The Hudson’s Bay Company

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HUDSON’S BAY ASSETS

1670

1 leaky ketch

1 abandoned canoe

2 or 3 pairs of used snowshoes

1 naturally air-conditioned log hut

1 small load of beaver pelts, partially exchanged for baubles, bangles, and brandy

14 employees

38.8% of Canada

1970

2 large ships 4 barges 3 tugs 3 airplanes 575 trucks God knows how many snowmobiles 8 large air-conditioned department stores 25 medium-sized department stores 217 smaller stores 3 of the world’s largest fur auctions 65 million dollars’ worth of merchandise on hand, including an ample supply of Hudson’s Bay Scotch Whisky 15,000 employees, give or take a few .0017% of Canada

During the centuries-long expansion of the Hudson’s Bay Company throughout Canada, its initials, emblazoned on the flags it flew, became ubiquitous. There were even jokes about the symbols. HBC—What did that stand for? asked the tenderfoot. And the old trapper took another pull at his clay pipe before replying gravely, “Here Before Christ.”

More literally, the firm—its official name was “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay”—was granted its charter by Charles II of England three hundred years ago, on May 2, 1670. Straightway it was beset by such troubles that during its first forty-eight years it paid only four dividends to its stockholders. Although profits became steadier thereafter, it remained subject to violent attacks from opponents in the field and to scathing denunciations in Parliament. Yet always it triumphed, rich, venerable, and prestigious—the Honourable Company, as its friends sometimes described it, in simple majesty.

Doggedness rather than zest was the key. The company’s traders were still groping for the techniques that would let them survive in the windswept muskeg beside their frozen bay when they were challenged by French winterers from the St. Lawrence—audacious men thoroughly familiar with the cascading waterways that furnished the only trade routes through the armadillo shell of granite that covers most of eastern Canada. Unable to outmaneuver this formidable enemy, the English sat tight until at last war and international diplomacy eliminated France entirely from the New World.

There was no surcease beside the bay, however. The famed North West Company, a belligerent union of Highland Scotsmen and American colonists, stepped into the shoes of the French and resumed a trade war that soon spread across the Rockies to the Pacific. But the Honourable Company outlasted their furious energy, too, and took over the entire northland. With two centuries of such experience fortifying them, the new overlords of the wilderness had little trouble turning back a brief challenge from American trappers in the Pacific Northwest. Settlers, however, were something else. They could outstay even the Honourable Company. With unfailing resilience the traders turned to serving the newcomers rather than fighting them. So the flag with its ubiquitous initials stayed aloft, as familiar now as breathing to thousands of people who never heard of the old, dashing enemies from Montreal.

Curiously enough, the inevitabilities of geography that let the English acquire their first stubborn foothold in Canada were first appreciated by two outlawed French traders. And they reached their conclusions without even laying eyes on the vast bay that was the key to the situation.

The elder and leader of the pair was Médart Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers. The other, his brother-in-law, was Pierre Esprit Radisson.

Groseilliers came to Canada from France as a youth about 1640, when prospects in the little settlements along the St. Lawrence River were bleak. The fur trade, the only business of consequence in the colony, was dominated by a legally created monopoly that held its favored position by financing the government. All independent trading in furs was forbidden.

In an effort to make the interdiction effective, the monopolists sought to confine the trade to a handful of rendezvous points scattered along the St. Lawrence River. Each year hundreds of Indians came to these sites in fleets of fur-laden canoes. They picked up cloth, iron tools, “guns, and ammunition from the legally licensed traders and carried the articles back into the wilderness. There they traded the goods to more distant tribes. Since the role of middleman was profitable, rivalries developed among the Indians. By seizing control of the rugged transportation routes that led from the French settlements to the upper Great Lakes, the Huron tribes became dominant.

Meanwhile Dutch and English traders were pressing northward along the Hudson River. They, too, worked through Indian middlemen—the confederated tribes that made up the Iroquois nation. When the Iroquois sought to handle pelts that otherwise would have been traded by the Huron, explosive wars broke out.