Francisco de Eliza y Reventa
1759 - 1825
Francisco de Eliza y Reventa was born in El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain, in 1759 and began his naval career as a marine guard in December 1773. He served in the Spanish expedition of 1775 against Algiers (Algeria) and in 1780 he was sent to America, where he later took part in the siege of Pensacola (Florida) during the War of American Independence. In 1789, as a senior warship lieutenant, he was dispatched to San Blas (Mexico) with his brother-in-law Jacinto Caamano and several other officers to bolster the Spanish naval presence on the Pacific coast. Since Eliza was the most senior officer available at San Blas, he was named in 1790 by Viceroy Count de Revilla Gigedo to command an expedition to reoccupy Nootka Sound in the wake of the crisis following the seizure of British merchant vessels the previous year by Esteban Jose Martinez. Although Spain wanted no repetition of Martinez's aggressive actions without just cause, Eliza carried instructions to dislodge any foreigners found at Nootka. Besides occupying and fortifying the site, he was to collect data on the flora and fauna, conduct meteorological experiments, obtain mineral samples, and trade Mexican copper sheets for sea otter pelts. Just as important, he was to establish friendly relations with the Indians and study their society.
Commanding the vessels Concepcion, San Carlos, and Princess Royal (renamed Princesa Real), Eliza arrived at Friendly Cove, in Nootka Sound, on 3 April 1790. Thus began a major effort to prove Spanish sovereignty. The expedition was accompanied by 76 soldiers of the 1st Free Company of Volunteers of Catalonia, commanded by Pedro de Alberni. The seamen and soldiers constructed buildings, planted gardens, and built a small fort capable of repelling attack. Exploration was given first priority: on May 4, 1790, Eliza dispatched Salvador Fidalgo to visit the Russian posts in Alaska and on 31 May, Manuel Quimper was sent to examine Juan de Fuca Strait, which was believed to be the most likely entry to the fabled passage through the continent to the Atlantic.
Although Eliza did everything possible to prepare the settlement for the long winter, it proved to be a difficult one. The Indians, remembering the murder of chief Callicum by the Spaniards the previous year, were not particularly friendly. Spanish efforts to obtain lumber led to a number of incidents and to the Spaniards outright theft of planks from houses of Nootka Indians. On another occasion, five Indians were killed during an attempt to steal some casks. Despite these aggravations, Eliza was successful in improving relations with the people of chief Muquinna. When British fur trader Captain Thomas Hudson and five men died in a shipwreck on their way to the Spanish settlement in October, Eliza was able to enlist the aid of Muquinna in searching for survivors and documents. On January 4, 1791, British trader Captain James Colnett arrived at Nootka Sound on the Argonaut and was assisted by Eliza in repairing his vessel. By then, the Spaniards had begun to suffer great privation. Lack of fresh food caused scurvy and the biscuit either rotted from the humidity or was consumed by hordes of rats. Nine men perished during the winter and by the spring Eliza had to send 32 soldiers and seamen, suffering from a variety of ailments including colds, rheumatic pains, and dysentery, by ship to California for recovery.
Viceroy Revilla Gigedo was not at all pleased with Eliza's rather laconic descriptions of life and conditions at Nootka Sound or by his apparent lack of scientific interest in the Indians. Information about the potential of the northern territory or about whether the Indians were being attracted to Catholicism was slow to arrive in Mexico City. The viceroy was further distressed when he learned that Eliza had given the Indians a large gift of copper sheets to search for the bodies of Hudson and the English sailors. The copper was intended to gauge the commercial potential of the sea otter trade. In Revilla Gigedo's opinion, a few trinkets and old scrap metal would do for gifts. In these complaints as well as in other criticisms of Eliza's policies, the bureaucrats reflected their total ignorance of frontier conditions. There had been little time at first to engage in scientific experiments and the Indians refused to trade for inferior goods when the British and American traders offered copper, weapons, and other desirable items.
In fact, Eliza did collect information during the quiet winter months and was able to present his superiors with a comprehensive view of the country, its inhabitants, and its potential usefulness to Spain. He was impressed by the Indians canoes and their maritime skills. He described their methods of fishing and whaling and observed their ceremonies. Besides trading copper for sea otter pelts, Eliza began to purchase Indian children. By April 1791 he had bought eight boys and seven girls whom he believed he had spared from cannibal feasts. Like many other Spanish observers, he had nothing good to say about the climate or the potential value of the northwest coast. In his view, Nootka Sound's only promise lay with the maritime fur trade, but he noted that otters were being depleted and the Indians were losing their interest in trade goods.
On May 4, 1791, Eliza, in command of the San Carlos and a small schooner reconstructed at Nootka and named, after his wife, the Santa Saturnina, set sail on a voyage of exploration. He visited chief Wikinanish at Clayoquot Sound and then entered Juan de Fuca Strait. Although Eliza conducted fairly extensive explorations, described the agricultural potential of the region, and noted the influx of fresh water from the river now called the Fraser, he did not examine the nearby sound (Puget Sound) or circumnavigate present-day Vancouver Island. He left these tasks and the greater honour to George Vancouver, Dionisio Alcala Galiano, and Cayetano Valdes y Flores Bazon. Some historians have criticized Eliza for not accomplishing more on this voyage, but the Indians were hostile and his crew was weakened from scurvy. More important, he could not take too many risks, knowing that he had to return to prepare the settlement at Nootka Sound for the next winter.
During the autumn of 1791 Eliza expressed fear that his men might not survive another winter with the few provisions that remained. Fortunately, the winter was not as bad as that of the previous year. Food supplies sent from Mexico were of better quality and the storage facilities afforded better protection from humidity and rats. The Indians were now frequent visitors to the settlement and Eliza was convinced that within a few years they would convert to Catholicism.
at re-establishing the Spanish presence on the north Pacific coast, Eliza
departed from Nootka Sound on July 24, 1792, and did not return. Although
the settlement was in good condition when he left, he was anxious to return
to Spain or to take up a less isolated post. His wife and children petitioned
the ministry of Marine for his return, but Eliza was needed in Mexico.
In 1793 he commanded an expedition to explore the California coast and
from 1795 to 1801 he commanded the naval base at San Blas. Finally, he
was transferred in 1803 to Cadiz, Spain, where he continued to serve in
the navy. During the occupation of Spain by Napoleon, from 1808 to 1814,
Eliza held a number of political posts at Cadiz. He passed away on February
19, 1825, in Cadiz. On the west coast of vancouver Island between Zeballos
and Fair Habour is a peak with twin summits called Eliza Ears.
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Thurman, M.E. The Naval Department of San Blas; New Spain's Bastion for Alta California and Nootka, 1767 to 1798. Glendale, California. 1967.
Ybarra y Berg , Javier de. De California Alaska: Historia de un descubrimiento. Madrid, Spain. 1945.
Archer, C.I. The Transient Presence: A Re-appraisal of Spanish Attitudes toward the Northwest Coast in the Eighteenth Century. BC Studies. Vancouver, BC. No.18. Summer 1973.
"Francisco de Eliza y Reventa." Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Volume 6. University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario.