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 John Meares  (1756 - 1809)

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Lived/Active: England      Known for: Northwest Coast sketches 1788-1789

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

British sea captain John Meares made numerous topographical sketches during his travels as an explorer and trader in China, Japan and the Northwest Coast of America. His illustrations were published in England in 1790 in a book titled "Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789 from China to the Northwest Coast of America".

John Meares was in the Royal Navy and like many Englishmen, wanted to establish sea-otter trade with Japan. Representing the Bengal Fur Society, in 1786, he sailed from Calcutta and then Madras, India on his ship, the "Nootka" to the Northwest Coast of North America where he did fur trading in Alaskan waters and spent the winter in Prince William Sound. He lost many of his crew to scurvy (about 30), and rival English traders, Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon, rescued Meares and his two ships trapped in the ice. Dixon and Portlock were in effect capturing Meares whom they accused of illegal trading, but they released him with a bond and agreement that he would sail directly to Canton China. But once on the open water, Meares continued his Northwest Coastal trapping of otter and ignored the agreement. He went to China only when his ships were full.

John Meares returned to the Northwest in 1788, arriving at Nootka with his ships "Felice" and "Iphigenia". This time he had Chinese workers who helped him build a trading post and a ship, "North West America", the first European-owned ship built on the American continent. Meares claimed that he had bought land from Chief Maquinna, a high-ranking chief of the Mowachat people and that this powerful man had promised exclusive rights to trading in the area. Later Maquinna said that there was no such agreement and that Meares was a liar. One source has described Meares as the "Machiavelli of the maritime fur trade". (BC Bookworld)

Meanwhile word of the lucrative Northwest coastal trade by British and American fur traders had reached Mexico, whose Viceroy, Don Estevan Jose Martinez, in early 1789 decided to make claim at Nootka to the area because of rights of "prior discovery." Upon arrival, he declared that British claims in the area were null and void, which outraged Meares, especially when four of his ships were seized by Martinez and the crew imprisoned.

Meares, who was in Canton, China at the time, went to England and in May 1790, petitioned the British House of Commons for compensation "for the 'indignities' he suffered at the hands of the Spaniards. With his histrionics, Meares successfully stirred up anti-Spanish sentiment in the British government and the British public. Meares greatly inflated his activities at Nootka and the size of the British settlement there (he claimed he bought all of King George's (Nootka) Sound instead of the small parcel of land where his trading post stood). Meares's accusations were further fueled by the publication of his memoirs, which some would claim contained as much fiction as fact." (

In spite of the fact that his claims were much exaggerated, the accusations by John Meares prompted a showdown over the ownership of Nootka, a very remote and mysterious place to most Europeans. Britain and Spain nearly went to war over the incident. However, the 1790 Nootka Convention brought resolution, revised in 1793 and 1794, and Spain backed off and returned all seized property to Britain. .

Meares remained a controversial character, with British traders rightly claiming he took unproven credit for discoveries he claimed, and Captain George Dixon rightly asserted that Meares lied about his seafaring accomplishment.

Meares died in 1809. The large, looming island off Tofino in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia was named after him in 1861.

Sources, courtesy Danny McWilliams
Adreinne Mason,
BC Bookworld Author Bank,
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"

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