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Pedro de Alberni

1747 - 1802

Pedro de Alberni, sometimes known as Pere d'Alberní i Teixidor in Catalan, was born to a noble and wealthy family of Tortosa, Spain, on January 30, 1847. Alberni joined Spain's Second Regiment of the Light Infantry on July 17, 1762 to fight as a cadet in the campaign of Portugal during the Seven Years' War when he was only fifteen years old. He remained with this regiment for five years, after which he joined the Free Company of Volunteers of Catalonia. There Alberni participated in numerous engagements against the Indians of the northern frontier (the Mexican-American border country), and, recognized as an intelligent and valuable officer, he was promoted captain and commanding officer of his company on March 24, 1783. At some time before 1789 Alberni was for seven years military commander of the province of Nayarit.

Following the temporary occupation of Nootka Sound in 1789 by Esteban José Martinez, Viceroy Revilla Gigedo of New Spain decided to establish a more permanent presence there with a fortified post capable of defence against the British, Russians, or Americans. The viceroy assigned naval lieutenant Francisco de Eliza y Reventa to command the expedition of three ships, and Alberni with his company was to fortify and garrison the post. Alberni received orders to prepare for northern duty in September 1789, while stationed at Guadalajara (Mexico). He was short about fifteen men, and described another twenty-three as unfit for the rigours of northern service. Wishing to have the greatest possible number of Europeans at Nootka, the authorities of New Spain allowed him to recruit among Catalonians originally sent from Spain to serve elsewhere in the empire. Alberni requested new arms to replace warn-out equipment and demanded clothing suited to the northern climate. The consequent delays led Revilla Gigedo to charge him with insubordination and with hindering movement to San Blas (state of Nayarit), the port of embarkation. On February 3, 1790 Alberni sailed with charges still pending and was held in confinement for the duration of the voyage north. These circumstances may explain his long posting to Nootka and the special efforts made by his fellow officers to commend his zeal to the viceroy.

When Eliza's expedition landed at Friendly Cove on April 5, Alberni and his sevety-six soldiers began to fortify the harbour. Although their instructions called for them to mount 20 cannon, only 14 were placed. Hard labour, a poor diet, and the wet climate weakened the soldiers, who suffered from scurvy, dysentery, and colds. Alberni sent many to California missions to recuperate; by August 1790 only thirty-one soldiers remained.

Despite the hardships, Alberni threw himself into preparations for the coming winter. Contemporaries praised his vigour in erecting buildings with boards obtained from the Indians and in excavating wells and operating an efficient bakery. He also undertook to raise poultry and, aware of the importance of fresh vegetables, made himself one of the first gardeners on the northwest coast. In spite of Alberni's prophylactic efforts five soldiers perished during the winter, and in March 1791, thirty-two seamen and soldiers were dispatched to California because of illness. Throughout this period Eliza found Alberni to be a major source of strength to the garrison, maintaining military discipline and promoting harmony between officers and men by his good example.

In 1791 Alberni expanded his horticultural efforts and was able to place the settlement on a better footing for the next winter. He was instrumental in improving relations with the local Nootka's, who were distressed by a number of confrontations with the enlisted men, and by the Spaniards' occupation of the site of Yuquot, their summer village. When he learned that the Indians used flattery and songs in their own diplomacy, Alberni successfully emulated them with a simple verse for the soldiers to sing in Nootkan, praising chief Muquinna and set to a popular Spanish melody. Alberni is credited with a large contribution to the compilation of a Nootkan-Spanish vocabulary, but he did not write any major account of the Spanish presence in Nootka Sound. Even so, he was there long enough to become an important source of information for others. Among the Spanish explorers on the northwest coast, naval officers Alejandro Malaspina and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, and naturalist José Mariano Moziño praised his ability and intelligence. Supported by fellow officers' reports of his conduct, Alberni was successful in having the charge of insubordination dropped.

Bodega having arrived on April 29, 1792, to assume command at Nootka Sound, Alberni left there on July 1; after a delay in Monterey he reached San Blas late in November. On July 1, he had been promoted lieutenant-colonel, and some time after his return he served for eight months as commander of the great castle of San Juan de Ulúa at Veracruz (Mexico) and king's lieutenant of the port. When in 1796 the colonial régime once again feared foreign encroachment on the thinly settled California coast, Alberni with his company was sent to garrison San Francisco. Probably at the same time he was named military commander of the four major California presidios. Later transferred to Monterey, California, he died of dropsy there on March 11, 1802, at the age of fifty-five.

The town at the head of the Alberni Inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Port Alberni, is named in his honour.

Archer, Christon I. "Pedro de Alberni." Dictionary Of Canadian Biography. Volume 5. University of Toronto. Toronto, Ontario.

Tovell, Freeman M. At the Far Reaches of Empire: The Life of Juan Francisco De La Bodega Y Quadra. University of British Columbia Press. Vancouver, BC. 2008.

Provincial Archives of B.C. (Victoria), "Original manuscript letters of Pedro de Alberni, Commander Quadra, Gigedo and other Spanish officials concerning Spanish occupation on the northwest coast of America, 1789-93".

Mozino, Jose Mariano. Noticias de Nutka: An Account of Nootka Sound in 1792. Trans. and ed. I.H. Wilson. University of Washington Press. Seattle, Washington. 1970.

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