Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra stands out among early regional characters, competing with George Vancouver for top honors. After reading Freeman Tovell’s splendid book, the British cartographer loses to Bodega on almost all counts except that of being as well remembered in place-name geography.
In 1775, young Bodega explored the Pacific Northwest Coast in the tiny schooner Sonora. Later, in 1779, he explored the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia and became Commandant of the Naval Department of San Blas on Mexico’s west coast, responsible for aspects of almost all Spanish expeditions from that area. In 1792, he was assigned the collateral duty of Spanish Commissioner, to carry out with his counterpart Vancouver the terms of the British–Spanish Nootka Sound diplomatic controversy. In that role, Bodega out-classed the British officer to a marked degree by hosting great banquets, served course after course on dozens of solid silver plates. No person of his period was considered more gentlemanly, generous, and competent than Bodega, who was beloved by Nootka Chief Maquinna, admired by Yankee commercial traders, and relied on by his viceroy for careful and adept presentation of Spain’s position.
Tovell writes his book as both biography and panorama of late colonial-period regional history. In doing so, he avoids the traps so open to unwary biographers. There is no glossing over Bodega’s shortcomings; Tovell does not over-emphasize his maritime skills, nor does he overlook Bodega’s excessive spending of both his own and the king’s money. Tovell is well suited to write this story. The essential bibliographic symbiosis is apparent in the match between the author and Bodega. As a Canadian, Tovell was a World War II naval officer, following which he served thirty-five years as a diplomat, including ambassadorships to Bolivia and to Peru, Bodega’s birthplace. After retirement, he made Vancouver Island his residence. His established linguistic competence was enhanced by documentary research in appropriate archives, including Madrid’s Museo Naval, where he utilized Bodega’s journals and papers. He also dealt with the modern descendants of the Indians — who were great friends of Bodega’s — and has learned from historians of the period as well as gained a good grasp of the geography where the events played out. In summary, Tovell’s preparation and participation are ideally suited to the task, to the point that his book will probably never be superseded but will certainly be utilized.
The book’s outside cover has a uniquely appropriate illustration that provides a glimpse of the highlight of Bodega’s life and of Nootka’s importance. This contemporary inkwash by Atanasio Echeverría depicts Chief Maquinna performing a ceremonial dance in his winter home at Tahsis before an assembled group, including Bodega and other European officers. The scene greatly enriches our understanding by capturing a special moment in time and bringing awareness to historical and cultural details. The footnotes and bibliography of such well-written scholarly books as this one are also worthwhile reading. Books utilizing many foreign language manuscripts, as in the case of Tovell’s biography, require an immense amount of translation by the author. This well-accomplished task has produced a very readable text.
A brief summary of Bodega’s life, in chronological highlights, is in order. He was born in 1744, into a leading Peruvian family as their ninth child. Following routine education, he went to Spain, where in 1762, he enrolled as a midshipman in the Royal Navy College in Cádiz. Two years later, he became an ensign and, after three more years, was transferred to a naval squadron based in Callao, Peru. In 1774, he and five other young officers were sent to the recently established naval facility at San Blas, a base created not only to support the new province of Upper California but also to carry out detailed exploration of the uncharted Pacific Northwest coast before another nation might do so. It was in and out of San Blas that Bodega spent almost the remainder of his life, except for two service-connected round trips to Peru and a war-related stint in Spain from 1785 to 1789. While there, he had the great honor of being inducted into his nation’s highest military order, that of Santiago. After his wartime experience, Bodega was again sent back to San Blas, where at times, he commanded its base. He suffered declining health, and his terminal illness brought death at age forty-nine.
In the end, the author points out the undeserved fate that befell Bodega in that he never reached flag rank, despite an outstanding career. It may have been because he was a Creole (New World–born Spaniard), because he had no patron in Spain, or because of his early death. At least Tovell’s book certainly elevates Bodega to a merited high place in Pacific Northwest history.
By: Freeman M. Tovell