The Hudon's Bay Company & Corporate Colonialism
The Hudson's Bay Company:
Corporate Colonialism & the 2010 Winter Olympics
The history of British colonialism in 'BC', and its continuation to this day, has been closely associated with corporate power & control. A primary example of this is the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which played a pivotal role in the making of BC as a British colony, and which is today a main corporate sponsor of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Corporations and Colonization
Beginning in the 1600s, state-licensed companies began to take control of colonial trade & markets. These were the first modern corporations and included the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Dutch West India Company, the English Royal African Company, and the French Senegal Company.
These companies had both official military protection as well as their own security forces. In the colonial frontiers of Asia, Africa and the Americas, they were frequently the primary representatives of European colonial power. They exercised all the sovereignty and armed force which was necessary to gain access to resources. Their trading forts often became military bases when colonial policies expanded to include settlement.
On the Northwest Coast of BC, the Hudson’s Bay Company was responsible for not only trade, but also immigration, settlement, and governance. Along with British naval forces, the company’s own ships (inc. the Beaver) acted as gun-boats along the coast, enforcing colonial law and economic trade conditions.
The Mercenary History of 'the Company'
The HBC was first established in 1670 by Prince Rupert and other British lords. It is the oldest corporation in Canada (over 330 years old) and one of the oldest in the world. Its original title was The Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay. It was given a royal charter (a license) by King Charles II, Prince Rupert’s cousin. This charter gave the HBC exclusive rights over trade & settlement in what would become Canada.
Hudsons Bay was named after the commercial explorer, Henry Hudson, whose voyages were funded by early corporations such as the British East India Co., the Virginia Co., etc. In 1610 he was exploring Hudson and James’ Bay when his ship became trapped in ice. The crew moved ashore for the winter. When the spring thaw came in 1611, Hudson wanted to continue surveying the area, but his crew mutinied. They set Hudson, his son, and several other crew members, adrift in a small boat. They were never seen again!
During the 17th century, the French dominated the fur trade in North America. However, two French traders defected and told the British of trading grounds on the north and west of Lake Superior. These could be reached from the north through Hudson Bay, instead of over land from New France (a French colony). The British sent a recon mission there in 1669, and the Hudson’s Bay Company was incorporated on May 2, 1670.
In 1783, the Northwest Company was formed in Montreal and would engage in bitter competition with the HBC. This competition fueled early expeditions and recons into uncharted areas. These two corporations were the first to establish outposts and forts throughout Native territories. Around these forts grew small settlements, which eventually became towns and cities (i.e., Fort Victoria). The forts also attracted Native people eager to trade. Some became hang-around-the-fort –Indians, attracted to the European way of life (i.e., liquor, prostitution, greed & gluttony).
Beginning in the early 1800s, both the HBC & North West Company began to establish posts in the interior of BC, including Fort St. John (1805), Fort St. James (1806) and Kamloops (1812).
At this time, competition between the two companies had resulted in armed attacks on one another’s forts, boats, and employees. In 1816, an HBC governor and 20 employees were killed in a battle with Nor’westers in southern Manitoba (this conflict is seen as the birth of the Metis nation).
Despite this, and the ability of the North West company to conduct extensive exploration (i.e., Simon Fraser, Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, and Duncan McGilvery were all employees of the North West company), it was unable to compete against the vast resources and imperial support given to the HBC.
In 1821, The North West Company was merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company, consolidating the HBC's monopoly & control of the fur trade in 'British N. America'. By this time, the HBC was the main colonial power in the Northwest Coast. As a display of its power, in 1828, a Klallam village in what is now Washington state was destroyed by a Company gunboat and militia.
The Company as a Colonial Government
In 1843, Fort Victoria was built by the HBC on southern Vancouver Island, becaoming a main centre of trade for the entire coast. In 1849, Vancouver Island was named an official colony, with the HBC placed in charge of immigration & settlement through a Royal license that was for a 10 year term. The corporation was itself the colonial government. Its main functions, other than trade, were to sell land & develop the industrial capacity of the colony for resource exploitation (as we see today). This included building towns, trails, ports, and other infrastructure (as we see today).
The same year Vancouver Island was named a colony, the HBC established coal mines at Fort Rupert & Nanaimo.
Of course, the corporation was not alone in this work. When Vancouver Island was proclaimed a colony in 1849, British Royal Navy gunboats were also based in Victoria. They patrolled along the coast to impose & enforce colonial rule. From 1850-1888, these gunboats destroyed scores of villages by naval bombardments and sending ashore Marines who burned houses, canoes and foodstocks.
The first real governor of the new colony was James Douglas, who was also the HBC's 'chief factor'. From 1850-1854, his government negotiated the 'Douglas Treaties', the only treaties made in the colonization of the province. These were based on Vancouver Island and covered a total land area of just 358 square kilometres.
In 1858, the Fraser Valley Gold Rush saw tens of thousands of prospectors pour into the lower mainland & Fraser Valley, many from the US. The British moved to keep control over the region, and that same year the lower mainland was proclaimed a colony and Douglas resigned from the HBC to become its governor. The next year, the HBC's trading license on Vancouver Island expired, and Douglas became governor of both colonies.
It was under Douglas' administration that the 1862 Small Pox Epidemic hit, starting in Victoria. It quickly spread throughout the coast, killing an estimated 1 in 3 Indigenous people. Government officials helped spread the epidemic by forcing Natives out of Victoria at gunpoint, knowing full well the impact this would have as these people then returned to their villages, carrying the deadly disease as they went.
In 1866 the two colonies were united to form British Columbia (meaning 'British colony'). In 1871, BC joined the new confederation of Canada (established in 1867). The HBC continued on as an important trading company for many decades after.
The HBC and 2010
Today, the HBC owns the Bay, a major clothing & appliance department store across Canada, and three other similar outlets: Zellers, Home Outfitters, and Fields. It is one of the main national corporate sponsors of the 2010 Winter Olympics ($100 million). It is also supplying athletes uniforms and clothing, and has its own 2010 clothing brand.
The HBC, because of its history, is an ideal sponsor for the 2010 Olympics as it reveals the links between the past & the present in an ongoing process of corporate colonization. This includes other 2010 sponsors involved in resource exploitation & transport such as Petro-Canada, TransCana, TechCominco, CP Rail, etc.
Quotes about the Hudson's Bay Company:
“We know only two powers—God and the Company.”
(John Rowland, chief factor of HBC at Fort Edmonton, quoted in Caesars of the Wilderness, preface)
The HBC was renowned for “a commercial ruthlessness” (Caesars of the Wilderness, p. xvi)
After the merger of the Northwest Company and the HBC,
“The Company’s new monopoly stretched from Labrador through to the Pacific coast…”
(Caesars of the Wilderness, p. xx)
“During most of the half-century it ruled over this enormous domain, the Company’s authority was supreme: it exercised nearly every mandate of a sovereign government.”
(Caesars of the Wilderness, p. xx)
HBC’s domain was “ten times the size of the Holy Roman Empire at its height” (Company of Adventurers, p. 3)
Described by John Buchan, who served as Governor-General of Canada in the late 1930s, “The [HBC] is not an ordinary commercial company, but a kind of kingdom by itself…” (Company of Adventurers, p. 3)
“Much of modern Canada emerged from the HBC; it was the presence of the HBC traders that kept the Canadian West out of the grasp of American colonizers pushing northward. It was the 1870 sale of Company territory to the new nation of Canada that let the former colonies fill in their western & northern boundaries, and 3 of the early HBC trading posts—Fort Garry (Winnipeg), Fort Edmonton & Fort Victoria—grew into provincial capitals. Its officers charted the arctic coast and mapped the BC interior…”
(Company of Adventurers, p. 3)
“The HBC determined the country’s political and physical shape…” (Company of Adventurers, p. 3)
The HBC is “the oldest continuous capitalist corporation still in existence” (Company of Adventurers, p. 3)
Conflicts with Indigenous people were common part of HBC history. Although the Company relied on Native collaboration and participation in the fur trade, it was often attacked for the conduct of its employees and its territorial expansion. The HBC also introduced alcohol and diseases to Native tribes, as well as disrupting traditional economy through its massive trade of guns, knives, blankets, and other manufactured goods. Clearly a disruptive factor…
Beginning in the 1780s, for example, in Saskatchewan, raids & attacks by Natives began to become frequent occurrences.
During the 1885 ‘Riel Rebellion’ by Metis and Cree warriors, the HBC was the “principal provisioning agent for the troops dispatched to quell the uprising…” (Company of Adventurers, p. 620)
The HBC also supplied its ship, the Northcote, to carry troops and supplies across river-ways during the rebellion. The ship was mounted with cannons and a Gatling gun, the first time this machine gun had been deployed in Canada.
A military officer deployed as part of the counter-insurgency effort, Capt. WF Butler, commented on his observations of the HBC:
“A corporation has no conscience. From a tyrant or a despot you may hope to win justice; from a robber you may perhaps receive kindness; but a corporation… represents to my mind more mercenary mendacity and more cowardly contempt of truth and fair play than can be found in the human race.”
(Company of Adventurers, p. 613, mendacity is the habit of telling lies, deception, etc.)
Company of Adventurers, Peter C. Newman, Penguin Books, Toronto, Ontario 1985
Caesars of the Wilderness, Peter C. Newman, Viking/Penguin Books, Toronto, Ontario 1987
Empire of the Bay, Peter C. Newman, Madison Press Ltd., Toronto, Ontario 1989