By Andrew Caird
AMONG the many Scotsmen who have begun in a
humble way and risen to honor and power, perhaps no one occupies a
loftier place in the esteem of the nation to-day than Lord Strathcona.
He began life as a clerk in the employment of the Hudson's Bay Company,
and by slow degree rose to the highest post that great corporation could
bestow upon him—the office of Governor. He is the High Commissioner of
the Dominion of Canada in London, and so thorough is the confidence
reposed in him by all parties that a Dominion Liberal Government
confirmed the appointment which had been made by its Conservative
predecessor. Queen Victoria conferred upon him four years ago a peerage
and a seat in the House of Lords, after having bestowed minor honors in
recognition of his public work in Canada. When the Boer war broke out,
and the colonies were invited to assist the Mother Country, Lord
Strathcona raised and equipped, at his own charge, a mounted corps of
five hundred men from among the North-West police and the riders of the
great plains where most of his own life was spent. As Strathcona's Horse
they have done brilliant service in many parts of South Africa. This
was, so far as I know, the largest individual contribution to the cost
of the war that was made at the time of stress, and it entitled Lord
Strathcona to the gratitude of his native land and the home of his
adoption. It proved, too, that his empire-building was of that
substantial quality that backs up enthusiasm with personal sacrifice.
Donald Alexander Smith was born in 1820 in
Morayshire, being the son of Alexander Smith, of Archieston, Knockando,
and Barbara Stuart, of Lechnachyle. The late Field-Marshal Donald
Stewart came of this Lechnachyle family. Donald Smith is also a cousin
of Lord Mount Stephen, who was raised to the Peerage for his services in
connection with the making of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and of the
late Sir James MacGrigor, whose obelisk stands in Marischal College
Quadrangle at Aberdeen. The young man was educated at the Anderston
Institute, Forres, and began the study of law. When he was eighteen
years of age he had three courses open for the making of a career. The
Brothers Grant, of Manchester, who are believed to be the originals of
the Cheeryble Brothers of Dickens, were in some way related to him, and
they offered to introduce him to the Manchester trade. He was also in a
position to enter the Indian Civil Service, or to go abroad as a clerk
in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. The last was the least
tempting to the average youth. The life and the work wanted a stout
heart, a self-reliant nature, and an adventurous disposition. That was
the career Donald Smith chose; and it was a happy decision for his own
sake, for the company, and, we may say, for the British Empire.
At the age of eighteen years, then, he set
forth to begin work as a clerk in the lonely fort at Ungava, on the
shore of Labrador. Only once a year did the little settlement of fur
traders have communication with the outside world, and the only breaks
in the monotony of life were the visits of the natives, who came to
exchange peltries and fur for rifles, ammunition and tobacco. The
Company had hundreds of these little forts all along the coast of the
Great North-West from the bay to the Pacific. At that time they had the
whole of Prince Rupert's Land under their control, a territory nearly as
large as Europe. Their relations with the Redmen have always been
honorable and fair, though characterized by strictly business
principles, and their representatives have had an immense influence in
the development of the huge territory they were the first to open up.
In that little corner of Labrador Donald
Smith remained for thirteen years, laying the foundation of subsequent
promotion, which was regulated by a scale of service and merit. After so
many years' service as clerk he became a trader, then a chief trader;
next he rose to be a factor, and afterwards to be chief factor. By that
time he had been removed to various other stations, and had acquired
great experience of the North- West. He was stationed for a number of
years at Fort Garry (now Winnipeg). The settlement then held three
hundred people, whereas now it is a prosperous city with a population of
fifty thousand, and the centre of a great agricultural area. When he had
been about twenty-six years with the company, the second highest post in
the service became vacant, and the Directors chose this quiet,
unassuming Scotsman to be their Deputy-Governor and Chief Commissioner,
transferring him to their headquarters at Montreal. He could only aspire
to one further advance now, the Governorship of the Company in London,
and that also was to come in due time, for he has been Governor of this
famous company during the last ten years.
That is a brilliant record in itself, is it
not? The Hudson's Bay Company was founded in the seventeenth century,
and ruled an enormous territory with virtual sovereignty, very much as
the East India Company did. Its powers are now considerably impaired,
but the influence of its officers over the tribes is as great as ever.
The Company, too, is richer than it was before, and some day the sites
of its stations throughout Northern Canada will have an enormous value.
Competitors have arisen from time to time, and millionaires have tried
to wrest the trade from the Hudson's Bay Company, but all have gone down
or been bought up by the original adventurers.
Donald Smith was fifty years of age before he came into public notice in
Canada, and even then he was quite unknown in his native country. About
that time the Red River Rebellion broke out in the neighborhood of Fort
Garry, the leading spirit being Louis Riel. In the suppression of the
outbreak Garnet Wolseley won his spurs as a commander, and Redvers
Buller served as a captain. The Canadian Government wanted an impartial,
sagacious man to visit the district as a special commissioner to inquire
into the causes of the outbreak and the nature of a satisfactory
settlement, and they chose Donald Smith. He had lived among the people,
and was known and trusted by them. The mission was entirely successful.
Manitoba, in which the rebellion had occurred, was raised to the
position of a province of the Dominion, and the inhabitants heaped
honors on the Commissioner. He was elected member for St. Louis and
Winnipeg in the first Manitoba Legislature, and first member for Selkirk
in the House of Commons of the Dominion. Besides these posts, he was
made a member of the first Executive Council of the North-West
Territories. On another occasion he went back to Manitoba as a
Commissioner of the Canadian Government. That was in 1896, when the
vexed problem of the Manitoba schools was exciting a great amount of
party feeling in the Dominion. He was always regarded as a broad-minded
man of affairs, who was hampered by no party allegiance, and could be
equally trusted by both sides.
One of the greatest services he performed
for the Dominion was in regard to the making of the wonderful Canadian
Pacific Railway, without which the vast area of the North-West could
never have been opened up. The undertaking required an enormous amount
of capital and energetic, careful, farseeing administration. Many a time
the work seemed like coming to a standstill, but Donald Smith was
determined to put it through from sea to sea, and at last he succeeded.
Sir Charles Tupper has on occasion been his opponent, but he has placed
it on record that the C. P. R. would have had no existence to-day but
for the indomitable pluck, energy, and determination of Lord Strathcona.
It is now the proud boast of Canadians that Liverpool on the east and
Shanghai on the west are the termini of the line, and that is becoming
more nearly the fact every year.
Queen Victoria conferred on Donald Smith the
honor of K.C.M.G. in recognition of his work for the line, and when he
became High Commissioner for the Dominion in London in 1896 he was
raised to the rank of G.C.M.G., the Peerage following a year later. The
full title under which he sits in the House of Lords is Baron Strathcona
and Mount. Royal of Glencoe and Montreal. He purchased the historic
Glencoe in 1895, and has a residence there at Lochnell Castle. His town
house is in Cadogan Square, London, and he also rents Knebworth, in
Hertfordshire, while his mansion in Montreal is open all the time as if
he were there.
Strathcona is, of course, a man of vast wealth, and his public
benefactions alone are estimated at £2,000,000. His private gifts have
been very numerous, but no one hears of them save the recipients. His
interest in education in Canada has been of the most practical sort. To
the McGill University at Montreal he has given £8o,000. In 1896 he built
and endowed the Royal Victoria College for the higher education of
women. Along with Lord Mount Stephen he gave £200,000 to build the
Victoria Hospital at Montreal in celebration of the Queen's Jubilee, and
later on gave as much more for the maintenance. Scholarships in various
parts of the Dominion have been founded by his generosity. A few years
ago Lord Mount Stephen and he founded a scholarship for Canadians at the
Royal College of Music, South Kensington; and a second one was
established entirely by Lord Strathcona. Last year the students of
Aberdeen University chose him as their Lord Rector, and he signalized
the occasion by presenting, conditionally, £25,000 to the fund for the
extension of Marischal College. Such is the work of a true patriot, a
patriot of Greater Britain.
In his own homes Lord Strathcona has
collected some of the finest paintings that money can buy. At Montreal
he has representations of the work of Titian, Turner, Raphael, Reynolds,
Gainsborough, Millais, Constable, Rosa Bonheur, Constant and Alma Tadema.
In London he is also surrounded by works of art that Kings might envy.
He has Henner's "La Source," Jules Breton's "First Communion," for which
he gave £9,000; and that beautiful painting "Mercury and Argos," which
Ruskin contended was the finest that J. M. W. Turner ever painted.
I have only given a rough outline of a great
career. But it may be enough to inspire some one in the discouraging
struggles of early days. In any case it is the story of a man of whom
Scotland may well be proud.