southseafisheryIsaac Cruikshank, The New South Sea Fishery or A Cheap Way to Catch Wales, published by H. Humphrey, 4th January 1791.

This print by Isaac Cruikshank was one of the last political satires to have been published on the subject of the Nootka Sound Crisis. The crisis erupted in the spring of 1790, when news of Spanish authorities summarily expelling British traders from the area around Vancouver Island arrived in England. Britain and Spain had been tussling over possessions in the New World since the sixteenth-century and tension between the two nations escalated rapidly, with London demanding the immediate return of the confiscated trading posts and Madrid insisting that its officials had every right to enforce Spanish sovereignty in the region. Within a matter of weeks it appeared as though an incident that had begun with a scuffle in a distant outpost on the far side of the world, was about to precipitate a major European war.

However as both nations began to prepare for conflict it became apparent that Spain lacked the means to successfully face Britain alone. While the British had been able to immediately mobilise a fleet of 40 ships of the line for action, persistent shortages of money, men and supplies had left Spanish authorities struggling to adequately fit out a fleet of 30 warships. Spain had initially assumed that France could be relied upon to enter the conflict on her side, thus tipping the balance of naval power against Britain, but failed to reckon on the changes brought about by the revolution in Paris the previous summer. When the new revolutionary regime finally announced that it had no intention of upholding the terms of the old alliance between the French and Spanish monarchs, Spain was left with little choice but to make a humiliating u-turn in the face of British threats. In October 1790 she signed the Nootka Sound Convention, promising to restore the confiscated British outposts, acknowledge Britain’s right to fish off the Pacific Northwest and essentially relinquishing her own claims of sovereignty over the area.

The references to fishing rights which were inserted into the Convention may have confused some; this was after all a document designed to settle a dispute over fur trading posts on the Canadian coast, not access to deep sea fisheries. Nor had the issue played a big role in Anglo-Spanish relations prior to the outbreak of the crisis over Nootka Sound. So what had changed? The answer is that British foreign policy had been effectively hijacked by lobbyists representing the nation’s whaling industry. During the course of the crisis they had managed to convince ministers that the whaling grounds off the northwest coast of America represented a vast source of potential wealth for the nation which should be seized from the Spanish at the first opportunity. Their arguments worked: British diplomacy was re-arranged to reflect the demands of the whalers and the references to fishing rights were inserted into the draft of the documents which were to be presented to the Spanish.

While the British government had been able to rely on an outbreak of bellicose patriotic sentiment to carry them through the Nootka Sound Crisis without too many questions being asked, the catcalls of criticism from their political opponents began to grow louder as the threat of war receded. Members of the Whig opposition rushed to point out that mobilisation of the armed forces had cost the nation £4 million, a sum which dwarfed the value of the trading posts at the centre of the dispute and any revenues currently being derived from whaling in the Pacific. Whether the government had or had not managed to secure access to a lucrative fishing ground was irrelevant – fishing rights had not caused the rupture with Spain and the Spanish had never attempted to curtail the activities of British fisherman in the Pacific. At best, they concluded, the crisis had been a pointless waste of large sums of public money, and at worst it was a deliberate scheme which had been cooked up to further the interest of the whaling industry at the public’s expense.

This print reflects the view of those opposition critics. It was published in early January 1791, shortly after several heated Parliamentary exchanges on the subject of the Nootka Convention. It depicts William Pitt and his crony Henry Dundas as whalers, lurking beyond the ten league markers denoting the area of the American coast in which Britons now had a right to fish. Despite the fact they are the only fishing boat sailing in an otherwise empty sea, their activities are overseen by the presence of a British warship named ‘Convention’, its presence serving as a reminder of the huge costs associated with securing the profits of a few whaling firms. Pitt has baited his line with a bag of gold worth £3 million, while Dundas stands ready to supply further quantities of cash should additional lures be required. The speech bubble coming from Pitt’s mouth reads “I fear Harry this fishing will never answer”, while Dundas replies “Never mind Billy, the Gudgeons we have caught in England will pay for all”. The label ‘gudgeon’, which was the name of a small fish often used as bait, was commonly applied to a dupe or someone who could be relied upon to swallow anything. Its use here is clearly intended as a dig at politicians and members of the public who unthinkingly rushed to offer their support for a needless and expensive war against the Spanish.

The rhyme beneath the image reads:

The Hostile Nations view with glad Surprise / The Frugal plans of Ministers so Wise / But they they Censure of the World despise / Sure from their faithful Commons of supplies / Convinced that man must fame im(m)ortal gain / Who first dare fish with Millions in the Spanish Main

The print was produced by Isaac Cruikshank for Hannah Humphrey and published on 4th January 1791. Its design was probably influenced by a similar caricature entitled Billy and Harry fishing whales off Nootka Sound which had been published by William Holland on 23rd December 1790. The delay between the two publication dates can possibly be accounted for by the differing political outlook and markets of the two publishers. Holland was a committed radical and one of the few publishers to have been critical of the Tory government from the outset of the crisis. He would have wasted no time in producing a print which heaped further ignominy on Pitt’s head and could presumably have been confident of selling copies of the design to his likeminded clientele. Humphrey’s political prints were generally more moderate and conservative in their outlook. It seems plausible that she would have waited until criticism of Pitt’s handling off the Nootka affair became more mainstream before being confident of purchasing the plate from Cruikshank.