Author Tags: 1700-1800
The first notification in English that large profits were to be made trading sea otter skins was supplied by John Ledyard who recalled that the approximately 300 skins brought by Cook’s crew from the North Pacific “were of nearly double the value at Canton, as at Kamchatka.”
The rush to the Pacific Northwest that ensued for four decades was to obtain the pelts of the sea otter (Enhydra lutris), the only member of the genus Enhydra and the largest member of the family Mustelidae, which includes weasels, skunks and badgers. One sea otter pelt was worth ten beavers pelts.
The first of the fur-trading ships to arrive at Nootka Sound was the 60-ton Harmon, renamed the Sea Otter, commanded by James Hanna. Its arrival from Macao in August of 1785 marked the onset of the modern economy of British Columbia, an economy based on the exploitation of natural resources for the next two centuries. Hanna’s expedition also began two centuries of fractious relations between invasive Europeans and indigenous peoples when, as a practical joke, Hanna and his crew of 20 men set off a charge of gun powder under Chief Maquinna’s chair. After one of the Indians stole a chisel, 20 Indians were killed in an ensuing confrontation. Nonetheless, Hanna’s men collected 560 sea otter pelts and sold them for a fortune in December, in China. The next year, when an American commercial trading house was opened in Canton, at least eight fur-trading vessels ventured to the Pacific Northwest Coast (including a 100-ton snow, also called the Sea Otter, commanded Hanna).
The first vessels to reach Nootka Sound in 1786 were the 350-ton Captain Cook and the 100-ton Experiment, commanded by Henry Laurie and Henry Guise respectively. Both were under the direction of James Strange, who raised the flag of King George III and claimed the land on which he stood, not realizing it was an island, for the British Crown.
Strange left behind a copper plate to memorialize his visit. It was supposedly found 150 years later, but there has been some doubt as to its authenticity. After a five-year search, B.A. McKelvie and W.M. Halliday claimed to have found the copper cylinder in a tree on Nigei Island in 1933, after having ascertained its whereabouts from Strange’s journal that was published in India in the 1920s. The cylinder is in the B.C. Archives. During his visit to Vancouver Island in 1786, Strange wrote: "I had the pleasure to Display the Flag and to take Possession of the Inlet and Sound in the name of his Britannic Majesty, honouring it at the same time with the name of Queen Charlotte's Sound."
As an employee of the East India Company usually stationed in Bombay and Madras, James Strange had read of Captain Cook’s voyages while recuperating from an illness in Britain. He persuaded Bombay merchant David Scott partially to finance his expedition to Nootka Sound. With Strange aboard the Captain Cook, the traders embarked from Bombay on December 8, 1785 and gathered more supplies at Batavia. They reached Vancouver Island on June 25, 1786 near Hope Bay. They anchored at Friendly Cove on July 7.
A soldier aboard the Experiment, Alexander Walker, dealt extensively with the Indians and kept a journal, but James Strange kept aloof, preferring negotiations with an older chief named Kurrighum rather than Maquinna. One of the numerous crewmen who were ill, John MacKay, or Mackey, an assistant surgeon aboard the Experiment, was voluntarily left behind when the two ships sailed north with 540 sea otter pelts.
Strange named the islands at the north end of Vancouver Island as the Scott Islands, and Cape Scott, after his financier David Scott. He also named Queen Charlotte Sound. After entering Prince William Sound, Strange was surprised to meet yet another vessel named the Sea Otter, this one a trading vessel from Calcutta, commanded by William Tipping, who later disappeared with his ship en route to Cook Inlet, never to be seen again. The Strange expedition left Prince William Sound on September 14. The Experiment reached Macao in mid-November; the Captain Cook reached Asia in December. Strange’s expedition was not a financial success. He died in 1840.
Born in London in 1753, James Charles Stuart Strange was reputedly named by his godfather, Bonnie Prince Charlie. His early visit to Vancouver Island has long since been overshadowed by the more significant voyages of others, but he is credited with planting the first European vegetables on the Northwest Coast.
Strange, James. Journal and Narrative of the Commercial Expedition from Bombay to the Northwest Coast of America. Madras Superintendent, India: Government Record Office, 1928; Seattle: Shorey Book Store, 1972).
Ayyar, A.V. An Adventurous Madras Civilian, James Strange (Calcutta, 1929)
James Strange, A. V. Venkatarama Ayyar, John Hosie, F. W. Howay. James Strange's Journal and Narrative of the Commercial Expedition from Bombay to the Northwest Coast of America: With Introductory Material. (Ye Galleon Press, 1982).
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2004] "1700-1800" "English"