the "Age of Enlightenment," as it marked the first time England and Spain did not come to blows over conflicting imperial interests.

The task of performing hands-on diplomacy in the denouement of the Nootka affair fell to Captain Cook's protegé, George Vancouver. Twice before Vancouver had been a midshipman with Cook's voyages of discovery to the Pacific, the second of which witnessed the tragic death of his mentor in the Sandwich Islands. Now, more than a decade later, he was to return to the Pacific a third time to continue where Cook had left off. Vancouver's instructions were to sail to Nootka, settle matters between his government and the Spanish according to the terms of the Nootka Convention, and proceed to complete the detailed survey of the coast begun by Cook.

And now we come to the matter of how the largest island in the Eastern Pacific Ocean was named--and then un-named.

Popular wisdom has it that our island was discovered, circumnavigated, and named by Captain George Vancouver in his sloop Discovery and that is why his seven-foot gilded statue is master of all it surveys from the dome of the Legislative Buildings in Victoria. And in a very broad sense, this is true. However, in 1792, the first continuous circumnavigation of Vancouver Island was actually accomplished by Dionisio Galiano and Cayetano Valdes in the schooners Sutil and Mexicana. This feat was accomplished--in part--with George Vancouver in his larger and faster Discovery after the three had met off Point Grey and determined to behave like men of the enlightened and reasonable era they represented. As a result of their spontaneous and unprecedented joint efforts, the island was later named "Quadra's and Vancouver's Island", and was so designated on early maps of the time.

In spite of the problems posed by a delicate diplomatic task handed over to sailors, both Vancouver and Quadra admirably rose to the occasion. They became boon companions, wining, dining, and even saluting each other each other with cannon to the point of nearly exhausting powder supplies. It was never Vancouver's intention that his Spanish colleague should have his name removed from the island they had named together; in fact, Vancouver insisted that Quadra's name precede his own. Apparently this sin of omission was committed by later cartographers of the Hudson's Bay Company who may have had little appreciation for the mutual respect the two mariner-diplomats had each come to show for the accomplishments of the other. Some historians have even imputed a deliberate effort to erase any evidence that the British had not been pre-eminent in the region before any other European power.

By 1793 England and Spain had become allies against republican France and any hard feelings over conflicting interests at Nootka had dwindled in importance to either of the two powers. For practical reasons, Spain decided to abandon her claims on the Northwest Coast and try (with utter futility, as it soon turned out) to hang on to her imperial domains to the south. Vancouver went on to complete his much more detailed survey of the coast, naming many more maritime features in his own language (such as Georgia Straight, Desolation Sound, and Discovery Passage) and establishing the territorial claim of Great Britain.

Early in 1795, British and Spanish representatives met at Nootka for the last time to preside over a simple ceremony that preserved the honour of both signatories to the "Nootka Convention." When their ships departed, Nootka was left in peace--for the time being at least--to the native people who had lived there for thousands of years.

Of course, all European visitors were alike in their complete disregard for aboriginal territorial claims, which have only recently begun to be recognized by contemporary governments of the region. But Chief Maquinna of the Mowachat Band of the Nu-Cha-Nulth people, far from being an ignorant savage, was a shrewd and astute leader of his people and very much involved in the intrigues among the foreign powers and traders at Nootka during the time of his authority there. He witnessed the talks between the Spanish and the English which took place under the auspices of the Nootka Convention. Although Maquinna appeared to favor the Spanish in his attempts to influence the outcome of those discussions, his statue is today included with the other early leaders whose stone likenesses grace Victoria's Legislative Buildings.

Today the legacy left by the Spanish in their explorations of our region--aside from the maps, charts, drawings, journals, and artifacts made or collected at the time--consists of the wealth of surviving Spanish names which identify our shores, our islands, and even our streets. To name a few: Malaspina (college and galcier), Quadra (island, street, district), Galiano (island, street), Haro (straits and streets), Estevan (point and port). In addition, the names of Catholic saints and other religious figures are represented in their Spanish forms (San José, San Juan, Port Angeles, etc.), gracing a number of locations in the region. Perhaps most interesting of all are the names given to a pair of islands at the northern end of the Strait of Georgia: Cortes and Marina. The larger island is named for Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlán in 1521. The latter (possibly the only island in Canada's west coast archipelago named for an aboriginal American) represents his Aztec mistress, Malinche, the translator historians say was indispensible in making the seemingly impossible victory of Cortes's tiny band of adventurers a reality. Cortes was a hero to the Spanish explorers of the latter days of the eighteenth century, but today in Mexico no respectable monument exists to either of these two most unpopular characters. To contemporary Mexicans, their names are euphemisms for betrayal, rape, and murder. To contemporary coastal British Columbians, these picturesque legends perfectly suit two of the much romanticized and idyllic gulf islands in British Columbia's Pacific archipelago.

An exploration of the Spanish place names of our region provides more than just a glimpse of the past: it provides a reflection of our contemporary selves as the fortunate heirs to a legacy of peace between two nations that had previously been enemies. While cynics may cite political expediency as the prime motivating factor for the Nootka Convention, nevertheless a cycle of hostility was ended on our shores by enlightened men who shared an apetite for discovery, a penchant for reason, and a love of the sea.

(First published in the Victoria Times-Colonist, 1994.)

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