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COLNETT, JAMES, ship’s captain and maritime fur trader; he may possibly have been the same person as the James Collnett baptized 18 Oct. 1753 in Stoke Damerel (Plymouth), England, son of James Collnett and Sarah – ; d. September 1806 in London, England.

James Colnett began his naval career as an able seaman in the Hazard on 28 June 1770. On 4 September of the following year he became a midshipman under James Cook* in the Scorpion, and transferred to the Resolution when the great explorer was readying for his second Pacific voyage. During the expedition, Colnett sighted New Caledonia on 4 Sept. 1774, and Cook named Cape Colnett on that island after him. Having demonstrated skills in navigation, Colnett became master of the Adventure during the American Revolutionary War; subsequently he rose to first lieutenant of the Bienfaisant and then the Pegase before being placed on half pay on 17 Aug. 1786. About a month later he obtained Admiralty permission to command the expedition of the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal (Charles Duncan*, master), owned by Richard Cadman Etches and Company (also known as the King George’s Sound Company) and bound on a trading voyage to the northwest coast of North America and to China. Leaving England in 1786, Colnett first visited the northwest coast the following year; he traded there for two summers, wintering in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, and reached Canton (People’s Republic of China) on 12 Nov. 1788. There he became involved with another British trader, John Meares, who with the King George’s Sound partners formed the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast of America that winter. Colnett was installed as commodore of the Associated Merchants’ fleet of five or six ships, and as the Prince of Wales was to return to England with a cargo of tea, another vessel, the Argonaut, was purchased.

In accordance with his new employers’ instructions, when Colnett left China in the spring of 1789 he took with him in the Argonaut 29 Chinese artisans and everything essential for building ships and planting a permanent, well-defended settlement at Nootka Sound (B.C.). To be called Fort Pitt in honour of the prime minister, it would be the first in a series of posts designed to establish British claims to the coast. But at the same time the viceroy of New Spain, Manuel Antonio Flórez, was becoming concerned with the possibility of foreign encroachment, particularly by Russia, along the northwest coast, which was claimed as a Spanish possession. Accordingly, in the spring of 1789 Esteban José Martinez* was sent north with a small expedition to establish a temporary post at Nootka Sound. Thus the stage was set for a clash between Spain and Britain in their contest for trade and dominion in the Pacific.

Colnett reached Nootka Sound from Macao (near Canton) on 2 July 1789 to find that Martinez had established a Spanish settlement. Polite relations between the two men soon deteriorated to the point where a violent argument erupted aboard Martinez’s ship, culminating in the arrest of Colnett and the detention of his vessel. “It is likely that the churlish nature of each one precipitated things . . . ,” José Mariano Moziño later wrote, “since those who sailed with them both complained of them equally and condemned their uncultivated boorishness.” The Argonaut and the Princess Royal (which had on its arrival on 12 July likewise been seized) were taken into Spanish service, and they and their crews were sent to the Spanish naval headquarters at San Blas (state of Nayarit, Mexico). The prisoners were kept at nearby Tepic, although Colnett was allowed to go to Mexico City in March 1790 for a personal interview with the Count of Revilla Gigedo, Flórez’s successor. Revilla Gigedo did not acknowledge that the British position was correct, but under orders from Madrid he told Colnett that the British vessels would be released and compensation made in salaries and provisions. Although he constantly bemoaned the conditions of his confinement, Colnett was in fact courteously treated.

The Argonaut and the Princess Royal were released on 9 July 1790 and, embarking the English and Chinese who wished to return to Nootka, Colnett set sail, calling at Bodega Bay (Calif.) and Clayoquot Sound (B.C.) before arriving at Nootka in January 1791. Despite being prohibited from trading by Revilla Gigedo, Colnett secured 1,000 sea-otter skins between October 1790 and March 1791, although this involved some deception of Francisco de Eliza* y Reventa, commandant at Nootka. When Colnett arrived at Macao on 30 May he discovered that Chinese ports were closed to fur traders, and on his own initiative he sailed to Japan, becoming the first British trader to attempt to reopen trade with the Japanese since 1673. Having had only minor success in marketing his cargo there and in Macao, he sailed for England, where he sold the remainder to the East India Company for £9,760.

In the mean time the incident at Nootka had caused a serious dispute between Britain and Spain. Stirred up by Meares’s somewhat biased and inaccurate account of events, the British government determined to demand Spanish acknowledgement of British rights on the northwest coast. When Spain refused to give it, pressure to declare war arose and a large fleet was outfitted. For its part, the Spanish government was equally ready for a conflict to defend its claims, but was partially dependent on aid from France. When developments during the French revolution rendered this assistance uncertain, Spain was forced to back down. In the Nootka Convention of 1790 she acknowledged the British right to trade and navigation on the northwest coast, and apparently agreed to return all land on Nootka Sound taken from British subjects in 1789. Hereafter increasing pressure from Britain, Russia, and the United States would combine to limit Spanish claims to the northwest coast.

Once back in England, Colnett was nominated by the Admiralty to command the Rattler, a merchant ship which was to examine Pacific ports that might be suitable for British whalers. The vessel sailed in January 1793, spent a year in harbours from Chile to Lower California, and returned to England in November 1794. During the voyage Colnett surveyed the Revillagigedo Islands, Coco Island, the Galapagos archipelago, San Ambrosio Island, and San Félix Island, charts of which were published by Aaron Arrowsmith in 1798. Colnett’s narrative of this expedition, which appeared the same year, was instrumental in opening up the south Pacific sperm whale fishery and related branches of commerce.

After eight years in the merchant service, Colnett returned to the Royal Navy on 18 Dec. 1794, to be given commander’s rank and command of the sloop Merlin. He was soon transferred to the Hawk, in which he surveyed part of the eastern coastline of England to determine suitable locations for gun emplacements. On 4 Oct. 1796 Colnett was appointed to command the Hussar, and was promoted captain the next day. While convoying the East India packet-boat through the English Channel, the ship was wrecked off Brittany, and Colnett and his crew were taken prisoner by the French. After further commands, which included convoy duty in the Baltic, Colnett left active service on 7 March 1805, having spent 35 years at sea. He died in September 1806 at the probable age of 51. Colnett seems never to have married, but his will provided for “the education, clothing, and maintenance of my natural daughter Elizabeth Caroline Colnett, daughter of Catherine Aulte,” during her minority. When she reached 21, the balance of the estate of £5,000 was to pass to her.

James Colnett was a capable officer, surveyor, and servant of the crown. At Nootka he acted as a British proconsul and his contribution to the Nootka Sound controversy is well established, though the blame is not his alone. He had a high opinion of himself: his Argonaut journal shows he never lost the chance to glorify his position and authority, a hazardous penchant when combined with his frequent boasting of the greatness of the British nation. Martinez’s insistence that Spanish claims and rights could not be encroached on led to Colnett’s taking what some have regarded as intemperate actions; Meares and others believed Colnett actually became mentally unbalanced as a result of his capture. If this was so, he recovered and was subsequently employed on important tasks in the merchant and naval services. His name survives in the Pacific at Cape Colnett and Colnett Bay on the western coast of Mexico, Cape and Mount Colnett in New Caledonia, Colnett Strait (Tokara Kaiky‡) south of Japan, and Colnett Mountain on Vancouver Island.

Barry M. Gough

James Colnett is the author of A voyage to the South Atlantic and round Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean . . . (London, 1798; repr. Amsterdam and New York, 1968). His Argonaut journal, PRO, ADM 55/142, has been published as The journal of Captain James Colnett aboard the Argonaut from April 26, 1789, to Nov3, 1791, ed. F. W. Howay (Toronto, 1940).

PRO, ADM 55/146. West Devon Record Office (Plymouth, Eng.), St Andrew, Stoke Damerel (Plymouth), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 18 Oct. 1753. J. M. Moziño [Losada] Suárez de Figueroa, Noticias de Nutka: an account of Nootka Sound in 1792, trans. and ed. I. H. Wilson [Engstrand] (Seattle, Wash., 1970). J. T. Walbran, British Columbia coast names, 1592–1906 . . . (Ottawa, 1909; repr. Vancouver, 1979), 102–3. Cook, Flood tide of empire. B. M. Gough, Distant dominion: Britain and the northwest coast of North America, 1579–1809 (Vancouver, 1980).

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Cite This Article

Barry M. Gough, “COLNETT, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/colnett_james_5E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/colnett_james_5E.html
Author of Article:   Barry M. Gough
Title of Article:   COLNETT, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   June 1, 2023