Conflict and competition between various nations, through their corporate entities, over the lucrative fur trade in North America is a well-known tale. The Russian-America Company and Hudson's Bay Company are well known for accomplishing their cut-throat competition with other fur traders by actually cutting throats. It is little remembered that in 1790 the Spanish and British governments were brought to the brink of war by the impoundment of British ships operating in the area of Nootka Sound.
The Spanish had long-maintained a claim to hegemony over the waters of the area, clearly getting to the area before Captain Cooke's expedition and maintaining a presence periodically throughout the years and even having huge backing of the Pope. The British claimed that chief Maquinna of the Nuu-cha-nulth people (Nootka) had sold land in Nootka Sound and that gave them rights to trade in the area. Even if the British really did believe they had property rights, they had acquired them from a culture that did not recognize ownership of property in a sense that the British might understand. The European powers continued their game of global appropriation of lands occupied by native peoples and in the case of the Pacific Northwest, Britain was willing to rekindle world war over the matter.
In May of 1789 Esteban Jose Martinez entered Nootka Sound looking for Russians to chastise. Instead he found two American ships and one British vessel, Iphegenia. Martinez took the British ship but released it later with a warning not to return. The American ships were sent away as well. In June another British ship, North West America, arrived and was promptly captured and sailed away as a prize vessel. Martinez followed this up with the magical formal claim of sovereignty for the entire northwest coast. Clearly the British and Americans understood this formal declaration but the Nootka would have considered it preposterous for someone to claim their ancestral lands.
In early July two more British ships arrived, Princess Royal and Argonaut. The Princess Royal was allowed to leave but the later-arrival Argonaut was taken. The Chinese work crew on the vessel was put to work building a fort for the Spanish. When the Princess Royal returned ten days later she also was impounded. In late July Martinez was ordered to evacuate the sound by the end of the year. The Spanish reoccupied the sound the next year.
Far be it from the Americans to stay out of the controversy. Late in the season two American vessels entered the sound and one was captured (Fair American) and one escaped (Eleanora).
The ink on the Treaty of Paris (1783), settling the War of Independence had barely had an opportunity to dry. Britain had just taken one on the chin. They had lost an enormously expensive war that removed much of their American colonial holdings. Taking the risk of provoking a new war with Spain could have brought the French into the war as allies of the Spanish. Luckily for the British the French Revolution was starting and France had other worries than their ally's trading rights on the other side of the globe. Both Britain and Spain gathered large fleets and threatened each other. Without support from the French, the Spanish blinked first. The two sides met and implemented the first Nootka Convention in October of 1790. Both nations were allowed to trade in Nootkan waters and the competition to win the allegiance of the Nuu-cha-nulth began in earnest.