Updated: Sep 19, 2019
Port Alberni is a small town with a rich history. Situated at the tip of the Alberni Inlet within the Alberni Valley, the city of Port Alberni has morphed over the years from a logging boom town into the diverse tourist destination it is today. Port Alberni, the canal and valley are all named after one individual, Pedro de Alberni.
Alberni was born in 1747 in the city of Tortosa in the Catalonian province of Tarragona, beginning his military career at the young age of fifteen (Hardwick). Alberni’s career in the military started with a bang when he participated in the invasion of Portugal during the Seven Year’s War as a cadet in the 2nd Regiment of Light Infantry of Catalonia, a position he held for nearly five years before being promoted to an officer (Hardwick). After his promotion, Alberni was transferred to New Spain as fourth in command of the 1st Free Company of Volunteers of Catalonia (Alberni). After seeing action multiple times at the Mexican-American border, Alberni was beginning to be recognized as an intelligent and valuable officer, and was subsequently promoted to Captain of his company in March of 1783. For seven years Alberni served as the military commander of the province of Nayarit (Alberni).
It was summer when Alberni received the order that would lead him to foreign waters, where he would ultimately earn his reputation as a practical and resourceful leader. When Alberni was ordered to mobilize his troops on a mission bound for what is now known as Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the mission was to establish defenses by developing a plan protecting the Spanish claim to the port of Santa Cruz de Nutca. Although the troops were supposed to march immediately, Alberni conducted a thorough review and found that his company did not have enough men or equipment to make the journey and felt the need to hold off until better arrangements could be made (Sanchez, 1980).
Pedro de Alberni began proving himself a good captain before his company even set sail for Nootka, by ensuring the were being taken care of, being provided for and paid appropriately. In order to get more men, Alberni submitted a report to his superiors showing his lack of resources and requested power to recruit the troops he needed. In addition to recruitment, the captain ordered supplies such as clothing and a replacement of arms for his troops, some of whom were in dire need as they had not received new weaponry in thirteen years. As all of this preparation for deployment was taking place, Captain Alberni had made an application for payment of his soldiers who had not been paid for nearly three months. One morning in September, Alberni paid a visit to the office of Antonio Villa Urrutia to inquire about the delay of payment to his troops. This was not Alberni’s first visit, he had approached Urrutia on another eighteen occasions regarding payment. Alberni was becoming infuriated with Urrutia because he noticed that the Real Hacienda had sent the proper forms to Urrutia approving payment, but the soldiers had still not received it. As Alberni entered the office that morning, he was rudely greeted by Urrutia’s scribe Jose Mateos, who told him that there were more important matters to attend to than the payment of Alberni’s troops. As Alberni began raising his voice, Urrutia heard and came out of his office into the entryway where Mateos and Alberni were arguing. Alberni then accused Urrutia of obstructing the payment of his troops and not liking Catalonian troops. Urrutia in return ordered Alberni to place himself under house arrest, which he refused, causing him to later be held in confinement for the entire duration of their voyage North to Nootka. It was February of the following year before Alberni felt prepared enough to begin marching troops. The Free Company of Volunteers of Catalonia finally began their march through Nayarit, making their way through Guadalajara and Tepic, travelling from their barracks to the port of San Blas. Once in San Blas, the troops boarded a convoy of three ships, commanded by naval lieutenant Francisco de Eliza, finally setting sail for Nootka (Sanchez, 1980).
While in Nootka, the company made quick work of clearing land and building a wooden barracks that stood in contrast to the surrounding rugged terrain. The Captain’s job was mainly military in nature but he also found time to create a comfortable environment. Not only did Alberni cultivate a garden for food, he also made notes of which plants grew best on Nootka and determined the best planting season for each crop by planting seeds at weekly intervals. These gardens were a legacy that lasted long after Alberni and his crew had left Nootka. Although Alberni spent a considerable amount of time developing defense plans for various forms of potential attacks, both from land and sea, Alberni made it a priority to improve camp life and help sustain his company through the harsh winters of the Pacific Northwest. Alberni was remembered for making an effort to make Nootka more enjoyable for his troops with his gardens, bringing over livestock and facilitating friendly relations between the Spaniards and Nootkans (Sanchez, 1980). To this day Alberni is credited for his large contribution to a compilation of Nootkan-Spanish vocabulary, the knowledge he passed on priceless to those who came after him. Francisco de Eliza, the naval lieutenant accompanying Alberni must have thought highly of him, as he named a canal he discovered in 1789 after him, the “Canale de Alberni” (Culture and HIstory). After two years and ten months in Nootka, Alberni’s command was relieved and he left Nootka on July 1, 1792, promoted the same day to lieutenant-colonel. And Alberni’s military career did not end there, he continued his career until his death in Monterey in 1802 (Alberni).
The naming of the Alberni Canal stuck, first appearing on the maps produced by the HMCS Hecate after they explored the inlet in 1861, not long after Eliza (Culture and History). Eventually the name Alberni was used for both the towns Port Alberni and Alberni, and the combined area of the “Alberni Valley”. If it weren’t for Francisco de Eliza, we may never have recognized Pedro de Alberni and his amazing contributions to Nootka and the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
Written by M. Van Vliet
Alberni, Pedro de. Biographi. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/alberni_pedro_de_5E.html
Culture and History. Super Natural British Columbia Canada. https://www.hellobc.com/port-alberni/culture-history.aspx
Hardwick, M. R. Pedro de Alberni, Commander of Arms of California 1796-1901. Californians and the Military. http://www.militarymuseum.org/Alberni.html
Sanchez, J. P. (1980). Pedro de Alberni and the Spanish Claim to Nootka: The Catalonian Volunteers on the Northwest Coast. The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 71(2), 72-77.