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Nootka Sound: Indigenous Spaces, Global Trade and Empire 1774-1815

How did a small space far from European centres of eighteenth-century empire come to connect much of the globe in the last years of the eighteenth and early years of the nineteenth centuries? I apply a global history approach to the history of a remote, now little-known locality, Nootka Sound, and the layering of specific global microhistories of events, individuals and commercial practices. My book project, Nootka Sound: Indigenous Spaces, Global Trade and Empire 1774-1815 brings together a maritime fur trade, indigenous North Pacific peoples, the Chinese imperial court and European and American voyages of discovery for a Northwest Passage.

Yuquot, in Nootka Sound, has long been a place of seasonal residence and ceremony for the Mowachaht people, a group within the larger Nuu-chah-nulth language category, dating back over 4,000 years. This locality has a history based in relations between the Mowachaht and numerous other indigenous groups along the Northwest Pacific coast of North America. Those relations took new directions in encounters with European and American traders and explorers in the late eighteenth century. The first European to visit Yuquot in Nootka Sound was Captain Cook in 1778. After this, Nootka Sound gained a wide global and international history as the site of a sea otter trade linking Britain, India and China as well as Russia, Spain, France and the USA, bringing close to 400 ships to the area over the brief period between 1778 and 1815. It was the site of an international incident in 1790 – the Nootka Crisis between Spain and Britain, and the place of the Nootka Conventions of 1790-94 settling codes over claims to territories and leading into the settlement of borders between the U.S. and British Columbia.

This history, richly documented in travel accounts and ships’ logs but not widely known, has been previously told in piecemeal fashion: as part of regional indigenous peoples’ history, on the one hand, or a part of the international geopolitics of Spanish-British relations on the other. My book, focussed on this locality, but written as a global history, will present a deeply textured account of global commercial exchange, of indigenous encounter and conflict, of environmental predation, and of the geopolitics of discovery and empire.

This research is supported by a British Academy Small Grant, and a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship.