Ocean Crossings: Hudson's Bay Company Seafaring in a Northern North Atlantic World
Hall, Norma J., Manitoba History
The maritime component of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), though fundamental to its trade, is an aspect of its influence in the North-West that is often overlooked, despite readily apparent clues. The Company's yearly outfit, for example, was set when ships were outfitted to voyage to Hudson Bay at the beginning of June. The posts built on the shores of Hudson and James bays were first of all ports--built by ships' crews and located where ships could go. "Ship time" marked the beginning of the trade season in the North-West. The master-servant relationship on shore was a reflection of a long-standing relation aboard ship, and, historically, masters ashore (at least those stationed bayside) were often mariners--people like Richard Norton, his son Moses Norton, and Joseph Isbister--as were Company founders and committee members such as Prince Rupert, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Captain George Spurrell. Inland surveyors of renown were trained in mariner methods as well--from Henry Kelsey and Samuel Hearne to David Thompson. (1)
The nature of HBC seafaring can be gleaned from ships' logs that indicate where ships were and what work was being done, from journals that impart glimpses of the social life aboard ship, and by comparing data--about ships, routes and sailors--with what is known about seafaring that took place elsewhere. (2) Surveying transatlantic shipping to Hudson Bay, from the late 1600s to the early 1900s, reveals that each voyage was unique in terms of conditions, a ship's complement, and encounters. Nevertheless, Company records show enough regularity to support a general description, broadly representative of HBC ocean crossings of the northernmost extent of the North Atlantic. Such a description follows: defining the Northern North Atlantic as a distinct portion of the maritime world, then furnishing an unrealistically brief view of an ocean crossing, followed by a description of the ships that were workplaces and social spaces, and finishing with a mention of seafarers associated with Red River Settlement.
The point made is that the Western Canadian present is not an arbitrary circumstance, but a context arising out of a historical process with an ocean-crossing dimension. When contemplating the dynamics of this process, notably at Red River, but in other locations as well, there is merit in thinking beyond shorelines to take seafaring experience into account.
In 2009, Norma Hall obtained a PhD from Memorial University of Newfoundland. Since then she has worked with the governments of Canada and Manitoba, recovering the history of the Legislative Assembly of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia (1870), and researching the Metis experience with residential schools.
Geographical space and the HBC ocean arc
Ocean crossings to Hudson Bay shared aspects of merchant voyages on shipping lanes, just to the south, that connected European ports and those of the Eastern Seaboard of North America. Nevertheless, HBC seafaring was distinct. First, sailors and seafarers dealt with a different set of natural features. Second, their ships, as workplaces, were more crowded and in some respects more complicated to handle. Third, they underwent a singular social experience, due to the first two factors and because the people who made up a ship's community were overwhelmingly "Company" people--including individuals who were native to North America.
The space traversed by HBC ships was markedly northern. Canadian historians generally situate the North between 54[degrees] and 66[degrees]33'35" North latitude, above the fertile belt of the prairies, and below the "eternal ice and snow" of the Arctic. (3) Company voyages also dipped into Canada's Middle North in James Bay. And, at their eastern end, voyages crossed what maritime historians have designated the North Atlantic. Geographically speaking, the oceanic space of historical HBC sea voyages was not properly a region, because that term applies to land. …