John Meares joined the Royal Navy as a captain’s servant in 1771 and commissioned lieutenant in 1778. In 1783 he joined the merchant service and in 1785, based in India, formed the Northwest America Company for collecting sea otter furs by trade with the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast and selling them in China. The East India Company held a monopoly on British trade in the Pacific and required all British traders to be licensed with the company and pay duties. Meares did not license his ships with the East India Company and instead tried to conceal the illegal activity by using the flag of Portugal. Meares registered his ships in Macau, a Portuguese colony in China, as non-British ships were not required to have licenses from the East India Company.
In 1787 John Meares embarked from India for Nootka Sound with two ships, the Felice Adventurer and the Iphigenia Nubiana. He sailed under the Portuguese flag to avoid the expense of a trading license from the British East India Company. In May 1788, he landed at Nootka where he claimed he bought a parcel of land from Chief Maquinna and built a structure upon it. This claim of purchase was a factor in the Nootka Crisis, which brought Britain and Spain to the brink of war and led to Captain George Vancouver’s historic voyage to the region.
Meares and crew constructed a small schooner, North West America, whose frames had been carried from Asia. She was notable as the first European vessel built in the Pacific Northwest. Plans were undertaken in 1979 to build a replica of North West America by a group of dedicated Victoria yachtsmen to commemorate the event of Captain Cook’s Bicentennial. Though project did not come to fruition, the group went on to establish The Victoria Classic Boat Festival.
While exploring in June of that year, Meares sighted an inlet he named the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was most likely the first European to reach the Strait since Juan de Fuca’s claim to have been there in 1592 though de Fuca’s claim has never been documented. Meares crossed to Tatoosh Island at the Strait’s southern entrance, then continued south, sighting the snow-covered mountain previously named Santa Rosalia by Juan Perez in 1774. Meares renamed it Mt. Olympus.
Upon his return, Meares dispatched one of his officers, Mr. Duffin, with thirteen men in a longboat to explore the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was determined that the Strait was not the fabled “Northwest Passage” thought to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
In 1790, Meares published Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789, from China to the North West Coast of America. It gained widespread attention, especially in light of the developing Nootka Crisis. Meares not only described his voyages to the northwest coast, but put forward a grand vision of a new economic network based in the Pacific, joining in trade widely separated regions such as the Pacific Northwest, China, Japan, Hawaii, and England. His vision required a loosening of the monopolistic power of the East India Company and the South Sea Company, which between them controlled all British trade in the Pacific. Meares argued strongly for loosening their power. His vision eventually came to pass, in its general form, but not before the long struggle of the Napoleonic Wars was over.
John Meares died at Bath, England on 29 January 1809.