The Spanish colonized California in part to forestall the expansion of other empires. The territory was in danger of invasion throughout the Spanish and Mexican eras (1769-1846). Visitors and residents alike noted how easily it could be conquered; the privateer Bouchard, sailing for Argentina, demonstrated such in 1818 by sacking and burning the capital, Monterey. The states thought capable of posing a threat to the territory were Russia, England, and the United States, which eventually did the job.

Depite the presence of Fort Ross, it would have been tough for Imperial Russia to pacify and administer California. Britain on the other hand demonstrably had the resources to run overseas colonies, and already had major business interests nearby in what is now British Columbia. Around 1830, as its business connections in mainland Mexico developed, Britain appointed a consul in California, William Hartnell.

What, if any, proposals were raised in the British government or military to take California, and how far did they get?

  • 2
    The answers here might be of interest – Pete Leaman Jan 23 '18 at 15:03
  • William Hartnell is intriguing. I'd look at it this way: He was representing British business rights in the region. He gained privileges from the spanish but was also targeted by them. Then the Mexican-American brought California more into the English sphere. – John Dee May 15 '18 at 7:49

I've done a search of the catalogue of the National Archives for material that might suggest British interest in taking California during the time-frame (1769-1846). [The Discovery search engine allows a centralised search of some '32 million descriptions of records held by The National Archives and more than 2,500 archives across the country'].

I can find no record from any Government department, nor any document produced by the Royal Navy or British Army making any such proposals.

There are, however, a number of surveys, including maps of parts of the California coast & watercolour sketches which might have been useful had any such proposal been made. In modern parlance, these might be thought of as part of Britain's global 'intelligence gathering' mission at that time.

While we probably can't rule out the possibility that someone in some corner of the British establishment was working on contingency plans for some form of military intervention in California, it seems unlikely that there was any real incentive for Britain to take California.

Many maps of the period show most of the land as "Terra Incognita", or "Parts Unknown". Britain was involved in a series of wars with France, with its American colonies, in South Africa, and also establishing what would become its colonies in India and South-east Asia. Superficially at least, it seems there would have been little incentive to go to war over California.

  • Good work checking the National Archives. I'm satisfied. – Aaron Brick Aug 7 '18 at 16:02
  • Regarding both the incentive and the military capacity of Britain, an interesting detail from the "History of California" on Wikipedia: "There were U.S. fears that the British might try to annex California to satisfy British creditors.[36] The British Pacific Station's squadron of ships off California were stronger in ships, guns, and men than the American ships.[34]" – Brian Z Mar 1 '19 at 18:07
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    @BrianZ Chapter 14 of Cleland's book (which is the citation for that detail) is an interesting read, if a little short on detail, in that regard. The fact that Admiral Seymour's orders prevented him from intervening supports the conclusion that the British government had no plans to take California at that time (although it seems there were a number of individual diplomats and others who were supposed to have been trying to press the case). – sempaiscuba Mar 1 '19 at 18:28

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