Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gather the Bones, XIV: Down From the Shimmering Sky

*
I had not meant to return to the shingled beach, but an obvious enough (in retrospect) web genealogy search has led me back to the raincoast again, because it unexpectedly answered a question that I had.

What do the words "auto court" mean to you?

From lifelikecharm.com
To me, they mean the kind of fusty old motel complex that sprouted back in the days when "auto touring" was a thing. There was room in the parking lot for what North Americans still needed to call a "motor trailer," and all mod cons in the suite for the missus. They stayed in auto courts in those long summer vacations that they had, back in the day (mainly an alternate universe version of the 30s, full of star system celebrities who still might drive to their their vacations, with glorious talkies and no hardship at all). One of the places they went was the shores of the Salish Sea, and one of the things that they did there was fish.

Anyway, that's a story. What I know from working at the Deep Bay Auto Court in the late 1980s is that the people who took the cabins there were long term vacationers who spent months there in the summer, husband out fishing, and wives canning the salmon in the same kind of mason jars that you will see in saner households, filled with preserves and pickles. They did this so that they could take this canned salmon back to  California with them, and give them this: you certainly wouldn't mistake those glass jars stuffed with pressure-cooked fish in salmon pink and silver-grey with the canned version that you can get at any supermarket. The natural question was, "For God's Sake, why?" 


The answer has been slowly dawning on me of late.


The Haisla princess tells the story, the same one that I would later read, but more compelling in the context (an Italian for Reading Purposes course, if it matters): "A long time ago, a man in a copper canoe came to the beach at our village. He was dressed entirely in copper, and even the oars of his boat were made of copper plates. He told our people that he had come down from the shimmering sky to live amongst them. He is the ancestor of my lineage, and this is why I tell this story. It is my clan right."

The Haisla are a northern people, living near Kitimat, but they are speakers of a Wakashan language that is found along the central coast, along northern and western Vancouver Island, and at Neah Bay on Washington State's Juan de Fuca shoreline. In Wakashan, "[Nootka]/Yuquot" means, "The wind comes in all directions."  

So. As far as we know, Juan Jose Perez de Hernandez made harbour at Nootka Sound on 7 August, 1774, likely the first mariner sponsored by a European state to reach that anchorage, since even if we accept the claims of Drake or, a little more plausibly, Juan de Fuca, they got no further north than the mouth of that strait in the latter case. Yet, only four years later, Cook sheltered here, and Yuquot continued to be the main port of the Northwest through the six years (1789--95) of Spanish occupation that goes down the memory hole in our Nootka Conventions-shaped history of early contacts.

What made Yuquot so magnetic? Geography. And, as usual, the intersection of geography and history needs a little expansion. 

This is Yuquot. I summon it once:


Twice:


Thrice, and done:


The first map captures Yuquot's location, hanging off the end of a fjordland that penetrates deep inland to sheltered reach of Gold River, B.C hard under the towering mountains of the Strathcona range that make up the spine of Vancouver Island, and also at the head of what only a few tens of thousands of people in the world might know to call "the Missing Link," the Canadian Forest Products service road that leaves off the old cross-island highway connecting Gold River with Campbell River, originally built on a cross-island trading trail to service hydroelectric works on the falls of the Elk River. The Missing Link, for its part, follows the grease trail from the west coast at Gold River to the northeast coast at the mouth of the Nimpkish River, just south of Port McNeill, where Yuquot chiefs used to send gifts for potlach amongst their Kwak'wala relatives. We called it "the Missing Link" because it was the only way to drive from the southern to the northern part of Vancouver Island. 

Gold River is a pretty strategic location, in other words, insofar as so lightly a populated part of the world has strategy.  It is also not a bad place to live, sheltered and close to good camas beds. Yuquot, an outport far up straight-sided fjords from Gold River, not so much. Again: what's the appeal? 

The second and third map suggest that Yuquot wasn't just hanging off the end of a glacier-cut harbour. It is also the leading edge of North America. The coast may continue in its northwestern trend, but you come up from the south. Remembering that Korea is divided meridionale from settentrionale by the 38th parallel, it seems that pretty much everything is south of Nootka. Make a reasonable effort to avoid offshore shoals, and you will hit Yuquot first. The wind brings you there. 

The would-be pelt merchants who arrived at Nootka, beginning with James Hanna in 1785 tended to arrive in early spring. The winds were fair, and the pelt hunt was made in the winter. Yet the spring is hard days on the Pacific Northwest, as it tends to be in the northern hemisphere. In the great feasts at Chief Maquinna's hall in Yuquot, tables were set with chunks of whale and blubber, with fish oil on the side and fish broth to cleanse the palate. This is the kind of diet favoured by people who have to fight the cold with calories, and the wild Pacific winds that blow over Yuquot take a lot of fighting. When they blow over Wickannish's harbour at Tofino to the south, ingenious marketers make them a tourist attraction, but modern storm watchers have plate glass windows to hide behind, something little known to the "people of the mountains all around," (Nuu-chah-nalth) as we are now instructed to call Maquinna's tribe.

These disadvantages are why Yuquot is called a summer village, even though the ships found Maquinna there  earlier in the year. And it is true that Yuquot was mainly inhabited when the weather there was  more bearable, but that is not the reason that it was occupied, from inland looking out. The reason, on the contrary, is very, very clear. Great sources of wealth routinely made way past Yuquot out to sea from its harbour, where they could be spotted by keen eyes and brought to the beach for exploitation.

Whales. Social heirarchy is built on social capital, and social capital on knowledge of the productive landscape and  command of it. That is why Bronze Age kings hunt lions from chariots, and medieval monarchs hunted stags from horseback. What do you do to build your prestige in a maritime culture without horses? You hunt whales.** Maquinna is not a chief for some essentialist reason of heredity or lineage. He is chief because he is a successful captain of whalers, and his location at the head of two cross-island trails is no accident, any more than the presence of the only Wakashan-speaking nation on the interior coast of Vancouver Island at Alert Bay at the northern head of the Missing Link. 

That is, I am making a functional argument for the spread of Wakashan. It's the whalers' tongue, and the rivalries and connections that outside traders encountered and engaged themselves in are between whaling magnates, not ethnos. This will be important.

Among the men who came to Yuquot was the feckless John Meares, of whom we know so much, as it was his claim to have been dispossessed of purchase right to the whole of Nootka Sound and "some land to its south" that primarily drove one of Britain's endless early 1790s war scares that an internalist historian of British politics would link to the endless strife between William Pitt the Younger's East India Company-supporting Tories and Charles Fox's anti-monopolist Whigs. Meares came first to Nootka Sound on his second attempt to exploit the Northwest Maritime Fur Trade*** as a supercargo on a Portuguese-flagged vessel. The tendency in the modern literature is to see the Macau merchants behind the 1788 expedition as mere stalking horses for English interests. This has the virtue of simplicity, since we don't have to explain Meares' claim of a somehow English land right arising from the voyage that would require actually looking at his claim, but strikes me, and many other people**** going well back into the Nineteenth Century as having a bit of the old "making fun of the Wop" about it. There is no particular reason that the larger, multi-national community of traders in the Pearl River delta can't be allowed agency in the complicated interplay of flags and chartered companies that gave rise to the expeditions of 1788 and 1789.

That being said, the 1789 expedition was clearly British, because by this time Meares and his partners had, or so they thought, secured the monopoly license to trade in the Northwest that they required to clear their furs through Guangzhou. They also brought with them "some Chinese carpenters," who built a ship, and perhaps a fort. Even by this time, some people were wintering at Yuquot, and shelter was a bit of a priority. 

The people sheltering at Yuquot did not include the Chinese carpenters. They returned to Guangzhou in September of 1789. Even less information is available about the ones that sailed in 1790, but we do know that they were amongst the foreigners intercepted at Yuquot by Juan Martinez, who had sailed at the head of an expedition from San Blas, Mexico, to belatedly assert Spanish claims against an intended Russian occupation of Yuquot. 

The Spanish arrived in force with ships of war, but  suffered from poor and deficient provisions. This is the kind of thing that you draw from arsenals, and it points to what was actually holding back Spanish expeditions to the Northwest. As any veteran Civilization player knows, you expand into virgin territory gradually unless there is a challenge, because it costs far too much gold to make small outposts bud off new small outposts. Martinez lucked out by inheriting the services of Colnett's indentured Chinese labourers, but what Spain needed was a decent city on the coast, say, a "10" or "11" that could produce colonists and garrisons at a useful rate. 

Somewhere like, say, San Francisco.

So Martinez arrests the British, hosts some thirteen less obstreperouos traders, many of them British, but lost to history due to somewhat more gift for diplomacy than James Colnett showed. Then he sails home. This proves to have been the wrong thing to do, diplomatically speaking. Spain could not abandon Nootka until without a quid pro quo from the British. So back they sailed again the next year. 

Some ginger having been applied at San Blas, the voyage had enough provisions, and a free company of marines raised from a Catalan regiment. Pedro d'Alberni, the commander of marines, arrived under the shadow of censure for being "dilatory" in preparing his company. Nothing else in his career suggests that he was less than a zealous and efficient officer (he had nothing to do with how Port Alberni turned out), so San Blas is still showing its limits. 

Whether the Catalans or perhaps the Chinese labourers did the work, Alberni oversaw the construction of a post and a citadel at Nootka Sound suitable to host the great and the good, as Bodega y Quadra, then George Vancouver (who I will believe was the son of a farm labourer the day that I see the results of his paternity test), and finally a true grandee, a Malaspina of Malaspina, traipsed through, doin' diplomacy. 

By the time that it happened, Alberni had been arguing for the abandonment of Yuquot for five years. He had built, he had gardened, he had persevered. And, one by one, he sent his Catalans down to San Francisco to recover from the diseases of cold and nutritional deficiency that were inevitable at a place like Yuquot. Here, on the forelorn and rocky coast of outer Vancouver Island, there was nothing to do but trade sea otters and fish. Farming was not on the agenda, and Yuquot could never therefore become the kind of place that nineteenth century strategists thought of as strong and rich: that is, full of rich fields and farmer's sounds to carry rifles. (Though they missed some chances to discover the cameralists' idea of national wealth, in the form of rock gold mines.)

San Blas/Madrid did listen. They tried to move the post. Only they proposed to move it to Neah Bay, the Makah whaling outport. The British objected to this, and the Spanish answered by recruiting American captains to claim that Meares never did buy an extensive tract of land at Nootka sound. Maquinna enthusiastically agreed. But, curiously, three Americans, Kendrick, Ingraham, and most famously Grey, claimed that they had bought land from Maquinna. Grey's widow was still asserting her rights to a transferable land claim somewhere in "Oregon" two generations later.  Maquinna, for his part, simply asserted that Spain had the overarching claim at Nootka.

Look, let's go back to that voyage of 1789. You hear about the diplomacy, but never about the assortment of Hawaiians aboard the ships, or about Comekela, the Nootka who had gone to China and returned, and walked into Maquinna's potlach hall wearing shimmering plates of copper, or the miserable Scot, Dr. McKay, who had been left at Yuquot four years before by some forgotten trader to learn the native language and serve as an intermediary, or about the mutinous crewmen that Meares sold to Maquinna as slaves. (Although, Meares tells us, he promptly bought them all back.) People are coming into Yuquot and going out: American and Portuguese and Scottish, Hawaiian and Chinese and Mexican. Even if some of them did pretend to be English. If it sounds like Vancouver Airport on any given day, there's a reason for that. 

What I am saying here is that there's clearly another agency at work. A raincoast man. Maquinna. My goodness. Why wouldn't there be? I mean, you may hear the men of Nootka Sound being described as small, dirty and ill-favoured, but here's Maquinna, courtesy of Wikipedia:


Even allowing for a Pumping Iron-level of enthusiasm on the part of the illustrator, those are not the arms of idle hereditary monarchs. I hate to descend into modern cant, but those are alpha males you see there. Who's in charge of Nootka Sound? Maquinna. The Canadian Dictionary of National Biography suggests that there were several Maquinnas, and that the one that oversaw the doings at Nootka Sound reigned from roughly 1778 to 1795. 

Yeah, well, that's one version. Heck, it's probably the right one. But that's where Google and its cohorts of eager genealogical researchers come in. Search for "Maquinna descendants," and you learn about Donna Maria Jesus de la Nutka, mother of the prolific Talias clan of San Francisco out of the San Gabriel Mission but long since Hispanicised/Americanised (if I've got the name wrong, my apologies, but I've got to go to work very soon now.)

The story is that a Chief Maquinna and Donna Maria arrived in San Francisco in 1795. On the odds, it's Maquinna's son and daughter, sent to be raised up by the Franciscans in an age-old diplomatic move that punts Spanish interest in Nootka Sound forward until after the end of the next great European war.  But I shall choose to tell the story in terms of Maquinna retiring to California, because that's what  raincoast people do. Golden California is, well, golden. 

And all this said without bringing up Sarah Thompson's fascinating observation (tip of the blogger's to Lameen) hat to  that many Wakashan (Nootka) words were carried over into the Chinook Jargon, but by native speakers of a European language. Nootka words lack the consonant clusters otherwise found as a common areal feature of Northwestern words, while Chinook words have them. Therefore, Thompson concludes, English or French speakers transmitted them into the Jargon.

Yeah. That or Spanish speakers. California has been the absent presence of Northwestern history since we started writing it. Why not before?




*"Transformation Mask." Image curated at artscenecal.com  here,  Published in Down From the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast. Artist: No credit online, so traditional, I suppose.
**There is some controversy about just how old the whale hunt is on the Northwest Coast, if i recall correctly. It is driven, perhaps, by modern aversion to whale hunting in general, but that doesn't mean that the controversialists are wrong. It may be a peri-contact activity due to its resource intensiveness (that is, it demanded iron tools, not so much to carry out, as to release the necessary resources), but given the course of debris caught in the Pacific Current, the driving force could as easily be the Japanese push into the Kanto and Tohoku as the commencement of the maritime fur trade. The controversy probably very gently hangs on the Makah and the excavations at Ozette.  
***Check out this crazy detailed Wikipedia article on the Maritime Fur Trade before some pedant gets it taken down for "original research."
****This is an interesting but charmingly unreliable secondary source. The key issue is that Waling refers to a "Greenhow" who adduced many convincing reasons (as they put it in the 1880s) for seeing the 1788 expedition as genuinely Portuguese. Make of that what you will. I know I will.  

2 comments:

  1. Never would have guessed there were old Nootka families in SF. But yeah, that could work for the words.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Santa Clara, to be precise. Now, if someone could tell me what "Nutka" signifies in Polish....

    ReplyDelete