The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire

By George Colpitts

by Stephen R. Bown, Doubleday Canada, 2020/$37.00/496 pp.

During the 19th century, its own employees often joked that the Hudson’s Bay Company’s initials (HBC) stood for “Here Before Christ.” For many Canadians, there has always been a Hudson’s Bay Company. Canadians have grown accustomed to shopping at “The Bay,” and have associated some of its premier brands such as the HBC point blanket, a staple in trade for centuries, with Canada’s own history. Many Canadians will remember watching film strips in social studies classes showing images of London courtiers in wigs and stockings lording it over Canada’s “Rupert’s Land,” the landmass deeded to the company by royal charter in 1670. And their minds have likely imprinted a lot of C.W. Jefferys’s illustrations in school textbooks showing HBC employee Henry Kelsey first visiting the Canadian plains in 1690, or the volleys of musket fire between Selkirk colonists and Métis at the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816.

Canmore-based author Stephen Bown reanimates the HBC’s fascinating story in The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire. Bown frames his narrative within the era of the company’s chartered monopoly, only officially rescinded with the transfer of the final portions of Rupert’s Land to the Canadian government in 1870. He offers much in this delightfully crafted and well-organized history. Bown vividly evokes the worlds in which his well-developed historical characters played out their roles (and often their lives) in company service. There was the intrepid and quixotic personality of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who, with his brother-in-law Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, hatched the plan to trade beaver pelts from the coasts of James Bay and later Hudson Bay, an idea taken up by the original HBC investor-grandees; the defiant and mercurial John McLoughlin, who ran the Columbia Department like his own fiefdom and oversaw Fort Vancouver’s stunning economic diversification while still located in Oregon territory; and the company’s “Little Emperor,” the pugnacious penny-pincher inland governor George Simpson. Though focusing on the HBC’s history, Bown’s narrative draws  more broadly on the sweep of Canada’s pre-Confederation history. He guides readers through the turbulent contest between the HBC and Montreal companies competing for fur in the interior, the plains trade in buffalo territory, the American–British rivalry in the Oregon district, and the inexorable influence and pressures of American mountain trappers and droves of eager settler overlanders rushing westward in the early 19th century.

Based in England, the HBC followed a business model that allowed employees to mix with Indigenous people and strike intercultural compromises to trade fur. However, by the mid-19th century, trade proved incompatible with settlement; hardening race theory increasingly marginalized Indigenous people and mixed-blood ethnicities in the company’s business operations and social life. Ultimately the British imperial fiat would shore up sovereignty over British North America by establishing formal colonies in Rupert’s Land, trumping the company’s stake in fur trading.

The author has made choices of whom to include and what deserves focus in this history. His bibliography doesn’t include many recent studies that would add complexity to the book’s discussions. Nevertheless, The Company wonderfully engages readers in its subject matter. It will undoubtedly incite them to further reading of not only the HBC’s history but the fur trade as a commercial enterprise long dominating early European encounters with Indigenous people in present-day Canada.

George Colpitts is a professor in the department of history at the University of Calgary.

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