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Years of Disaster

In spite of French raid and foray, the Governing Committee in London pursued the even tenor of its way. Strict measures were enforced to stop illicit and clandestine trading on the part of the Company's servants. In a minute of November 2, 1687, the Committee 'taking notice that several of the officers and servants have brought home in their coats and other garments several pieces of furrs to the great prejudice of the Co'y, do order that such as have any garments lined with furrs shall forthwith bring the same to the warehouse and there leave all the same furrs, or in default shall forfeit and loose all salary and be liable to such prosecution as the Co'y think fitt.'

Silent anger and resentment grew against Radisson; for was it not he who had revealed the secrets of the great Bay to marauding Frenchmen? Sargeant was sued in £20,000 damages for surrendering Albany; but on second thought, the case was settled by arbitration, and the doughty old trader was awarded £350. Jean Chouart and the other Frenchmen came back to London in 1689, and Jean was awarded £202 for all arrears. Also, about this time, the Company began trade with North Russia in whale blubber, which, like the furs, was auctioned by light of candle.

William of Orange was welcomed to the throne, in 1688, with an address from the adventurers that would have put Henry VIII's parliament to the blush: 'that in all yr. undertakings Yr. Majesty may bee as victorious as Caesar, as beloved as Titus, and have the glorious long reign and peaceful end of His Majesty Augustus.' Three hundred guineas were presented along with this address in 'a faire embroidered purse by the Hon. the Deputy Gov'r. upon his humble knees.' For pushing claims of damages against France, Sir Edward Dering, the deputy-governor, was voted two hundred guineas. Stock forfeited for breaking oaths of secrecy was voted to a fund for the wounded and widows of the service. The Company's servants were put on the same pensions as soldiers in the national service. Henceforth 'one pipe of brandy' was to go on each vessel for use during war; but, in spite of 'pipes of brandy,' the seamen were now very mutinous about going aboard, and demanded pay in advance, which with 'faire words doth allay anger.' It was a difficult matter now to charter ships. The Company had to buy vessels; and it seems there was a scarcity of ready money, for one minute records that 'the tradesmen are very importunate for their bills.'

Many new shareholders had come into the Company, and 'Esquire Young' had great ado to convince them that Radisson had any rightful claim on them at all. Radisson, for his part, went to law; and the arrears of dividends were ordered to be paid. But when the war waxed hotter there were no dividends. Then Esquire Young's petitions set forth that 'M. Radisson is living in a mean and poor condition.' When the Frenchman came asking for consideration, he was not invited into the committee room, but was left cooling his heels in the outer hall. But the years rolled on, and when, during the negotiation of the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, the Company pressed a claim of £200,000 damages against France, 'the Committee considering Mr Peter Radisson may be very useful at this time, as to affairs between the French and this Co'y, the Sec. is ordered to take coach and fetch him to the Committee'; 'on wh. the Committee had discourse with him till dinner.' The discourse—given in full in the minutes—was the setting forth, on affidavit, of that secret royal order from the king of France in 1684 to restore the forts on the Bay to England. Meanwhile amounts of £250 were voted widows of captains killed in the war; and the deputy-governor went to Hamburg and Amsterdam to borrow money; for the governor, Sir Stephen Evance, was wellnigh bankrupt.

A treaty of neutrality, in 1686, had provided that the Bay should be held in common by France and England, but the fur traders of New France were not content to honor such an ambiguous arrangement. D'Iberville came overland again to Rupert river in 1687, promptly seized the English sloop there, and sent four men across to Charlton Island to spy on Captain Bond, who was wintering on the ship Churchill. Bond clapped the French spies under hatches; but in the spring one was permitted above decks to help the English sailors launch the Churchill from her skids. The Frenchman waited till six of the English were up the masts. Then, seizing an ax, he brained two sailors near by, opened the hatches, called up his comrades, and, keeping the other Englishmen up the mast poles at pistol point, steered the vessel across to d'Iberville at Rupert.

The English on their side, like the French, were not disposed to remain inert under the terms of the treaty. Captain Moon sailed down from Nelson, with two strongly-manned ships, to attempt the recapture of Albany. At the moment when he had loaded a cargo of furs from the half-abandoned fort on one of his vessels, d'Iberville came paddling across the open sea with a force of painted Indian warriors. The English dashed for hiding inside the fort, and d'Iberville gaily mounted to the decks of the fur-laden ship, raised sail, and steered off for Quebec. Meeting the incoming fleet of English vessels, he threw them off guard by hoisting an English flag, and sailed on in safety.

When France and England were again openly at war, Le Moyne d'Iberville was occupied with raids on New England; and during his absence from the Bay, Mike Grimmington, who had been promoted to a captaincy, came sailing down from Nelson to find Albany in the possession of four Frenchmen under Captain Le Meux. He sacked the fort, clapped Le Meux and his men in the hold of his English vessel, carried them off to England, and presented them before the Governing Committee. Captain Mike was given a tankard valued at £36 for his services. At the same time Captain Edgecombe brought home a cargo of 22,000 beavers from Nelson, and was rewarded with £20 worth of silver plate and £100 in cash. Meanwhile our friend Jean Péré, who had escaped to France, was writing letters to Radisson, trying to tempt him to leave England, or perhaps to involve him in a parley that would undermine his standing with the English.

Grimmington's successful foray encouraged the 'Adventurers of England' to make a desperate effort to recapture all the forts on the Bay. James Knight, who had started as an apprentice under Sargeant, was sent to Albany as governor, and three trusted men, Walsh, Bailey, and Kelsey, were sent to Nelson, whence came the largest cargoes of furs.

But d'Iberville was not the man to let his winnings slip. Once more he turned his attention to Hudson Bay, and on September 24, 1694, the French frigates Poli and Salamander were unloading cannon, under his direction, beneath the ramparts of Nelson. For three weeks, without ceasing day or night, bombs were singing over the eighteen-foot palisades of the fort. From within Walsh, Kelsey, and Bailey made a brave defense. They poured scalding water on the heads of the Frenchmen and Indians who ventured too near the walls. From the sugar-loaf tower roofs of the corner bastions their sharpshooters were able to pick off the French assailants, while keeping in safety themselves. They killed Chateauguay, d'Iberville's brother, as he tried to force his way into the fort through a rear wall. But the wooden towers could not withstand the bombs, and at length both sides were ready to parley for terms. With the hope that they might save their furs, the English hung out a tablecloth as a flag of truce, and the exhausted fighters seized the opportunity to eat and sleep. The weather had turned bitterly cold. No ship could come from England till spring. Under these conditions, Walsh made the best bargain he could. It was agreed that the English officers should be lodged in the fort and should share the provisions during the winter. D'Iberville took possession; and again, only one post on the Bay—Albany, in charge of James Knight—remained in English hands.

On the miseries of the English prisoners that winter there is no time to dwell. D'Iberville had departed, leaving La Forest, one of his men, in command. The terms of the surrender were ignored. Only four officers were maintained in the fort and given provisions. The rest of the English were driven to the woods. Those who hung round the fort were treated as slaves. Out of the fifty-three only twenty-five survived. No English ship came to Nelson in the following summer—1695. The ship that anchored there that summer was a French privateer, and in her hold some of the English survivors were stowed and carried to France for ransom.

In August 1696, however, two English warships—the Bonaventure and the Seaforth—commanded by Captain Allen, anchored before Nelson. La Forest capitulated almost on demand; and, again, the English with Nelson in their hands were virtually in possession of the Bay. Allen made prisoners of the whole garrison and seized twenty thousand beaver pelts. While the Bonaventure and the Seaforth lay in front of the fort, two ships of France, in command of Serigny, one of d'Iberville's brothers, with provisions for La Forest, sailed in, and on sight of the English ships sailed out again to the open sea—so hurriedly, indeed, that one of the craft struck an ice floe, split, and sank. As Allen's two English vessels, on their return journey, passed into the straits during a fog, a volley of shot poured across the deck and laid the captain dead on the spot. The ship whence this volley came was not seen; there is no further record of the incident, and we can only surmise that the shot came from Serigny's remaining ship. What is certain is that Allen was killed and that the English ships arrived in England with an immense cargo of furs, which went to the Company's warehouse, and with French captives from Nelson, who were lodged in prison at Portsmouth.

The French prisoners were finally set free and made their way to France, where the story of their wrongs aroused great indignation. D'Iberville, who was now in Newfoundland, carrying havoc from hamlet to hamlet, was the man best fitted to revenge the outrage. Five French warships were made ready—the Pelican, the Palmier, the Profond, the Violent, and the Wasp. In April 1697 these were dispatched from France to Placentia, Newfoundland, there to be taken in command by d'Iberville, with orders to proceed to Hudson Bay and leave not a vestige remaining of the English fur trade in the North.

Meanwhile preparations were being made in England to dispatch a mighty fleet to drive the French for ever from the Bay. Three frigates were bought and fitted out—the Dering, Captain Grimmington; the Hudson's Bay, Captain Smithsend; and the Hampshire, Captain Fletcher—each with guns and sixty fighting men in addition to the regular crew. These ships were to meet the enemy sooner than was expected. In the last week of August 1697 the English fleet lay at the west end of Hudson Strait, befogged and surrounded by ice. Suddenly the fog lifted and revealed to the astonished Englishmen d'Iberville's fleet of five French warships: the Palmier to the rear, back in the straits; the Wasp and the Violent, out in open water to the west; the Pelican, flying the flag of the Admiral, to the fore and free from the ice; and the Profond, ice-jammed and within easy shooting range. The Hudson's Bay ships at once opened fire on the Profond, but this only loosened the ice and let the French ship escape.

D'Iberville's aim was not to fight a naval battle but to secure the fort at Nelson. Accordingly, spreading the Pelican's sails to the wind, he steered south-west, leaving the other ships to follow his example. Ice must have obstructed him, for he did not anchor before Nelson till September 3. The place was held by the English and he could find no sign of his other ships. He waited two days, loading cannon, furbishing muskets, drilling his men, of whom a great many were French wood-runners sick with scurvy. On the morning of the 5th the lookout called down 'A sail.' Never doubting but that the sail belonged to one of his own ships, d'Iberville hoisted anchor and fired cannon in welcome. No answering shot signaled back. There were sails of three ships now, and d'Iberville saw three English men-of-war racing over the waves to meet him, while shouts of wild welcome came thundering from the hostile fort to his rear.

D'Iberville did not swerve in his course, nor waste ammunition by firing shots at targets out of range. Forty of his soldiers lay in their berths disabled by scurvy; but he quickly mustered one hundred and fifty able-bodied men and ordered ropes to be stretched, for hand hold, across the slippery decks. The gunners below stripped naked behind the great cannon. Men were marshalled ready[Pg 100] to board and rush the enemy when the ships locked.

The Hampshire, under Captain Fletcher, with fifty-two guns and sixty fighting men, first came up within range and sent two roaring cannonades that mowed the masts and wheel-house from the Pelican down to bare decks. At the same time Grimmington's Dering and Smithsend's Hudson's Bay circled to the other side of the French ship and poured forth a pepper of musketry.

D'Iberville shouted orders to the gunners to fire straight into the Hampshire's hull; sharpshooters were to rake the decks of the two off-standing English ships, and the Indians were to stand ready to board. Two hours passed in sidling and shifting; then the death grapple began. Ninety dead and wounded Frenchmen rolled on the Pelican's blood-stained decks. The fallen sails were blazing. The mast poles were splintered. Railings went smashing into the sea. The bridge crumbled. The Pelican's prow had been shop away. D'Iberville was still shouting to his gunners to fire low, when suddenly the Hampshire ceased firing and tilted. D'Iberville had barely time to unlock the Pelican from the death grapple, when the English frigate lurched and, amid hiss and roar of flame in a wild sea, sank like a stone, engulfing her panic-stricken crew almost before the French could realize what had happened. Smithsend at once surrendered the Hudson's Bay, and Mike Grimmington fled for Nelson on the Dering.

A fierce hurricane now rose and the English garrison at Nelson had one hope left—that the wild storm might wreck d'Iberville's ship and its absent convoys. Smashing billows and ice completed the wreck of the Pelican; nevertheless the French commander succeeded in landing his men. When the storm cleared, his other ships came limping to his aid. Nelson stood back four miles from the sea, but by September 11 the French had their cannon placed under the walls. A messenger was sent to demand surrender, and he was conveyed with bandaged eyes into the fort. Grimmington,3 Smithsend, Bailey, Kelsey—all were for holding out; but d'Iberville's brother, Serigny, came in under flag of truce and bade them think well what would happen if the hundred Indians were turned loose on the fort. Finally the English surrendered and marched out with[Pg 102] the honours of war. Grimmington sailed for England with as many of the refugees as his ship, the Dering, could convey. The rest, led by Bailey and Smithsend, marched overland south to the fort at Albany.

The loss of Nelson fell heavily on the Hudson's Bay Company. Their ships were not paid for; dividends stopped; stock dropped in value. But still they borrowed money to pay £20 each to the sailors. The Treaty of Ryswick, which halted the war with France, provided that possession on the Bay should remain as at the time of the treaty, and England held only Albany.


3. Grimmington, with the Dering, had reached the fort in safety. Smithsend's captive ship, the Hudson's Bay, had been wrecked with the Pelican, but he himself had escaped to the fort.

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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