Larry Wong (and Bruce Watson) re: John Meares, Vancouver Island
Interview by Sara Kolbet
1 Disc, 27:44, 6 Tracks
TRACK 1 – 4:53
SARA: Name and title. I will check sound levels.
LARRY: I’m Larry Wong and I’m the Vice President of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society here in Vancouver and my interest in Chinese Canadian History goes back a long ways.
SARA: Again. Don’t rub your clothes. One more time.
LARRY: I’m Larry Wong and I’m the Vice President of the Chinese Canadian Historical, try again. I’m…I’m Larry Wong and I’m the Vice President of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society here in Vancouver. And I’ve always taken an interest in Chinese Canadian history ever since I can remember.
SARA: Tell me about how you became interested in John Meares.
LARRY: I think it was over 20 years ago when I was down in the BC provincial archives in Victoria and I was looking up the history of John Meares because of the fact that he had 70 carpenters with him from China going to Nootka sound, and apparently his purpose was to build a schooner called the Northwest America, and this was in the year 1788. And I found this very fascinating and I decided to pursue it because in the archives I found a diary from an employee of the HBC. He was stationed at Fort Rupert, which is now called Fort McNeal, and apparently this man had traveled in 1852 from Port Rupert into the interior of Vancouver Island to Nootka Sound. And he heard among the Nootka Indians about how these Chinese carpenters, I guess almost two or three generations earlier, had built this ship and they were left behind and they had integrated with the rest of the Nootkan Indians. And I was told, or read anyways, that they intermarried and through the succeeding generations, because apparently there were wars being fought between the Indians on the coast itself and the interior, and by 1852 there was a smallpox epidemic, but there were reports of natives that looked oriental, and they described them as having pigtails and slanted eyes, that sort of description. And also, just after that, there was a businessman named Gilbert Sprout who came up through the Port Alberta Canal and he settled in Port Alberta itself, and he also described these natives as having some strange features. And after, in 1860 I believe, there was a newspaper account in the Nanaimo Times, and again there was a report of a sighting of these strange-looking natives. So that really caught my curiosity and I decided to pursue it and find out what was really true and what was really happening here. And I didn’t really realize it until just last Christmas, I was in Hawaii, and I was given a book called Researching the Chinese roots in Hawaii, and in the forward it describes how the Northwest America, which was the schooner built by these Chinese carpenters under the directions of Captain John Meares, sailed from Nootka Sound to Hawaii in 1788 and I was surprised because in our British Columbia account, we never did find out where the schooner went to. We knew it went to China…
TRACK 2 – 10:03
LARRY: I found this book called ‘Researching one’s Chinese roots in Hawaii.” And it was published by the HI Chinese history center back in 1988. And in the forward, it describes how the Northwest America, which was the schooner built by these Chinese carpenters, under the directions of Captain John Meares, had left Nootka Sound for Hawaii. And I thought this was amazing because up to this time, the British Columbia accounts of this ship just said it sailed to China, but it didn’t mention any word that it went to Hawaii. So this was quite a revelation for me and it confirms for me that the schooner with a crew of both Englishmen and Chinese carpenters arriving in Hawaii was the fact that boy, these people actually did exist and they landed in Hawaii and the Chinese in Hawaii have claimed this as being the first landfall of Chinese in Hawaii. And I thought to myself, we could have done the same thing too. We could have claimed these Chinese carpenters as being the first Chinese arrival in British Columbia or for that matter, anywhere in North America. And what was interesting is that these carpenters didn’t just build the schooner, the Northwest America, but they also built a fort for the British, and I believe they were at Nootka Sound for a period of five or six months or whatever long it took. But they did launch the ship in September, 1788 and of course after the launch they went to Hawaii. Now, after they arrived in Hawaii, the Hawaiians themselves were really incredulous at the site, plus the fact that it was built by Chinese hands. So they asked the English captain if they could have a similar ship built in Hawaii as well, using the same carpenters. Now, at this point in Hawaiian history I’m not too sure whether that was done or not, but certainly the ship itself went on to China. Now, what was interesting about these Chinese carpenters was that there were a number of possibilities as to what happened to them, because shortly afterwards the Spaniards did come, and the seized the fort at Nootka Sound, and they also seized the Northwest America. And from their accounts, they captured the Chinese and sent them down to the mines in Mexico. But there seem to be so many versions of what happened to the Chinese, whether they stayed and integrated with the natives in Nootka Sound or whether they were captured by the Spaniards and went down to Mexico to work in the mines, or whether some of them had gone to Hawaii and therefore went back home to China. So I just really want to find out what happened to them and one of my first steps would be to contact the native band at Nootka Sound and try to find out what their version is. In other words, I always believe there are two sides to every story, and obviously the side I’m getting is from Captain Meares and other people that were involved on the English Naval side.
SARA: Can you give us the general story of what he was doing?
LARRY: Captain John Meares was a fur…Captain John Meares was a fur trader, and apparently he came up before 1788, I can’t remember the precise year, but he went to the Northwest Coast and he wintered at a place called William Sound. And this is a place up in Alaska and it’s the same place where the Exxon ship how shall we say, sprung a leak. Well, Captain John Meares ship got iced in and he was stuck during the winter time and he and his crew practically died from the cold winter until finally the spring thaw came along. But Meares did return to Nootka Sound and he did initiate some sort of a fair trade with the aboriginals. But at this point in history, there was a Nootkan chief who said John Meares said he did this but I didn’t really agree to this so there were certain accounts of what actually happened and I suppose part of it came in the trial of John Meares in England later in the 1700s where they wanted to find out what exactly did happen with this trading and also with the claiming of the land. Because he wasn’t necessary sailing his ship under the British flag. Apparently he flew it under another country flag, so therefore there was a false representation. So John Meares sort of acquired a bit of a reputation that wasn’t exactly full of integrity.
SARA: Where did the carpenters come from? What do we know?
LARRY: That’s a good question. I would suppose they would have come from what was known as the Canton area. So therefore they would probably be from southern China and they certainly would have been easily accessible at that time to any of the sailing ships that went to China and I think there was a lot of trading in the Cantonese area, well, I call it Canton, in those days, but now it’s called Guangdong.
SARA: Did they want to go?
LARRY: Good question. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wanted to go because part of it would probably be the adventure, part of it would be the pay, and part of it I think at that time China was in turmoil, so this was an opportunity for them to leave that behind and seek adventure.
SARA: What was going on in China?
LARRY: In the 1700s there was a revolution. And it caused a lot of chaos within the country itself. Mind you, in China there was always chaos happening. All sorts of rebellion, warlords, that sort of thing. But I believe at that time, these carpenters probably had volunteered to say yes, let’s go on this journey.
SARA: What was the timeline as far as Meares coming?
LARRY: Meares followed about ten or eleven years after Captain Cook and Captain Cook was the first Caucasian sailing captain on this side of the North American coast. So Meares was the second one and I believe that he was followed by the Spaniards because at that time Spain and Great Britain were at war with each other.
SARA: Do you know what the Spaniards did?
LARRY: Yes, when the Spaniards arrived at Nootka Sound they seized the fort and they also seized the Northwest America schooner and there was a dispute and I believe they had what I believe was called the Nootka Sound convention shortly afterwards and at that time they peacefully settled their differences. But the schooner itself that was built by the Chinese under the direction of Captain John Meares was registered under the Spanish Navy.
SARA: Do you know what they did with it?
LARRY: No, I don’t.
SARA: I don’t know either.
BRUCE: I think it rotted. I think within a couple years it deteriorated.
CONVINCING BRUCE TO ANSWER THE QUESTION
BRUCE: It would appear that the Northwest America was abandoned after it began to rot o the shores there and I think the Spanish just let it go. They did subsequently build other vessels there but I think the Northwest America itself just lay on the beach.
SARA: Say who you are again.
BRUCE: I’m Bruce Watson from Vancouver community college, now retired.
TRACK – 10:04
SARA: Significance of these Chinese coming and being the first. If you found proof that they stayed, what are you looking for?
LARRY: What I’m looking for is the fact that they were the first Chinese arrival here on the coast, and that’s never been really spelled out in our Canadian history, so I believe that if I do enough research and confirm the fact that they were here, and they were here for sure but I just want to as I say, check with the Nootkan band on their side of the story. But I just want to confirm and say yeah, the Chinese were a first arrival here back in 1788… because we typically think of the Chinese first arriving here for the gold rush back in 1858 and at that time most of the Chinese came up from California after the gold rush of 1848. So I would just like to establish once and for all that the Chinese did come in 1788. They lived here, they worked here, and they established a settlement at Nootka Sound.
SARA: Do you know what Meares was trying to accomplish?
LARRY: It was a settlement. He had to build a fort because they were going to winter there and they would probably need a fort because of the fact that they were trading with the Nootkan Indians. They probably used it as a base as well, going up and down the Northwest Coast.
SARA: While they were fur trading? Why did he hire Chinese?
LARRY: I think the Chinese were very good at building their own ships. Because if you recall in the early 14, late 1300s they built these magnificent ships and I believe that skill carried through right through the 1700s. Don’t forget too the Chinese discovered the compass, which was a big help.
SARA: Are there other maritime things the Chinese discovered or improved on?
LARRY: I think they improved on the rudder, believe it or not. But I can’t exactly…do you know what it is, Bruce? They were great maritimers in Asia, that’s for certain, and I think captain Meares recognized that and thought it would be wonderful to build the schooner on the northwest coast. And of course, the Chinese carpenters were unfamiliar with the western style of building a schooner, so they had this learning curve of building this ship. But as I understand it, part of the ship was pre-fab too from one account that I read. But nonetheless, they went ahead and applied their skill with this Northwest America schooner.
SARA: Your accounts all have good bits. Are there any other stories you’ve heard about it?
LARRY: I’m afraid that’s about it. I’m looking for more detail and I want to check with the Nootkans to see what their side of the story is, because I’m sure they have some stories about the Indians staying at Nootka Sound and whether they had married into the tribe and what happened to the subsequent generations of them, that sort of thing.
SARA: Anything else to say?
JEAN: You can say that in some ways they’re not the first Chinese in British Columbia, they’re the first Chinese on the coast of North America.
BRUCE: That we know about.
LARRY: That we know about, oh yeah.
JEAN: This is for an American audience, so you don’t just want to say in Canada.
BRUCE: The Spanish galleons had taken Chinese down to Mexico by 1600.
JEAN: Someone should say that.
BRUCE: Also, a slight little twist on what you were saying. Meares was coming from India. That’s where he was established with his Bengal Fur Company. And of course the fastest route is via China and this is where the artisans are so he picks them up and brings them over. It would be a long trek for the Indian craftsmen. So he picks up the Chinese and scoots across.
LARRY: You’re right. He did sail from India. Another interesting thing was that according to legend, back in 500 AD, there was supposed to have been a ship full of monks from China that was blown across the Pacific Ocean to the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, but there hasn’t been any document confirming that. It all seems to be hearsay and I suppose a legend, if you want to call it that, but it’s a story that’s hard to pin down, unfortunately, because there’s no eyewitness account whatever and there’s nothing to be found in archives either in China or anywhere else for that matter. So the significance of the Chinese being the first anywhere in the Northwest Coast north of Mexico in 1788 is for me, a very important landmark.
SARA: Bruce seems to know a lot about Meares. Could you give a basic history?
BRUCE: Captain John Meares had a long history with the Navy. During the American Revolution he was probably on the Great Lakes and as part of the Royal Navy and then went down to the West Indies. And then worked his way over to India and then after his service with the royal Navy joined the merchant navy and that’s how he got involved with the merchant side of it. And then he formed a company in Bengal, the Bengal Fur Company, with several partners, and then sailed off, because he had knowledge of what was here on the coast, because people had been here before him, and picked up the Chinese artisans in I believe it was Macao and then sailed from there to the coast and built his…there were varying descriptions of how big his post was. I think he claimed it was three stories, some people claim it was two stories, some people claim it was just a little shack, varying sizes, but it was eventually taken down, dismantled because the area itself was in dispute. The Spanish had claimed the area from 1513 and they were afraid the Russians were going to come down so they had moved north, and they heard the British had moved into the area so they moved themselves into the area and that’s why they captured the Chinese, took them down to Tapique. But, sorry, down to San Blas and put them to work there. And six of the Chinese who were there stayed in Mexico and the rest were sent back on Spanish Galleons to China. I think they were sent probably to the Philippines and from there transported to China.
SARA: Anything else?
BRUCE: I can talk about the Japanese junks that were found. There’s probably good reason to believe that the Chinese had been here several times before that, because there was all kinds of evidence of beached Japanese boats all up and down the coast, and as a matter of fact in 1833 three Japanese were taken slaves by the Macaw Natives, near Neah Bay in Washington, and there’s a long story that goes with that…The first documented case that we have are three Japanese who were taken slaves. They had drifted across, they had become de-ruddered off Japan on a transport run
TRACK 4 – 1:25
and had drifted across the Atlantic, landed on the coast, and were taken slaves by the Macaw people and their freedom was bought by the HBC. Now, they were eventually taken back to England actually, so you had Japanese tourists wandering around London in 1834. because as you know Japan was a closed society at that time and the HBC were trying anything they could to open the doors of Japan and they colonial department decided they didn’t want anything to do with it so the HBC eventually transported them back to Shanghai, where they tried three times to get into Japan again, denounced Japan, shaved their heads, and stayed in Shanghai. Two of them worked for a German missionary there and a third one joined a British trading company and eventually moved down to Singapore with his East Indian wife and built a two-story house and had a big garden and that’s where he lived out the rest of his life. So we can document the Japanese who were here fairly early on because of that incident and we can see the evidence of their junks along the coast but the Chinese, we need their documentation but there’s every reason to believe that they were probably here before.
TRACK 5 – 0:02
TRACK 6 – 1:15