By Trevor Busch
The history of Canada, indeed the very history of North America, is inextricably linked to the epic story of the Hudson’s Bay Company, that “Company of Adventurers” which helped open a continent and once held virtually autocratic sway over a vast fiefdom made up of western and northern Canada as Rupert’s Land.
At one time or another in its 346-year history, the Hudson’s Bay Company has been involved in exploration, proselytization, oil and gas extraction, shipping, warfare, overseeing a massive retail empire and of course — and most iconically — the fur trade. Over and above all of these myriad operations, and not surprisingly for a business venture launched in the freewheeling days of mass commerce that punctuated the latter half of the 17th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company was primarily imbued with one over-arching theme — exploitation. Of the land, of its fur-bearing bounty and to a large degree the First Nations peoples it traded with, who brought the wealth of the continent’s interior to the bay’s rocky shores for trade and export.
In his thrilling narrative of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s long history, from its royally-blessed beginnings to the corporate board room maneuverings of the mid-1980s, author and journalist Peter C. Newman’s Company of Adventurers (1985) is as colloquially readable for the armchair historian as it it is engrossing and insightful for the academic. Reminiscent in style and vivid visual portrayal of the popular historical works of Canadian author Pierre Berton — Newman is a dedicated admirer of that late author — Company of Adventurers is neither too cerebral for the casual reader nor too weighty to attain a popular readership.
A respected Canadian journalist before taking to the typewriter to tap out a number of politically-themed tracts as well as histories and biographies in the 1980s and 1990s, Newman was previously editor of The Toronto Star, as well as Maclean’s magazine, not unlike Berton before him. Company of Adventurers is Newman’s opening installment of a three-part series, followed by Caesars of the Wilderness (1987) and Merchant Princes (1991).
Beginning with an account of the murky origins of the company, which originated as a royally-chartered monopoly under King Charles II — in part as a challenge to the fur trade incursions of the thorny French ensconsed in New France — Newman deftly navigates this early period, which was overseen by the stewardship of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, an exiled royal relation of King Charles I and an archetypal Cavalier campaigner for the Crown during the English Civil War.
Rupert would eventually lend his name to Rupert’s Land, which in essence was the company’s private empire, comprised of the region drained by all the rivers and streams flowing into Hudson’s Bay — a gargantuan territory of brobdignagian proportions, roughly 1.5 million square miles comprised of one-third of modern Canada and parts of the north-central United States.
More than just a historical narrative of times, dates and events, Newman takes care to explore the human element of the company’s history, describing the European lust for pelts that initiated the company; the history, science and behaviours of the beaver itself, as well as early (and often wildly inaccurate, if not hilarious) accounts of the useful animal by early explorers; the more sordid sexual liaisons between white traders and local First Nations women, which was strictly frowned upon by company heads and committeemen but unavoidably tolerated in practice, not unlike the consumption of alcohol; and the company’s long reliance on dour, hard-working Scottish Orkneymen to staff its far-flung outposts that ringed the bay during its early history.
Moving into the period of the continental struggle for dominance, Newman paints a spirited portrayal of the various naval and military campaigns by the French to oust the company from the bay’s shores, as well as the corresponding British counter-attacks that would eventually secure the company’s total dominance, especially after the fall of New France. This period would see the creation of what today are probably viewed largely as historical curiosities, such as Prince of Wales Fort near present-day Churchill, Man. — a vast masonry construction on a near-epic scale, a now-lonely and windswept folly from a period of bygone strategic considerations, as incongruous as the barren lands that surround it, abandoned on the great banks of a treacherous inland sea.
Not ignored in Newman’s account are the great explorations made by Hudson’s Bay men throughout its history, such as Henry Kelsey, perhaps the first white man to visit the western Prairies in 1690; Samuel Hearne, founder of the first permanent settlement in Saskatchewan and notable traverser of the barren lands; and the remarkable Dr. John Rae, who explored Northern Canada, surveyed parts of the Northwest Passage and produced the first evidence of the fate of the lost Franklin Expedition.
Extremely resistant to change throughout most of its first 200 years, Newman details how the Hudson’s Bay Company would often only press forward when pressured by external stimuli. For the first century of its existence, the company clung to the shores of the bay in a series of forts and outposts, leaving it to their First Nations customers to bring a giant booty in beaver pelts to their waiting arms. But with the advent of the Quebec-based North West Company and its traders circumventing and intercepting the native peoples in the interior, it forced the Hudson’s Bay Company to finally expand inland, which in turn would prompt the further exploration of the continent’s interior, as well as parts of the high Arctic.
Exceptionally readable and exhaustively researched, Newman’s Company of Adventurers is essential reading for anyone wanting to learn more about the history of one of North America’s oldest and most iconic companies, as well as the history of the continent itself, and her people.