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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

"Le roi est mort"—Royalty unfavourable—Earl of Halifax—"Company asleep"—Petition to Parliament—Neglected discovery— Timidity or caution—Strong "Prince of Wales"—Increase of stock—A timid witness—Claims of discovery—To make Indians Christians—Charge of disloyalty—New Company promises largely —Result nil.

Arthur Dobbs, Esq,, was evidently worsted in his tilt with the Hudson's Bay Company. His fierce onslaught upon Captain Middleton was no doubt the plan of attack to enable him to originate the expedition of the Dobbs galley and California. Even this voyage had brought little better prospect of the discovery of a north-west passage, except the optimistic words of Ellis, the use of which, indeed, seemed very like the delectable exercise of "extracting sunbeams from cucumbers."

But the energy of the man was in no way dampened. Indeed, the indications are, as we survey the features of the time, that ho had strong backing in the governing circles of the country. Time was when the Hudson's Bay Company basked in the sunshine of the Court. It is, perhaps, the penalty of old institutions that as rulers pass away and political parties change, the centre of gravity of influence shifts. Perhaps the Hudson's Bay Company had not been able to use the convenient motto, "Le Roi est mort: Vive le Roi!" At any rate the strong Court influence of the Company had passed away, and there is hardly a nobleman to bo found on the list of stockholders submitted by the Company to the Committee of the Lords.

On the other hand, when Henry Ellis, the historian of the expedition, writes his book in the year after his return, he is permitted to dedicate it to His Royal Highness Frederick, Prince of Wales, is privileged to refer in his dedication to a "gracious audience" allowed him by the Prince after his return, and to speak of "the generous care" expressed by the Prince "for the happy progress of his design." Again, in a similar dedication of a book written four years afterwards by Joseph Robson, a former employe of the Hudson's Bay Company, but a book full of hostility to the Company, allusion is made to the fact that the Earl of Halifax, Lord Commissioner of Trade and Plantations, gave his most hearty approval to such plans as the expedition sought to carry out. It is said of Lord Halifax, who was called the Father of Colonies: "He knows the true state of the nation—that it depends on trade and manufactures; that we have more rivals than ever ; that navigation is our bulwark and Colonies our chief support; and that new channels should be industriously opened. Therefore, we survey the whole globe in search of fresh inlets which our ships may enter and traffic/' Those familiar with the work of Lord Halifax will remember that the great colonization scheme by which Nova Scotia was firmly grappled to the British Empire and the City of Halifax founded, was his; and the charge made by Dobbs that for a generation the "Company had slept on the shores of the Bay," would appeal with force to a man of such energetic and progressive nature as the Lord Commissioner.

Accordingly, Dobbs now came out boldly ; not putting the discovery of the North-West Passage in the front of his plan, but openly charging the Hudson's Bay Company with indolence and failure, and asking for the granting of a charter to a rival company.

As summed up by the sub-committee to which the petition of Dobbs and his associates was submitted, the charges were:—

I. The Company had not discovered, nor sufficiently attempted to discover, the North-West Passage into the southern seas.

II. They had not extended their settlements to the limits given them by their Charter.

III. They had designedly confined their trade within very narrow limits:

(a) Had abused the Indians.
(b) Had neglected their forte.
(c) Ill-treated their own servants.
(d) Encouraged the French.

The Hudson's Bay Company, now put on their mettle, exhibited a considerable amount of activity, and filed documents before the Committee that in some respects met the charges against them. They claimed that they had in the thirty years preceding the investigation done a fair amount of exploratory work and discovery. In 1719, they had sent out the Albany frigate and Discovery to the northern regions, and neither of them returned to tell the tale. In the same year its vessels on the Bay, the Prosperous and the Success, one from York Factory, the other from Prince of Wales Fort, had sailed up the coast on exploratory expeditions. Two years afterward, the Prosperous, under Kelsey, made a voyage, and the Success, under Captain Napper, had sailed from York Fort and was lost. In the same year the Whalebone, under Captain John Scroggs, went from England to Prince of Wales Fort, and after wintering there, in the following year made a decided effort on behalf of the Passage, but returned unsuccessful. In the year when Dobbs became so persistent (1737) James Napper, who had been saved from the wreck of the Success sixteen years before, took command of the Churchill from 'Prince of Wales Fort, but on the exploration died, and the vessel returned. The Musquash, under Captain Crow, accompanied the Churchill, but returned with no hope of success. This was the case presented by the Hudson's Bay Company. It was still open to the opponents of the Company to say, as they did, that the Hudson's Bay Company was not in earnest, wanted nothing done to attract rivals, and were adepts in concealing their operations and in hoodwinking the public.

A more serious charge was that they had not sought to reach the interior, but had confined their trade to the shores of the Bay. Here it seems that the opponents of the Company made a better case. It is indeed unaccountable to us to-day, as wo think that the Company had now been eighty years trading on the Bay and had practically no knowledge of the inheritance possessed by them. At this very time the French, by way of Lake Superior, had Journeyed inland, met Indian tribes, traded with them, and even with imposing ceremonies buried metal plates claiming the country which the Hudson's Bay Company Charter covered as lying on rivers, lakes, &c, tributary to Hudson Bay. It is true they had submitted instructions to the number of twenty or thirty, in which governors and captains had been urged to explore the interior and extend the trade among the Indian tribes. But little evidence could be offered that these communications had been acted on.

The chief dependence of the Company seems to have been on one Henry Kelsey, who went as a boy to Hudson Bay, but rose to be chief officer there. The critics of the Company were not slow to state that Kelsey had been a refugee from their forts and had lived for several seasons among the Indians of the interior. Even if this were so, it is still true that Kelsey came to be one of the most enterprising of the wood-runners of the Company. Dobbs confronted them with the fact that the voyage from Lake Superior to Hudson Bay had been only made once in their history, and that by Joseph La France, the Canadian Indian. Certainly, whether from timidity, caution, inertia, or from some deep-seated system of policy, it was true that the Company had done little to penetrate the interior.

The charge that the Company abused the Indians was hardly substantiated. The Company was dependent on the goodwill of the Indians, and had they treated them badly, their active rivals, the French, would simply have reaped the benefit of their folly. That the price charged the Indians for goods was as large as the price paid for furs was small, is quite likely to have been true. Civilized traders all the world over, dealing with ignorant and dependent tribes, follow this policy. No doubt the risks of life and limb and goods in remote regions are great, and great profits must be made to meet them. It is to be remembered, however, that when English and French traders came into competition, as among the Iroquois in New York State, and afterwards in the Lake Superior district, the quality of the English goods was declared by the Indians better and their treatment by the English on the whole more honest and aboveboard than that by the French.

That traders should neglect their own forts seems very unlikely. Those going to the Hudson Bay Main expected few luxuries, and certainly did not have an easy life, but there was on the part of the Company a vast difference in treatment as compared with that given to the fur traders in New France as they went to the far west. No doubt pressure for dividends prevented expenditure that was unnecessary, but a perusal of the experience of Champlain with his French fur company leads us to believe that the English were far the more liberal and considerate in the treatment of employes.

The fortress of the River Churchill, known as the Prince of Wales Fort, with its great ruins to be seen to-day, belonging to this period, speaks of a largo expense and a high ideal of what a fort ought to be. During the examination of witnesses by the Committee, full opportunity was given to show cases of ill-treatment of men and poor administration of their forts. Twenty witnesses were examined, and they included captains, merchants, and employes, many of whom had been in the service of the Company on the Bay, but whether, as Robson says, "It must be attributed either to their confusion upon appearing before so awful an assembly, or to their having a dependence on the Company and an expectation of being employed again in their service,"' little was elicited at all damaging to the Company.

The charge of the fewness of the forts and the smallness of the trade was more serious. That they should have a monopoly of the trade, and should neither develop it themselves, nor allow others to develop it, would have been to pursue a "dog in the manger" policy. They stated that they had on an average three ships employed solely on their business, that their exports for ten years immediately preceding amounted to 40,240l. and their imports 122,835l., which they claimed was a balance of trade satisfactory to England.

The objection that the whole capital of the Company at the commencement, 10,500l., was trifling, was perhaps true, but they had made great profits, and they used them in the purchase of ships and the building of forts, and now had a much more valuable property than at the beginning. That they had been able to increase their stock so largely was a tribute to the profits of their business and to its ability to earn dividends on a greatly increased capital stock.

The increase of stock as shown by the Company was as follows:—

Original stock.....£10,500
Trebled in 1690.....31,500
Trebled in 1720.....94,500

At this time there was a movement to greatly increase the stock, but the stringency of the money market checked this movement, and subscriptions of ten per cent. were taken, amounting to 3,150l. only. This was also trebled and added to the original 94,500l., making a total stock of 103,950l.

Some three years after the investigation by the Committee, one of the witnesses, Joseph Robson, who gave evidence of the very mildest, most non-committal character, appears to have received new light, for he published a book called, "An Account of Six Years' Residence in Hudson's Bay." He says in the preface, speaking of the evidence given by him in the investigation, "For want of confidence and ability to express myself clearly, the account I then gave was far from being so exact and full as that which I intended to have given." What the influence was that so effectually opened Robson's eyes, we do not know. The second part of this work is a critique of the evidence furnished by the Company, and from the vigour employed by this writer as compared with the apathy shown at the investigation, it is generally believed that in the meantime he had become a dependent of Dobbs.

The plea put forward by the petitioners for the granting of a charter to them contained several particulars. They had, at their own cost and charges, fitted out two ships, the Dobbs galley and California, in search of the North-West Passage to the West and Southern Ocean. Their object was, they claimed, a patriotic one, and they aimed at extending the trade of Great Britain. They maintained that though the reward offered had been 20,000l., it was not sufficient to accomplish the end, as they had already spent more than half of that sum. Notwithstanding this, they had discovered a number of bays, inlets, and coasts before unknown, and inasmuch as this was the ground of the Charter issued by Charles II. to the Hudson's Bay Company, they claimed like consideration for performing a similar service.

The petitioners made the most ample promise as to their future should the charter be granted. They would persevere in their search for the passage to the Southern Ocean of America, of which, notwithstanding the frequent failures in finding it, they had a strong hope. The forward policy of Lord Halifax of extensive colonization they were heartily in favour of, and they undertook to settle the lands they might discover. The question had been raised during the investigation, whether the Company had done anything to civilize the natives. They had certainly done nothing. Probably their answer was that they were a trading company, and never saw the Indians except in the months of the trading season, when in July and August they presented- themselves from the interior at the several factories. The petitioners promised, in regard to the natives, that they would "lay the foundation for their becoming Christians and industrious subjects of His Majesty." Beyond the sending out of a prayer-book from time to time, which seemed to indicate a desire to maintain service among their servants, the Company had taken no steps in this direction.

The closing argument for the bestowal of a charter was that they would prevent French encroachments upon British rights and trade on the continent of America. The petition makes the very strong statement that the Hudson's Bay Company had connived at, or allowed French and English to encroach, settle, and trade within their limits on the south side of the Bay. Whatever may have been in the mind of the petitioners on this subject of conniving with the French, a perusal of the minutes of the Company fails to show any such disposition. The Company in Charles II.'s times was evidently more anti-French than the Government. They disputed the claim of the French to any part of the Bay, and strongly urged their case before the English Commissioners at the Treaty of Ryswick. One of their documents, seemingly showing them to be impressed with the claim of priority of ownership of the French King, did propose a division of the Bay, giving the south part of the Bay to the French and the remainder to themselves. It is easy to understand a trading company wishing peace, so that trade might go on, and knowing that Hudson Bay, with its enormous coast line, afforded wide room for trade, proposing such a settlement. No doubt, however, the reference is to the great competition which was, in a few years, to extend through the interior to the Rocky Mountains. This was to be indeed a battle royal. Arthur Dobbs, judging by his book, which shows how far ahead he was of his opponents in foresight, saw that this must come, and so the new Company promises to penetrate the interior, cut off the supply of furs from the French, and save the trade to Britain. A quarter of a century afterwards, the Hudson's Bay Company, slow to open their eyes, perceived it too, and as we shall see, rose from their slumbers, and entered the conflict.

The Report was made to the Privy Council, expressing appreciation of the petition, and of the advanced views enunciated, but stating that the case against the Hudson's Bay Company had not yet been made out. So no new charter was granted!

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