Parallel Lives

  • Germaine Warkentin (Editor)
    Pierre-Esprit Radisson: The Collected Writings, Volume 2: The Port Nelson Relations, Miscellaneous Writings, and Related Documents. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at
  • David Thompson and William E. Moreau (Editor)
    The Writings of David Thompson, Volume 2: The Travels, 1848 Version, and Associated Texts. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Andre Furlani

David Thompson advertised his prospective Travels in the Montreal Gazette on 9 October 1846 as the narrative of

Twenty-eight consecutive Years, in the Northern parts of this Continent; of which twenty-two years were employed in the Exploration and Survey of Countries not then known, or the Survey and Examination of Countries known to the Fur Traders, and six years at several Trading Posts. The last six years of his Travels were in different parts of the Rocky Mountains, the discovery of the noble source of the Columbia River, and its course to the Pacific Ocean, and also its great branches. Settlements of the North West Company were made by him four years before any person from the United States settled on the Columbia River.

A paucity of subscribers and the declining health of the octogenarian author thwarted the completion of the book, and as editor William Moreau’s companion volume, the 1850 version of the Travels (published in 2009), confirms, the manuscripts were not harmonized at the time when Thompson’s eyesight failed. This has dogged the fortune of what otherwise would be a foundational text in the Canadian canon. While preceded by several other editions, Thompson’s manuscripts have had to wait until Moreau’s exhaustive and impeccable edition to appear in trappings worthy of their fascination and importance. The editor as well as the publishers of this superb tandem of volumes (with a third in preparation) have painstakingly produced a woefully overdue publishing milestone. Although written 166 years ago, Thompson’s Travels is the Canadian book of the year.

Thompson learned navigation, cartography, and mathematics at a Westminster charity school that prepared pupils for service in the Royal Navy just when Captain James Cook was making his three voyages. In the expansive decades following its victory in the Seven Years War, the British Empire closely integrated trade, science, and exploration, and in 1784 it bound the fourteen-year-old Thompson, whose career contributed singularly to this imperial amalgam, to the Hudson’s Bay Company as an indentured servant. He went from reading Robinson Crusoe at Grey Coat School to eventually wintering beyond the Athabasca Pass with the few tenacious men who had not abandoned the perilous expedition to trace the Columbia to its Pacific estuary. The apprentice was not yet fifteen when he arrived at Churchill Factory on Hudson’s Bay, and he never saw Europe again. Moreau notes that what Thompson did see, as probably no one before him ever had, was “the geography of western North America whole.”

Thompson was a “practical astronomer” or surveyor, an arms dealer, a frontier explorer, an ethnographer, a naturalist, and, above all, a witness to the continent’s transition from common property to open access resource and then to private and state property. He carried a sextant, a telescope, a thermometer, measuring tape, scales, and a barometer to survey; he carried rifles, wool clothing, and axes to trade. As an assiduous clerk he toted stationery to record every facet of the cultures, geography, and history of the Northwest, entries that became the basis (though not without embellishment) for the Travels.

The Travels contains finely observed details of diverse phenomena: the construction of a beaver dam, a birchbark canoe, a rattlesnake-venom arrowhead; the elevation of the Rockies, the rate of the Columbia’s descent; the prodigious tracking prowess of a Cree moose-hunting party, the succulence of bison prepared by Piegan cooks; the spawning cycles of the salmon, the grandeur of giant first-growth conifers, the sagacious wariness of the moose; the carpe diem gusto of coureurs de bois, the magnanimity of the Métis, the solemn finesse of Salish dancers; the charisma of a transgender conjurer who has taken a wife and brokered Blackfoot truces; the sagacity of Indigenous lore and the pitilessness of Plains warfare in its age of iron; the utter devastation of smallpox on Indigenous peoples and of steel traps on beavers.

Through all the hardships endured over the fifteen months it took to reach the Pacific, Thompson sustained a Presbyterian faith that could not move mountains but was able to scale them. Though the Rockies impeded his passage, thinned the ranks of his party, raised the dangers of armed Piegan reprisals, and very nearly exhausted his provisions, Thompson remained, like Crusoe, committed to a providential worldview: a benign God had placed such chains to feed the rivers and lakes and thus to ensure the welfare of His creatures. Thompson’s theodicy now has little more purchase than does his calculation of the Rockies’ elevation, but both were achievements of a pre-Victorian brio, confidence, and pertinacity that gloried in the splendour of an alien world it would paradoxically drive to the brink of extinction.

Germaine Warkentin’s edition of Radisson’s Port Nelson Relations and related documents complements Moreau’s book: it is the second volume in a series, unavoidably overshadowed by its predecessor, yet fastidiously edited, handsomely presented, and equally engrossing. Indeed, Thompson’s career was predicated on Radisson’s commercial incursions into Hudson’s Bay. The first volume was a superb bilingual edition of Radisson’s Voyages, which culminated in his 1666 arrival at Westminster—a few blocks from where, more than a century later, Thompson would be raised—to invite Charles II to enter the Canadian fur trade.

The second volume documents Radisson’s subsequent reversals, when disillusionment with the fledgling Hudson’s Bay Company led him and his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers, to rapprochement with the court of Louis XIV. Despite his successes on behalf of the Sun King’s Compagnie du Nord, the enterprise did not prosper and, having previously outwitted his former English patrons as well as rivals from New England, he turned coat in order to return to Port Nelson under British colours, where he announced to the bewildered French traders he had established there that he was now claiming the post for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

These feats of brinkmanship ensure the human interest of Radisson’s Relations, which is a pugnacious petition to King James II to obtain remedy for his losses. The suit was unavailing, and on his death in Westminster in 1710, the “decayed gentleman” Radisson was still soliciting compensation from the usurped James’ royal successor for the furs he had amassed with Des Groseilliers more than a quarter century earlier. The Relations is contemporary with John Dryden’s translation of the Parallel Lives, and its hubristic pattern of loyalty, defection, rehabilitation, and demise is a Rupert’s Land supplement to Plutarch’s lives of Alcibiades and Coriolanus, the latter of which Shakespeare adapted into a tragedy that was staged within sight of Westminster half a century before Radisson presented his credentials there.

In the Voyages, the manuscript of which had once belonged to Samuel Pepys of the Admiralty, Radisson was foremost an explorer and prospector. Although still very much the hardy and intrepid adventurer to an inland sea, in the Relations and ancillary documents scrupulously collected and translated here, he is also a minor court functionary seeking subsidy, emolument, and redress, sedulous to mend his fortunes and anxious to enhance his precarious social position. His adversaries are not remote Indigenes or competing traders but petty court factions, mercantile cartels, and dynasts, and these groups prove the more predatory.

Though to his acumen, stamina, and luck were vouchsafed a world-historical encounter between peoples, Radisson in these latter papers is reduced to a carrier who, having delivered his freight, presents his bill of lading and impatiently awaits recompense. Three and a half centuries later, the First Nations with which he bartered still await theirs, and these superb editions of Radisson and Thompson give context and impetus to the belated work of restitution pursued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

This review “Parallel Lives” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 175-177.

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