Category Archives: Britain

U.S. Economic Boom, 1910s

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 38-39:

In 1910 out of a US population of 92 million, 2.5 million were German-born and 5.8 million of the native-born had one or both German-born parents. Although Wilson believed 90 per cent of America’s people were strongly pro-Allied, he had grounds to fear that rival allegiances would breed civil strife.

The traditional corollary to political abstention was unimpeded commerce. Exporting to belligerents was unobjectionable, the more so as America was in recession and the fighting expected to be brief. But demands for artillery, munitions, steel, machine tools, chemicals, and food and raw materials rose far higher than anticipated, fuelling one of the strongest upsurges in US history. In the winter of 1914–15 German-Americans backed a proposal in Congress to embargo arms exports, but Wilson prevented the move as ‘a foolish one, as it would restrict our plants’. Commerce secretary, William Cox Redfield, and the Treasury secretary, William Gibbs McAdoo, urged the boom must be sustained, Redfield advising that exports were at record levels, and McAdoo using the extra revenue to pay off debt. Between 1915 and 1917 exports to Britain, Canada, France, Italy, and Russia grew from $3,445 million to $9,796 million (184 per cent); those of wheat by 683 per cent; and of copper by 277 per cent; but whereas pre-war trade with the Central Powers had been one-fifth of that with the Allies, now it shrank to 1 per cent. The Allies could find the shipping to transport their purchases and the cash or credit to pay for them; the Central Powers could find neither, so whatever stance America took would benefit one side. Britain had the world’s biggest merchant navy in 1914 (43 per cent of world tonnage—and the Allies in total 59 per cent, against the Central Powers’ 15 per cent). As the Allies converted to military production, however, they had less to export, and were less able to pay. The Wall Street banking giant, J. P. Morgan & Co., became the British government’s purchasing and financial agent and permitted it a growing overdraft, and in the summer of 1915 it advised the Allies to attempt a bond flotation. Following convention, Wilson had prohibited loans to belligerent governments. But McAdoo warned that ‘to maintain our prosperity we must finance it. Otherwise it may stop, and that would be disastrous.’ Finally Wilson approved the bond issue, and even if the primary motive was to sustain the boom and the yield proved disappointing, American policy had clearly altered to the Allies’ advantage. In 1915, 75 per cent of US exports went to the Allies or to countries that had broken relations with Germany and between 1913 and 1916 America’s percentage of French imports rose from 10 to 30. By 1916 bottlenecks on the railroads into New York stretched back for miles.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Britain, Canada, democracy, economics, France, Germany, industry, Italy, military, nationalism, Russia, U.S., war

U.S. vs. Germany in Mexico, 1915

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 64-65:

Villa left the civilized comforts of Juárez and began the arduous march across the Sierra Madre. It took his men twenty-five days to get through the mountains with their horses, forty-two cannons, and pack mules. Men and horses perished when they lost their footing on the narrow passes and plunged headlong into the deep canyons. Especially treacherous was the Cañón del Púlpito, a name taken from a towering rock shaped like a church pulpit.

When the Villistas had exited the mountains and were toiling toward Agua Prieta, Villa learned that President Wilson had recognized Venustiano Carranza as the de facto leader of Mexico. To Villa, who had professed himself a friend of the Americans early on, Wilson’s decision was an unthinkable betrayal.

FOR WILSON, the decision had as much to do with the deteriorating geopolitical conditions as it did with Villa. In Berlin, the German high command had continued to watch with interest the tension between the United States and Mexico, hoping against hope that war might break out between the two countries. Such a conflict, they theorized, would slow the U.S. supplies going to Great Britain and discourage the United States from entering the European war. An even more delicious scenario involved manipulating Japan, which had allied itself with Great Britain, into joining Mexico in a war against the United States, thereby diverting resources from that potential enemy as well.

The Germans had hoped to use Victoriano Huerta as their catalyst and had offered to supply him with arms and money to return to Mexico, regain control of the country, and attack the United States. Huerta accepted the German offer and arrived in New York City on April 13, 1915, almost a year to the day after the Veracruz invasion. Two months later, he boarded a train for the border and was arrested a few miles west of El Paso. By then, Huerta was extremely ill from cirrhosis of the liver, and was eventually allowed to spend his remaining days with family members, who were now living in El Paso. He died on January 13, 1916, his bed facing his convulsed country and his parlor filled with old generals who wept openly and smoked corn-husk cigarettes. Thousands attended his funeral, where he lay in a coffin covered with flowers, wearing his full-dress uniform. Worried about further German attempts to destabilize Mexico, the United States decided to recognize the bellicose Carranza. The War Department’s chief of staff, Hugh Scott, had gotten wind of the administration’s plan and did everything he could to stop it. “The recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of the man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion and of making an outlaw of the man who had helped us.” But the American decision was a pragmatic one. Carranza had the upper hand, Villa’s fortunes were in decline, and stability in Mexico mattered most.

The United States had even gone beyond simply recognizing Carranza as Mexico’s legitimate leader. The government allowed Carranza’s troops to travel by train through the border states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to reinforce Agua Prieta. On the thirty-first of October, as the yellow plume of dust signaling the advance guard of Villa’s army appeared on the horizon, three infantry brigades consisting of five thousand Carrancistas arrived in the little town.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Germany, Japan, Mexico, nationalism, U.S., war

Echoes of the Russo-Japanese War

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 389-390:

Britain and the United States grew apprehensive as to Japanese aspirations. Their mutual suspicions were confirmed when, in 1915, Japan issued China with her notorious 21 Demands, a plan for the annexation of China. Japan was blocked for the time being, but there was reflection as to how long she could be kept down….

It had been in 1918 that a combined force which had included British, American and Japanese troops had gone to the assistance of the White Russians but, seeing the permanence of the revolution, Britain and America withdrew from the half-hearted intervention. Japan remained in Siberia until 1922 and did not return northern Sakhalin to Russia until 1925. (Russia acquired all of Sakhalin in 1945 as part of the agreement with the allies for her last-minute entry into the war against Japan.)

The interested powers had no intention of giving Japan a free hand in developing her power, and arranged at the Washington Conference in 1921 to impose conditions. Under this treaty the ratio of capital ship tonnages between Britain, the United States and Japan was set at 5:5:3. In 1923 the Anglo-Japanese alliance was abrogated and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 imposed further limitations upon the Imperial Japanese Navy. Anti-British feeling grew in Japan as pro-German sentiments increased. The technical exchange between Britain and Japan had ceased with the abrogation of the alliance. Since there was no prospect of support from the United States, with whom a fatal rivalry was now developing, Japan sought a new partner to supply essential technical expertise.

Britain’s building of the Singapore naval base caused a furore in Japan where it was seen as an Anglo-American provocative measure to attempt to limit Japan’s interests in the Pacific. In 1937, when the Sino-Japanese War began, relationships deteriorated further. Japan took full advantage of her time in China to develop and refine tactics and machinery. While the Stukas were being tested in Spain, a similar experience was being enjoyed by the Zeros in China. After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Japan moved closer to Germany, culminating in September 1940 with the signing of the tripartite pact. Japanese confidence had developed into Japanese over-confidence.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a repeat performance of the attack on Port Arthur. As if to acknowledge that point, the lead carrier Akagi flew the same battle flag as Admiral Togo had flown on the Mikasa during Japan’s pre-emptive strike on Port Arthur. What was surprising was that on 19 February 1942 a smaller Akagi carrier group would make a similar, successful, surprise attack on the airfield and ships at Darwin in what was to be described in Australia as ‘a day of national shame’.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Britain, China, Germany, Japan, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR, war

Tsarist Russian Officer Corps

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 383, 392:

The Japanese officer provided the essential link between the men and their Emperor. The majority of junior officers were of peasant origin and had been educated in the tradition of the samurai and the school of Bushido. With very few exceptions, the Russian officer did not enjoy such empathy with his men because the men were of lowly origin. That in itself is no reason why, as Britain’s armed forces proved in the twentieth century, they should not fight as an effective and harmonious whole. One reason why Russia’s officer corps lacked the common standards and professionalism enjoyed by the Japanese officer corps was noted by a military observer: ‘… the remarkable number of Guards officers, who were either promoted to commands, or else were appointed to the staff. A few were good men in the field but family influence was usually the deciding factor, and the officers of the line – and Russia – suffered accordingly.’ Another reason was the advanced years of many commanders, effectively blocking the progress of energetic, younger officers with new ideas.

In 1914, the Russian First and Second Armies were commanded by Rennenkampf and Samsonov, the former sparring partners at Mukden station in 1905. Colonel Max Hoffman had been one of the German observers during the Russo-Japanese War and used the possibility of a breakdown in communication and co-operation between the two Russian generals to offer Ludendorff and Hindenburg a plan to divide the two Russian armies. When German signals intercept units picked up the Russian future intentions being sent in clear and not coded, Hoffman was able to persuade his doubting commanders that this was not a deception plan but rather sheer, unsurprising incompetence.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, Germany, Japan, military, nationalism, Russia, war

Foreign Observers of Russo-Japanese War

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 70-71:

The intention of foreign nations to learn lessons from the wars of others was demonstrated by the role of the foreign military observer, a role which became institutionalised during the American Civil War 1861–5 and the Franco–Prussian War 1870–71. The alliances which followed-on from these wars and the perceived impact of technological revolution upon modern warfare were responsible for a quantum leap in interest in the monitoring of the events on both sides of the Russo-Japanese War, on land and at sea. There were as many as one hundred foreign military observers from sixteen countries in Manchuria and Korea.

Britain provided the largest proportion of observers for she recognised that, as the ranking power, she had the most to lose in not keeping abreast with the developments and potential of modern warfare. The Royal Navy’s last serious battle had been Trafalgar, 1805, and her army’s last conventional war had been the Crimean War, 1853–6. Colonial conflict, as in the Boer War, 1899–1902, provided Britain with no compelling evidence as to how the next continental war would be fought but what it did do was raise worrying questions concerning the performance of her army. The Imperial Japanese Army had scant regard for the British Army, whereas the Imperial Japanese Navy (and Russia) rated the Royal Navy highly. Even though Captain William Packenham became a personal friend of Admiral Togo, he never felt sufficiently confident to test this friendship by going ashore. Geographical factors provided Britain with further reason to be interested in how the Japanese managed the war. It was the naval strategist Corbett who remarked: ‘What the North Sea and the English Channel are to ourselves, the Sea of Japan and the Straits of Korea are for the island empire of the Far East.’

Russia had good reason to regard as spies the three military observers she accepted from Britain, among whom was Brigadier W. H-H. Waters. Russia was no more relaxed with the Admiralty’s appointee, Captain Eyres, later captured in Manchuria by the Japanese.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, Japan, Korea, military, nationalism, Russia

Reactions to Japan’s Surprise Attack, 1904

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 49, 51:

Ships had barely reached full complement when the Japanese were seen again. At 8 a.m. a reconnaissance party of four light cruisers, the Third Division commanded by Rear Admiral Dewa, steamed some seven miles off the port without coming into range. Dewa saw the Russian fleet gathered under the protection of the forts. They had moved their positions but by only a few miles to the east. Dewa picked out the two battleships and cruiser aground. He sensed the Russians were in a state of shock and from his cruiser the Takasago recommended that the First and Second Divisions be brought up to consolidate the night’s work. Togo was concerned about the firepower of the forts, but hearing that the enemy appeared unprepared and disorganised he decided to take the risk. Just before midday the Russians saw the Japanese fleet. The lookouts in the forts sounded the alarm as they witnessed the Japanese bearing down on their own Boyarin making full speed towards the harbour and firing her stern guns to no effect. Chaos reigned in Port Arthur. Lighters had moved alongside the Retvizan and Tsarevitch to keep them afloat. Warships moved quickly to jettison inflammable material while enterprising coolies in sampans sifted through the jetsam for the more attractive souvenirs. Captains leapt about demanding to know why their ships were not ready, while all the time they could see the dark smudge on the horizon being blown towards them by the southerly wind in the clear blue sky. As the smudge grew larger, so did the frenzy of activity on the Russian warships. At 12.15 the flagship Mikasa, leading the First Division, opened fire with her 12-inch guns. Only the large calibre guns were used as the three divisions steamed in succession from west to east.

The Tsar was stunned by the news of the attack. He could not believe that Japan could initiate a warlike act without a formal declaration of war. Both he and the Emperor of Japan declared war on 10 February 1904. The rest of the world was by no means anti-Japan. The Japanese were masters of the psychological approach and secrecy. The Times summed up Britain’s attitude to her ally by dismissing the pre-emptive attack as being quite normal for wars in modern times. The Americans were not so quick to embrace the Japanese sense of realism, yet they reluctantly fell in line behind a sympathetic President Roosevelt who had become the centre for Japanese fawning and attention. The next few days were set aside for reflection and assessment. Togo was disappointed by the apparent lack of success of his torpedo attack. His real success, however, needs to be viewed in terms wider than that of pure shipping. In this action at Port Arthur, he had settled an old score and laid claim to his fleet’s recognition as being on a par with the best in Europe. He had won command of the sea and at the same time almost completely demoralised his enemy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, Japan, military, nationalism, Russia, U.S., war

George Simpson’s Legacy at HBC

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 335-337:

Suspicious by nature, Simpson nosed his way into every aspect of the business looking for things others might have missed. The overarching theme of his governorship was control, and he believed that improving the Company’s efficiency involved not merely optimizing its operations but cutting expenses. Over the years, Simpson gradually phased out the use of transport canoes—apart from his own enormous and speedy executive canoe—and replaced them with the heavy but large York boats that the Company had been using on certain routes for decades. In keeping with Simpson’s philosophy of economy, it was just a matter of math. The inelegant and tubby boats had a greater manpower-to-cargo ratio. They were also cheap to make and maintain and required less skill to use. The real clincher for Simpson was that he could have the boats made larger while the number of men to crew them was kept the same. One of his devious schemes to cut wages was to pressure labourers and officers to renew their contracts during the winter, when, because of their isolation, they had no idea what the prevailing rates and wages were, and they usually agreed to less in the absence of a competitive market.

Taken as a whole, Simpson’s actions, including his preoccupation with the minutiae of people’s lives, confirm the conclusion that he wielded an unwholesome authority over those who lived in his domain. He enjoyed knowing that he held power over people, that they could be kept in check by having no agency over the bread-and-butter aspects of their lives. Displaying deference and loyalty to him was the surest way of securing a promotion—that and not being Indigenous or of mixed heritage. Simpson rarely promoted the sons of his officers and their Indigenous wives above the position of labourer or interpreter, preferring to bring in Scots from overseas for officer ranks. By the 1830s, many of his officers fumed at this discrimination against their children and sought alternative opportunities for them. “It appears the present concern has stamped the Cain mark upon all born in this country,” wrote trader Charles Mackenzie regarding his mixed-heritage son Hector. “Neither education nor abilities serve them. The Honourable Company are unwilling to take natives, even as apprenticed clerks, and the favoured few they do take can never aspire to a higher status, be their education and capacity what they may.” But native-born people—whether Indigenous or of mixed heritage—were the ones who best understood the Company’s operations and responsibilities, and they chafed at being relegated to positions of subservience beneath imported managers. It was an uphill battle, and by the 1860s the “half breeds” made up only a third of the officer ranks.

Simpson didn’t care if he was liked or hated—he worked for his own benefit and to keep the London Committee satiated with profit. Beneath the surface, his was an information empire as much as a fur empire. The more profitable and secure things seemed, the less anyone was inclined to interfere with his methods or his personal life. Seeing in Simpson an uncommonly astute operative who appeared content to dwell in the hinterland, the Company promoted him to be in charge of both the Northern and Southern Districts in 1824. Simpson became the head of a personality cult that ran a complex commercial, and increasingly political, empire. He was the boss of the only general store for half a continent.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Canada, economics, labor, migration, nationalism

Old Oregon No Man’s Land

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 280-281:

The European colonial settlement of eastern North America had progressed quickly in the last decade of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. Cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia had mushroomed after the revolution, and farmland expanded to feed the influx of people and increasingly encroached on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. The British, anxious to maintain against the United States a legal claim to the Columbia River, the artery of the fur trade west of the Great Divide, proposed extending the 49th parallel west to the Columbia and then following the Columbia as the border to the sea. To the American negotiators who had their eye on the large, deep harbours of Puget Sound (the only viable harbours for large ships north of San Francisco) this was not ideal. But in 1818, weary from years of inconclusive conflict during the War of 1812, neither the British nor the Americans were willing to grapple over who would lay claim to the land on the far side of the Continental Divide. So they agreed to jointly “occupy” the region, deferring more complicated, and politically charged, questions to the future. (The terms of the Convention of 1818 were reaffirmed indefinitely in 1827, with the provision that either country could cancel the agreement with one year’s notice.)

In February 1819, the United States and Spain signed the Adams–Onis Treaty. In addition to selling the territory of Florida for $5 million, Spain also agreed to the northern boundary of California being set at the 42nd parallel and ceded any rights to the territory north of that to the United States. Russia, in two separate treaties—with the United States in 1824 and with Britain in 1825—bowed out of Old Oregon (but retained the right to trade in the region), agreeing to a southern boundary for Alaska roughly similar to the Canadian-American border today.

Old Oregon, now defined as the territory west of the Rocky Mountains, north of Spanish California and south of Russian Alaska, became a political no man’s land, jointly claimed on paper by Britain and the United States, and open to settlement and commercial development from either nation, although neither had any tangible presence there and they had neglected to inform the local inhabitants of their decision. Of course, the only commercial development was the fur trade, and the traders were more likely to follow the customs of their Indigenous hosts and customers than those of Londoners, Montrealers or New Yorkers. The vast territory remained unchanged for decades, until the 1830s, when the first wagon trains began rolling west along the Oregon Trail.

The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company faced other challenges east of the Rockies that proved to be more of a threat—their own internecine quarrels.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Canada, economics, migration, nationalism, Russia, Spain, U.S.

Nor’Westers vs. Hudson’s Bay Company

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 205-207:

EACH OF THE TWO COMPANIES HAD competitive advantages and disadvantages. Working against the North West Company was the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company could get its goods by ship right into the heart of the continent, while the Nor’Westers had to transport their goods from Montreal, far to the south and east. But the Company suffered from a lack of manpower. The near-continuous wars that occupied Britain (the American War of Independence between 1775 and 1783 and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1792 and 1815) deprived the Company of easy access to young male workers when they were desperately needed to staff the new inland posts. The Napoleonic Wars in particular made it difficult for the Company to recruit young men into the overseas fur trade, and it increasingly hired the mixed-blood descendants of earlier employees to take on roles within the Company hierarchy. The Company still adhered to its policy of rarely employing Indigenous people for full-time careers because it wanted them out in the bush capturing beaver, fulfilling the supply side of the business equation, for which they were uniquely suited. Over time the connotation of “mixed-blood” or “Indian” denoted economic roles and placement in the hierarchy rather than purely genetic or racial background. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Company still had barely five hundred employees in North America, although it relied heavily upon the contract services of countless Indigenous hunters, guides and labourers.

The Nor’Westers, on the other hand, drew on Quebec’s seventy-thousand-strong local population, whether French or Mohawk-Iroquois. They fielded approximately twelve hundred people along their vast supply line. It was a more expensive and labour-intensive business model, but, as would be seen, the larger numbers would be useful in a fight. The Iroquois were particularly suitable for aggressive conflict, and even the Company began hiring them decades later when the two companies were at war. “I have frequently heard the Canadian and Iroquois voyagers disputed as regards their merits,” wrote Company agent Colin Robertson in 1819, “perhaps the former may be more hardy or undergo more fatigue, but in either rapid or traverse, give me the latter, for their calmness and presence of mind which never forsakes them in the greatest danger.” If you were in a scrape, you’d want a Mohawk-Iroquois companion, and these men were in great demand in the early nineteenth century.

The life of a voyageur could be harsh and often short, full of danger and extreme living, but many would never trade it for any other, signing on for the next season’s work each year for decades and only retiring when they were no longer capable of the rigours of the life. One old man, astonishingly over seventy, reminisced on his life travelling the land as a fur trader. “I have been 24 years a canoeman and 41 years in service; no portage was ever too long for me. Fifty songs I could sing. I have saved the lives of 10 voyageurs. Have had 12 wives and six running dogs. I spent all my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I should spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur life.”

The two companies’ different corporate structures also manifested in their interactions with local peoples. While the Company men were ordered to adhere to basic discipline and to respect various Indigenous customs and ceremony, the more chaotic arrangements of the Nor’Westers allowed for more individual discretion, which meant in some cases developing a greater facility with Indigenous languages and a deeper understanding of local customs. But the “pedlars,” as the Company men derisively called them in the early days before they became a dangerous and organized threat, also earned a reputation for bad living and poor relations with Indigenous peoples, the result of the behaviour of a minority tarnishing the reputation of many. As a consequence, they seldom stayed in the same place from year to year for fear of repercussions and kept building new outposts. It wasn’t a stable business plan.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Canada, economics, France, labor, migration, North America

Hudson’s Bay Company Policies vs. Realities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 118-121:

Spirits were in great demand as payment for hunting, in ceremonial exchanges and in payment for furs. Throughout the eighteenth century the Company made frequent attempts to restrict or regulate the dispensation of liquor, but these efforts were never uniform. The main obstacle to instituting a more consistent prohibition was that it was impossible to regulate alcohol completely within the factories for their own employees, and they feared that if denied alcohol completely the Indigenous traders would take their business to the French, in spite of the greater travelling distance and inferior trade goods. Potent alcohol was a recurring problem for all who congregated at the Company’s posts; this was a society struggling to develop the social infrastructure and accepted behaviours needed to regulate and control the actions of people under the influence of the new intoxicants. Isham later observed that a custom had evolved whereby men who planned on drinking would send away the women and children along with all the guns and knives. Most of the problems between the employees and officers at the factories also had to do with the abuse of or smuggling of liquor.

The most striking thing is that none of the decision makers on the London Committee ever visited the bay, apart from James Knight, and the yawning gap between reality and theory was also part of life at the outpost. Whether it be admonitions to grow more vegetables, to get more work done during each season, to trade for more furs by exhorting the Cree to work harder, or to get their employees to urge Indigenous peoples from farther inland to breach the Cree hegemony and trade directly at the fort, many directives had to be politely ignored. Life at the factories along the bay revolved around its own unique set of customs and activities, borrowing from Indigenous practices whenever convenient, accommodating Indigenous customs whenever possible and generally creating its own society that was derived from cultural and geographical necessity rather than rigid London imperatives.

One directive from the London Committee to John Nixon must have made his eyes roll when he read it at Fort Albany in 1680. A helpful suggestion on how to save money on food rations, it revealed just how little was appreciated in London of life along the bay: “Upon Hayes Island where our grand Factory is, you may propagate Swine without much difficulty, wch. is an excellent flesh, and the Creature is hardy and will live where some other Creatures cannot.” These types of directives were written by well-meaning dandies, upper-class financiers and aristocrats who had never been to Hudson Bay and experienced its primitive outposts, harsh climate and poor soil, but also had never worked outside the rarefied palatial offices and manors of upper-class English society—people, in short, who ought not be telling servants how to procure their food on a remote distant continent, where they were visitors in a bewildering and deadly land, perched precariously along the rim of a geographical and cultural terra incognita.

On the one hand, there was the London Committee, with its directors planning grand strategy and issuing orders that occasionally indulged in the penchant for micromanagement, and then there were the people who worked for the Company in the outposts with the geographical and climatic constraints of the Subarctic and who worked with, or were friends with or even married to, the Indigenous people of that land. The Company had official policies, but the people bayside interpreted those policies and adjusted them to reality.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE HOSTS OF THAT foreign land were at the heart of life and business at the posts. Not only were the local, or Home Guard, Cree often hired for jobs as labourers, hunters, guides, seamstresses, cooks and interpreters, but sexual and romantic relations between Indigenous women and Company men were common. In the earliest days of its operations in the late seventeenth century, the Company’s directors issued proclamations to its officers to prevent or obstruct these relationships. “We are very sensible that the Indian Weoman resorting to our Factories are very prejudiciall to the Companies affaires,” the committee wrote to John Nixon in 1682, “not only by being a meanes of our Servants often debauching themselves, but likewise by embeazling our goods and very much exhausting our Provisions, It is therefore our positive order that you lay your strict Commands on every Cheife of each Factory upon forfiture of Wages not to Suffer any wooman to come within any of our factories.” For obvious reasons, this directive from aristocratic directors, comfortable in their estates in London and surrounded by their families, was not only foolish but unenforceable, human nature and social needs being what they are.

There was always a difference between what London directors wrote in their letters as official policy and what chief factors enforced for themselves and their men. Money was usually at the crux of it. Workers who spent many years of their lives in what amounted to remote work camps wanted to improve their lot as much as possible, while the managers didn’t want responsibility for families. But, as Graham noted, “the Company permit no European women to be brought within their territories; and forbid any natives to be harboured in the settlements. This latter has never been obeyed.”

But the Company soon appreciated the benefit of having close ties with their Indigenous trading partners and quietly began supporting intimate liaisons. The shift in opinion was based on the realization that these relationships were not a financial drain but rather an asset. Unofficial diplomatic marriages between Indigenous women and Company employees became common, with Indigenous women seeking kinship ties for more favourable trading privileges, while single Company men sought female companionship and an introduction to the life and customs of the land. In a practical sense these were alliances for mutual aid, companionship and support, both social and economic, much like marriages today.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Canada, democracy, drugs, economics, education, food, France, labor, migration, North America