Pedro de Alberni (1747 –1802) was a career Spanish soldier. Alberni was commander of the First Company of the First Free Company of Volunteers of Catalonia. The company consisted of about 80 soldiers when at full strength. Though he spent most of his military career in colonial Mexico, his role in the exploration of the Pacific Northwest in the 1790s, and his term as ninth Spanish governor of Alta California in 1800, are notable.
Spain had sent a number of expeditions to the Pacific Northwest, beginning with the 1774 voyage of Juan Pérez, to establish and reinforce the Spanish claim to the entire west coast of North America. The major port in the region was Nootka Sound. In 1789 Esteban José Martínez abandoned Nootka Sound after having seized British and American ships trading in the region and, sometime later, having killed Callicum, a close relative of the Nuu-chah-nulth chieftain Maquinna. The seizure of the English ships sparked the Nootka Controversy, which almost led to a war between Spain and England over sovereignty in the Pacific Northwest.
In that same year, before the abandonment of Nootka was known, the King of Spain issued a Royal Order requiring the establishment at Nootka to be maintained. This forced Juan Vicente de Güemes, Viceroy of New Spain and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, Commandant of the San Blas Naval Department and responsible for all naval operations north of Mexico, to organize a squadron to reoccupy Nootka Sound. The squadron was made up of three ships: the Concepción, under the command of Eliza, the San Carlos, under the command of Salvador Fidalgo, and the Princesa Real, under the command of Manuel Quimper. Alberni’s First Company of the Catalonian Volunteers sailed with them. They left San Blas in February 1790, arriving at Nootka Sound in April of that year.
During the voyage, Alberni was confined to his cabin aboard the Concepción for 70 days as a result of a dispute with a high-ranking Spanish officer. In the course of the disagreement, Alberni defended the rights of his men, demanding they be adequately clothed and armed, and paid back pay owed.
When the squadron arrived at Nootka Alberni and his troops had to rebuild the artillery battery’s fortification that had been dismantled after Martínez left. The reconstruction of the battery, on top of a high but small rocky island, was difficult. Eight embrasures had to be built to support the large cannons that then had to be emplaced. Later, six smaller cannons were also emplaced. The battery did not have enough space for the remaining eight large cannons the squadron had brought, so they were stored ashore.
Alberni built barracks, a house for the commanding officers, a house for the captain, ovens, furnaces, an infirmary, and cultivated various fruits and vegetables to provide food supplies for the garrison. He was the first European to cultivate a vegetable garden in modern-day British Columbia. He also made a registry of recorded temperatures, created a dictionary of 630 native words with their equivalents in Spanish, and brewed beer using conifer bark in an attempt to prevent scurvy. In short, he built, organized, and administered the fort and land defenses of the Nootka settlement for the wellbeing of its inhabitants and the travelers that arrived at its port. Many of his men from the Catalan Company participated in exploration expeditions in Alaska and Juan de Fuca Strait, along with Spanish explorers from other companies.
All the data that Alberni compiled was later used by José Mariano Mociño, a New Spain-born naturalist, and the author of Noticias de Nootka (Spanish for “News from Nootka”), who was in the Quadra expedition of 1792 and with Alessandro Malaspina in 1791 on his grand scientific voyage.
Alberni’s sojourn at Nootka coincided with a period of major activity of Spanish explorers and travelers from other nations in the region.