The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1992, Volume 38, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Voyage of Sutil and Mexicana, 1792: the Last Spanish Exploration of the Northwest Coast of America.

Translated, with an introduction by John Kendrick. Northwest Historical Series, no. 16. Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1991. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 260 pages. $32.50.

Reviewed by Stephen A. Colston, Associate Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University. Author of articles on Mesoamerican ethnohistory and Colonial Latin American cultural history.

In March 1792, two small ships (goletas), the Sutil and the Mexicana, sailed from Acapulco to regions of present-day British Columbia. The commanders of this expedition, Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores, were instructed by Alejandro Malaspina, who had sailed to the Northwest one year before, and by the Mexican viceroy to explore the coast in the vicinity of Vancouver Island. Their primary mission was to ascertain the validity of the perennial rumor that a strait existed connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The voyage lasted eight months, and fully half of that time was devoted to conducting explorations along the Northwest Coast.

There are several extant versions of the voyage narrative, and this book is the first publication of a version that is housed in Madrid’s Museo Naval and that the editor argues is the definitive account of the expedition. While most of this manuscript was probably compiled by Galiano from his own records, portions of the text were derived from information provided by other, and as yet unidentified, individuals.

The expedition was a product of the Enlightenment, and great effort was expended by the ships’ crews in making numerous scientific inquiries. Their labors produced detailed descriptions of the Amerindians, flora, fauna, and physical geography of the Northwest Coast; the narrative, then, serves as a window to this region as it existed two centuries ago. Readers should find the numerous passages describing the native inhabitants particularly interesting. Some of these peoples were members of traditional tribal societies while others belonged to transitional societies, social groups which retained some elements of pre-contact native culture while undergoing transformations brought about by their association with European and Yankee fur traders.

There is little in this book that deals directly with Spanish Alta (Upper) California. On their return from the Pacific Northwest to San Blas, the Sutil and the Mexicana stopped briefly in Monterey (pp. 213-19) and then entered San Diego’s harbor for the purpose of making soundings (p. 222). Still, there are subjects described in the narrative for which connections to California, while not stated in the journal or by the editor, can nonetheless be made. For example, in 1789 the Spaniards had established a fort (presidio) at Nootka, on Vancouver Island, and this facility was, until its abandonment five years later, supplied with provisions from Alta California. Because of this economic bond, students of California’s history might find the extensive accounts of Nootka in the narrative to be of some interest.

But far and away, the most important subject in this regard concerns the English vessels off the Northwest Coast. English mariners in these northern waters are described at length in the journal, and Galiano and Valdés chanced to meet George Vancouver during their voyage; following the instructions of their superiors, they treated the Englishman with the utmost cordiality and briefly joined their expedition with his to conduct scientific surveys. What is not disclosed in the book, however, is the underlying sense of anxiety Spanish officials felt about encountering the English in this region. Anglo-Spanish rivalries in the Pacific Northwest had nearly resulted in hostilities only a few years before the Sutil-Mexicana expedition. Spain was alarmed that England’s continued presence in the Northwest might extend southward and thereby threaten her settlements in Alta California. In the minds of many Spaniards, this threat was personified by Vancouver. The hospitality accorded to Vancouver might be interpreted, then, as an expression of Spain’s policy at that time of ingratiating herself to a formidable rival.

In fact, it was during the very year of the voyage that the Mexican viceroy instructed California’s governor to be watchful for English ships. Doubtlessly it was owing to this concern that passages of the original (and presumably now lost) log of the Sutil-Mexicana expedition were copied while the goletas were anchored in the harbor of California’s capital, Monterey. These extracts, which this reviewer cursorily examined some time ago, pertain chiefly to relations between the English and the Spanish in the Nootka area; this truncated version of the log was probably intended only for the eyes of the California governor and other officials of Spain’s northern frontier as the document was retained as a part of the permanent administrative files for that region (this manuscript may be consulted in Mexico’s national archives, the Archivo General de la Nación, Ramo de Provincias Internas, vol. 134, expediente 22, 14 unnumbered folios).

John Kendrick has performed admirably in the challenging roles of translator and editor of the Madrid manuscript. His translation reads smoothly, and he makes frequent textual comparisons in numerous footnotes of the Madrid manuscript with other versions of the expedition narrative. The text is enhanced by a historiographical introduction, maps, illustrations from the original manuscript, a glossary of place names, and biographical vignettes of the expedition’s principal participants. In sum, the appearance of this book should be welcomed by students of both the Spanish Borderlands and the history of discovery and exploration.