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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Rich Mr. Portman—Good ship Prince Rupert—The early adventurers —"Book of Common Prayer"—Five forts—Voting a funeral— Worth of a beaver—To Hudson Bay and back—Selling the pelts—Bottles of sack—Fat dividends—"Victorious as Caesar"— "Golden Fruit."

The generation that lived between the founding of the Company and the end of the century saw a great development in the trade of the infant enterprise. Meeting sometimes at the place of business of one of the Committee, and afterwards at hired premises, the energetic members of the sub-committee paid close attention to their work. Sir John Robinson, Sir John Kirke, and Mr. Portman acted as one such executive, and the monthly, and at times weekly meetings of the Court of Adventurers were held when they were needed. It brings the past very close to us as we read the minutes, still preserved in the Hudson's Bay House, Leadenhall Street, London, of a meeting at Whitehall in 1671, with His Highness Prince Rupert in the chair, and find the sub-committee appointed to carry on the business. Captain Gillam for a number of years remained in the service of the Company as a trusted captain, and commanded the ship Prince Rupert. Another vessel, the Windingoo, or Wyvenhoe Pinck, was soon added, also in time the Moosongee Dogger, then the Shaftsbury, the Albemarle, and the Craven Bark—the last three named from prominent members of the Company. Not more than three of these ships were in use at the same time.

The fitting out of these ships was a work needing much attention from the sub-committee. Year after year its members went down to Gravesend about the end of May, saw the goods which had been purchased placed aboard the ships, paid the captain and men their wages, delivered the agents to be sent out their commissions, and exercised plenary power in regard to emergencies which arose. The articles selected indicate very clearly the kind of trade in which the Company engaged. The inventory of goods in 1672 shows how small an affair the trade at first was. "Two hundred fowling-pieces, and powder and shot; 200 brass kettles, size from five to sixteen gallons; twelve gross of knives; 900 or 1000 hatchets," is recorded as being the estimate of cargo for that year.

A few years, however, made a great change. Tobacco, glass beads, 6,000 flints, boxes of red lead, looking-glasses, netting for fishing, pewter dishes, and pewter plates were added to the consignments. That some attention was had by the Company to the morals of their employes is seen in that one ship's cargo was provided with "a book of common prayer, and a book of homilies."

About June 1st, the ship, or ships, sailed from the Thames, rounded the North of Scotland, and were not heard of till October, when they returned with their valuable cargoes. Year after year, as we read the records of the Company's history, we find the vessels sailing out and returning with the greatest regularity, and few losses took place from wind or weather during that time.

The agents of the Company on the Bay seem to have been well selected and generally reliable men. Certain French writers and also the English opponents of the Company have represented them as timid men, afraid to leave the coast and penetrate to the interior, and their conduct has been contrasted with that of the daring, if not reckless, French explorers. It is true that for about one hundred years the Hudson's Bay Company men did not leave the shores of Hudson Bay, but what was the need so long as the Indians came to the coast with their furs and afforded them profitable trade! By the orders of the Company they opened up trade at different places on the shores of the Bay, and we learn from Oldmixon that fifteen years after the founding of the Company there were forts established at (1) Albany River; (2) Hayes Island; (3) Rupert's River; (4) Port Nelson; (5) New Severn. According to another authority, Moose River takes the place of Hayes Island in this list. These forts and factories, at first primitive and small, were gradually increased in size and comfort until they became, in some cases, quite extensive.

The plan of management was to have a governor appointed over each fort for a term of years, and a certain number of men placed under his direction. In the first year of the Hudson's Bay Company's operations as a corporate body, Governor Charles Bailey was sent out to take charge of Charles Fort at Rupert's River. With him was associated the French adventurer, Radisson, and his nephew, Jean Baptiste Groseilliers. Bailey seems to have been an efficient officer, though fault was found with him by the Company. Ten years after the founding of the Company he died in London, and was voted a funeral by the Company, which took place by twilight to St. Paul's, Covent Garden. The widow of the Governor maintained a contention against the Company for an allowance of 400l., which was given after three years' dispute. Another Governor was William Lydall, as also John Bridgar, Governor of the West Main ; and again Henry Sargeant, Thomas Phipps, Governor of Fort Nelson, and John Knight, Governor of Albany, took an active part in the disputes of the Company with the French. Thus, with a considerable amount of friction, the affairs of the Company were conducted on the new and inhospitable coast of Hudson Bay.

To the forts from the vast interior of North America the various tribes of Indians, especially the Crees, Chipewyans, and Eskimos, brought their furs for barter. No doubt the prices were very much in favour of the traders at first, but during the first generation of traders the competition of French traders from the south for their share of the Indian trade tended to correct injustice and give the Indians better prices for their furs.

The following is the standard fixed at this time :—



The trade conducted at the posts or factories along the shore was carried on by the local traders so soon as the rivers from the interior—the Nelson and the Churchill—were open, so that by the time the ship from London arrived, say in the end of July or beginning of August, the Indians were beginning to reach the coast. The month of August was a busy month, and by the close of it, or early in September, the ship was loaded and sent back on her journey.

By the end of October the ships arrived from Hudson Bay, and the anxiety of the Company to learn how the season's trade had succeeded was naturally very great. As soon as the vessels had arrived in the Downs or at Portsmouth, word was sent post haste to London, and the results were laid before a Committee of the Company. Much reference is made in the minutes to the difficulty of preventing the men employed in the ships from entering into illicit trade in furs. Strict orders were given to inspect the lockers for furs to prevent private trade. In due time the furs were unladen from the ships and put into the custody of the Company's secretary in the London warehouseThe matter of selling the furs was one of very great importance. At times the Company found prices low, and deferred their sales until the outlook was more favourable. The method followed was to have an auction, and every precaution was taken to have the sales fair and aboveboard. Evidences are not wanting that at times it was difficult for the Court of Adventurers to secure this very desirable result.

The matter was not, however, one of dry routine, for the London merchants seem to have encouraged business with generous hospitality. On November 9th, 1681, the sale took place, and the following entry is found in the minutes: "A Committee was appointed to provide three dozen bottles of sack and three dozen bottles of claret, to be given to buyers at ye sale. Dinner was also bespoken at 'Ye Stillyard,' of a good dish of fish, a loyne of veal, two pullets, and four ducks."

As the years went on, the same variations in furs that we see in our day took place. New markets were then looked for and arrangements made for sending agents to Holland and finding the connections in Russia, that sales might be effected. In order to carry out the trade it was necessary to take large quantities of hemp from Holland in return for the furs sent. The employment of this article for cordage in the Navy led to the influence of important members of the Company being used with the Earl of Marlborough to secure a sale for this commodity. Pending the sales it was necessary for large sums of money to be advanced to carry on the business of the Company. This was generally accomplished by the liberality of members of the Company itself supplying the needed amounts.

The Company was, however, from time to time gratified by the declaration of handsome dividends. So far as recorded, the first dividend was declared in 1684, and judged by modern standards it was one for which a company might well wait for a number of years. It was for 50 per cent. upon stock. Accordingly, the Earl of Craven received 150l., Sir James Hayes 150l., and so on in proportion. In 1688 another dividend of a like amount of 50 per cent. on the stock resulted, and among others, Hon. Robert Boyle, Earl Churchill, and Sir Christopher Wren had their hearts gladdened. In 1689 profits to the extent of 25 per cent. on the stock were received, and one of the successful captains was, in the exuberance of feeling of the stock-holders, presented with a silver flagon in recognition of his services. In 1690, however, took place by far the most remarkable event of a financial kind in the early history of the Company. The returns of that year from the Bay were so large that the Company decided to treble its stock. The reasons given for this were :—

(1) The Company has in its warehouse about the value of its original stock (10,500l.). (2) The factories at Fort Nelson and New Severn are increasing in trade, and this year the returns are expected to be 20,000Z. in beaver. (3) The factories are of much value. (4) Damages are expected from the French for a claim of 100,000l.

The Company then proceeded to declare a dividend of 25 per cent., which was equivalent to 75 per cent. on their original stock.

It was a pleasing incident to the sovereign of the realm that in all these profits he was not forgotten. In the original Charter the only recompense coming to the Crown, for the royal gift, was to be the payment, when the territory was entered upon, of "two elks and two black beavers." This may have been a device for keeping up the royal claim, but at any rate 300l. in the original stock-book stood to the credit of the sovereign. It had been the custom to send a deputation to present in person the dividends to His Majesty, and the pounds sterling were always changed to guineas.

On this occasion of the great dividend, King William III. had but lately returned from his victories in Ireland. The deputation, headed by Sir Edward Dering, was introduced to the King by the Earl of Portland, and the following address, hitherto, so far as known to the writer, unpublished, was presented along with the noble gift:—

"Your Majestie's most Loyal and Dutiful subjects beg leave to congratulate your Majestie's Happy Return here with Honor and Safety. And we do daily pray to Heaven (that Hath God wonderfully preserved your Royall Person) that in all your undertakings Your Majestic may be as victorious as Caesar, as beloved as Titus, and (after all) have the long and glorious Reigne and Peacefull end of Augustus.

"On this happy occasion we desire also most humbly to present to your Majestic a dividend of Two Hundred and twenty-five guineas upon three hundred pounds stock in the Hudson's Bay Company, now Rightfully delivered to your Majestie. And although we have been the greatest sufferers of any Company from those common enemies of all mankind the French, yet when your Majestie's just Arms shall have given Repose to all Christendom, we also shall enjoy our share of these great Benefits and do not doubt but to appeare often with this golden fruit in our hands, under the happy influence of Your Majestie's most gracious protection over us and all our Concerns."

It is true that towards the end of the seventeenth century, as we shall afterwards see, the trade of the Company was seriously injured by the attacks of the French on the Bay, but a quarter of a century in which the possibility of obtaining such profits had been shown was sufficient to establish the Company in the public favour and to attract to it much capital. Its careful management from the first led to its gaining a reputation for business ability which it has never lost during two and a quarter centuries of its history.

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