MEARES, JOHN, maritime fur trader and author; b. c. 1756; d. 1809.
In 1771 John Meares entered the Royal Navy as “Captain’s servant” in hms Cruizer and, after serving in several small vessels, passed his lieutenant’s examination on 17 Sept. 1778, at which time he was said to be more than 22. He was promoted lieutenant the following day. He later hinted that he had been involved in naval action on Canadian lakes during the American revolution, and it has been stated that he “served against the French in the West Indies.” In 1783 he entered the merchant service and sailed for eastern seas.
Meares undertook his first voyage to the northwest coast of North America in 1786, sailing from Calcutta (India) in charge of two trading ships, the Nootka, under his own command, and the Sea Otter, under William Tipping. Meares may have been the principal owner of the Bengal Fur Company, the firm that organized the expedition; he was certainly its guiding spirit. He traded in Alaskan waters and wintered in Prince William Sound, where 23 of his crew died of scurvy. In May 1787 captains Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon* found him there, his ships trapped in the ice. Portlock and Dixon, trading for the rival Richard Cadman Etches and Company (commonly called the King George’s Sound Company), claimed that Meares was an interloper in a trade they declared was exclusively theirs by arrangement with the East India and South Sea companies. These two bodies together held a monopoly of British trade between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, and had the power to grant licences for commercial activity in their territory. Though captured, in effect, by Portlock and Dixon, Meares was released on bond with the understanding that he would sail directly for Macao (near Canton, People’s Republic of China) and not return to the northwest coast. In the event, Meares resumed his trading on the coast, sailing to Macao only after he had obtained a saleable cargo. Dixon later charged that Meares was ungracious in accepting the help rendered by his rescuers.
In January 1788 Meares again sailed for the northwest coast, reaching Nootka Sound (B.C.) in May in the Feliz Aventureira, accompanied by the Efigenia Nubiana under the command of William Douglas. Not licensed by the East India Company or the South Sea Company, Meares sailed under the Portuguese flag, a device that allowed him to trade freely at Macao (a Portuguese possession) and pay lower customs duties at Canton. During this season of trade with the Indians, he later claimed, he bought land in the sound and obtained from the Nootka chief, Muquinna*, a promise of free and exclusive trade; other accounts differ, however, and Muquinna himself later denied the transactions, calling Meares a liar. In September Meares sailed for Macao in the Feliz, leaving the Efigenia and her tender, the 40-ton schooner North West America, the first vessel of European design built on the northwest coast, to winter at the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands.
At Canton during the winter of 1788–89 Meares and his associates formed a partnership with the King George’s Sound Company, calling the new concern the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast of America. To represent the new firm Meares sent James Colnett, with the Argonaut and the Princess Royal, to join the Efigenia and the North West America in trade on the coast. Early in 1789 a force of Spaniards under Esteban José Martínez* was sent to establish a post at Nootka Sound in order to protect Spanish claims to the area. Between mid May and mid July Martinez seized all four Associated Merchants’ vessels, contending that foreign ships were violating Spanish rights of trade and navigation on the coast and in adjacent seas. When news of the seizures reached Meares in China he sailed to England where, on 30 April 1790, he submitted his Memorial on the capture of British vessels at Nootka to the Home secretary, William Wyndham Grenville. In his statement Meares exaggerated the permanence of the British settlement in the sound and the losses sustained by the Associated Merchants. But anti-Spanish sentiment ran high, and the British cabinet at the height of the Nootka crisis announced the outfitting of a large fleet. Under this coercion Spain agreed to the terms eventually announced in the Nootka Convention of 28 Oct. 1790 (revised in 1793 and 1794), whereby British rights to the trade at Nootka and to navigation in the Pacific were acknowledged.
Widespread interest in the maritime fur trade and the northwest coast led Meares to bring forth in 1790 his pretentious Voyages made in the years 1788 and 1789, from China to the north west coast, which magnified the author’s accomplishments in discovery and trade at the expense of others, including Dixon, who had aided Meares at Prince William Sound in 1787. Dixon retaliated the same year with Remarks on the Voyages of John Meares, esq., an attack on the veracity of Meares’s account of his exploits, to which the latter responded lamely in 1791 with An answer to Mr. George Dixon; in Further remarks on the Voyages of John Meares, esq., published later that year, Charles Duncan* joined Dixon in a last, conclusive discrediting of the original claims.
Meares found it easy to make enemies. The Yankee trader John Box Hoskins thought he “behav’d himself scandalously” at Nootka in 1788, and “by no means like a gentleman. a character he dares to assume.” Robert Haswell, another Boston trader, was convinced of Meares’s deception and “notorious falsity.” Indeed, by disregarding the truth, advertising untruths, and falsifying documents Meares merited disfavour. He does not seem to have been employed in the navy again, perhaps because of his tarnished reputation. He was advanced on the navy list and by seniority was promoted commander on 26 Feb. 1795. His remaining years are obscure.
John Meares is the author of An answer to Mr. George Dixon, late commander to the Queen Charlotte, in the service of Messrs. Etches and company: in which the remarks of Mr. Dixon on the Voyages to the north west coast of America, &c. lately published, are fully considered and refuted (London, 1791); Authentic copy of the memorial to the Right Honourable William Wyndham Grenville, one of His Majesty’s principal secretaries of state; dated 30th April, 1790, and presented to the House of Commons, May 13, 1790; containing every particular respecting the capture of the vessels in Nootka Sound (London, ); and Voyages made in the years 1788 and 1789, from China to the north west coast of America . . . , [comp. William Combe] (London, 1790; repr. Amsterdam and New York, ). The frontispiece of the last-mentioned work is a portrait of Meares after Sir William Beechey.
[James Colnett], The journal of Captain James Colnett aboard the Argonaut from April 26, 1789, to Nov. 3, 1791, ed. F. W. Howay (Toronto, 1940). George Dixon, Remarks on the Voyages of John Meares, esq., in a letter to that gentleman (London, 1790); Further remarks on the Voyages of John Meares, esq. . . . (London, 1791). The Dixon-Meares controversy . . . , ed. F. W. Howay (Toronto and New York, 1929; repr. Amsterdam and New York, 1969). Voyages of the “Columbia” to the northwest coast, 1787–1790 and 1790–1793, ed. F. W. Howay ([Boston], 1941; repr. Amsterdam and New York, ). DNB. W. K. Lamb, “John Meares: fur trader, navigator, and controversialist,” Polar Notes (Hanover, N.H.), no.2 (1960): 18–23.