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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.

Despite 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?

  • 3
    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
  • Wow, I grew up on the Monterey Peninsula, and they spent a lot of time in the public schools teaching us about local history and taking us on field trips, etc. -- but nobody ever mentioned the Bouchard incident. – user2848 Jul 5 at 18:29
  • It should be noted that in that timeframe Britain was populating Australia, that is like a larger California without inconvenient neighbours. – Pere Jul 9 at 20:26
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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.

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  • 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
  • I've downvoted this answer as a search of the catalogue of the National Archives doesn't prove anything in itself. A search using the criteria "barron california" for instance produces the correspondence with James A. Forbes mentioned in the article I have linked to in my answer but the details of the correspondence are not revealed in the catalogue. No conclusions can therefore be drawn without examining the actual correspondence and in my view this answer is wrong to draw a conclusion just from the results of a catalogue search. – menno Jul 7 at 23:11
  • @menno The question is explicitly asking if "proposals were raised in the British government or military to take California". Had there been any serious proposal for Britain to take California, a file would have been opened and the title of that file would appear in the catalogue (that is just how the British government works). The correspondence of individual officials is filed differently, and that is, presumably, what you found in FO 50. However, the fact that no file was raised in response to that correspondence indicates that no formal proposal was ever raised. – sempaiscuba Jul 8 at 0:56
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To add to the accepted answer, here is some additional information perhaps indirectly related to the question. This plaque in San Francisco, California Historical Landmark No. 819, includes the phrase "this venture caused wide speculation about British intentions".

Part of the background to this may be this letter (page 1 and page 2) that William G. Rae, the Hudson's Bay Company's Chief Trader, wrote to Juan B. Alvarado, then Governor of California, on 1st November 1841, asking him to issue an order preventing Captain John Sutter from interfering with the Company's trappers and he also asked for a license to enable the Hudson's Bay Company's employees to travel to "whatever part of California the Company's business may require". Wikipedia suggests that Sutter favoured the French taking control of California and Sutter also had ideas of declaring California a republic no doubt with himself as dictator as can be seen from the extracts shown here of a letter he wrote on the 8 November 1841 to Jacob Leese.

The extracts read as follows: ".....The people don't know me yet, but soon they will find out what I am able to do. It is to late now to drive me out the country, the first steps they do against me is that I will make a Declaration of Independence and proclaim California for a Republique independent from Mexico. I am strong now........"

(This letter is referenced in Bancroft's History here and is held in the Vallejo Family Papers Collection reference BANC MSS C-B 441 at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.)

Letter Extract 1 Letter Extract 2

Of more direct relevance perhaps to the question were the reports sent to the Foreign Office during the period 1843-1846 by James Alexander Forbes, the British vice-consul to California. His reports are described and discussed in the following article but there is far too much information on British intentions regarding California in this document to attempt to summarise it. Here is just one quote:

"With California in a state of turmoil, an American takeover became more likely. Forbes stated: 'I feel myself in duty bound to use all my influence to prevent this fine country from falling into the hands of any other foreign power than that of England.'"

A British Consular Agent in California: The Reports of James A. Forbes, 1843-1846 by RUSSELL M. POSNER

The final words perhaps on this answer should be those of Sir Robert Peel, British Prime Minister, in his answer in March 1845 to a question in Parliament on the matter of Britain's interest in California:

"I beg to state, in answer to the question of my hon. Friend, in the most explicit manner, that I am not aware of the existence of any such correspondence, and that I believe the report to be as utterly without foundation as any report that was ever invented. I hope that this contradiction may prove a caution to persons out of doors how they put confidence in such stories. I have seen a great many reports as to the undermining ambition of Great Britain; but I have considered that they were propagated rather as a palliation for the conduct of others, than as having any truth in them. I can answer for it that the present Government have had no such correspondence; and as I find no trace of it in any of the offices, I believe that the late Government was equally innocent in the matter. I repeat that the report is utterly destitute of foundation."

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Question:
Did Britain look into taking California?

Short Answer:
Yes, Beyond looking into there were plans conveyed to the British Government by it's Ministers. The United States border with the British in Canada in the far west was disputed until June 15th 1846. Prior to this there were various British plans to assume or compete with the United States for parts of California. Any such colony would strengthen the British claim to the North West.

The various reports of Great Britain's interest in California center around some sort of economic default or exchange with Mexico around the 1840s. A third party transfer of California to the English via British bondholders of Mexican debt or a direct transfer/purchase of California by England from Mexico.

British pursuit of California went so far as theatre government ministers advocating in favor of various plans to high ranking British Ministers in London, but never received favorable responses from London.

Detailed Answer
On August 30, I841, British Minster to Mexico, Sir Richard Packenham, wrote to British Lord Palmerston, 2 time Prime Minister who "dominated British Foreign Policy 1830 to 1865". In this letter the British Minister to Mexico writes in favor of the use of British Bond holders to assume first a British settlement and then a colony in California.

Annual Publications of the Historical Society of Southern California, Volume 12
It is much to be regretted that advantage should not be taken of the arrangement some time since concluded by the Mexican Government with their creditors in Europe, to establish an English population in the magnificent Territory of Upper California..... by all means desirable in a political point of view, that California, once ceasing to belong to Mexico should not fall into the hands of any Power but England. and the present debilltated conditions of mexico, and the gradual increase of foreign population in California render it probable that it's separation from Mexico will be effected at no distant period; in fact there is some reason to believe that daring and adventurous speculators in the United States have already turned their thoughts in that directions......
If it were to be known that an enterprise of this kind would receive the sanction and support of Her Majesty's Government. properly qualified persons would readily be found to carry out the plan; and I am sanguine enough to believe that the result would be the establishment of a prosperous colony united in feeling and interest with England, and at the same time the attainment of an object in my humble opinion, of the highest political importance. I need scarcely observe that any foreign Settlement in California would for some time to come be nominally dependent on the Mexican Republic; but this state of things would not last forever, nor while it did last would it, I image, be attended with serious inconvenience.

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    By sheer coincidence I've been studying today letters from R.C.Wylie Brit. Consul in Hawaii to William Hartnell in California requesting Hartnell to obtain as many land grants as he can as Wylie who sat on the London Committee of Bondholders believed that Britain was the only power that could save California and he says "nothing could justify her interference so much as previous grants of land under the Mexican Government to British subjects." He writes with great authority on the whole subject of the Mexican debt to the Bondholders, far too much detail to mention here or in my answer. – menno Jul 9 at 17:05

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