IT’S OUR HERITAGE: Kitimat’s Spanish connection

Kitimat's Walter Thorne runs through some of Kitimat's historical connection to Spanish navigator Caamano.

Hidden within historical documents world-wide, are numerous unsung heroes. These ancestors paved the way for those who followed. Some have been overlooked. One forgotten hero was the Spanish navigator Captain Jacinto Caamaño. (No connection to Kemano, southeast of Kitimat.)

One of Caamaño’s spheres of operation in 1792 was right in our back yard at the approaches to Douglas and Whale Channels near Campania Island. Those are familiar waters to Kitimat fishermen and the oil and gas industry as they plan their tanker routes.  The area has also been a concern to the Coast Guard as they scramble to update soundings and data there.  Caamaño’s expedition was the second European expedition to our area.  It came just three years after the Colnett and Duncan expeditions of 1789.  Caamaño’s expedition was just one season ahead of George Vancouver’s.

Caamaño was a contrast to his British opponent and acclaimed successor, George Vancouver. Caamaño was a nobleman of high birth from Madrid, in central Spain. His was a name of great status and success in his homeland. Vancouver, although unquestionably talented, was a man of common birth who had made his way up the ranks on merit alone.

Caamaño was also a mariner of skills and success who left a legacy of names on our maps. He was meticulous with charting, cautious with his ship and crew, and considerate of First Nations people. Not all navigators possessed these attributes.

In 1792, 33 year old Capitan Jacinto Caamaño took command of a large, multi-sailed frigate, Aránzazu. From Spain’s colony in the Philippines, where it had been built, they sailed the Aránzazu to San Blas in New Spain (now Mexico). San Blas is 160 kms north of Puerto Vallarta. From there he was instructed to sail north seeking the elusive Northwest Passage. He and his Spanish crew started their summer search and charting in Alaskan waters. As the summer waned they drifted south. By August they had reached our north coast waters at the entrance to Douglas Channel. Caamaño successfully navigated and named Principe Channel, between Banks and Pitt islands, before arriving in the vicinity of Calamity Harbour, which had proven so disastrous to British Captains Colnett and Duncan. Caamaño was particularly wary of the submerged rocks and reefs. He had been warned of these by Captain Duncan who had had to surrender his ship Princess Royal to the Spanish at Nootka a few seasons previously. Even with double lookouts and constant sounding of fathoms, he too narrowly averted disaster on Betton Rocks in Squally Channel.

Within his ship’s log and reports, he admitted that his large three-masted frigate was unsuited to confined water operation. Being alone, without a consort, made him vulnerable, but, like Vancouver, he had life-boat sized vessels aboard, which could be sailed and manned by oars. No doubt, he would have preferred Vancouver’s arrangement of sailing with two smaller vessels. Vancouver’s ships Discovery and Chatham were certainly more appropriate.

After his near catastrophe on Betton Rocks, Caamaño securely anchored his frigate and assessed his surroundings. He dispatched marines and sailors in the smaller lifeboats, where they navigated by wind and oar. He spent a month at anchor, from where he confirmed the existence of a large First Nations settlement. This Tsimshian village was on Pitt Island not far from Calamity Harbour. Caamaño described the large village as “Havitacion de Indes Bravos”. This village was known as Citeyats. Apparently, Caamaño traded fairly, and avoided the violence which characterized the British expedition led by Colnett and Duncan.

Throughout months of travel Caamaño charted positions. Author Richard Wells compared a few of Caamaño’s 221 year old maps and modern day charts. He found them to be remarkably correct.

Caamaño was a skilled navigator who paved the way for those who followed. Vancouver used Caamaño’s charts and notes extensively, and he further honoured his Spanish opponent by retaining many of the names he had placed on the marine charts. The Spanish legacy includes Principe Channel, Caamaño, Nepean, Estevan, and Laredo Sounds, Campania Island, Aristazabal Island, Aránzazu Bank and Estevan Rocks all in our area. Also Zayas Island in Alaska and Caamaño Island near Seattle are all named for the great Spanish navigator.

In later life, Caamaño was rewarded with various promotions, including the title Pacific Viceroy. In this position he served from headquarters in San Blas. Clearly, Capitan Jacinto Caamaño was a navigator overlooked by history. Perhaps someday, when his journals are readily available in English, his full accomplishments will be recognized. Certainly he made an impact on the north coast waters which we call home. His findings helped to ensure the success of subsequent expeditions like Vancouver’s.   Aránzazu, Caamaño’s ship, has been immortalized in a painting by Mark Myers.