As a writer and historian, Stephen R. Bown has had a habit of resurrecting historical figures or events that have faded from the public consciousness. He did it in 2017 with his book Island of the Blue Foxes, which brought to vivid life the harrowing, little-known 1741 shipwreck of the St. Peter along the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He did it in 2012 with The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen, which celebrated the accomplishments of the once-famous early 20th-century Arctic adventurer who had long since fallen out of the annals of explorer lore.
So it might seem a little out of character for Bown to have immersed himself in the history of The Hudson Bay Company for the past few years. Surely historians have thoroughly and exhaustively explored every angle of this pivotal institution by now. As Bown says, just mention the words “The Company” and most Canadians will know exactly what you are referring to.
But over the years, he always had a nagging feeling that the company’s true history has never been comprehensively told and never been completely understood.
“Whenever I talked to people, I realized they actually knew far less than what they thought they knew and what they thought they knew was actually inaccurate,” says Bown. “They knew what the company was, but they didn’t really have a sense of what it did and how pervasive it was throughout the culture of that time and, over the centuries, how it evolved and how different trade patterns emerged and the full extent to which it integrated itself into multiple Indigenous societies across the entire continent.”
So, not unlike his past books, Bown sees his exhaustive tome, The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, as a historical recovery mission of sorts. It’s a way to return the company’s history to the numerous colourful characters who contributed to it over the centuries and subsequently helped create modern Canada.
The sprawling tale begins in 1670 when the company was a small English-controlled trading operation that had agents swapping manufactured goods for furs with the Indigenous people of inland subarctic Canada. Bown follows its expansion “from the lowlands south and west of Hudson Bay, to the tundra, the great plains, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest.” He chronicles its rise as a cultural, economic and political juggernaut that controlled the lives of thousands of people and helped shape northern and western North America. Finally, he traces the history to the company’s darkest days, when Governor George Simpson assumed ruthless control in the 1800s and established the racist, exploitive policies that left a stain on the company’s history. Still, by the time Hudson’s Bay had its monopoly rescinded in 1870, it had left behind a dynamic history that lasted 200 years.
So it’s perhaps surprising that it has been more than 30 years since anyone had attempted to chronicle the company’s complex history. Bown revisited the historical books that Canadian journalist and author Peter C. Newman wrote in the 1980s, but quickly found they did not tell the entire story.
“He had a very, very narrow definition of who the company’s people were,” Bown says. “To me, it’s always about the people. You need to have statistics and data and facts, but I really wanted to focus on the people. When I looked through his book, he had done that but he had only focused on three-quarters of them. By taking such a narrow definition of who the company’s people were — and by narrow, I mean defined it as people who signed employment contracts in London and were shipped across the ocean — he probably missed a quarter of the story. When I set out to define who the company’s people were and therefore what the company was, I took a much broader look at a wider range of people who influenced the company. Of course, that means Indigenous people.”
In fact, for much of its history, most of the people who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company were Indigenous or people of mixed heritage, even if they didn’t sign employment contracts in London, Bown says. Numerous Indigenous societies worked with and benefitted from the company, savvy enough to leverage their knowledge of the land and prowess in trade to become part of and greatly influence the company’s culture, Bown says.
“It began as some foreign agents on a shore, but very quickly those people married into Indigenous societies and expanded with them across the continent,” Bown says. “Their families were North American, blended culturally and genetically. So it’s inaccurate to think of the company as purely a British entity. It became something much greater than that and it had a very different corporate culture that incorporated all types of different aspects of Indigenous language and culture and customs. To survive in that industry, anyone who came from overseas and stayed for any length of time also had to adopt all those languages and cultures and customs or would not have survived. I think that’s what had been completely missing from a lot of the earlier histories: this expanded definition of what the world was like that the company was operating in and who the people of the company were.”
Still, Bown realizes that the shorthand assessment many have of the Hudson’s Bay Company is that it was an exploitive and disruptive force that harmed Indigenous populations. It’s an accurate read, but only when talking about the tail end of its history when the company was under the control of Simpson, who Bown describes as “one of the greatest villains in Canadian history,” “universally bad,” and, in his take-no-prisoners epilogue, “the greatest tragedy to befall the Company, and northern North America, since its founding in 1670.”
Simpson did make himself and a handful of “absentee investors” a good deal of money, but the more Bown researched the man, the more irredeemable he seemed.
“He basically upended a century-and-a-half of tradition and started introducing policies where people were not to be promoted if they had any regular interaction with Indigenous society and not promoting the mixed-heritage children of his own officers,” he says. “He would prefer to bring in people from overseas. It was only white people and it was only English people placed in any position of authority. His officers, of course, hated that because their adult children were being shut out of any employment opportunities. It was a very odd thing to have done, because those people were the most knowledgeable, the most suited to be successful in that job. But because it was a monopoly, he was able to have inferior people in charge of things as long as they kissed his —.”
It’s unfortunate that the Hudson’s Bay Company ended this way, but Bown says the final years of its monopoly shouldn’t detract from its first 170 years of life.
“That view of the company being monopolizing and exploitive and cruel and generally evil in some ways, that’s not inaccurate but it’s not the whole story.”
The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire is available Oct. 27.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020