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Robert King, Historian, Canberra, Australia, Discussing Malaspina, New South Wales and the Nootka Crisis

The Nootka Crisis was a conflict between the British and the Spanish surrounding the Pacific Northwest.  Set off in 1789 by the confiscation of British ships by the Spanish, it brought the rivalry over the Pacific Northwest to the brink of war.  Nootka Sound had been the landing spot for many European explorers, and for traders who had come to see Maquinna and the Mowachaht people at Yuquot on Nootka Island.  In 1789, the Spanish erected buildings and a fortified outpost at Yuquot to oversee the harbour traffic, with a careful eye to the comings and goings of their competitors, the British.  There is some question of the British having purchased land in the area from Maquinna in 1788. 

Under orders from the Spanish viceroy, Captain Martinez formally occupied the land and began checking the papers of visiting vessels.  The Argonaut under Captain Colnett of the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast of America was seized and the crew and captain were arrested and imprisoned. Martinez wrote in his journals of personal insults slung at him by Colnett, who was attempting to sail under a Portuguese instead of a British flag. Captain Hudson, sailing the Princess Royal, had already been warned by Martinez about visiting the area but returned to the sound.  His crew were likewise imprisoned.

The ships were taken to the naval base at San Blas, Mexico. The English King George III and Prime Minister Pitt soon learned of what had happened to the British ships and crews.  Angered by the incident and by ongoing competition with Spain for the Pacific Northwest, they threatened war. France, a Spanish ally, was coping with the Revolution and would not be able to fight for Spain in an armed conflict: the Spanish could not realistically secure their massive North and South American territories on their own.  The Spanish agreed to sign the Nootka Convention in Europe in 1790, ending the Crisis and beginning the first phase of the Spanish withdrawal from the Pacific Northwest. 

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