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Spanish on the West Coast

Source: By John Kendrick
Jose Maria Narvaez 1765–1840

The first Europeans to see what is now the west coast of Canada, and the first to explore it, were Spanish naval officers and their largely Mexican crews. There are some famous names among these explorers, Bodega y Quadra who first landed on what the Spaniards call the northern cost of the Californias in 1775. There are also some who names are less well known: Perez who was the first to reach the northwest coast of American in 1774 and Narvaez, who in the year 1791 explored what is now called the Strait of Georgia. Narvaez called it Gran Canal de Nuestra Senora del Rosario. This name was too cumbersome to survive; Narvaez made an important discovery but he has been neglected in historical accounts.


Jose Maia Narvaez Gervete was born in Cadiz in 1765. He joined the Real Armada in 1782 as an unpaid apprentice. Nine moths later he was enrolled as a "qualified third pilot". It is misleading to compare ranks in the Spanish Armada with English equivalents, but a piloto was junior to an alferez, which in turn was junior to a teniente, usually considered to be the lowest rank of oficial del mar or (one might say) commissioned officer. It was not long before the seventeen year old Narvaez was in action. In October 1782, according to his service record in the Naval Museum in Madrid, his ship "joined the combined squadron commanded by His Excellency Luis de Cordova in pursuit of the English squadron and defeated it." A month after his arrival in San Blas in February 1788, Narvaez was on his way to the Aleutian Islands, as the junior officer in a store's ship name San Carlos. For the next seven years, he was involved, always as a junior officer, in all the important events of the Spanish exploration and occupation of the west coast of present day Canada.

(See Early Spanish contact)

In 1789 Narvaez sailed north in the ship commanded by Esteban Joe Marinez. Their destination was Nootka, the site proposed for a Spanish settlement on the west coast of Vancouver Island. In 1790, Francisco Eliza was ordered to go to Nootka to set up the outpost; Narvaez went with him and live for the next two years on the Northern Coast. In 1791, Eliza was instructed to explore further into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which had been examined as far as the San Juan Island, east of the present City of Victoria, during the previous year. Eliza sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, sending Narvaez to explore the inlets he passed on his way.


Narvaez was given command of a small schooner. Its name is given as either Santa Saturnina or Saturnina with the alias Orcasitas. The alias is one of the many names of the Viceroy of New Spain, the Count of Revilla Gigedo. Unfortunately for the historian, there were two, or possibly three different schooners with the name Saturnina, as well as another vessels called Occasitas or Horcasitas. In Eliza's instructions, in his journal, and in the journal of the pilot Pantoja, there are references to a schooner brought to Nootka in frame and assembled there. This was probably the ship used by Narvaez. Narvaez explored the present Barkley Sound on the west Coast of Vancouver Island, and joined Eliza at Cordoba (Esquimalt) when he had satisfied himself that the inlets opening into Barkley Sound were all "closed". The Spanish explorers were looking for the western entrance to the Northwest Passage; once they were satisfied that a particular inlet was "closed" they left it. Cordoba had been mapped and named by Manuel Quimper in the previous year before he turned back at the San Juan Islands.


The course of Narvaez's voyage must be inferred from the "Eliza" map dated 1791. There is no known copy of a journal or map by Narvaez. A French traveler, Duflot de Mofras, reported that he met Narvaez at his home in Guadalajara in 1840. Duflot de Mofras wrote that Narvaez showed him his maps of the 1791 voyage, but after that the maps seem to have disappeared. Narvaez must have explored the mainland side all the way, probably on the way north, reuniting along the Vancouver Island shore as far south as Portlier Pass. Probably he then re–crossed to the mainland before rejoining Eliza at Port Discovery. The only dates for this voyage are in Eliza's report, which says Narvaez arrived back on 2 July after having spent eight days in the Gulf, or "La Gran Canal de Nuestra Senora del Rosario de la Marina" as Eliza referred to it.


Eliza changed some of the names that had been assigned by Narvaez. Although the course of Narvaez's voyage is unclear, the map defines its extent. Among other features it shows two islands at the south of a wide inlet, connected by a broken shoreline. The islands were named Cepeda and Langara. (See Early Spanish contact) They are our Point Roberts and Point Grey, the latter being the western tip of the City of Vancouver. An anchorage and some sounding are shown to the west of Point Grey.


Following his return to Mexico from Nootka in 1792 Narvaez made voyages to Manila and California, then in 1795 he was involved in the last act of the Spanish government on the Canadian west coast. After Martinez had seized Meares' ship in 1789, the famous "Nootka affair" erupted. England threatened war, and Spain, having lost its alliance with Louis XVI through the French Revolution, decided to capitulate, agreeing to restore British property and pay damages to Meares.


Narvaez spent the rest of this naval career in the Department of San Blas, making voyages to California and Manila. He became an alferez de fragata in 1806. Occasionally he commanded a ship, but more often he was employed as a purser or as the captain's secretary.


The first revolutionary upheaval in New Spain started in 1810. Narvaez stayed with the Spanish side until 1819, when his Spanish service record ends. He had been in Mexico for over thirty years, with his wife who was Mexican, and he joined the revolution at about that time. When Iturbide created a Mexican navy, Narvaez joined it, retiring in 1831 at the age of sixty–six with the rank of capitan de fragata, a junior captain. His career still was not finished. He undertook to bring the map of the state of Jalisco up to date, and saw it reissued just before his death in 1840.


Narvaez did not have a meteoric career in the navies of Spain or Mexico; most of his many voyages were supply trips to the various Spanish outposts in the Caribbean and Pacific and later to Mexican California. His career was rediscover in Mexico in 1977 mainly because one of his descendants was Juan Lopez Portillo, the President of the Republic. In Canada, a street in Vancouver and a plaque mentions his name are the only remembrances of the first European to see the south shores of Metro Vancouver.

White Rock Historical Society, July 1991



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