The Story of the Hudson's Bay Company
- The Story of the Hudson's Bay Company
Volume I, Company of Adventurers
Volume II, Caesars of the Wilderness
Peter C. Newman – Viking, 1987 - xxiii + 413 pp. and xxv + 450 pp.
Dr W. Kaye Lamb, the outstanding historian of the exploration of Canada, has written: 'the honoured old initials HBC have been interpreted facetiously as meaning "Here Before Christ"; instead they might more fittingly be taken as signifying "Here Before Canada". And if this had not been so, it is unlikely that Canada as we know it today would now exist'. Mr Newman modestly disclaims the credentials of a historian, describing the present two volumes as merely 'a journalist's book'. Readers should not be deceived, for in fact this is good history as well as good reading.
The story of the Hudson's Bay Company is virtually a history of the northerly fur trade and the opening up of the North, a saga full of characters and heroic journeys, a portrait of an awe-inspiring wilderness of forests, mountains, rivers, lakes and of the great bay itself. Yet this is much more (and in a sense much less) than a celebration of glorious achievements. We are brought to appreciate the whole pattern of predation and made to feel the tragedy of it, the real cost of the enormous quantities of fur which lined the pockets of the hard-headed business- men who ran this commercial empire. To begin with we have a fine description of the beaver, rightly Canada's national emblem, the animal engineer who incidentally supplied Europe with all kinds of headgear. The beaver is the silent hero present throughout this tale. By no means silent were their Indian hunters: the Cree (nearest to the Bay bases) and those more far-flung nations whom they often exploited much as the white traders exploited them. The complex relationship between the Indians and the Company men, the content and conduct of the trade between them, is revealingly explained in a chapter entitled 'A Savage Commerce'. It clearly was somewhat unrefined, not least in respect of the sexual transactions involved. As the writer tells us, 'love-making on the frontier did not carry much emotional baggage'. In the second volume another chapter about the Indians deals with the trade in liquor, the unrestrained use of which the author considers 'one of history's more malevolent crimes against humanity'. There is much more about the Indians throughout these two volumes and much of interest concerning that 'commerce' between the races which was as destructive in its way as the conflict between them in the United States. Newman fortunately does not indulge in breast-beating about such matters: he helps us to understand them and to feel the texture, the rawness, of life in Canada from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century.
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