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The Adventures of England

In Boston the commissioners of His Majesty King Charles II were reviewing the affairs of the American Plantations. One of the commissioners was Sir George Carteret, and when he sailed for England in August 1665 he was accompanied by the two French explorers. It gives one a curiously graphic insight into the conditions of ocean travel in those days to learn that the royal commissioner's ship was attacked, boarded, and sunk by a Dutch filibuster. Carteret and his two companions landed penniless in Spain, but, by pawning clothes and showing letters of credit, they reached England early in 1666. At this time London was in the ravages of the Great Plague, and King Charles had sought safety from infection at Oxford. Thither Radisson and Groseilliers were taken and presented to the king; and we may imagine how their amazing stories of adventure beguiled his weary hours. The jaded king listened and marveled, and ordered that forty shillings a week should be paid to the two explorers during that year.

As soon as it was safe to return to London—some time in the winter of 1667-68—a group of courtiers became interested in the two Frenchmen, and forgathered with them frequently at the Goldsmiths' hall, or at Whitehall, or over a sumptuous feast at the Tun tavern or the Sun coffee-house. John Portman, a goldsmith and alderman, is ordered to pay Radisson and Groseilliers £2 to £4 a month for maintenance from December 1667. When Portman is absent the money is paid by Sir John Robinson, governor of the Tower, or Sir John Kirke—with whose family young Radisson seems to have resided and whose daughter Mary he married a few years later—or Sir Robert Viner, the lord mayor, or Mr Young, a fashionable man about town. No formal organization or charter yet exists, but it is evident that the gentlemen are bent on some enterprise, for Peter Romulus is engaged as surgeon and Thomas Gorst as secretary. Gillam of Boston is hired as captain, along with a Captain Stannard. At a merry dinner of the gay gentlemen at the Exchange, Captain Gillam presents a bill of five shillings for 'a rat-catcher' for the ships. Wages of seamen are set down at £20 per voyage; and His Most Gracious Majesty, King Charles, gives a gold chain and medal to the two Frenchmen and recommends them to 'the Gentlemen Adventurers of Hudson's Bay.' Moreover, there is a stock-book dated this year showing amounts paid in by or credited to sundry persons, among whom are: Prince Rupert, James, Duke of York, the Duke of Albemarle, the Earl of Craven, the Earl of Arlington, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Sir John Robinson, Sir Robert Viner, Sir Peter Colleton, Sir James Hayes, Sir John Kirke, and Lady Margaret Drax. Who was the fair and adventurous Lady Margaret Drax? Did she sip wines with the gay adventurers over 'the roasted pullets' of the Tun tavern, or at the banquet table at Whitehall?

Then His Majesty the King writes to his 'trusty and Well Beloved Brother,' James, Duke of York, recommending the loan of the Admiralty ship, the Eaglet, to the two Frenchmen to search for a North-West Passage by way of Hudson Bay, the ship 'to be rigged and victualled' at the charge of 'Dear Cousin Rupert' and his friends Carteret and Albemarle and Craven et al. The 'Well Beloved Brother' passes the order on to Prince Rupert, 'our Dear Cousin'; and the 'Dear Cousin' transmits instructions to Sir James Hayes, his secretary. Sir James badgers the Admiralty Board, and in due time the Eaglet is handed over to Captain Stannard, acting under Radisson. Gillam takes his own plantation ship, the Nonsuch, under orders from Groseilliers.

The instructions to the captains are signed by Prince Rupert, Craven, Hayes, Albemarle, Carteret, Colleton, and Portman. These instructions bid the captains convey the vessels to the place where 'the rendezvous was set up as Mr Gooseberry and Mr Radisson direct, there to raise fortifications,' having 'in thought the discovery of a passage to the South Sea under direction of Mr Gooseberry and Radisson,' and to prosecute trade always under directions of Mr Gooseberry and Mr Radisson, and to have 'a particular [sic] respect unto them with all manner of civility and courtesy.'

Dear old Company! From its very origin it conformed to the canons of gentlemanly conduct and laid more emphasis on courtesy than on spelling. Those curious instructions were indicative of its character in later times. But we quite understand that there was other object in that voyage than the North-West Passage.

The two ships sailed for Hudson Bay in the spring of 1668. In mid-ocean they were driven apart by storms. Gillam's Nonsuch with Groseilliers went on, but the Eaglet with Radisson was disabled and forced to return, and the season was now too late to permit Radisson to set sail again until the following spring.

During the interval of enforced idleness Radisson seems to have diligently courted Mary Kirke, the daughter of Sir John, and to have written the account of his journeys through the wilds of America. It is possible that Radisson was inspired to write these journals by Pepys, the celebrated diarist, who was at this time chief clerk of the Admiralty, and who lived next door to the Kirkes on Tower Hill. At any rate it is clear that the journals fell into Pepys' hands, for they were found two hundred years later in the Pepys collection at the Bodleian Library.

In the spring of 1669, on the recommendation of the king, the Admiralty lent the ship Wavero to the adventurers that Radisson might sail to Hudson Bay. In his eagerness Radisson set out too early. For a second time he was driven back by storm, but, on coming in to harbour at Gravesend, what was his delight to find the Nonsuch back from Hudson Bay with Groseilliers and Gillam and such a cargo of furs from the Rupert river as English merchants had never before dreamed!

The Nonsuch had reached Hudson Strait in August of the year before, and the captain, guided by Groseilliers, had steered south for 'the rendezvous' at the lower end of the Bay, where the two French explorers had set up their marks six years before. There, at the mouth of the river named Rupert in honour of their patron prince, the traders cast anchor on September 25. At high tide they beached the ship and piled logs round her to protect her timbers from ice jams. Then they built a fort, consisting of two or three log huts for winter quarters, enclosed in a log palisade. This they named Fort Charles. The winter that followed must have been full of hardship for the Englishmen, but a winter on the Bay had no terrors for Groseilliers. While Gillam and the Englishmen kept house at the fort, he coursed the woods on snow-shoes, found the Indian camps, and persuaded the hunters to bring down their furs to trade with him in the spring. Then, when the wild geese darkened the sky and the ice went out with a rush, preparations were made for the homeward voyage. In June the ship sailed out of the Bay and, as we have seen, had docked at Gravesend on the Thames while the Wavero with Radisson was coming back.

The adventurers lost no time. That winter they applied for a charter, and in May 1670 the charter was granted by King Charles to 'The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay.' The ostensible object was to find the North-West Passage; and to defray the cost of that finding a monopoly in trade for all time was given.

Whereas, declares the old charter, these have at their own great cost and charge undertaken an expedition to Hudson Bay for the discovery of a new passage to the South Sea and for trade, and have humbly besought the king to grant them and their successors the whole trade and commerce of all those seas, straits, bays, rivers, creeks, and sounds in whatever latitude that lie within the entrance of the straits, together with all the lands, countries, and territories upon the coasts and confines of the seas, straits, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks, and sounds not now actually possessed by any other Christian state, be it known by these presents that the king has given, granted, ratified, and confirmed the said grant. The adventurers are free to build forts, employ a navy, use firearms, pass and enforce laws, hold power of life and death over their subjects. They are granted, not only the whole, entire, and only liberty of trade to and from the territories aforesaid, but also the whole and entire trade to and from nations adjacent to the said territories, and entrance by water or land in and out of the said territories.

The monopoly could hardly have been made more sweeping. If the adventurers found other territory westward, such territory was to be theirs. Other traders were forbidden to encroach on the region. People were forbidden to inhabit the countries without the consent of the Company. The Company was empowered to make war for the benefit of trade. The charter meant, in a word, the establishment of pure feudalism over a vast region in America. But in the light of the Company's record it may be questioned whether feudalism was not, after all, the best system for dealing with the Indian races. For two centuries under the Company's rule the Indians were peaceable; while in other parts of America, under a system the opposite of feudalism—the come-who-may-and-take-who-can policy of the United States every step forward taken by the white race was marked by 'bloody ground.'

Absolutism, pomp, formality, and, let it be added, a sense of personal responsibility for retainers—all characteristics of feudalism—marked the rule of the Hudson's Bay Company from the beginning. The adventurers were not merely merchants and traders; they were courtiers and princes as well. Rupert, a prince of royal blood, was the first governor; James, Duke of York, afterwards king, was the second, and Lord Churchill, afterwards the Duke of Marlborough, the third. The annual meetings of shareholders in November and the periodic meetings of the Governing Committee were held at Whitehall, or at the Tower, or wherever the court chanced to be residing. All shareholders had to take an oath of fidelity and secrecy: 'I doe swear to bee True and faithful to ye Comp'y of Adventurers: ye secrets of ye said Comp'y I will not disclose, nor trade to ye limitts of ye said Comp'y's charter. So help me God.' Oaths of fidelity and bonds were required from all captains, traders, and servants. Presents of 'catt skin counterpanes for his bedd,' 'pairs of beaver stockings for ye King.' 'gold in a faire embroidered purse,' 'silver tankards,' 'a hogshead of claret,' were presented to courtiers and friends who did the Company a good turn. Servants were treated with a paternal care. Did a man lose a toe on some frosty snow-shoe tramp, the Governing Committee solemnly voted him '£4 smart money,' or '£1 for a periwig,' or '£10 a year pension for life.' No matter to what desperate straits the Company was reduced, it never forgot a captain who had saved a cargo from raid, or the hero of a fight, or a wood-runner who had carried trade inland. For those who died in harness, 'funeral by torch-light and linkmen [torchbearers] to St Paul's, Company and crew marching in procession, cost not to exceed £20'; and though the cost might run up higher, it was duly paid, as in one instance on record when the good gentlemen at the funeral had '2 pullets and a dozen bottles of sack' over it at the Three Tuns.

John Churchill, First Duke Of Marlborough
From the painting in the National Portrait Gallery

Perhaps the gay gentlemen of the Governing Committee made merry too long at times, for it appears to have been necessary to impose a fine on all committee men who did not attend 'yt one hour after ye deputy-governor turns up ye hour glass,' the fines to go to the Poor Box as 'token of gratitude for God's so great a blessing to ye Comp'y.'

In February the Governing Committee was always in a great bustle chartering or buying frigates for the year's voyages. Then the goods for trade, to be exchanged with the Indians for furs, were chosen and stored. In the list for 1672 are found '200 fowling pieces and 400 powder horns and 500 hatchets.' Gewgaws, beads, ribbons, and blankets innumerable were taken on the voyages, and always more or less liquor; but the latter, it should be remarked, was not traded to the Indians except in times of keen competition, when the Company had to fight rivals who used it in trade. Secret orders were given to the captains before sailing. These orders contained the harbor signals. Ships not displaying these signals were to be fired on by the forts of Hudson Bay or lured to wreck by false lights. The sailing orders were always signed 'a God speede, a good wind, a faire saile, y'r loving friends'; and the gentlemen of the Committee usually went down to the docks at Gravesend to search lockers for illicit trade, to shake hands and toss a sovereign and quaff drinks. From the point where a returning ship was 'bespoken' the chief trader would take horse and ride post-haste to London with the bills and journals of the voyage. These would be used to check unlading. Next, the sorting of the furs, the payment of the seamen's wages—about £20 per year to each man; then the public auction of the furs. A pin would be stuck in a lighted candle and bids received till the light burnt below the pin. Sack and canary and claret were served freely at the sales. Money accruing from sales was kept in an iron box at the Goldsmiths' exchange, and later in the warehouse in Fenchurch Street.

Trading in the early days was conducted with a ceremony such as kings might have practised in international treaty. Dressed in regimentals, with colored velvet capes lined with silk, swords clanking, buglers and drummers rattling a tattoo, the white trader walked out to meet the Indian chief. The Indian prostrated himself and presented the kingly white man with priceless furs. The white man kneeled and whiffed pipes and thanked the Sun for the privilege of meeting so great warriors, and through his interpreters begged to present the Great Chief with what would render him invincible among all foes—firearms. Then with much parleying the little furs such as rabbit and muskrat were exchanged for the gewgaws.

Later, the coming of rival traders compelled the Company to change its methods and to fix a standard of trade. This standard varied with the supply of furs and the caprice of fashion; but at first in respect to beaver it stood thus:

½lb. beads 1 beaver.
1 kettle 1 "
1lb. shot 1 "
5lbs. sugar 1 "
1lb. tobacco 1 "
1gal. brandy 4 "
2 awls 1 "
12 buttons 1 "
20 fish-hooks 1 "
20 flints 1 "
1 gun 12 "
1 pistol 4 "
8 balls 1 "

A wicket would be opened at the side of the main gate of the fort. Up to this wicket the Indians would file with their furs and exchange them according to the standard. Tally was kept at first with wampum shells or little sticks; then with bits of lead melted from teachests and stamped with the initials of the fort. Finally these devices were supplanted by modern money. We may suppose that the red man was amply able to take care of himself in the trade, especially when rivals at other points were bidding for the furs. If the white man's terms were exorbitant and no rival trader was within reach, the Indian's remedy was a scalping foray. Oftener than not the Indian was in debt for provisions advanced before the hunt. If the Indian forgot his debt or carried his fur to a competitor, as he often did in whole flotillas, the white man would have his revenge some season when food was scarce; or, if his physical prowess permitted, he would take his revenge on the spot by administering a sound thrashing to the transgressor. It is on record that one trader, in the early days of Moose Factory, broke an oar while chastising an Indian who had failed in his duty.

Many of the lonely bachelors at the forts contracted marriage with native women. These marriages were entered on the books of the Company, and were considered as valid as if bound by clergy. Sometimes they led to unhappy results. When men returned from the service, the Indian wife, transplanted to England, lived in wretched loneliness; and the children—'les petits,' as they are entered in the books—were still less at home amid English civilization. Gradually it became customary to leave the Indian women in their native land and to support them with a pension deducted from the wages of the retired husband and father. This pension was assured by the Company's system of holding back one-third of its servants' wages for a retiring fund. If a servant had left any 'petits' behind him, a sum of money was withheld from his wages to provide a pension for them, and a record of it was kept on the books. This rule applied even to men who were distinguished in the service.

In June 1670, one month after the charter was granted, three ships—the Wavero, the Shaftesbury Pink, and the Prince Rupert—conveying forty men and a cargo of supplies, sailed for Hudson Bay. Gillam commanded the Prince Rupert, Radisson went as general superintendent of trade, and Charles Bayly as governor of the fort at the Rupert river. Gorst the secretary, Romulus the surgeon, and Groseilliers accompanied the expedition. The ships duly arrived at Fort Charles, and, while Bayly and his men prepared the fort for residence and Groseilliers plied trade with the Indians, Radisson cruised the west coast of the Bay on the Wavero. He made observations at Moose and Albany rivers, and passed north to Nelson harbor, where Button had wintered half a century before. Here, on the projection of land between two great rivers the future site of York Factory Radisson erected the arms of the English king. The southern river he named Hayes, after Sir James Hayes, Prince Rupert's secretary. The mouth of this river was a good place to get furs, for down its broad tide came the canoes of the Assiniboines, the 'Stone Boilers' whom Radisson had met near Lake Superior long ago, and of the Crees, who had first told him of the Sea of the North.

Radisson returned to England with Gillam on the Prince Rupert, while Groseilliers wintered on the Bay; and it appears that, during the next three years, Radisson spent the winters in London advising the Company, and the summers on the Bay, cruising and trading on the west coast. In 1672 he married Mary Kirke. Sir James Hayes said afterwards that he 'misled her into marrying him,' but there is nothing to show that the wife herself ever thought so. Perhaps Radisson hoped that his marriage to the daughter of one of the leading directors of the Company would strengthen his position. He received £100 a year for his services, but, although his efforts had turned a visionary search for the North-West Passage into a prosperous trading enterprise, he was not a shareholder in the Company.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Adventurers Of England On Hudson Bay, A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914


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