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A Voyage to the North West Side of America: The Journals of James Colnett, 1786-89

By Robert M. Galois

Review By Barry Gough

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 131-3

JAMES COLNETT will always remain a name of notoriety in world history for it is he who responded to Commandant Esteban Martinez’s demands and formalities at Nootka Sound in 1789 and started, so it is said, the Nootka Crisis. On that occasion Colnett is said to have been intemperate and hotheaded, even unsettled or unbalanced. The fact of the matter was that, in the circumstances, he was no less intemperate than was his Spanish counterpart who was going by the book and who was determined to enforce the imperium of the King of Spain in that remote quarter of contested empire.

Students of Pacific and global navigation have always appreciated Colnett’s capabilities for reasons other than what happened at Nootka Sound. For instance, Colnett is often cited as a pioneer of European navigation in Japanese seas. Even more important, he was commander of an important British scientific and hydrographie expedition — his ship was the Rattler – charged with determining, under Admiralty protection, prospective bases of operations for British whalers in the southeast Pacific. It was Colnett who pointed out the value of such places as Juan Fernandez and of the Galapagos Islands. In fact, all prominent persons in the merchant trades of the United Kingdom and British Empire knew the name of James Colnett, and when his name was spoken it was done so with respect and with acclaim. But it was not always this way, and in his early days, including during the voyage addressed by Robert Galois’s project, “Colnett” was not yet a name to be treated with reverential acclaim. He was just another competent sailing master who had his education in longdistance voyaging under the inimitable James Cook, with whom he sailed on the second Pacific voyage. Unlike many of the great British mariners who came to Nootka Sound in the wake of Cook, Colnett had never been there before; however, as a competent navigator and skilled sailor and commander, he was able to sail there from distant shores, all other things being equal in the line of weather and sailing conditions (along with a good ship and healthy crew). 

Colnett’s second voyage to Nootka Sound and elsewhere on the Northwest Coast is dated between 1789 and 1791, and his journal of that voyage was published by the Champlain Society in 1940 under the editorship of F.W. Howay. Colnett’s Rattler voyage was accomplished in 1793 and 1794, and the charmingly illustrated manuscript is to be found in the manuscripts department of the British Library (Add. Mss. 30,369). The text of the work published by Galois is in the Admiralty Papers, Kew, England, under file Adm.55/ 146. I mention these facts and details because the editor’s explanation of the disposition of these several documents and partial publications is by no means certain, and for the life of me, I could not find specifically stated the file reference for the document published in this book. I had to resort to my own The Northwest Coast: British Navigation, Trade, and Discoveries to 1812 to find it, the only other choice being to take an educated guess on the basis of the bibliography. There must be a Colnett worm at work, for in chasing through Howay, I could not find the original file for the document that he had edited for publication. All these matters point to the need for a comprehensive, notated Colnett bibliography and, perhaps, even a Colnett biography. 

Colnett’s visit to the Northwest Coast in the Prince of Wales derived from the enthusiasms of Richard Cadman Etches, a London tea merchant who was drawn into the vortex of merchant venturing to the Northwest Coast attendant on James Cook’s discoveries (and advertisement) of a gigantic profit to be made in the sea otter business. Etches and company first sent out the King George and Queen Charlotte, commanded by Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon, respectively, then, as a follow-on, sent the Prince of Wales and its tender, the Princess Royal, commanded by Charles Duncan. Colnett was commander of the whole latter enterprise. With Colnett sailed surgeon Archibald Menzies, noted naturalist later to accompany Captain George Vancouver; James Johnstone, a prominent mate who later sailed with Vancouver; Thomas Hudson, who features in the Nootka Crisis; and the third mate, Andrew Bracey Taylor, whose lively commentaries add much to Colnett’s generally dry prose. Colnett’s voyages stand between those of Cook and Vancouver and are thus immensely important in tracing the progression of British understanding of the Northwest Coast in the active 1780s and 1790s. As to the persons involved, almost invariably they were connected to the Royal Navy or to the scientific circle of Sir Joseph Banks. 

Dr. Galois’s interest includes place names, and, with painstaking effort, he has connected the newly applied English name with the indigenous appellation. Place name typographical conventions are established. He has taken care to provide many good maps, with dates of Colnett’s visits to various locales. This helps the reader to revert to the text as required and forms a strange sort of visual index. On these maps Galois places ethnographic names in bold, contemporary names in parentheses, and historic names in Roman – all of which will be of future value in land claim cases, though the details should be checked against the records of other traders, other mariners. And he includes a few of Colnett’s original drawings. 

But the importance of this work lies in its presentation of Colnett’s remarks, or his journal. Colnett was a dry and matter-of-fact fellow, not a bad thing in itself for there is an added veracity to such a well tempered account that a more flamboyant one might present as inadequate or puffed-up. Colnett was a servant of his paying masters, and he was valued by the latter for this important characteristic. What we lose in possible descriptive excitement, we gain in reliability and authenticity. There are snippets on various chiefs and peoples – for instance, on Coyah of Houston Stewart Channel in the Queen Charlottes in 1787. And from Colnett’s record, we can now find new details about Coyah’s life before he was shamed by John Kendrick, the Boston trader, in an infamous incident described elsewhere. 

In short, Colnett’s has always been an important in-between text, and now that it is in print, the researching public will be able to plumb its depths. We are indebted to Dr. Galois for this opportunity. That having been said, this is a book that requires excessive patience to use. In fact, it is the most reader-unfriendly text that I have faced as a researcher. The notes are impossibly placed as endnotes, of which there are two sets, both with the same coding of page references. You might find note 74 in two different places and wonder which is which. A reference book should have its notes at the foot of the page, and I hope that the publisher will consider making this change.