And it was no wonder that the stove consumed a hundredweight of coal on this memorable evening, for the cold outside was twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit below zero, and Fort Reliance is situated in 61° 47’ N. Lat., at least four degrees from the Polar circle.
THE HUDSON’S BAY FUR COMPANY.
What do you think of your Lieutenant, Jaspar Hobson?”
“I think he is an officer who will go far.”
“What do you mean by the words, Will go far? Do you mean that he will go beyond the Twenty-fourth parallel?”
Captain Craventy could not help smiling at Mrs Paulina Barnett’s question. They were talking together near the stove, whilst the guests were passing backwards and forwards between the eating and drinking tables.
“Madam,” replied the Captain, “all that a man can do, will be done by Jaspar Hobson. The Company has charged him to explore the north of their possessions, and to establish a factory as near as possible to the confines of the American continent, and he will establish it.”
“That is a great responsibility for Lieutenant Hobson !” said the traveller.
“It is, madam, but Jaspar Hobson has never yet drawn back from a task imposed upon him, however formidable it may have appeared.”
“I can quite believe it, Captain,” replied Mrs Barnett, “and we shall now see the Lieutenant at work. But what induces the Company to construct a fort on the shores of the Arctic Ocean?”
“They have a powerful motive, madam,” replied the Captain.
“I may add a double motive. At no very distant date, Russia will probably cede her American possessions to the Government of the United States. [*1] When this cession has taken place, the Company will find access to the Pacific Ocean extremely difficult, unless the North-west passage discovered by Mc’Clure be practicable. [*1 Captain Craventy’s prophecy has since been realised.] Fresh explorations will decide this, for the Admiralty is about to send a vessel which will coast along the North American continent, from Behring Strait to Coronation Gulf, on the eastern side of which the new-Art is to be established. If the enterprise succeed, this point will become an important factory, the centre of the northern fur trade. The transport of furs across the Indian territories involves a vast expenditure of time and money, whereas, if the new route be available, steamers will take them from the new fort to the Pacific Ocean in a few days.”
“That would indeed be an important result of the enterprise, if this North-west passage can really be used,” replied Mrs Paulina Barnett; “but I think you spoke of a double motive.”
“I did, madam,” said the Captain, “and I alluded to a matter of vital interest to the Company. But I must beg of you to allow me to explain to you in a few words how the present state of things came about, how it is in fact that the very source of the trade of this once flourishing Company is in danger of destruction.”
The Captain then proceeded to give a brief sketch of the history of the famous Hudson’s Bay Company.
In the earliest times men employed the skins and furs of animals as clothing. The fur trade is therefore of very great antiquity. Luxury in dress increased to such an extent, that sumptuary laws were enacted to control too great extravagance, especially in furs, for which there was a positive passion. Vair and the furs of Siberian squirrels were prohibited at the middle of the 12th century.
In 1553 Russia founded several establishments in the northern steppes, and England lost no time in following her example. The trade in sables, ermines, and beavers, was carried on through the agency of the Samoiedes; but during the reign of Elizabeth, a royal decree restricted the use of costly furs to such an extent, that for several years this branch of industry was completely paralysed.
On the 2nd May, 1670, a licence to trade in furs in the Hudson’s Bay Territory was granted to the Company, which numbered several men of high rank amongst its shareholders : the Duke of York, the Duke of Albemarle, the Earl of Shaftesbury, &c.