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Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Scientific Networks, 1670–1870

By Ted Binnema

Review By I.S. MacLaren

July 2, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 160-63

A Strange and Dangerovs Voyage (1633) was published by command of King Charles I after Thomas James (c.1593-1635) returned from overwintering in James Bay. Dead by 1635, James had nothing to do with the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670, but his book influenced chemist, physicist, and natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-1691), one of the founders of the Invisible College, which became the Royal Society of London in 1663. James collected enough meteorological and glaciological data while sailing for the merchants of Bristol that Boyle, in publishing his treatise on cryobiology, wrote that New Experiments and Observations touching Cold (1665) “borrowed more observations [from James], then [sic] from those of any other Sea-man.”[1] Ignoring Martin Frobisher’s debacle with fool’s gold taken home in 1576 from Frobisher Bay, James’s data are the first collected in Rupert’s Land and put to use by a metropolitan scientist. Because Boyle served on the first council of the HBC, they inaugurate the connection between the company and science. James’s legacy would have provided Ted Binnema with a more germane template than Sir Francis Bacon does, but Enlightened Zeal is indubitably still a welcome, sturdy survey (in an age when few academics attempt to write one) of the networks that evolved between curious HBC men and metropolitan scientists whose understandings in London, and later Washington, Montreal, and Toronto developed from collections/data sent from afar.

Contributions to the ongoing compilation of the great Book of Nature through reports of new scientific associations and new museums were constellated by studying the Transit of Venus 3 June 1769 and the earth’s magnetic fields in the 1840s, both of which Binnema discusses ably, although, for the most part, he regards scientists and collectors as innocent agents and valued recorders; only occasionally does he probe beyond an unproblematical acceptance of their motives and actions. Efforts by Britain led science in most fields, and the determination (although not assented to until 1884) that the entire world would orient itself and its time of day in relation to Greenwich reminds us symbolically of Britain’s imperial sway.

In a long introduction, Binnema explains that Enlightened Zeal studies not the big men of science but the collaborations that fed their big ideas, that is, quoting from Science and Empire in the Atlantic World (2008), the “intricate latticework” of connections that bound remote observers to central synthesizers of new knowledge. He argues persuasively that the HBC caught the wind of nineteenth-century times: “Never again did the company revert to the secrecy it had exhibited during the first hundred years of its existence” (75). A chronological study ensues comprehending not just HBC employees (fur trade rival Alexander Mackenzie is not excluded) but also explorers and travellers who found themselves in the monopoly’s 3,000,000 mi2, especially after 1821. So, for every Samuel Hearne, there is a David Douglas; for every George Barnston, John Rae, and Roderick McFarlane, a John Richardson, John Lefroy, and Robert Kennicott.

Why this is the case comes clear in Binnema’s assertion that sending samples and data to Britain or elsewhere in the English-speaking world or hosting scientists from there equally resulted for the company in published tributes that bolstered its monopolistic standing. By its charter, the HBC did not have to do this work, yet, Binnema convincingly shows, it invariably yielded good press for a monopoly that seemed always to have outspoken critics, especially when it needed to renew aspects of its charter or licence. Although he states his thesis too often, Binnema does not fail to deliver on it. To that extent, Enlightened Zeal succeeds and will abide.

In several important respects, the book proves not altogether satisfactory, however. As is correct, surveys do not set on view new findings from archival research, and so endnotes refer to published sources. But, by foregoing archives, surveys are obliged to cover publications thoroughly. Enlightened Zeal relies overly on too few sources (by E.E. Rich, John Galbraith, Doug Owram, and particularly Debra Lindsay) while failing to survey all relevant published sources, which would have qualified or updated a number of its assertions. The treatment is thus uneven: of some people tired and repetitive if extensive, of others thorough and considered, and of others incomplete and thus partial.

Into the last category falls HBC explorer Thomas Simpson. His infamous detestation of people of mixed blood remains an assertion, but because his having fathered mixed-blood children of his own goes unmentioned, a possible reason (shame) for his attitude goes unconsidered. Enlightened Zeal needed as well to delve into the recent discussion of the importance of the figure of Sir John Barrow, second secretary of the Admiralty, 1804-1845. Also a member of the Royal, Raleigh (Royal Geographical), and several other societies, Barrow exerted a profound influence on northern exploration, and, more than any other figure in the centuries under discussion, wedded the imperial ambitions of a nation to science and its illusionary claims of disinterestedness, objectivity, and philanthropy (matters of interest to Binnema’s argument [294]). The chapter about the Royal Navy’s and HBC’s searches for a northwest passage should have considered the probability that Barrow penned the conclusion to Franklin’s second land expedition’s narrative, quoted by Binnema (142), as part of his steadfast campaign, waged in partnership with publisher John Murray, to assert the indivisibility of Britain’s tricolonic virtue: national honour, noblesse oblige, scientific advancement.

Paul Kane also numbers in this category. Citing Kane’s friend Professor Daniel Wilson (222), Binnema presents Kane as a scientist. Kane’s field sketch and subsequent oil portrait of a Cree man are reproduced, but, with no ethnographic discussion of them, they seem merely illustrations. Kane was no scientist during his travels; presentation of him as one began when Wilson realized that his sketches, paintings, collection of artifacts, and “recollections” could both gain Kane membership in the Canadian Institute and help inform Wilson’s own compendious work, Prehistoric Man (1862, 1865, 1876) (a work quoted [222] and cited [378n] but not found in Binnema’s bibliography).

Understanding such a metamorphosis of Kane would have helped Binnema explain why the painter, unfamiliar with the discourses of science and the network between collectors and metropolitan scientists, did not properly provide to HBC inland governor George Simpson the tribute that others had learned was the quid pro quo for free passage through HBC territories. Binnema notes that, at the 1857 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Wilson reported on Kane’s works. He fails to note that Kane accompanied Wilson to Montreal for those meetings, the first for the AAAS outside the United States, and that, as a result of a unanimously approved motion, he addressed the Ethnology, Statistics, and Political Economy sub-section of the conference. Kane’s oral presentation (his preferred mode of address) played a part at the very meeting that Binnema later avers, “might have influenced [first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution] Joseph Henry’s decision to approach [George] Simpson” (253) about securing the aid of the HBC in furnishing the decade-old body with collections — like Kane’s — from northern North America. (Kane’s collection, now in the Manitoba Museum, receives no discussion.) Like this matter, another that Binnema features prominently — Kane as a “national” figure for the expansionists of the 1850s — has also been discussed in publications not surveyed by him.

Readers with British Columbian interests will enjoy Binnema’s treatment of David Douglas, following on from Jack Nisbet’s recent books and exhibition. David Thompson is also capably treated. No mention occurs of Samuel Black’s confused fascination with geology while exploring the Finlay River in 1824. Geology, generally, and the rise of it in the 1830s with the discovery of deep time, reported by Charles Lyell in Principles of Geology (1830-1833), was of almost no interest to HBC men or visitors, yet one cannot help but think that their network played a part in later discoveries in non-fur-rich parts of its domain, discoveries like the world’s leadings sites for varieties of dinosaurs (Peace River country and the Alberta Badlands) and the best soft-tissue fossil site in the world, the Burgess Shale (Yoho National Park [discovered by the fourth secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles Walcott, in 1909] and Kootenay National Park [announced by the Royal Ontario Museum in February 2014]).

Surprises include HBC men’s uninterest in ethnology. Extensive collections were made of flora and fauna, and meteorology and climatology, but not manners and customs. (No discussion occurs of artifact collections made for Europeans.) Why? Binnema quotes Bernard Rogan Ross’s view that native societies, seen as fast disappearing, seemed not to be worth attention (283–84). He does not mention the fear of going native harboured by many marooned at the outposts of empire. Probably because science was thought to thrive on dispassionate observation rather than emotional involvement, nothing was regarded as more “civilized.” Science could erect a barrier between civility and barbarity.  But the barrier was porous. We know from This Blessed Wilderness (2001), Jean Murray Cole’s edition of the letters of Archibald McDonald (not consulted by Binnema), that at least one trader thought HBC men “a set of selfish drones, incapable of entertaining liberal or correct notions of human life” (112). They were content to make native people their drones by having them collect specimens. There was no question of sharing the fame available to collectors.

Finally, the valuable endnotes are, following the University of Toronto Press’s practice, not indexed, but this renders a disservice to a book in which notes contain both citations and further discussion. Only in unindexed, discursive notes does the reader learn “that Alexander von Humboldt considered himself a ‘scientific traveller,’ not an explorer” (342), that — beguilingly — “explicit references to the link between [the] observation of nature and religious faith are few” (357), and that in 1829, after building Fort Colvile, John Work filed a report, including notes on “aboriginal peoples and geography of the district,” in response to George Simpson’s 1825 directive that he furnish a collection of “seeds plants Birds and quadrupids [sic] & mice & rats” (358). And one note contains a valuable set of references to studies of HBC libraries (311-12), but the entry in the index for libraries remains silent about it.


[1] Robert Boyle, The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. M. Hunter and E. B. Davis, 14 vols. (London and Brookfield, VT: Pickering & Chatto, 1999–2000), 4:221.

Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Scientific Networks, 1670–1870
Ted Binnema
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. 288 pp. $37.95 paper.