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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Stock rises—Jealousy aroused—Arthur Dobbs, Esq.—An ingenious attack—Appeal to the "Old Worthies"—Captain Christopher Middleton—Was the Company in earnest?—The sloop Furnace— Dobbs' fierce attack—The great subscription—Independent expedition—"Henry Ellis, gentleman"—"Without success"— Dobbs' real purpose.

When peace had been restored by the Treaty of Utrecht, the shores of the Bay, which had been in the hands of the French since the Treaty of Ryswick, were given over to Great Britain, according to the terms of the Treaty; they have remained British ever since. The Company, freed from the fears of overland incursions by the French from Canada, and from the fleets that had worked so much mischief by sea, seems to have changed character in the personnel of the stockholders and to have lost a good deal of the pristine spirit. The charge is made that the stockholders had become very few, that the stock was controlled by a majority, who, year after year, elected themselves, and that considering the great privileges conferred by the Charter, the Company was failing to develop the country and was sleeping in inglorious ease on the shores of Hudson Bay. Certain it is that Sir Bibye Lake was re-elected Governor year after year, from 1720 to 1740.

It would appear, however, to have been a spirit of jealousy which animated those who made these discoveries as to the Company's inaction. The return of peace had brought prosperity to the traders; and dividends to the stockholders began to be a feature of company life which they had not known for more than a quarter of a century. As we shall see, the stock of the Company was greatly increased in 1720, and preparations were being made by the Committee for a wide extension of their operations.

About this time a man of great personal energy appears on the scene of English commercial life, who became a bitter opponent of the Company, and possessed such influence with the English Government that the Company was compelled to make a strenuous defence. This was Arthur Dobbs, Esq., an Irishman of undoubted ability and courage. He conducted his plan of campaign against the Company along a most ingenious and dangerous line of attack.

He revived the memory among the British people of the early voyages to discover a way to the riches of the East, and appealed to the English imagination by picturing the interior of the North American Continent, with its vast meadows, splendid cascades, rich fur-bearing animals, and numberless races of Indians, picturesquely dressed, as opening up a field, if they could be reached, of lucrative trade to the London merchants. To further his purpose he pointed out the sluggish character of the Hudson's Bay Company, and clinched his arguments by quoting the paragraph in the Charter which stated that the great privileges conferred by generous Charles II. were bestowed in consideration of their object having been "The Discovery of a New Passage into the South Sea." Dobbs appealed to the sacrifices made and the glories achieved in earlier days in the attempt to discover the North-West Passage. In scores of pages, the indefatigable writer gives the accounts of the early voyages.

We have but to give a passage or two from another author to show what a powerful weapon Dobbs wielded, and to see how he succeeded in reviving a question which had slumbered well nigh a hundred years, and which again became a living question in the nineteenth century.

This writer says:—"It would lead us far beyond our limits were we to chronicle all the reasons urged, and the attempts made to 'finde out that short and easie passage by the Northwest, which we have hitherto so long desired.' Under the auspices of the 'Old Worthies' really—though ostensibly countenanced by kings, queens, and nobles—up rose a race of men, daring and enthusiastic, whose names would add honour to any country, and embalm its history.

"Commencing with the reign of Henry VII., we have first, John Cabot (1497), ever renowned; for he it was who first saw and claimed for the 'Banner of England,' the American continent. Sebastian, his son, follows in the next year—a name honourable and wise. Nor may we omit Master Robert Thorne of Bristol (1527); Master Hore (1536) ; and Master Michael Lok (1545), of London—men who knew - cosmography' and the 'weighty and substantial reasons' for 'a discovery even to the North Pole.' For a short time Arctic energy changed its direction from the North-west to the Northeast (discoveries of the Muscovy Company), but wanting success in that quarter, again reverted to the North-west. Then we find Martin Frobisher, George Best, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, James Davis, George Waymouth, John Knight, the cruelly treated Henry Hudson, James Hall, Sir Thomas Button, Fotherbye, Baffin and Bylot, 'North-west' Luke Fox, Thomas James, &c.

"Thus, in the course of sixty years—now breaking the icy fetters of the North, now chained by them ; now big with high hope 'of the Passage,' then beaten back by the terrific obstacles, as it were, guarding it—notwithstanding, these men never faltered, never despaired of finally accomplishing it. Their names are worthy to be held in remembrance ; for, with all their faults, all their strange fancies and prejudices, still they were a daring and glorious race, calm amid the most appalling dangers; what they did was done correctly, as far as their limited means went; each added something that gave us more extended views and a better acquaintance with the globe we inhabit—giving especially large contributions to geography, with a more fixed resolution to discover the 'Passage.' By them the whole of the eastern face of North America was made known, and its disjointed lands in the North, even to 77 deg. or 78 deg. N. Their names will last while England is true to herself."

Mr. Dobbs awakened much interest among persons of rank in England as to the desirability of finding a North-West Passage. Especially to the Lords of the Admiralty, on whom he had a strong hold, did he represent the glory and value of fitting out an expedition to Hudson Bay on this quest.

Dobbs mentions in his book the unwilling efforts of the Hudson's Bay Company to meet the demand for a wider examination of the Bay which took place a few years after the Peace of Utrecht. In 1719, Captain James Knight received orders from the Company to fit out an expedition and sail up the west coast of the Bay. This he did in two ships, the Albany frigate, Captain George Barlow, and the Discovery, Captain David Vaughan. Captain John Scroggs, in the ship Whalebone, two years afterward, sailed up the coast in search of the expedition. It is maintained by the opponents of the Company that these attempts were a mere blind to meet the search for a North-West Passage, and that the Company was averse to any real investigation being made.

It is of course impossible to say whether this charge was deserved or not. The fact that no practicable North-West Passage has ever been discovered renders the arguments drawn from the running of the tides, &c, of no value, and certainly justifies the Company to some extent in its inaction. The fact that in 1736 the Hudson's Bay Company yielded to the claim raised by Dobbs and his associates, is to be noted in favour of the Company's contention that while not believing in the existence of the North-West Passage, they were willing to satisfy the excited mind of the English public. Their expedition of the Churchill sloop, Captain Napper, and the Musquash sloop, Captain Crow, accomplished nothing in solving the question in dispute.

Disappointed with the efforts made by the Company at his request, Dobbs, in 1737, took in hand to organize an expedition under Government direction to go upon the search of the "Passage." At this time he opened communication with Captain Christopher Middleton, one of the best known captains in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. Middleton, being satisfied with the Company's service, refused to leave it. Dobbs then asked him to recommend a suitable man, and also arranged with Middleton to be allowed to examine the records kept of his voyages, upon the Hudson's Bay Company ships. This, however, came to nothing.

About 1740 Captain Middleton had cause to differ with the Company on business matters, and entertained Dobbs' proposition, which was that he should be placed in command of a British man-of-war and go in search of the long-sought North-West Passage. Middleton gave the Hudson's Bay Company a year's notice, but found them unwilling to let him retire.

He had taken the step of resigning deliberately and adhered to it, though he was disappointed in his command not being so remunerative as he expected. In May, 1741, Captain Middle-ton received his orders from the Lords of the Admiralty to proceed upon his journey and to follow the directions given him as to finding a North-West Passage. These had been prepared under Dobbs' supervision. Directions are given as to his course of procedure, should he reach California, and also as to what should be done in case of meeting Japanese ships. Middleton was placed in charge of Her Majesty's sloop the Furnace, and had as a companion and under his orders the Discovery Pink, William Moore, Master. In due time, Hudson Bay was reached, but in August the season seemed rather late to proceed northward from "Cary's Swan's Nest," and it was decided to winter in the mouth of Churchill River.

On July 1st, 1742, the expedition proceeded northward. Most complete observations were made of weather, land, presence of ice, natives of the coast, depth of bay, rivers entering bay, tides, and any possible outlets as far as 88 deg. or 89 deg. W. longitude. Observations were continued until August 18th, when the expedition sailed home to report what it had found.

Captain Middleton read an important paper on "The Extraordinary Degrees and Surprising Effects of Cold in Hudson Bay," before the Royal Society in London.

No sooner had Middleton reached the Orkneys on his return voyage than he forwarded to Dobbs, who was in Ireland, a letter and an abstract of his journal. Lest this should have gone astray, he sent another copy on his arrival in the Thames. The report was, on the whole, discouraging as to the existence of a north-west passage.

Dobbs, however, was unwilling to give up his dream, and soon began to discredit Middleton. He dealt privately with the other officers of the ships, Middleton's subordinates, and with surprising skill turned the case against Captain Middleton.

The case of Dobbs against Captain Middleton has been well stated by John Barrow. Middleton was charged with neglect in having failed to explore the line of coast which afforded a probability of a passage to the north-west. The principal points at issue appear to have been in respect to the following discoveries of Middleton, viz. the Wager River, Repulse Bay, and the Frozen Strait. As regards the first, Mr. Dobbs asserted that the tide came through the so-called river from the westward ; and this question was settled in the following year by Captain Moore, who entirely confirmed Captain Middleton's report.

Repulse Bay, which well deserves the name it bears, was no less accurately laid down by Captain Middleton, and of the Frozen Strait, Sir Edward Parry remarks, "Above all, the accuracy of Captain Middleton is manifest upon the point most strenuously urged against him, for our subsequent experience has not left the smallest doubt of Repulse Bay and the northern part of Welcome Bay being filled by a rapid tide, flowing into it from the eastward through the Frozen Strait."

Dobbs, by a high order of logic chopping, succeeded in turning the case, for the time being, against Captain Middleton. Seldom has greater skill been used to win a cause. He quotes with considerable effect a letter by Sir Bibye Lake, addressed to the Governor of the Prince of Wales Fort, Churchill River, reading: "Notwithstanding an order to you, if Captain Middleton (who is sent ahead in the Government's service to discover a passage north-west) should by inevitable necessity be brought into real distress and danger of his life and loss of his ship, in such case you are then to give him the best assistance and relief you can." Dobbs' whole effort seems to be to show that Middleton was hiding the truth, and this, under the influence of his old masters, the Hudson's Bay Company. A copy of Dobbs' Criticisms, laid before the Lords of the Admiralty, was furnished Captain Middleton, and his answer is found in "Vindication of the Conduct," published in 1743.

"An Account of the Countries adjoining to Hudson Bay" by Arthur Dobbs, Esq., is a book published in the year after, and is really a book of note. A quarto, consisting of upwards of 200 pages, it showed a marvellous knowledge of colonization in America, of the interior of the continent at that time, and incidentally deals with Captain Middleton's journal. Its account of the journey of "Joseph La France, a French Canadese Indian/' from Lake Superior by way of Lake Winnipeg to Hudson Bay, is the first detailed account on record of that voyage being made. Evidently Arthur Dobbs had caught the ear of the English people, and the Company was compelled to put itself in a thorough attitude of defence.

Dobbs with amazing energy worked up his cause, and what a writer of the time calls, "The long and warm dispute between Arthur Dobbs, Esq. and Captain Middleton," gained much public notice. The glamour of the subject of a north-west passage, going back to the exploits of Frobisher, Baffin, and Button, touched the national fancy, and no doubt the charge of wilful concealment of the truth made against the Hudson's Bay Company, repeated so strenuously by Dobbs, gained him adherents. Parliament took action in the matter and voted 20,000l. as a reward for the discovery of a north-west passage. This caused another wave of enthusiasm, and immediately a subscription was opened for the purpose of raising 10,000l. to equip an expedition for this popular enterprise. It was proposed to divide the whole into 100 shares of 100l. each. A vigorous canvass was made to secure the amount, and the subscription list bears the names of several nobles, an archbishop, a bishop, and many esquires. A perusal of the names suggests that a number of them are Irish, and no doubt were obtained by Mr. Dobbs, who was often at Lisburn in Ireland. The amount raised was 7,200l. The expedition, we hear afterwards, cost upwards of 10,000l., but the money needed was, we are told, willingly contributed by those who undertook the enterprise. Mr. Dobbs, as was suitable, was a leading spirit on the Committee of Management.

Two ships were purchased by the Committee, the Dobbs galley, 180 tons burden, Captain William Moore, and the California, 140 tons, Captain Francis Smith. On May 24th, 1746, the two vessels, provisioned and well fitted out for the voyage, left the mouth of the Thames, being in company with the two ships of the Hudson's Bay Company going to the Bay, the four ships being under the convoy of the ship Loo, of forty guns, as France was at this time at war with England. The voyage was rather prosperous, with the exception of a very exciting incident on board the Dobbs galley. A dangerous fire broke out in the cabin of the vessel, and threatened to reach the powder-room, which was directly underneath, and contained "thirty or forty barrels of powder, candles, spirits, matches, and all manner of combustibles." Though, as the writer says, "during the excitement, you might hear all the varieties of sea eloquence, cries, prayers, curses, and scolding, mingled together, yet this did not prevent the proper measures being taken to save the ship and our lives."

The story of the voyage is given to us in a very interesting manner by Henry Ellis, gentleman, agent for the proprietors of the expedition. Though nearly one hundred pages are taken up with the inevitable summaries of "The Several Expeditions to discover a North-West Passage," yet the remaining portion of the book is well written. After the usual struggle with the ice in Hudson Strait, as it was impossible to explore southward during the first season, the Dobbs galley and the California sailed for Port Nelson, intending to winter there. They arrived on August 26th. Ellis states that they were badly received by the Hudson's Bay officers at the first. They, however, laid up their ships in Hayes River, and built an erection of logs on the shore for the staff. The officers' winter quarters were called "Montague House," named after the Duke of Montague, patron of the expedition. After a severe winter, during which the sailors suffered with scurvy, and, according to Ellis, received little sympathy from the occupants of York Fort, the expedition left the mouth of the Hayes River on June 24th, to prosecute their discovery. After spending the summer coasting Hudson Bay and taking careful notes, the officers of the vessels gladly left the inhospitable shore to sail homeward, and the two ships arrived in Yarmouth Roads on October 14th, 1747.

"Thus ended," says Ellis, "this voyage, without success indeed, but not without effect; for though we did not discover a north-west passage ... we returned with clearer and fuller proofs . . . that evidently such a passage there may be." It will be observed that Ellis very much confirms Captain Middleton's conclusions, but Mr. Dobbs no doubt made the best of his disappointment, and, as we shall see, soon developed what had been from the first his real object, the plan for founding a rival company.

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