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Company, Crown and Colony: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Territorial Endeavour in Western Canada

By Stephen Royle

Review By Barry Gough

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 180 Winter 2013-2014  | p. 172-174

In essence, this is a study of governorship, or governorships — Richard Blanshard to Frederick Seymour, with Sir James Douglas as the centrepiece of description. The addition of many charts and tables lend it an expectant aura of historical geography. The sources used are the Colonial Office papers, the printed Parliamentary Papers of the age, the files of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and various refugia such as Roderick Finlayson’s histories and accounts of Fort Victoria and the occasional letters found in the archives of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. On-line resources have been used, notably shorter biographies that appear from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography — George Blenkinsop being one and Robert Dunsmuir another, though that of the quizzical Walter Colquhoun Grant does not appear. This book shows the depth of Vancouver Island’s colonial history in documents, and that rich basis is a tribute to the systematic methods that Sir James Stephen, the permanent Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, devised in the years immediately preceding the grant of the Colony of Vancouver Island to the HBC (13 January 1849). Although one is hard pressed to think of documentary sources missed by the author, the reviewer is saddened, even horrified, to see the following not cited or referenced: Richard Mackie’s extensive M.A. thesis on the topic, John Galbraith’s prodigiously important Hudson’s Bay Company as an Imperial Factor (1957), and the reviewer’s own Royal Navy and the Northwest Coast (1971) and particularly Gunboat Frontier (1984), which examines aboriginal rights, the Douglas Treaties, and above all, and significant to Mr. Royle’s discussion of Blanshard and the Fort Rupert murders, the troubling events near that northern post of the HBC, and the intervention of the Royal Navy under Blanshard’s guidance.

As a student of imperial islands as places for historical study, Mr. Royle, who is Professor of Island Geography and Director of the Centre of Canadian Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, has written about St. Helena and other outposts, but he does not express a strong appreciation of naval and maritime aspects of the imperial story. His view is that the HBC was coerced by the Colonial Office in undertaking the colonization of the Island under the charter. In fact, as Galbraith explained, it had been the Company that necessarily had to protect its trading monopoly under licence and needed to find a way to satisfy the Colonial Office of its suitability as a colonizing agent. The author accepts too readily the antagonistic views of James Edward Fitzgerald, but certain it is that Fitzgerald’s proposal received far more attention than it deserved. Lacking capital, with no experience in colonizing remote regions, and having no knowledge of aboriginal affairs or obligations, Fitzgerald was over his depth even in making a suggestion along Wakefieldian lines. Mr. Royle’s book turns so much on the personality, character, and circumstances of Governor Blanshard that Douglas is presented as a rival, which in a way he was, given the financial and managerial responsibilities of the latter, and his reluctance to promote colonization. Ancillary persons nicely enter the account, notably the Reverend Robert Staines, James Cooper, and Edward Langford – all of them in opposition to Douglas during his governorship. The rivalry of Victoria and New Westminster as to the new capital on the occasion of the Union of the Colonies is covered, and follows conventional lines, Governor Seymour being adequately treated as far as his official papers are concerned.

It is sad in a scholarly treatise to see so many errors. There are editorial lapses — incomplete or awkward sentences. There are misspellings — Herman Merivale, the famed Colonial Office undersecretary, is given incorrectly as Merrivale. British Colombia appears at least once. The Admiral’s name is Phipps Hornby. There is, sadly, no bibliography, which would have been useful to future students. One would have liked to see some discussion of the smallpox epidemic of 1862. The labour difficulties at Fort Rupert need greater analysis. Bride ships are conspicuous by their absence. The Métis character of many of the early families is not addressed adequately, another feature reflecting lack of knowledge of published work. These matters give pause for concern.

This book is the first full-length study of the Colony of Vancouver Island. It adds considerably to our knowledge of the subject. It shows an excellent knowledge of documentary sources, notably those of the Colonial Office (C.O. 305). Although copies of colonial correspondence exist in the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, Mr. Royle is absolutely correct in saying that the originals contain nuances of interpretation that the copies in Victoria cannot provide. As he explains, a certain in-letter would contain a folded over corner where officials would write in cramped hand their views about what was happening in the distant colony. For instance, on one occasion Merivale remarked that he found Blanshard’s complaints against the HBC an inconvenient habit, that is, a nuisance requiring more work in Whitehall. And on the back of a similar letter there was the wry request of the HBC for some other gentlemen to be recommended for the appointment as Governor in Blanshard’s stead. Needless to say, the appointment went to Douglas, where, perhaps, it should have been placed all along. By the way, we will never know what caused the Colonial Office to shy away from Douglas’s candidacy to be made permanent, though it may be imagined that it was Fitzgerald’s opposition (which had considerable nuisance value in imperial political affairs) that led to it. Fitzgerald may have had immediate satisfaction, but the effort in sending Blanshard was doomed from the outset. This book is worth close attention, not least for the coverage it gives to the issues of colonial governorship.

Company, Crown and Colony: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Territorial Endeavour in Western Canada
By Stephen Royle 
London: I.B. Taurus, 2011. 256 pp, $115.00 cloth