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Sir George Simpson

Sir George Simpson commenced his career as a clerk in a respectable counting-house in London, where his talents soon advanced him to the first seat at the desk. He was in this situation when first introduced to the notice of a member of the Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company, who were at that time engaged in the ruinous competition with the North-West Company already referred to. While the contest was at its height, the Company sent out Mr. Simpson as Governor of the Northern department;—an appointment for which, by his abilities natural and acquired, he was well qualified. Mr. Simpson combined with the prepossessing manners of a gentleman all the craft and subtlety of an intriguing courtier; while his cold and callous heart was incapable of sympathizing with the woes and pains of his fellow-men. On his first arrival, he carefully concealed from those whom he was about to supersede, the powers with which he was invested; he studied the characters of individuals, scrutinized in secret their mode of managing affairs, and when he had made himself fully acquainted with every particular he desired to know, he produced his commission;—a circumstance that proved as unexpected as it was unsatisfactory to those whose interests it affected.

Making every allowance for Sir George's abilities, he is evidently one of those men whom the blind goddess "delighteth to honor." Soon after assuming the supreme command, the North-West wintering partners undertook the mission to England, already mentioned, which led to the coalition; and thus Sir George found himself, by a concurrence of circumstances quite independent of his merits, placed at the head of both parties; from being Governor of Rupert's Land his jurisdiction now included the whole of the Indian territory from Hudson's Bay to the shores of the Pacific Ocean; and the Southern department, at that time a separate command, was soon after added to his government. Here, then, was a field worthy of his talents; and that he did every manner of justice to it, no one can deny. Yet he owes much of his success to the valuable assistance rendered him by Mr. McTavish; at his suggestion, the whole business was re-organized, a thousand abuses in the management of affairs were reformed, and a strict system of economy was introduced where formerly boundless extravagance prevailed. To effect these salutary measures, however, much tact was required: and here Sir George's abilities shone conspicuous. The long-continued strife between the two companies had engendered feelings of envy and animosity, which could not subside in a day; and the steps that had been taken to bring about the coalition, created much ill-will even among the North-West partners themselves. Nor were the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company without their dissensions also. To harmonize these elements of discord, to reconcile the different parties thus brought so suddenly and unexpectedly together into one fold, was a task of the utmost difficulty to accomplish; but Sir George was equal to it. He soon discovered that the North-West partners possessed both the will and the ability to thwart and defeat such of his plans as were not satisfactory to themselves; that they were by far the most numerous in the Council—at that time an independent body—and the best acquainted with the trade of the Northern department, the most important in the territory; and finding, after some experience, that while those gentlemen continued united, their power was beyond his control, and that to resist them openly would only bring ruin on himself, without any benefit to the concern, he prudently gave way to their influence; and instead of forcing himself against the stream, allowed himself apparently to be carried along with it.

For a time, he seemed to promote all the views of his late adversaries; he yielded a ready and gracious acquiescence in their wishes; he lavished his bows, and smiles, and honied words on them all; and played his part so well, that the North-Westers thought they had actually gained him over to their own side; while the gentlemen of the Hudson's Bay Company branded him as a traitor, who had abandoned his own party and gone over to the enemy.

The Committee received several hints of the Governor's "strange management," but they only smiled at the insinuations, as they perfectly understood the policy. His well-digested schemes had, in due time, all the success he anticipated.

Having thus completely gained the confidence of the North-West partners, his policy began gradually to unfold itself. One obstreperous North-Wester was sent to the Columbia; another to the Montreal department, where "their able services could not be dispensed with;" and thus in the course of a few years he got rid of all those refractory spirits who dared to tell him their minds.

The North-West nonconformists being in this manner disposed of, Sir George deemed it no longer necessary to wear the mask. His old friends of the Hudson's Bay, or "sky-blue" party, were gradually received into favor; his power daily gained the ascendant, and at this moment Sir George Simpson's rule is more absolute than that of any governor under the British crown, as his influence with the Committee enables him to carry into effect any measure he may recommend. That one possessed of an authority so unbounded should often abuse his power is not to be wondered at; and that the abuse of power thus tolerated should degenerate into tyranny is but the natural consequence of human weakness and depravity. The question is—Is it consistent with prudence to allow an individual to assume and retain such power? Most of the Company's officers enter the service while yet very young; none are so young, however, as not to be aware of the privileges to which they are entitled as British subjects, and that they have a right to enjoy those privileges while they tread on British soil. The oft repeated acts of tyranny of which the autocrat of "all Prince Rupert's Land and its dependencies" has lately been guilty, have accordingly created a feeling of discontent which, if it could be freely expressed, would be heard from the shores of the Pacific to Labrador.

Unfortunately, the Company's servants are so situated, that they dare not express their sentiments freely. The clerk knows that if he is heard to utter a word of disapprobation, it is carried to the ears of his sovereign lord, and his prospects of advancement are marred for ever; he therefore submits to his grievances in silence. The chief trader has probably a large family to support, has been thirty or forty years in the service, and is daily looking forward to the other step: he too is silent. The chief factor has a situation of importance in which his vanity is gratified and his comfort secured; to express his opinion freely might risk the sacrifice of some of these advantages; so he also swallows the pill without daring to complain of its bitterness, and is silent.

A very valuable piece of plate was, some years ago, presented to Sir George by the commissioned gentlemen in the service, as a mark of respect and esteem; and this circumstance may be adduced by Sir George's friends, with every appearance of reason, as a proof of his popularity; but the matter is easily explained. Some two or three persons who share Sir George's favor, determine among themselves to present him with some token of their gratitude. They address a circular on the subject to all the Company's officers, well knowing that none dare refuse in the face of the whole country to subscribe their name. The same cogent reasons that suppress the utterance of discontent compelled the Company's servants to subscribe to this testimonial; and the subscription list accordingly exhibits, with few exceptions, the names of every commissioned gentleman in the service; while two-thirds of them would much rather have withheld their signatures.

Sir George owes his ribbon to the successful issue of the Arctic expedition conducted by Messrs. Dease and Simpson. His share of the merit consisted in drawing out instructions for those gentlemen, which occupied about half-an-hour of his time at the desk. It is quite certain that the expedition owed none of its success to those instructions. The chief of the party, Mr. Dease, was at least as well qualified to give as to receive instructions; and Sir George is well aware of the fact. He knows, too, that Mr. Dease was engaged in the Arctic expedition under Sir J. Franklin, where he acquired that experience which brought this important yet hazardous undertaking to a successful issue; he knows also that in an enterprise of this kind a thousand contingencies may arise, which must be left entirely to the judgment of those engaged in it to provide against.

Sir George, nevertheless, obtained the chief honors; but the bauble perishes with him; while the courage, the energy and the perseverance of Mr. Dease and his colleague will ever be a subject of admiration to those who peruse the narrative of their adventures.

Sir George's administration, it is granted, has been a successful one; yet his own friends will admit that much of this success must be ascribed to his good fortune rather than to his talents. The North-West Company had previously reduced the business to a perfect system, which he had only to follow. It is true he introduced great economy into every department; but the North-West Company had done so before him, and the wasteful extravagance which preceded his appointment was entirely the result of the rivalry between the two companies, and under any governor whatever would have ceased when the coalition was effected.

Not a little, too, of Sir George's economy was of "the penny-wise and pound-foolish" kind. Thus it has been already observed, that the lives of the Company's servants, and the property of an entire district, were placed in extreme jeopardy by his false economy; and a contingency, which no prudent man would have calculated upon, alone prevented a catastrophe which involved the destruction of the Company's property to a large amount, as well as of the lives of its servants. But independently of this, he has committed several errors of a most serious kind. Of these the chief is the Ungava adventure, an enterprise which was begun in opposition to the opinion of every gentleman in the country whose experience enabled him to form a correct judgment in the matter; and this undertaking was persisted in, year after year, at an enormous loss to the Company. Finally, he has not even the merit of correcting his own blunders. It was not till after a mass of evidence of the strongest kind was laid before the Committee, that they, in his absence, gave orders for the abandonment of the hopeless project.

His caprice, his favoritism, his disregard of merit in granting promotion, it will be allowed, could not have a favorable effect on the Company's interests. His want of feeling has been mentioned: a single example of this will close these remarks. A gentleman of high rank in the service, whose wife was dangerously ill, received orders to proceed on a journey of nearly 5,000 miles. Aware that his duty required a prompt obedience to these orders, he set off, taking her along with him. On arriving at the end of the first stage, she became worse; and medical assistance being procured, the physicians were of opinion that in all probability death would be the consequence if he continued his journey. A certificate to this effect was forwarded to Sir George. The answer was, that Madame's health must not interfere with the Company's service; and that he must continue his journey, or abide the consequences.

In consequence of this delay, he only reached Montreal on the day when the boats were to leave Lachine for the interior. He hurried to the office, where he met Sir George, and was received by him with the cool remark—

"You are late, Sir; but if you use expedition you may yet be in time for the boats."

He earnestly begged for some delay, but in vain. No regard was paid to his entreaties; and he was obliged to hurry his wife off to Lachine, and put her on board a common canoe, where there is no accommodation for a sick person, and where no assistance could be procured, even in the last extremity.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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