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At the Far Reaches of Empire: The Life of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra

By Freeman Tovell

November 4, 2013

Review By Roderick Barman

Spanish activity along the Pacific Northwest Coast from 1774 to 1793 has attracted a moderate amount of scholarly attention, including monographs by Warren Cook, Donald Cutter, and John Kendrick, as well as the publication, often in translation, of archival materials – logs, reports, and official correspondence. The subject is far from exhausted, and the appearance of this new study by Freeman Tovell, a retired Canadian diplomat, can only be welcomed. His book, by reason of its broad coverage, meticulous research, and balanced approach, will become an indispensable tool for any scholar interested in this topic.

The book has a core and outliers. A biography of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a naval officer born at Lima in 1744 and deceased at Querétaro, Mexico, in 1784, constitutes the core. As a colonial, Bodega y Quadra never possessed the standing and connections needed to achieve a high rank in Spain’s navy. He can be said to have given his monarch good service in difficult and unrewarding undertakings, which certainly undermined his health and probably caused his death. In terms of the dynamics of colonialism, Bodega y Quadra’s life suggests that it was not just the conquered peoples who were subject to exploitation by the imperial powers. The agents the latter employed to secure their goals were often treated as no more than subalterns.

The outliers in Freeman Tovell’s work are the broader issues and events in which Bodega y Quadra participated or that shaped his life and naval career. He was an important player in the Spanish attempt to preclude any foreign presence, territorial or commercial, on the Pacific coast of North America. Bodega y Quadra took part in two of the voyages (1775 and 1779, respectively) north from Mexico to Alaska. While he played no role in the confrontation between Spain and Great Britain over Nootka Sound (on the west coast of Vancouver Island) in 1789-90, he was selected in 1792 to be the Spanish agent for implementing the terms of the three conventions that defused the crisis through a mutual renunciation of territorial sovereignty and of claims to exclusive commerce and navigation. During his mission Bodega y Quadra skilfully defended Spanish rights while maintaining warm relations with the British agent, George Vancouver. No less fruitful was his service (1789-94) as commandant of San Blas, an isolated, poorly supplied, and pestilential port on the west coast of Mexico and upon which the northern voyages depended.

It can be argued that the Spanish never possessed (and, even if they had, could never have mobilized) the resources needed to implement their policies along the Northwest Coast. The voyages launched from San Blas were few in number, brief in time, and scanty in achievements. The settlements at Nootka Bay and further south at Neah Bay did not flourish. The Nootka crisis had the paradoxical result of focusing British interest on the Northwest Coast and of creating from that moment onwards a feeling of legitimate claim to the area. The only clear legacy of the Spanish presence has been a number of place names, not all of them lasting (witness what was originally known as “Vancouver’s and Quadra’s Island”). Freeman Tovell is less interested in engaging with these larger issues than in examining in exhaustive detail – including five appendices, a chronology, and a glossary – the course of events. The book, exemplary in its layout and printing, has clearly been a labour of love for the author, witness the excellent illustrations (many in colour) that he has gathered over the years. Taken as a whole, Freeman Tovell’s work is a notable addition to the history of British Columbia.