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Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Superior Orders (October 1789)


File:Santisima Trinidad.jpg

"Haro: I have departed Nuca by superior order to San Blas"

--Esteban José Martínez

The long love that in my thought doth harbor

How far from port with how much longer to go

For that matter how far from sherry or madeira

All that is lost and fallen ought to be

Who’d explain loyalty to fate and brandy

Indians among our crew dispirited by the cold

So much harsher than autumn in Mexico

Days of obscurity and foul prevailing weather

Rain fog and the progress of worm in planks

Closing off whatever had appeared our goal

We’ll abandon everything we’ve built or meant to

Though the rice begins to produce the wheat is planted

All through the long New World shadowed afternoon

We warp out of the cove preparatory to sailing


Santisima Trinidad: Spanish ship of the line, launched 1769 (author unknown)

Arrival of vessels commanded by Capt. John Meares in Nootka Harbour, Vancouver Island, 1788 (from John Meares' Voyages, 1790)

Poem from TC: Empire of Skin (a poetic history of the Northwest Coast Fur Trade)

1 comment:

TC said...

A word about this post may be in order.

It is an extract from Empire of Skin, a book of poems about the late 18th century skin trade in the Pacific Northwest. The location of the poem is Nootka Sound, on what as of its circumnavigation in 1790 by George Vancouver would be called Vancouver Island. At the time treated of in the book, several empires contended for control of that part of the North American continent, one (the Spanish) out of a prior territorial mandate, others (first the British and then decisively the Yankees from Boston) for the exploitation of the world market in sea otter skins, to be sold in Canton @$100 a pelt to make coats for mandarins.

The Spanish presence was to have little lasting effect on this part of the globe and its inhabitants. The American and British skin traders, however, left a significant black mark. That part of the sea otter population in those coastal waters which remained after the brutal Russian otter slaughters of the previous half century was effectively wiped out in a few short decades. The tragedy of that destruction was the subject of my book.

In his Preface, Edward Dorn wrote as follows:

"In the American westward expansion, from the Atlantic coastal ranges to the Pribilof Islands, the search for peltry led the way before all other exploitations--mining, ranching, land hunger and manifested psychopolitical space. The hunter and trapper followed the streams and trails of fur bearers across the continents and around the Horn into the greatest hoard of fur ever known--the 'soft gold' of this account--the Pacific Northwest, where European empires met to capture the trade in pelts, and for those with a mission for it, the harvest of some of the most savage souls ever encountered on this globe."

Now and then when I've considered posting some of the substantive historical pieces from Empire of Skin, I have been deterred by the commonsense wisdom of my Muse, who actually reads books and believes the internet is a place not for serious readers but for seekers of instant gratification, who mostly want to gape at the pictures, quick-scan the words and skip anything vaguely connected with History.

Silly me, this suggestion itself seems to my untutored way of thinking to be a Historical Observation on the part of my Muse.

Anyway, I recognize that this post will have been...well, not quite interesting enough to be a Mystery and not quite stuffy enough to be a Concept, more like a minor and easily overlooked bit of Nothing.

But in case there is anyone who actually wants to know, the short form of the specific background to the post is this. The speaker of the poem, Esteban José Martínez Fernández y Martínez de la Sierra, is a career naval man who has been in command of the Spanish fort at Nootka--or Nuca, as he calls it in the dispatch to his fellow admiral, Haro, in which he announces he is closing down the Spanish fort and heading south to the regional base of operations at San Blas in Mexico.

Martínez was a navigator and explorer of no small achievement. In 1774 he had served as second in command under Juan José Pérez Hernández aboard the Santiago on the first European mission to contact the Haida peoples of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Fifteen years after that he built the Spanish plantation at Nootka. But contention with the British in 1790 precipitated a minor international crisis. Martínez and the Spanish withdrew.

From what record remains of him it seems Martínez like most of the Spanish admiralty was a man of some culture and civilization (in marked contradiction to the British and Boston men, most of them glorified freebooters). There are tales of fine liqueurs and performances of Scarlatti on the quarter deck in the long sundowns of the New World. But as to whether the thoughts and feelings attributed to him here bear any resemblance to his living reality... well, the imagination and poetic license were my providers in that respect.