The Hudson’s Bay Company

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Hopefully they returned to tradestarved Montreal at the head of a fleet of Indian canoes “that did almost cover ye whole river.” But the axe fell anyway. After imposing the normal 25 per cent tax on the portion of furs that Groseilliers and Radisson considered their own, Governor d’Argenson added fines that were all but confiscatory, and pocketed the bulk of the proceeds for himself. He also declined to hear talk of a route through Hudson Bay. Why should he listen? Opening a rival path to the interior would dilute the monopoly of the St. Lawrence.

Outraged, Groseilliers hurried to Paris to protest the fines and to ask for help in reaching Hudson Bay. He was brushed aside. But the thought of those wonderful furs kept the brothers-in-law from admitting defeat. Twice they hired ships in the hope of reaching the bay on their own, and twice they failed. Persisting still, they went to England. There, after long delays occasioned by outbreaks of plague, war, and London’s great fire, they gained audiences both with King Charles II and with the King’s cousin Prince Rupert. After more delays the prince eventually assembled half a dozen or so men who were willing to underwrite the explorations the Frenchmen proposed.

Two diminutive ships were loaded with trade goods—the Eaglet , forty feet long, of fifty-four tons burden, and the Nonsuch , a ketch thirty-seven feet long and of forty tons burden. Although Radisson and Groseilliers supervised most of the preparatory details, they were not allowed to take charge of the expedition. They were Frenchmen. In case of war between France and England, there might be problems of loyalty. Furthermore, if the adventure did result in notable discoveries, there would be protection for England in having it done under the aegis of a British citizen. Command, therefore, was given to Zachariah Gillam of Boston, Massachusetts, an experienced seaman who was also captain of the Nonsuch . Radisson and Groseilliers—whom the English insisted on calling Mr. Gooseberry—would go along as consultants.

The two ships sailed from Gravesend, on the Thames, on June 3, 1668. In mid-Atlantic a storm engulfed them. The Eaglet , with Radisson aboard, was damaged so severely that she had to turn back. The Nonsuch , on which Groseilliers had sailed, continued through Hudson Strait and turned along the flat eastern shore to the nipple at the southern end, James Bay.

Gillam beached the Nonsuch inside the mouth of a river that he named the Rupert. Close beside the ship the crew built Fort Charles, a hut of logs erected picket style. Though they lived well enough on wild fowl and fish, they were appalled by the six months of almost unimaginable cold.

News of their presence spread from Indian to Indian. Hundreds appeared at the spring thaw to exchange beaver pelts for the inestimable boon of tools, metal cooking utensils, cloth, and bright, cheap jewelry. Obviously trade could succeed in the bay. Delighted with the prospects they had opened, the adventurers hurried back to London, arriving October 9, 1669.

The lush furs caused a sensation. During the ensuing winter Prince Rupert easily persuaded eighteen men (he and the original backers included) to invest an average of three hundred pounds each toward forming a company for developing the trade. On May 2, 1670, King Charles granted this group a royal charter authorizing it to carry on commerce in “Furrs, Mineralls and other considerable commodityes.” On parchment, at least, H.B.C. had come into existence.

The charter also granted the company title to the entire watershed of Hudson Bay. In time surveyors would calculate the area at 1,486,000 square miles, or ten times the extent of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland combined. The document then went on to describe the legal mechanics whereby colonies, or “plantations,” complete with administrative officials and law courts, could be established in the area.

All this was a gambit in international chess-playing. In 1670 not Charles II, Groseilliers, Gillam, or anyone else could have had the least notion about the extent of the territory involved. Amounts did not matter. The real purpose was to counter in advance any conflicting claims that France might try to assert on the plea that her citizens had settled Canada first. By declaring an intention to plant a colony where no Frenchman (except Groseilliers) had yet set foot, the English might be able to contain their rivals within the granite-cramped bounds of the St. Lawrence.

Management of the new company was placed in the hands of a governor (Prince Rupert was the first) and a committee of seven. Although they were called “Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay,” none of the English shareholders had the least intention of risking either the icebergs or the Indians. Supervision of that work was entrusted to a resident director, also called governor. The first one was Charles Bayly, a dour Quaker who had played with King Charles as a lad but had later been clapped into the Tower of London for his all but seditious criticism of the lax ways of the court. Bayly evidently considered exile at Hudson Bay preferable to confinement in the Tower, and Charles obliged him by foisting him off onto the Honourable Company.