Six Kings and a Pawn

Reviewed by Ted Binnema

Six “merchant kings” and one obscure employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) feature in these two starkly different books. In separate chapters, Stephen Bown examines the careers of Jan Pieterszoon Coen (of the Dutch East India Company), Pieter Stuyvesant (Dutch West India Company), Robert Clive (English East India Company), Alexandr Baranov (Russian American Company), George Simpson (HBC), and Cecil Rhodes (British South Africa Company). These men’s leadership of large monopolistic companies put them in positions of economic power and civil authority in vast territories. The main theme permeating the book is that power and authority were lenses magnifying the unsavory aspects of each man’s personality—especially inclinations towards violence, autocracy, and arrogance. Bown’s are portraits of cold and ruthless men.

Merchant Kings ably does what Bown intended it to do: provide a general audience with a good read. It is neither analytically innovative nor interpretively sophisticated. The book has no citations, and only a short bibliography featuring secondary sources—some quite old. The need for entertaining stories evidently convinced Bown to repeat some unlikely arguments and interpretations. It doesn’t matter. Only credulous readers will read the book as fact. Bown’s work laudably contributes to the aim of sustaining public interest in history—something we academic historians haven’t done much lately.
George Simpson’s career with the HBC coincided almost exactly with that of James Hargrave. But Simpson—the subject of one of Bown’s chapters—was very different than Hargrave, the subject of Helen Ross’s Letters from Rupert’s Land. Ross’ book consists of a forty-page introduction and about 350 pages of primary documents, mostly letters written by Hargrave to his Lowland Scottish emigrant parents and siblings in Lower Canada, and his extended family, close friends (and eventually his fiancée) in Canada and Scotland, but it also includes his 1820 engagement contract with the North West Company, and journals he kept during 1828 and 1829 to send to his family.

Ross is not an academic historian, but her informative and carefully researched (but somewhat stilted) introduction and the useful annotations to the letters are aimed at a scholarly audience.  Some readers familiar with the unpublished Hargrave papers might be disappointed in the letters Ross  selected for publication. They might prefer selections from the same papers published by G. P. de T. Glazebrook (1938) emphasizing the fur trade and the life of traders, and by Margaret Arnett MacLeod (1947), to highlight a woman’s perspective. The fact that Ross was drawn to Hargrave’s letters because she herself is descended from him might tempt some to dismiss the collection as rooted in filiopietism. But give the collection a chance. You might become captivated by the poignant story the letters reveal.

James Hargrave’s letters offer valuable evidence relating to the history of families, the history of migrants, and the history of religious thought. Specifically, they reveal Hargrave’s drive to better his station in life (and his desire to see his immigrant family flourish in Canada), his deep love for his family, his abiding affection for Scotland, and his devout Presbyterianism. Hargrave comes across as a warm and sensitive man—the opposite of any of Bown’s merchant kings. The letters also offer some insight into the intellectual life at HBC posts. Hargrave, like many of the HBC’s educated men, read voraciously.

Readers of Letters from Rupert’s Land will see dimensions of fur-trade life quite different from what they might expect. Hargrave was employed by the HBC at York Factory—the company’s North American headquarters along the bleak coast of Hudson Bay. But his life resembled the life of a twenty-first-century urban office worker more than the stereotypical fur trader. Desk-bound for twelve or more hours a day, Hargrave grew overweight and stressed. Torn between his love for his aging parents and his desire to earn enough money to retire early, he put off furloughs in the hopes of securing promotions. He learned no Cree, and showed little interest in the Native people who visited the post. He evidently developed no attachment to Rupert’s Land. Someone writing a novel about life in the fur trade would find some grist here.

Although they are very different books, Bown’s and Ross’ will both find niches. Bown’s entertaining and generally informative book will appeal particularly to an educated and curious public. Ross presents a collection of letters to which scholars and writers will be able to resort for insights into the life of a Scottish immigrant to Canada, turned fur trader.

This review “Six Kings and a Pawn” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 138-139.

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