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Esteban José Martínez Fernández y Martínez de la Sierra

1742 - 1798

Esteban José Martínez was born on December 9, 1742 in Seville, Spain. He entered Seville's famous marine Seminario de San Telmo when he was 13 and went to sea within three years. By 1773 he was serving as a second pilot in the small naval department of San Blas (state of Nayarit, Mexico), the supply port for Spain's missions and posts in the Californias. He was subsequently to play a major role in the events that led Spain and Britain to the brink of war in 1790.

After the division of the new world between Spain and Portugal by the papal bull of 1493 and the treaty of Tordesillas (1494), Spain had considered the Pacific coast of the Americas to be part of her empire. Her claims had not prevented encroachments on the part of other countries and independent traders. By the 1770s rumours of Russian expansion south from Alaska were reaching Madrid. To forestall further erosion of Spanish sovereignty an expedition was dispatched in 1774, under the command of Juan Pérez, with instructions to sail north from San Blas as far as possible. Martínez was second in command of the frigate Santiago on this voyage. Pérez reached what are now the northern Queen Charlotte Islands on July 16. Prevented from going any further by unfavourable conditions, the expedition turned south and on August 8 anchored off what Pérez named Surgidero de San Lorenzo (Nootka Sound). After making contact with the Nootka Indians, the expedition returned to San Blas.

Although several Spanish expeditions visited the northwest coast after 1774, little attempt was made to establish posts or to exploit the region's natural resources. However, James Cook's survey of the coast publicized its potential for a rich commerce in furs with China, and during the 1780s British vessels, often sailing under the Portuguese flag to avoid the monopolistic restrictions of the East India and South Sea companies, began to open up the trade in sea otter pelts.

From 1775 until 1788 Martínez had been engaged in supplying Spanish posts in the province of Sonora (Mexico), and those at Loreto, Monterey (California), San Diego, and San Francisco. In 1786, while on a routine mission to Monterey, he piloted the French expedition of the Comte de La Pérouse into the harbour. Questioning the French on their discoveries, Martínez was left with the erroneous impression, duly reported to the viceroy of New Spain, that the Russians had established a post at Nootka. This report, together with those concerning Russian expansion being made by Spain's ambassadors to Russia, moved Madrid to order Martínez in 1788 to sail north and make a full reconnaissance of Russian activities. Leaving San Blas on 8 March, the expedition of two vessels visited Russian trading posts on Kodiak Island and Unalaska in the Aleutians. While he found no present threat to Spanish territory, Martínez learned that frigates were expected from Siberia in 1789 to establish the Russians at Nootka. On his return to San Blas on December 5, he recommended that Spain set up a post at Nootka no later than May 1789, and volunteered for the assignment. His report, and the arrival at the islands of Juan Fernández, off the coast of Chile, of two American ships under Robert Gray and John Kendrick, bound for the north Pacific coast, finally convinced Viceroy Manuel Antonio Flórez that Spain could no longer afford to ignore infringements of her sovereignty there.

Martínez was the only officer available to Flórez and he was accordingly placed in command of the new expedition, despite his low rank and his record of conflicts with subordinates during the 1788 voyage. Afraid of being beaten to Nootka by the Russians and lacking time to consult Madrid, Flórez instructed Martínez to set up a temporary post sufficient to guarantee Spanish sovereignty. The expedition arrived at Nootka on May 5, 1789 to discover several vessels, that of Kendrick among them, already in the sound. Martínez decided that the Americans did not pose any great threat to Spanish claims; indeed, he received no little assistance from Captain Kendrick, who introduced him to the Nootka chief Muquinna. However, another ship, the Efigenia Nubiana, was easy to identify as a British vessel under a Portuguese flag of convenience. Claiming that the ship carried instructions in Portuguese to capture weaker foreign vessels, Martínez seized, but later released, the Efigenia.

Although Martínez had been instructed to create a temporary post at Nootka, he believed that Spain should take a more active interest in the northwest coast. On the 1774 voyage he had seen that it was not a cold and mountainous desert as had been thought and he envisaged the creation of a Spanish society which would prosper from shipbuilding and other industries. When a schooner he had dispatched from Nootka on June 21, 1789 returned on July 5 with reports of the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait, Martínez became convinced that the strait had its terminus near New Orleans on the Mississippi River. Although few were to accept his theory, Spain could not afford to relinquish control over the area until a full investigation had been completed. While at Nootka Martínez was tireless in his efforts to convince his government that the base should be made permanent. He ordered a large bell and complete ornaments for a proposed church there, as well as copper sheets for the Indian trade. He formulated a plan, based on the conquest and settlement of the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. for a triangular transpacific trade system in which Mexican products would be exchanged on the northwest coast for sea otter pelts and lumber, which would in turn be sold in China for oriental luxury goods and the mercury needed in the Mexican mining industry.

By the time a British ship, the Argonaut, under the command of James Colnett, arrived from Macao, China, on July 2, Martínez's men had constructed a small battery and some buildings and had planted gardens on the site of the Indian village at Friendly Cove. Colnett, no more suited for diplomacy than Martínez, claimed to have orders from England to create a permanent settlement. Polite relations between the two irascible commanders soon degenerated into disputes. In the final confrontation Colnett, according to Martínez, placed his hand on his sword and shouted "the evil-sounding and denigrating words 'Gardem España [God damn Spain].'" Martínez ordered the arrest of Colnett and the capture of his ship. When another British ship, the Princess Royal, arrived on July 12, it too was detained, and both were sent to San Blas.

The events at Nootka were to create a major incident between Britain and Spain in 1790. That year John Meares, a British trader who had visited Nootka in May 1788 and who had money invested in the captured vessels, published in London a biased account of the affair which served to whip up British feeling against Spain. Meares claimed to have purchased land from the Indians which had been taken by the Spaniards, and he condemned Martínez for killing an Indian chief and for having forced Colnett's Chinese artisans to work in mines. All these claims lacked substance: Muquinna subsequently denied having sold the land, the murder was the rash act of a Spanish soldier, and there were no mines. The Spanish policy of keeping all documents secret, however, led contemporary writers, including some Spaniards, to accept Meares's version of the events.

After waiting in vain until the end of October 1789 for orders to make the base at Nootka permanent, Martínez sailed for San Blas. Flórez, who was about to leave Mexico, wanted to avoid any responsibility for the events at Nootka and turned the affair over to his successor, the Count de Revilla Gigedo. Revilla Gigedo considered Martínez's handling of the situation "imprudent, inopportune, and ill-founded." Despite his criticism, however, he was dismayed to learn that Nootka had been abandoned, and in 1790 he sent Francisco de Eliza y Reventa, with Martínez as second in command, to re-establish the base. While at Nootka, Martínez received instructions from Madrid, issued at the request of his wife, to return to Spain. At San Blas by February 1791, he obtained an extension to allow him to dispose of the cattle ranch he had acquired in Tepic (Mexico). In September he set sail for Spain. After a few years' service out of Cadiz, his petitions for return to San Blas were granted, on condition that his wife consent to follow him, "otherwise not, because of the long time in which he had been separated from her, since he went to those realms." Promoted frigate ensign, he was transferred to San Blas in February 1795. In 1796 he was in Mexico City with renewed schemes for the settlement of the northwest coast. The last years of his life were probably spent commanding supply vessels between San Blas and Alta (present day) California. Martínez died on October 28, 1798, at the age of fifty-five in Loreto (Baja California, Mexico).

Under other circumstances, Martínez could have won a reputation as a Spanish hero rather than as a precipitous hot-head. He had prevented the British from establishing a post in territories claimed by Spain and had drafted plans that would have assured Spanish domination of the northwest coast. In his own mind he was defending the interests of his nation, and his letters from Nootka Sound had some impact on Spanish policy. But in the clash of imperial designs at Nootka he won only the condemnation of fur-traders and criticism from many of his own superiors.

Archer, Christon I. "Esteban Jose Martinez." Dictionary Of Canadian Biography. Vol. IV. University of Toronto. Toronto, Ontario. 2000.

Colnett, James. The Journal of Captain James Colnett aboard the Argonaut from April 26, 1789, to November 3, 1791. ed. F. W. Howay. Toronto. 1940.

Moziño Suárez de Figueroa, J.M. Noticias de Nutka; An account of Nootka Sound in 1792. trans. and ed. I. H. Wilson. Seattle, Washington. 1970).

Manning, W.R. The Nootka Sound Crisis. Washington, 1905.

Thurman, M.E. The Naval Department of San Blas: New Spain's bastion for Alta California and Nootka, 1767 to 1798. Glendale, California. 1967.

Javier de Ybarra y Bergé. De California á Alaska: Historia de un descubrimiento. Madrid. 1945.

Archer, Christon, I. "The transient presence: a re-appraisal of Spanish attitudes toward the northwest coast in the eighteenth century," BC Studies (Vancouver), no.18. summer 1973.

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