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Uncharted Waters: The Explorations of José Narváez (1768–1840)

By Jim McDowell

Review By Devon Drury

March 21, 2016

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016-2017  | p. 158-159

Jim McDowell’s Uncharted Waters: The Explorations of José Narváez is a comprehensive examination of one of the most important and overlooked explorers of the Pacific Coast during the late eighteenth century. McDowell traces Narváez’s long career from his upbringing and schooling in Cadiz to his assignments involving the Spanish explorations of the North West Coast and to his later career as an officer of the Spanish Navy during the revolutionary period in Mexico and in the navy of the new Mexican Republic.

But the main contribution and purpose of Uncharted Waters is to highlight the important expedition commanded by Narváez in the summer of 1791, when he carried out the first systematic European explorations of Clayoquot Sound and Barkley Sound and became the first European to journey into what is now the Strait of Georgia. This first outside excursion into the Salish Sea in 1791 has been overlooked by most historians of the Pacific Coast and British Columbia, a neglect due mostly to the fact that Narváez’s journal and account of his explorations has been missing since at least 1840. Additionally, the Narváez expedition was soon overshadowed by the more famous explorations of the following summer commanded by George Vancouver of the Royal Navy and Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores for the Spanish Navy.

Since Narváez’s journal and firsthand account of his explorations in 1791 is still missing, McDowell combines available secondhand reports of the exploration with subsequent cartographic evidence to build a convincing narrative that explains where and how Narváez carried out his reconnaissance. McDowell’s extensive research shines during this critical central portion of the book. He uses multiple maps prepared after the 1791 exploration along with secondhand accounts from some of the other officers present during the explorations to reconstruct a comprehensive profile of Narváez’s movements. The book concludes with a few useful chapters on Narváez’s later career — chapters that situate the character, personality, and achievements of this first European to journey into the Salish Sea — and with informative appendices that detail some of the ships used during Narváez’s explorations and an account of the scholarly search for the missing 1791 journal.

Uncharted Waters is an important addition to the bookshelf of early British Columbia history. Since Narváez’s journal detailing his important incursion into the Salish Sea is still missing and unavailable to historians, this expedition has been hitherto cloaked in mystery and misinformation. Jim McDowell has done an admirable job at opening up this important phase of the European exploration of the coast to all who may be interested.

Uncharted Waters: The Explorations of José Narváez (1768–1840)
Jim McDowell
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2015. 300 pp. $24.95 paper