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A History of British Columbia
Chapter I - Early Explorations


The study of the history of the Northwest Coast of North America carries us back to that period of grand achievement, the sixteenth century. It was in this brilliant age of new birth and vigorous thought, when as yet the old had not entirely succumbed to the new, nor the new completely supplanted the old, that the Pacific Ocean was discovered. The finding of a new ocean highway marked an epoch in the history of the world and it had an important bearing on the future relations of the great nations, as well as giving new possibilities to the continent of which it formed the western boundary.

Hereafter we witness the Spanish, the Dutch and the English vying with each other for the possession of the trade routes to India and the Orient, and as an outcome of this rivalry we see the gradual decline of the first and the steady rise of the second two as naval powers.

In all cases where nations have attained world-wide supremacy, we find that that supremacy has rested upon the sure foundation of naval superiority and command of the sea. Spain was no exception to the rule. The successes of the Spaniards were entirely due to their unrivalled maritime resources. The development of her navy was so rapid and her rise so remarkable that within the short space of three-quarters of the sixteenth century she had in its last decade reached the zenith of her fame. But the sun of Spain's prosperity waned, even as it had risen, and the dying years of the sixteenth century marked the beginning of the decline of Spain's sea-power and fore-shadowed the passing of the naval supremacy of the world to the Dutch and the English.

The shouts of acclaim that greeted the tidings of Balboa's achievements in viewing the Pacific Ocean from the heights of Panama had scarcely died away when the house of Castile turned its attention to the examination of the coasts of America to the north and to the south of the Isthmus of Darien, hoping to find a passage directly leading to the Pacific Ocean. Many expeditions were despatched with this object in view, and for seven years the Spaniards persisted in a futile search for the hidden strait. Then Magellan, the Portuguese, with his compatriot Ruy Faleiro, offered to find for Spain a western passage to the Moluccas, and Charles V was prevailed upon to fit out an expedition of five vessels for this purpose. In 1520, Magellan, after mutinies, the loss of several ships and many stirring adventures, discovered and sailed through the strait which bears the great navigator's name. The Spaniards had at last found the long sought for opening, but the discovery after all brought little advantage, the strait being too far south to be used as a regular route to the Spice Islands and the Orient. Therefore, it early became the practice to transfer the gold, silver and precious stones captured in Peru, and the rich cargoes of the Philippine argosies, across the Isthmus of Darien to the galleons on the eastern coast of this narrow neck of land. The South seas were not yet destined to become the scene of commercial activity.

However, obstacles presented by nature could not long prevail against the intrepid and resourceful mariners of Spain in the day of her greatness, Cortez, the famous or infamous, according to the canons by which he may be judged, conquered Mexico and ruthlessly placed a new dominion under the galling yoke of the Spaniard. Pizarro, with equal daring and equal deviltry, dethroned the Incas of Peru and forced upon their unfortunate subjects a tyranny so atrocious that we pale as we read the story of Spanish prowess in this unhappy land. These events were fraught with far-reaching consequences.

While the conquest and subsequent pillaging of Mexico and Peru engrossed the attention of Cortez and Pizarro, hardy mariners were exploring that portion of the Pacific which washes the coasts of Central America and the northern portion of the southern continent. Gradually knowledge of the trend of the land was acquired and the possibilities of establishing a short route to the far east, by way of the isthmus of Panama, were recognized at an early date. Then, Cortez, with the remarkable energy that characterized all his actions, pushed his exploration and conquests to the western confines of his province, and established the sovereignty of Spain over the whole land, from the Gulf to the Pacific. His attempts to colonize the Californian littoral were failures. The hostility of the inhabitants, the ravages of disease, and the barrenness of the soil, proved insurmountable barriers, and rendered abortive his ambitious scheming in this direction. In spite, however, of disasters, Cortez, with indomitable courage and zeal, undertook the exploration of the Pacific Coast of North America. He issued instructions for the building of ships on the Pacific seaboard, and the difficulties to be overcome may well be imagined when it is remembered that all the iron and much other material needed for the vessels had to be carried overland to the port of construction. But even then the difficulties had only commenced, for there was no seasoned timber available, and skilled labor was scarce, but in the face of all these drawbacks, several vessels were launched from the crude ship yards at Tehauntepec. One of these, under the command of Maldonado, sailed northward and explored the coast for a distance of some three hundred miles, but the data obtained on this voyage was of no particular value. It is interesting only as marking the first attempt of the Spaniards to explore the unknown western coastline of Mexico. In the following years several important expeditions were despatched to the Gulf of California and its shores were more or less carefully examined. Of the early voyages along the western coast of Mexico that undertaken in 1532 by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, a' kinsman of Cortez, was relatively speaking of some consequence. Mendoza reached a point near the twenty-seventh parallel, where, owing to the mutinous conduct of his men, he was forced to send back one of his vessels, continuing the voyage in the other. It is impossible to say how far this pioneer navigator proceeded after parting company with his former companions, nor have we any record of his observations bearing on the lands which he visited in the course of his wanderings, for his vessel was cast away on an unknown reef, and neither Mendoza or any of his men returned to Mexico to recount their adventures.

As the coast line became better known, as the result of these voyages, the explorers became bolder, and at last in 1539, Ulloa, after having examined with care the shores of the Vermilion Sea, .as the Gulf o<f California was marked on early charts, rounded the Cape San Lucas, at the southern extremity of the California Peninsula, and pointed the way to the great northwest coast that stretched in one long, irregular line to the mist-enshrouded waters of Behring Strait, although for many a long year it remained, as heretofore, a terra incognita, and nothing foreign disturbed the primeval solitude of that vast region. From the time of Ulloa, the first European to examine the outer shore of the California Peninsula, the Spaniards made spasmodic efforts to explore and annex the northwest coast, but the endeavors to a great extent were rendered fruitless, chiefly owing to the parsimonious policy pursued by the viceroys of Mexico. Nevertheless, whatever may be said with regard to the lack of energy displayed by those responsible for the despatching of exploratory expeditions, we can, as a general rule, only praise the commanders and crews of the vessels to whom this difficult task was entrusted. In ships ill-found and small they bravely sailed away to the unknown northern waters, a few of them to hand their names down to posterity, many of them to perish at the hands of savages, or to die miserably from disease, and all of them to suffer untold hardships from starvation, sickness, and inclement weather on the rock-bound coasts they essayed to explore.

In 1542 Cabrillo, a navigator of some local fame, followed in Ulloa's track, and, having rounded Cape San Lucas, commenced the first systematic survey of the western coastline of California. He advanced northward in easy stages, charting to the best of his ability, and naming the bays, capes and inlets, but the nomenclature of this explorer has long since been superseded by that of later discoverers. Cabrillo unhappily succumbed to hardships and privation a few months after his departure from the Mexican port of Navidad. Like many before and after him, he passed away on a wild and unfrequented coast far from his native land, whither duty called him. The voyage was continued by the pilot of the expedition, Ferrelo, who zealously continued the work of exploration. We are informed in the Spanish narrative touching this undertaking that 'the forty-first parallel of latitude was attained. Ferrelo probably sighted the promontory later named Cape Mendocino.

At an early date the Spaniards learned to take advantage of the prevailing westerly winds of the Pacific, and from Mexican and Peruvian ports fleets sailed for the Philippines, China and India, but for a long time no> vessels voyaged from thence to Mexico or South America across the great ocean, as the constant " trade winds," as they have since been termed, baffled the efforts of the Spanish navigators to return by the way they had gone. Therefore, those ships which escaped destruction from storms, the sunken reefs of the East Indies, or the hostile natives, sailed on to Europe past the Cape of Good Hope, a route long known to the Portuguese engaged in the Asiatic trade. The Spanish government was always intensely jealous of the successes of the Portuguese in India and China, and on more than one memorable occasion endeavored to wrest from them the fruits of their lucrative trading expeditions thither. But these expeditions were generally ill-starred and achieved naught for Spain. At least two important armaments were launched from Mexico against the Portuguese, one sailing as early as the year 1526 under Saavedra, and the other in 1542 in command of Ruy Lopez de Villa-lobos. Both ended in complete disaster.

If we can place reliance in the obscure and unsatisfactory documentary evidence, which is the only instrument in the hand of the latter-day historian, we must honor the adventurous Friar Urdaneta, who had sailed with Magellan, as the discoverer of an eastern route to the shores of America. He solved the problem which had puzzled his countrymen for so long and earned their well-merited praise by proving that it was possible to sail to and from the East Indies from any port on the western seaboard of America. Urdaneta found that by steering a northward course from the Philippines a region was entered where the prevailing winds blew in the direction of the American continent, and thereafter the Spaniards availed themselves of the peculiarities of the atmospheric currents, with the result, however, that on the return voyages their ships would often strike the continent far north of Mexico.

After several abortive efforts in this direction, the Philippines had been subjugated by Miguel de Legazpi, with whom Urdaneta sailed as pilot. In this manner the Spaniards gained what they had long coveted, a secure position in the Far East. The potentialities of the Oriental trade were soon recognized, and as a natural result, Spanish shipping rapidly increased and before long the Pacific Ocean became an important highway of commerce. The authorities at Madrid were jubilant, and in a few years a lucrative traffic sprang up between Spain and the Philippine Archipelago, by way of the Isthmus of Darien, where fortified posts were maintained for the safe-guarding of the treasure and merchandise which was transferred overland from the shores of the Pacific to the Caribbean Sea.


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