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Company of Adventurers by Peter C. Newman
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234175,496 (3.94)2

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My reactions to reading this book in 1994.

A fascinating book about the Hudson Bay Company’s early days and an intriguing account of the beginnings of a commercial empire in the desolate Arctic.

I liked several things in this book.

I found the descriptions of the land (swampy and desolate around Hudson’s Bay) and beaver’s habits interesting and also the French-English naval battles fought in the area as part of the French-English military and political conflicts in North America.

The details of the Hudson Bay Company’s men’s lives were interesting: their huge feasts and bouts of drinking (not a lot to do there) and sexual promiscuity with the Indian women. (Taking a “country wife” was not only a good way to get sex but helped the Bay men learn the language and develop trade relations.). I also found it amusing that many men from Scotland’s Orkney islands had long careers in the Bay. The climate wasn’t that much worse than the Orkneys; they could save up – for them – a relatively large sum of money since their needs were met. Indeed, they ate better than at home, and their Bay housing, while primitive (many accounts of ice being chipped from the inside walls of Bay forts), wasn’t any worse than where they came from.

But best of all, I liked the tales of Bay men and legendary Arctic explorers Samuel Hearne and John Rae. Hearne kept a fascinating journal detailing natural history observations, disgusting Indian foods (Hearne only drew the line at eating lice and warble flies), strange Indian practices (like Indian blowing into each others anuses as a cure for constipation), Chipewyan contempt for their women, and the brutal – almost eternal – war between Inuit and Chipewyan. Hearne had very bad luck on his first trips and was barely saved from death by Chipewyan chief Matonabbee who initiated him into the techniques of Arctic survival to the point where Hearne eventually traveled with a minimum of supplies. His walks through the Arctic and survey of the coast of the Arctic Sea put an end to the dream (though this wasn’t recognized at the time) of a Northwest Passage. The even more incredible surgeon John Rae pushed Hearne’s technique of going native even further. (He was inspired by Hearne’s account). He mapped more than 1,700 of the Arctic Sea’s coast. He traveled light, usually little more than a rifle (he was an excellent shot.), ammo, clothes, and snowshoes. He is the first white man to build igloos. Sometimes he’d carry a book of Shakespeare’s plays and always a journal and surveying tools. He, like Hearne, recorded natural history observations, defended the Eskimo culture, and is best known for, in 1854, providing proof with artifacts of the fate of the famous 1821 Franklin expedition and putting forth the unpopular notion that these noble examples of heroic British exploration resorted to cannibalism in the end. (An idea later proved by forensic anthropologists on bodies from the Franklin expedition.). The Royal Geographic Society never forgave him for sullying the name of Franklin while succeeding by violating the “rules” of popular exploration by going native.

Newman also makes an interesting point about the differences in American and HBC relations with their Indian populations. The HBC sought to co-opt the Indians via trade rather than conquer them. By trading guns, iron hatchets, and copper kettles, they propelled the Indians from the Stone Age to the modern age with no intermediate steps, no development of the accompanying and necessary scientific and technical skills. The Indians became dependent for their survival on guns and hatchets supplied by whites. They became addicted to the white’s tobacco (Newman doesn’t answer the question as to what exactly the Indians smoked in their pipe ceremonies they seemed to have had before white arrival) and alcohol. (The Indians preferred English tobacco grown in Brazil but French cognac since the English usually only had gin colored with iodine.) Canadian history is not, like American, marked by Indian Wars. However, Canadian Indians activists don’t see that as a good thing. They argue that by fighting Indians, making treaties (whether kept or not) with them, and eventually setting up the reservation system, the American government came to recognize the Indians as a distinct nation accorded subsequent rights and recognized as a separate culture whereas Canadian Indians became dependent on a patronizing Canadian government. (I would argue that Indian tribes in America are not truly nations a are quite dependent on the U.S. government.) ( )
  RandyStafford | Apr 15, 2013 |
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Shaping the destiny of Canada, the merchant founders of the Hudson's Bay Company tamed the wilderness as they built the world's largest private commerical empire. A brilliant story chronicling the unsung heroes of North American history.

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