Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Meares, John

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MEARES, JOHN (1756?–1809), commander in the navy and voyager, entered the navy in 1771 on board the Cruiser, in the rating of 'captain's servant,' and after serving for nearly seven years, mostly in small ships, passed his examination 17 Sept. 1778, when he was said to be more than twenty-two (passing certificate); the next day he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. After the peace of 1783 he entered the merchant service and obtained command of a ship for a voyage to India. At Calcutta he formed a company for opening or developing a trade with North-west America, and on 12 March 1786 sailed in the ship Nootka of 200 tons. In September he arrived in Prince William Sound, where he wintered; and having explored part of the neighbouring coast and got together a cargo of furs, he went to Canton. In January 1788 he sailed for Nootka Sound in the ship Felice, arriving there in May. In June he was joined by the Iphigenia, William Douglas master; and after some traffic with the Indians, buying some land and obtaining a promise of free and exclusive trade, he sailed for China in the Felice in September, leaving the Iphigenia and her tender, the North-west America, with orders to winter at the Sandwich Islands.

In 1789 Meares and his partner at Canton despatched two ships, the Argonaut in April, and the Princess Royal in May, to join the Iphigenia in Nootka Sound. The Iphigenia was already there on 6 May, when the Spanish frigate Princesa of 26 guns came in. On the 13th the Princesa was joined by the 16-gun corvette San Carlos; and on the 14th the Spaniards seized the Iphigenia and the North-west America, making Douglas and all his men prisoners. On their arrival later on, the Argonaut and Princess Royal were also seized, the grounds of the aggression being the allegation that the coast and the adjacent seas were Spanish, and that any foreign ship trading there was violating the commercial code of Spain and was guilty of smuggling, if not of piracy.

As soon as the news reached Meares he returned to England, and in a memorial dated 30 April 1790 laid the state of the case before the government. On 13 May the memorial was presented to the House of Commons. The utmost indignation was felt and expressed; satisfaction and reparation were peremptorily demanded from the Spanish government; and as they were not at once given, a very large fleet was assembled, under the command of Lord Howe [see Howe, Richard, Earl Howe], which is commonly spoken of as 'the Spanish armament of 1790.' Before this material threat the Spanish government acceded to all demands. The political excitement gave an unwonted interest to Meares's voyages and mercantile schemes, and encouraged him to bring out his narrative, under the title of 'Voyages made in the Years 1788 and 1789 from China to the North-west Coast of America: to which are prefixed an Introductory Narrative of a Voyage performed in 1786 from Bengal in the Ship Nootka; Observations on the probable existence of a North-west Passage; and some Account of the Trade between the North-west Coast of America and China, and the latter Country and Great Britain,' 4to, 1790. To this is prefixed a portrait after Beechey.

The publication of this volume led to a warm controversy with George Dixon [q. v.], who immediately brought out 'Remarks on the Voyages of John Meares, Esq.,' 4to, 1790. This was followed by 'An Answer to Mr. George Dixon, late Commander of the Queen Charlotte, by John Meares, Esq.,'4to, 1791; and this again by 'Further Remarks on the Voyages of John Meares, Esq., in which several important Facts, misrepresented in the said Voyages, relative to Geography and Commerce, are fully substantiated, by George Dixon,' 4to, 1791. By this time the political trouble was at rest, and the quarrel was dropped. It does not appear that Meares had any further service in the navy; but on 26 Feb. 1795 he was promoted to the rank of commander. He died in 1809.

[In addition to the several works named in the text, and the memorial, which was printed in 1790, with the date 1760 in error, there are an Authentic Narrative of all the Facts relative to Nootka Sound (1790), and Official Papers relative to the Dispute. &c. (1790). See also Parliamentary History, vol. xxviii. col. 765 et seq. There is a short and inaccurate notice in Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography. In Gent. Mag. 1810, freq. (cf. Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xii. 138), there is a long discussion of the pedigree of Meares or Mears, a family that settled in Ireland in the time of James I. Whether John Meares belonged to this family or not is unknown.]

J. K. L.