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Report on Sea Otter Pelt Trade in California - 1786

126. BASADRE Y VEGA, Vicente. Copia del Informe de Dn. Vizente Vazadre. Scribal copy of a report to Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez on potential California sea otter pelt trade, dated Monterey, September 14, 1786. Folio, [26] pp., self wrapper. Stitched. Except for small hole in blank area and small stain on wrapper, very fine; in a legible hand.

     This manuscript outlines another instance of Spain’s plans to extract wealth from abundant California; as with other schemes, however, this one came to naught. Basadre y Vega did in fact manage to acquire otter pelts in some quantity, but the enterprise was finally abandoned.

     In 1784, Vicente Basadre y Vega, a merchant in Mexico City, presented a project for the exploitation of sea otter pelts from California for exchange for quicksilver, necessary for processing silver ore, in Canton. He stated that he would have to travel to California and Manila to organize the plan that would cost only 10 pesos per pelt, hunted by California mission neophytes supervised by the missionaries. Each mission would maintain its separate accounting, furs would be sent to San Blas on the supply vessels that already called in California, and would then be shipped to Acapulco, Manila, and Macao. Trade goods, cloth, etc. would be used to pay the Indians. The plan would also favor the Manila galleons and develop Monterey as a port for them, as planned since the seventeenth century. Costs would be borne by a stock company.

     Basadre received royal approval for setting up the project and voyaged to Monterey. He traveled overland from Monterey to San Diego, found that there were abundant supplies of sea otter, and received a favorable answer to his plan from the Dominicans in Baja California, where missions San Vicente, Santo Domingo, El Rosario, San Fernando, and San Borja could participate in hunting. Pelts could be sent overland to San Diego and shipped to San Blas. Basadre reported to viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez in Mexico City on February 8, 1787, and departed for Macao, where he made a profitable trade for quicksilver. However, the influence of English merchants reduced the profits so as to make them unattractive to the crown, and in Manila he met with interference from the royal government. Disillusioned, he returned to Spain from the Philippines. Because of bureaucratic interference, Basadre´s visionary project failed and was taken up by the English and Russians who, in subsequent years, made fortunes in the sea otter trade, while the California missions were continually under funded.

     The report contains the following sections. Basadre y Vega’s report opens aboard the frigate Princesa at San Blas, December 20, 1786. He reports on his plan for exploitation of sea otter pelts, of which 1,059 have been collected; there are no fur seal pelts, but the missionaries will have their neophytes hunt for them. Since the opening of the Philippines, plans for the development of ports in California have been discussed, and this is the opportunity to carry them out. He complains of the lack of cooperation of governor Pedro Fagés, whom he considers a despot, and requests orders to correct the situation. He has traveled by land from Monterey to San Diego and has found poverty and discontent; the soldiers are favored but the missionaries are oppressed. He has calculated that 10,000 pelts can be sold to the Emperor of China for a million pesos, at a cost of 100,000 pesos, and explains the market. He is awaiting response from the Dominican missionaries in Baja California regarding their needs to begin obtaining pelts. He has the collaboration of the Franciscans in Alta California.

     Next follows a copy of the recommendations presented to the governor of California, Pedro Fagés, Monterey, September 11, 1786. Basadre explains the need for boats for Baja California hunting, but he has been told by the Dominican father president (Fray Miguel Hidalgo) that the Indians could not handle them. He suggests that some Europeans could aid them. He asks the aid and opinions of Fagés.

     Then is transcribed a copy of Fagés answer, Monterey, September 16, 1786. Fagés expresses his opposition to the use of boats because of cost and the fact that Indians could not maintain them. Further, it is not wise, he opines, to employ the Indians in hunting otter, although they do use rafts with great skill, because their way of life should not be altered. Whatever pelts are taken should be remitted to the governor and regulations set by him. Payment to the Indians should be in colored cloth since it is the only currency they value. The missionaries may gather five to six thousand pelts per year.

     Next in order is a copy of the recommendations presented to father president Fray Francisco Fermín de Lasuén, September 11, 1786. Basadre requests aid in obtaining boats for the Indians to hunt otter, but was told that they could not handle them and they had to use Europeans. He states that the missionaries are the most appropriate to stimulate the Indians to hunt and the government should not be involved, and that he will express the desires of the missionaries to the viceroy.

     Lausen’s answer follows. In a letter dated September 14, 1786, Lasuén states that he does not wish to give an opinion on the boats, but the Indians do very well with rafts and canoes, and he thinks they are more practical. The neophytes need nothing more than appropriate compensation and they can carry out all the hunting. The missions are in need of supplies, including equipment for the hunters. If the missions are provided with the material for compensation for the neophytes, they can meet high levels of production and are prepared to work on the project.

     See W. Michael Mathes (editor). Californiana IV: Aportación a la Historiografía de California en el siglo XVIII. Madrid: Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas, 1987. Pp. 132, 269-274. ($5,000-10,000)

Sold. Hammer: $5,000.00; Price Realized: $5,875.00

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