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Canada and the States By Sir E. W. Watkin Characters: 21202

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

The Hudson's Bay Company and the Select Committee of 1748-9.

The history of the old co-partnery, the "Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay," ought to be written by some able hand. Samuel Smiles or Goldwin Smith, with the aid of the archives held by the Governor and Committee, would make a book which would go round the world. To publish such a record is a duty incumbent upon Mr. Eden Colville and his colleagues. From no merit or prevision of theirs, a happy and profitable transformation has been made of their undertaking. The individuals, as well as Canada as a State, and the Empire, also, have gained largely. The monopoly has been broken up, under liberal and generous treatment of the monopolists-monopolists who had deserved their monopoly by their able administration; and those who ran the risk, paid the cost, and incurred the anxiety, neither complain nor ask for the credit of their work. The merchant adventurer trading to the Eastern Indies, and the merchant adventurer trading into Hudson's Bay, each on his side of the world, has preserved vast territories to the Crown and people of England. Their conquests have cost the taxpayers of England nothing; while the trade and enterprise they promoted have enriched millions, and have opened careers, often brilliant, for men of courage and self denial, many of whose names will go down to posterity in fame and honour.

The Hudson's Bay Company was constituted under a charter of Charles the

Second. That charter began thus: "Charles the Second, by the grace of

God King of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, Defender of the

Faith, to all to whom these presents shall come greeting:

"Whereas our dear intirely beloved cousin, Prince Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria and Cumberland; George Duke of Albemarle, William Earl of Craven, Henry Lord Arlington, Anthony Lord Ashley, Sir John Robinson, and Sir Robert Vyner, Knights and Baronets; Sir Peter Colleton, Baronet, Sir Edward Hungerford, Knight of the Bath, Sir Paul Neele, Sir John Griffith, Sir Philip Carteret, and Sir James Hayes, Knights; John Kirke, Francis Millington, William Prettyman, John Fenn, Esquires, and John Portman, citizen and goldsmith of London, have at their own great costs and charges undertaken an expedition for Hudson's Bay, in the Northwest parts of America, for the discovery of a new passage into the South Sea, and for the finding of some trade for furs, minerals, and other considerable commodities; and by such their undertaking have already made such discoveries as do encourage them to proceed farther in pursuance of their said design, by means whereof there may probably arise great advantage to us and our kingdom:

"And whereas the said undertakers, for their further encouragement in the said design, have humbly besought us to incorporate them, and grant unto them, and their successors, the whole trade and commerce of all those seas, streights, and bays, rivers, lakes, creeks, and sounds, in whatsoever latitude they shall be, that lie within the entrance of the streights commonly called Hudson's Streights; together with all the lands, countries, and territories upon the coasts and confines of the seas, streights, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks, and sounds aforesaid, which are not now actually possessed by any of our subjects, or by the subjects of any other Christian Prince or State."

And the adventurers were made "one body corporate and politic, in deed and in name," by the name of "The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay."

They were granted "the sole trade and commerce" of "all those seas," &c., &c., "in whatever latitude they shall be;" "together with all the lands and territories upon the countries, coasts, and confines of the seas, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks and sounds aforesaid;" "with the fishing of all sorts of fish, whales, sturgeons, and all other royal fishes;" "together with the royalty of the sea upon the coasts within the limits aforesaid, and all mines royal, as well discovered as not discovered, of gold, silver, gems, and precious stones, to be found and discovered within the territories, limits, and places aforesaid; and that the land be from henceforth reckoned and reputed as one of our plantations or Colonies in America, called Rupert's Land."

All this was to be "holden" "of us, our heirs and successors, as of our manor of East Greenwich, in the County of Kent, in free and common soccage, and not in capite or by knight's service; yielding and paying yearly to us, our heirs and successors, for the same, two elks and two black beavers, whensoever and as often as we, our heirs and successors, shall happen to enter into the said countries, territories, and regions hereby granted."

The adventurers were further granted "not only the whole, intire, and only liberty of trade and traffick, and the whole, intire, and only liberty, use and privilege of trading and traffick to and from the territories, limits, and places aforesaid, but also the whole and intire trade and traffick to and from all havens, bays, creeks, rivers, lakes, and seas into which they shall find entrance, or passage by water, or land, out of the territories, &c. aforesaid; and to and with all the natives and people, inhabitants, or which shall inhabit within the territories, &c."

The charter proceeds to grant the fullest powers for the government of the countries by the adventurers; every power, in fact, provided the laws in force in England were administered. And then it authorizes "free liberty and license, in case they conceive it necessary, to send either ships of war, men, or ammunition, into any of their plantations, forts, factories, or places of trade," "for the security and defence of the same." "And to choose commanders and officers over them, and to give them power and authority, by commissions under their common seal, or otherwise, to continue, or make peace or war with any prince or people whatsoever, that are not Christians, in any places where the said Company have plantations, forts, or factories, or adjacent thereunto, as shall be most for the advantage and benefit of said Governor and Company, and of their trade;" "and also to right and recompense themselves upon the goods, estate, or people of those parts."

Thus, the adventurers had exclusive rights of trade, exclusive possession of territories, exclusive powers of government, and the right to make war, or conclude peace.

By an Order of Council of 4th February, 1748, a petition from one Arthur Dobbs, Esq., and from members of a committee appointed by the "subscribers for finding out a passage to the Western and Southern Ocean of America," was referred to the consideration of "A. Ryder" and "W. Murray," who heard counsel for and against the Hudson's Bay Company, and finally decided that, "Considering how long the Company have enjoyed and acted under this charter without interruption or encroachment, we cannot think it advisable for his Majesty to make any express or implied declaration against the validity of it till there has been some judgment of a court of justice to warrant it."

On the 24th April, 1749, a Select Committee of Parliament reported, through Lord Strange, upon "the state and condition of the countries adjoining to Hudson's Bay, and the trade carried on there." The report begins by stating-

"The Committee appointed to inquire into the state and condition of the countries adjoining to Hudson's Bay, and the trade carried on there; and to consider how those countries may be settled and improved, and the trade and fisheries there extended and increased; and also to inquire into the right the Company of Adventurers trading to Hudson's Bay pretend to have, by charter, to the property of lands, and exclusive trade to those countries;-have, pursuant to the order of the House, examined into the several matters to them referred, and find the particular state thereof to be as follows:-

"Your Committee thought proper, in the first place, to inquire into the nature and extent of the charter granted by King Charles the Second to the Company of Adventurers trading to Hudson's Bay; under which charter the present Company claim a right to lands, and an exclusive trade to those countries; which charter being laid before your Committee, they thought it necessary, for the information of the House, to annex a copy thereof to this Report, in the Appendix No. 1. Your Committee then proceeded to examine the following witnesses:-

"The witnesses were Joseph Robson, who had been employed in Hudson's Bay for six years as a stonemason; Richard White, who had been a clerk at Albany Fort and elsewhere; Matthew Sergeant, who had been employed in the Company's service, and 'understood the Indian language'; John Hayter, who 'had been house-carpenter to the Company for six years, at Moose River'; Mathew Gwynne, who 'had been twice at Hudson's Bay'; Edward Thompson, who had been three years at Moose River, as surgeon; Enoch Alsop, who had been armourer to the Company at Moose River; Christopher Bannister, who had been armourer and gunsmith, and had resided in the Bay for 22 years; Robert Griffin, silversmith, who had been five years in the Company's service; Thomas Barnett, smith, who went over to Albany in 1741; Alexander Brown, who had been six years at Hudson's Bay as surgeon; Captain Thomas Mitchell, who had commanded a sloop of the Company's; Arthur Dobbs, 'Esquire,' 'examined as to the information he had received from "a French Canadese Indian" (since deceased), and who was maintained at the expense of the Admiralty, on a prospect of his being of service on the discovery of a North-west Passage,' 'and who informed your Committee that the whole of that discourse is contained in part of a book printed for the witness in 1744, to which he desired leave to refer'; Captain William Moore, who 'had been employed in Hudson's Bay from a boy'; Mr. Henry Spurling, merchant, who 'had traded chiefly in furs for 28 years past, during which time he had dealt with the Hudson's Bay Company'; Captain Carruthers, who had been in the Hudson's Bay service 35 years ago; Arthur Slater, who had been employed by the Company on the East Main."

It will be seen that one object aimed at in granting a charter to the Hudson's Bay Company was to further the discovery of the "North-west Passage." Beginning in 1719, and ending, probably in despair, in 1737, the Hudson's Bay Company fitted and sent out in the whole six separate expeditions, whi

ch the Committee record in their Appendix, as follows (The instructions to the commanders usually ended, "So God send the good ship a successful discovery, and to return in safety. Amen"):-

A List of Vessels fitted out by the Hudson's Bay Company for Discovery of a North-West Passage.

1719. Albany, frigate, Captain George Berley, sailed from England on or about 5th June. Never returned.

1719. Prosperous, Captain Henry Kelsey, sailed from York Fort, June 19th. Returned 10th August following.

Success, John Hancock, master, sailed from Prince of

Wales' Fort, July 2nd. Returned 10th August.

1721. Prosperous, Captain Henry Kelsey, sailed from York Fort, June 6th. Returned 2nd September.

Success, James Napper, master, sailed from York Fort, June

26th. Lost 30th of same month.

1721. Whalebone, John Scroggs, master, sailed from Gravesend 31st May, wintered at Prince of Wales' Fort.

1723. Sailed from thence 21st June. Returned July 25th following.

1737. The Churchill, James Napper, master, sailed from Prince of Wales' Fort, July 7th. Died 8th August, and the vessel returned the 18th.

The Mus-quash, Robert Crow, master, sailed from Prince of

Wales' Fort, July 7th. Returned 22nd August.

It must be observed that, in 1745, Parliament had offered a reward of 20,000_l_. for the discovery of the North-west Passage. The Act was entitled "An Act for giving a publick reward to such person, or persons, His Majesty's subjects, as shall discover a North-west Passage through Hudson's Streights to the Western and Southern Ocean of America." In the evidence before the Committee, varied opinions were given as to this Northwest Passage. Mr. Edward Thompson, who had been a ship-surgeon, being examined as to the probability of a North-west Passage, said, "He had the greatest reason to believe there is one, from the winds, tides, and black whales; and he thinks the place to be at Chesterfield's inlet; that the reason of their coming back was they met the other boat which had been five leagues further, and the crew told them the water was much fresher and shallower there; but where he was the water was fifty fathoms deep, and the tide very strong; the ebb six hours and the flood two, to the best of his remembrance; that it is not common for the tide to flow only two hours; but he imagines it to be obstructed by another tide from the westward; that the rapidity of the tide upwards was so great, that the spray of the water flew over the bow of the schooner, and was so salt that it candied on men's shoes, but that the tide did not run in so rapid a manner the other way." Captain William Moore, being asked whether he believed there was a North-west Passage to the South Seas, said, "He believes there is a communication, but whether navigable or not he cannot say; that if there is any such communication 'tis further northward than he expected; that if it is but short, as 'tis probable to conclude from the height of the tides, 'tis possible it might be navigable; and it was the opinion of all the persons sent on that discovery that a north- west wind made the highest tides." Captain Carruthers said, "That he don't apprehend there is any such passage; but if there is, he thinks it impracticable to navigate it on account of the ice; that he would rather choose to go round by Cape Horn; and that it will be impossible to go and return through such passage in one year; and he thinks 'tis the general opinion of seamen that there is no such passage." Mr. John Tomlinson, merchant, of London, said, "He was a subscriber to the undertaking for finding a North-west Passage; which undertaking was dropped for want of money: that he should not choose to subscribe again upon the same terms; that he cannot pretend to say whether there is such a passage or not, or whether, if found, it could be ever rendered useful to navigation."

The merchant witnesses were in favour of throwing open the trade of Hudson's Bay; and this Mr. Tomlinson said more ships would be sent, and more people brought down to trade. "This is confirmed," he said, "by the experience of the Guinea trade, which, when confined to a company, employed not above ten ships, and now employs 150;" and "that the case of the Guinea trade was exactly similar (to the Hudson's Bay), where the ships near one another, and each endeavours to get the trade; and the more ships lie there, the higher the price of negroes."

The capital of the Hudson's Bay Company, increased by doublings and treblings of its nominal amount, was, in 1748, 103,950_l_., held by eighty-six proprietors.

The trade between London and Hudson's Bay was carried on in 1748, and for some previous years, by four ships. The cost of the exports was in 1748 5,102_l_. 12_s_. 3_d_., and the value of the sales of furs and other imports in that year amounted to 30,160_l_. 5_s_. 11_d_d. The "charge attending the carrying on the Hudson's Bay trade, and maintaining their factories," in 1748, is stated at 17,352_l_. 4_s_. 10_d_. The original cash capital was 10,500_l_. That capital was "trebled" in 1690, making the nominal capital 31,500_l_.; in August, 1720, it was proposed to augment the cash capital, and to make the nominal total 378,000_l_. But at a "General Court," held on the 23rd December, 1720, it was resolved to "vacate" the subscription "by reason of the present scarcity of moneys, and the deadness of credit." And it was further "Resolved, that in the opinion of this Committee, that each subscriber shall have 30_l_. stock for each 10_l_. by him paid in," "which resolutions were agreed to by this Court." Anyhow, the capital in 1748 is stated at 103,950_l_. A trade which, by sending out about 5,000_l_. a year, brought back a return of 30,000_l_., was no doubt worth preserving; and even taking the outlay for working and maintenance of forts and establishments, there was over 8 per cent, on the nominal capital left, or probably 40 per cent on all the cash actually paid in; not too great a reward for the benefits gained by the country from this trade.

Some particulars of the regulation of exchange of commodities may here be interesting.

The system of trade was simple barter. The equivalent of value was beaver skins; while skins of less value were again calculated as so much of each for one beaver. A kettle was exchanged for one beaver. A pound and a half of gunpowder, one beaver. One blanket, six beavers. Two bayonets, one beaver. Four fire-steels, one beaver. One pistol, four beavers. Twelve needles, one beaver. One four-foot gun, twelve beavers. Three knives, one beaver, and so on over a long list of various articles. Some of the things exchanged nearly 130 years ago, show that the Indians had a good knowledge of trade, and of objects used by civilised people. For example; brandy (English), one gallon, four beavers. Vermilion, one and a half ounces, one beaver; and combs, egg-boxes, files, glasses, goggles, handkerchiefs, hats (laced), hawk- bells, rings, scissors, spoons, shirts, shoes, stockings, and thimbles.

The factors were accused of imposing upon the Indians by using defective weights and measures; and it was said that the doubtful profit thus made, in opposition to the standards sent out from England, was called the "overplus-trade."

In the year 1748, the forts and settlements of the Hudson's Bay Company "in the Bay" were:-


Moose Fort 51 28

Henley House, or Fort 52

The East Main House 52 10

Albany Fort 52 18

York Fort 57 10

Prince of Wales' Fort 59

This limited occupation contrasts in a marked manner with the area of posts, all over the continent, at this later date; see a list at pp. 222-226, and a map in front of this volume.

The skins and other articles imported, and sold at the Company's warehouse, in the City of London, by the "inch of candle"-a mode of auction common in those days (under which the bidding went on till the inch of lighted wax, candle went out)-fluctuated in the ten years between the years 1739 and 1748 very much. In that period the highest and lowest prices were for:-

L s d L s d_

Beaver (per lb ) 0 7 101/4 0 5 3

Martin (per skin) 0 6 8 0 5 11/4

Otter " 0 13 6 0 5 5

Cat " 0 18 0 0 10 101/4

Fox " 0 11 71/4 0 6 71/4

Wolverines " 0 7 0 0 5 5

Bear (per skin) 1 6 71/2 0 12 101/4

Mink " 0 4 8 0 2 0

Wolves " 0 18 11 0 9 01/4

Woodshock " 0 12 0 0 8 0

Elk " 0 11 7 0 6 1

Deer " 0 0 9 0 2 01/4

Bed feathers (per lb ) 0 1 41/4 0 1 0

Castorum " 0 13 21/4 0 6 1

Ivory " ----- 0 0 61/4

Whale Fins " 0 2 9 0 1 101/4

Wesakapupa " 0 2 4 0 0 61/4

Whale Oil (per tun) 18 13 0 10 1 0

Goose quills (per 1,000) 0 18 0 0 11 7

"Ivory" only appears once, viz. in the sale of 1738-9. This article may have been, simply, bones of the whale; and "whale oil" only appears four times in the ten years quoted.

The report of Lord Strange's Committee quotes many quaint and solid instructions, as well in times of war as of peace, to the governors and agents on the Bay. A letter from London, dated 10th May, 1744, says, "The English and French having declared war against each other, and the war with Spain still continuing, we do hereby strictly direct you to be always on your guard and to keep a good watch; and that you keep all your men as near home as possible. We do hereby further direct that you cut away all trees, hedges, bushes, &c., or any other cover for an enemy; and lay all level and open round the factory, further than cannon shot, which we compute to be a mile; in order to hinder the enemy from attacking you unawares, and from being sheltered from the factory's guns. But you are to keep up, and repair, your palisadoes, for your defence." … "You are to fire point blank upon any ship, sloop, or vessel that shall come near the factory, unless they make the true signal, and answer yours. The letter proceeds to offer 30_l_. to the widow or children of any man killed in defence of the factory; to every one who should lose a leg, or an arm, 30_l_. Compensation to men receiving smaller wounds; and especial reward to such of the "chiefs, officers, and common men" as might specially distinguish themselves.

The 18th paragraph of this remarkable letter says: "In case you are attacked at Henley House, and, notwithstanding a vigorous resistance, you should have the misfortune to be overpowered, then you are to nail up the cannon, blow up the house, and destroy everything that can be of service to the enemy, and make the best retreat you can to the factory."

Grand old London merchants, these!

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