Academic journal article Manitoba History

"Covenant Servants": Contract, Negotiation, and Accommodation in Hudson Bay, 1670-1782

Academic journal article Manitoba History

"Covenant Servants": Contract, Negotiation, and Accommodation in Hudson Bay, 1670-1782

Article excerpt

Throughout its long first century (1670-1782), the Hudson s Bay Company (HBC) drew its labour force almost entirely from the competitive labour "market" of early modern Britain, with the movement of men to and from the Bay reflective of the domestic labour mobility of the period. The relationship between the London Committee and their employees was that of master and servants, heavily influenced by the circumstances of trading in Hudson Bay. Men at all levels of the Company hierarchy could try to shape the reality of their HBC experiences, but did so in terms of commonly accepted ideals. The Committee and their servants all understood the nature of ideal master-servant relationships, but they also had experience of the realities of life in various kinds of social and economic households. The Company's servants internalized and practised the expected values of deference and submission, but did so without abandoning or deferring their own self-interest; indeed, they could use their mastery of the language to advance their own interests.


Eighteenth-century HBC servants seem to resemble later industrial wage-earners, in that they sold their labour for cash and were provided with most of the tools and raw materials with which they worked. (1) However, the terms of their service also invite comparisons to "pre-industrial" domestic servants or servants in husbandry (agriculture), though the length of service was much longer in Hudson Bay. Bayside servants' relationship with their employer was based not entirely on contract, but contractual obligations were the most visible aspects of that relationship. (2) Underlying them was the much older institution of the patriarchal household-family, which served as the fundamental social unit on the shores of Hudson Bay (as in Britain). (3) Although membership changed, that institution maintained continuity over time.

Signing On

Early modern employment contracts were economic, social and even moral covenants. The term "covenant" was used in the HBC through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Committee's minutes of 27 February 1684 referred to "9 of the Covenant Servants" at Port Nelson (later known as York Fort). In mariner Daniel Lane's testimony in a 1684 legal case, he described himself as "a Covenant Servant of the Hudsons Bay Company." A 1688 letter to Port Nelson mentioned a new form of contract, and a marginal note summarized this paragraph of the letter as "new Covenants for Servants Sent." The earliest known surviving contracts (1776) began, "I ... do hereby Covenant and Agree to and with the Governor and Company." (4)

In general, service contracts in early modern Britain set out what the employee and employer could expect from one another in terms of remuneration and behaviour. This usually included (explicitly or implicitly) binding the servant to serve the master for a specified period of time and to obey his reasonable commands, while binding the master to maintain the servant for the duration of the contract and to pay the agreed wages (whether or not there was daily work, and whether or not the servant remained fit for work). These contractual terms were reinforced in the HBC by an Oath of Fidelity taken by all employees. On Christmas Eve 1718, for instance, each servant at York swore:

I do hereby Engage myself by Oath to Use my uttmost Power With fidelity and Courage to defend the Intrest of the Hudsons Bay Comp[an]y against all Enimies either forrain or as Our Nation And will Obey all Such lawful commands as the Govr or Chief factor Shall Impose upon me and in my Station Shall Endeavour the Defending keeping & Secureing all the Rights & Priveledges of the foresaid Comp[an]y against all oppossers whatever & this I Will do without any discontent or Cowardize to the Utmost Perrill of my Life.

Further I do hereby Oblige myself not to have any Dealing Trade Traffick or Commerce with Any Natives lying being or Inhabiting in any part within the fores[ai]d Comp[an]ys Charter unless I shall be orderd so to by the Govr or Chief factor in being & if I should know any Person or Persons that shall drive any Private Trade their Names I will Detect the Commodities so traded I will discover to the Govr or Chief Factor & in Case I shall be found guilty of any Clandastine or private trade or abeting or Coniveing with any other Person or Persons in Perloining or Confiscate any of the afores[ai]d Comp[an]ys Goods to my own or any other Person or Persons Use then & in Case I will Remitt not only Such Wages as Shall be due to me from the sd Compy but will be answerable for all Damages that Shall arise thro my Neglect or Breach of any of the Above Mentioned Articles. …

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