Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

North America's Indian Trade in European Commerce and Imagination, 1580-1850

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

North America's Indian Trade in European Commerce and Imagination, 1580-1850

Article excerpt

George Colpitts, North America's Indian Trade in European Commerce and Imagination, 1580-1850 (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2013), 314 pp. Cased. $148. ISBN 978-9-0042-4323-1.

No one reads Harold Adams Innis's masterwork on the subject anymore, but the fur trade remains prominent in Canada's national imaginar y and a vibrant scholarly field cutting across historical themes and approaches. Colpitts jettisons Innis's nation-building, casting his net across the French and English (later British) Atlantic empires in North America from contact to the decline, by 1850, of the Indian trade as a major commercial activity in the eastern half of the continent. Yet Colpitts returns to Innis's emphasis on the fur trade as trade to ask how Europeans extended not only their goods and commerce into First Nations societies, but also stretched and adapted their ideas about commerce. They imagined and reimaged the 'Indian trade' as similar to or distinct from their own against the backdrop of changes in the trade itself, shifting commercial and imperial interests, and debates in Europe about the moralit y and efficacy of consumption and markets. The astonishing array of authors of travel and missionary accounts, petitions, merchant and colonial correspondence, and periodical and other literatures speaks to Colpitts's impressive labours, but also to the sustained European effort to understand the trade and thus why this intellectual history of the fur trade is long overdue.

The book offers readers greater return on investment if - like the petty traders whose distance from metropolitan oversight so alarmed officials of church and state - readers strike out on their own in search of thought-provoking ambiguities and recurring patterns over time and across diverse locales rather than attempt to follow the sometimes-obscure narrative paths marked for them. And what an emporium awaits: trade not as relatively straightfor ward acts of material barter but ongoing and reciprocal relations idealised, abused, or misunderstood in and between Aboriginal gift economies; Europeans' own conception of gifts; an economy of debt and credit or diplomacy; whether commerce promoted understanding and softened manners or corrupted; the market as both a physical place to be policed to ensure a ' just price' and a more abstract process perhaps able to arbitrate between competing value systems, preferences, and interests; unstable evaluations of luxur y and monopoly as opposed to competition; and especially whether 'Indians' were utility-maximisers motivated by self-interest or traded within more culture-specific worlds that suggested to some the need for greater regulation even once more liberal approaches to trade dominated European opinion. …

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