Quadra: Discoverer of Vancouver Island Gets Some Recognition in His Home Town of Lima

By David Paget —

“Here lived the discoverer of Vancouver Island, Canada” says the poster at the entrance to a new museum in Lima.  As a Vancouver-born Canadian and current resident of Lima, I wondered what this claim was all about. A tale of exploration and adventure on the high seas has emerged as I probed the museum and other sources, a story of the confrontation of empires, rival naval captains turned diplomats then comrades, and an attractive historic personality who is too little known today.

Quadra -1All this occurred over 200 years ago when a sound on Vancouver Island’s west coast was, for a brief but intense time, a center of world events.

 The reference to the discoverer of Vancouver Island was unveiled at the gala opening of the newest tourist attraction in the Old Town of Peru’s capital. The Mayor of Lima was backed up by a troupe of children dancing in vivid traditional costumes.

Quadra -2The museum consists of the partially restored house of the Bodega y Quadra family who lived there in the second half of the 18th Century. It turns out that their most illustrious son, Juan Francisco, became an officer in the Spanish navy and an explorer of British Columbia’s coast. Eventually he became commandant of Spain’s settlement on Vancouver Island.

In a fascinating diplomatic encounter there with his British rival Captain George Vancouver in 1792, Quadra – as this seafarer from Lima is best known in Canada – helped prevent a war between Spain and Britain.

Quadra as imaginedJuan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra spent his first 18 years in this Lima house that is now a museum. After his naval training in Cadiz, Spain, most of his career was based in San Blas, Mexico, just north of Puerto Vallarta. It was from there that he headed off on three successful expeditions along the BC coasts, twice reaching Alaska.

And yet he seems virtually unknown in the city of his birth, to judge from my conversations with Lima acquaintances. The new museum may help change that. And though Quadra is little known in Canada as well, I have discovered alluring traces of him.

Ever since Balboa’s 1513 claim that the entire Pacific Ocean and all its coasts belonged to Spain, the Spaniards considered the Northwest coast, including today’s BC, to be theirs. So they were upset to learn over two centuries later that the Russians were fur trading in Alaska. Starting in 1774, Spain sent naval expeditions to engage with the Russian “intruders”.

Quadra - Geo.VancouverThe first was led by Juan Perez, who stopped in Nootka on Vancouver Island, the sound 70 km north of Tofino. He deserves the title of European “discoverer” of the Island. Quadra went on a follow-up expedition the next year and another one five years later. Demonstrating outstanding leadership and seamanship abilities, he got as far as Prince William Sound in Alaska and drew up the first acceptable map of the Northwest coast.

The Spanish came to realize that their true rivals in these parts were not the Russians but the British. Captain Cook explored the northwest coast, including Nootka, in 1778, and the British became active traders of sea otters for the Chinese market. Things came to a head between the Spanish and the British in 1789. Spain had started building a fort at Nootka, the first European settlement on Canada’s west coast and the northernmost post of the Spanish empire. When some British trading ships arrived from China, intending to build their own post there, a dispute erupted between the Spanish and British captains. The Spanish arrested the British and took them and their ships back to the main Spanish base in San Blas. This was known in the corridors of power in London and Madrid as the “Nootka Crisis”, and almost led to war between the two rival empires.

Under a preliminary British-Spanish resolution, each country named a commissioner to work things out face-to-face in Nootka. Captain Quadra was designated by Spain and Captain Vancouver was designated by Britain. They arrived in Nootka a few months apart in mid-1792 to start their negotiations.

Quadra - Nootka SoundThere is something enchanting about the Quadra-Vancouver parlay there, when distant Nootka was a focus of interest of far-away empires. It is clear that much of the interpersonal success of the talks was thanks to Quadra’s genial personality and diplomatic skills.

He had his workers repair one of Vancouver’s ships. Putting his 300 pieces of silver dinnerware to good use, Quadra repeatedly feasted Vancouver in the two-storey commandant’s residence that the Spanish had constructed. On some occasions, over 50 people were served multi-course dinners. The First Nations chief was included in these banquets. Quadra said in his journal that he “singled [Chief Maquinna] out among all with the clearest demonstrations of esteem.”  This greatly impressed Vancouver, who was clearly wowed by Quadra, referring in his journal to “the warmth of expression with which I must ever advert to the conduct of Senor Quadra; who…uniformly maintained toward us a character infinitely beyond the reach of my powers of encomium to describe.”

One evening, when being hosted by Chief Maquinna, Quadra and Vancouver amicably agreed to call the island they were staying on “Quadra and Vancouver Island”, and so it became, on European maps. But as Spain’s influence declined in the 19th Century, Quadra’s name was gradually dropped from maps. From my vantage point living in the city of Quadra’s birth and knowing more about his accomplishments, I think this is a shame.

Despite the two captains’ best efforts, they could not work out their countries’ conflicting claims, so they parted on good terms and agreed to refer the issue back to their two governments, who three years later signed the “Convention for the Mutual Abandonment of Nootka”. In 1795 the Spanish dismantled their settlement at Nootka, marking the end of Spanish dominance on BC’s coast.

As for Quadra, when he returned from Nootka to San Blas in 1792 he asked for a transfer back home to Lima and its port of Callao. This was refused, despite his failing health, and he died in Mexico in 1794, aged 49. George Vancouver lamented his death eloquently in his journal, referring to “our highly valuable and much esteemed Senor Quadra” whose death was “universally lamented.” Vancouver died in obscurity in England four years later, aged 40. Quadra cadetQuadra is not altogether forgotten in Canada today. Quadra Park in the inner harbour district of Victoria contains a dignified bust of Quadra unveiled by the King of Spain in 1984, with a plaque reading in part: “In honour of their meeting and the ensuing friendly association, Captain George Vancouver named this land Quadra and Vancouver Island.” Quadra Street runs through Victoria. Quadra Island is not too far to the north, and there is HMCS Quadra at Comox. Agriculture Canada has developed the Quadra rose. The federal electoral district Vancouver Quadra is my favourite trace of Quadra. It is a political echo, reminding us of Quadra’s diplomatic mission. And in a way that neither he nor his British counterpart could have envisaged, it brings the names of Quadra and Vancouver together again.  Their dual naming of the island has not stuck, but their joint place in Canada’s national politics has.

The new Quadra museum in Lima is the culmination of a nine year project by the City of Lima to showcase its colonial history. It does this by displaying the extensive articles that were found in the course of the excavations, and by telling the story of the house’s most famous resident. The small Canadian community in Lima has the opportunity through this museum to foster Canada-Peru relations by highlighting Quadra’s role in Canada. Some of us are discussing plans with the museum’s director. I am confident that Quadra would have approved.

Museo Bodega y Quadra —Jiron Ancash 213, Lima. Phone 428 1644. Open: Tues-Sun 9am to 5pm

David Paget is a Canadian writer living in Lima.

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