Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Great War over Furs and Frozen Wastes

I just finished reading a book about King William's War, which is what Americans call the fighting between the British and the French (plus settlers and Indian allies) that broke out after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This was a very important event in North American history, setting the pattern followed by all the other North American wars down to 1763. The events of that war kept happening over and over: the British, egged on by New Englanders, kept repeating their siege of Quebec; armies marched over and over down the same roads, boated along the same lakes and rivers, besieged the same forts and fought battles in the same places.

But what I learned from this book that stays with me is that besides fighting on the St. Lawrence, the Mohawk, the Hudson, the St. Johns, Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the Gulf of Maine, the British and French also fought each other on Hudson Bay.

Imagine: this vast, cold body of water, its only entrance blocked by ice as much as ten months a year, thousands of miles from Europe at the end of a horrifically dangerous voyage that claimed uncounted mariners; I marvel that anyone sailed there, let alone fought a war there. But fight they did.

The Bay's history with Europeans started badly. The first Europeans to see it sailed with Henry Hudson, an Englishman who was then in the pay of the Dutch. They worked their way around the southern coast of Greenland past Baffin Island and into the Hudson Strait – really, the man certainly named a lot of stuff after himself – searching like so many others for the Northwest Passage. Instead they found a vast inland sea. By the time they reached the southern shore it was too late in the season to sail back, so they were trapped by the ice. They wintered over on the shores of James Bay, surviving by bartering with nearby Indians. When the ice finally broke up in the spring Hudson wanted to go on exploring, but his crew had had enough. They mutinied, left Hudson and a couple of loyalists floating on a small boat, and sailed back to Europe.
No one knows the fate of Hudson or the crew members stranded with him, but historians see no evidence that they survived for long afterwards.
Nobody was eager to follow in Hudson's wake, so few Europeans saw the Bay for the next fifty years.

Then around 1660 a pair of resourceful French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, reached the Bay by canoe and discovered that the forests around it were a fabulous source of furs. They were unable to interest the French leadership in trading at the Bay  because that would have disrupted the carefully constructed network of alliances with Indian tribes closer at hand. So Radisson and Groseilliers turned to the English. They raised money, much of it in Boston, for a voyage in 1663 that  brought back a load of valuable furs. This got them first arrested for unlicensed trading and then ushered into the company of royal favorites to discuss schemes to exploit their discovery. Those favorites financed a single ship called the Nonsuch to make the journey, in 1668. That voyage was so profitable that its backers quickly formed a company to make regular journeys, The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay. The first governor of the company was Prince Rupert, a close associate of the king, and not surprisingly the company received a royal monopoly on trade to the whole region that drained into the Bay.

After the Company built tradings posts on the Bay the French finally responded, sending their own expeditions to drive out the English. A weird sort of war ensued, weird partly because it took two years for news from the Bay to reach London or Paris, be considered the Royal Council, and a new expedition be fitted out to go forth and carry out the crown's decisions. So one side would send a force to take over the half a dozen trading posts that had been established around the Bay, and then two years later the other side would respond and take them back, and so on.

The most exciting part of this long, slow war, was a naval fight known as the Battle of Hudson Bay, when a French warship commanded by Captain Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville defeated an English squadron commanded by Captain John Fletcher. D'Iberville commanded the Pelican, a warship of 44 guns that had been part of a force of three ships. The other two had gotten lost in fog and ice, but D'Iberville pressed on alone, eventually coming up alone against Fletcher's three ships. The Pelican and Fletcher's flagship, the Hampshire, which carried 50 guns, traded close-range broadsides. The Pelican seemed to be getting the worst of it, and Captain Fletcher demanded that D'Iberville surrender, but D'Iberville refused. Legend has it that Fletcher was raising a glass of wine to toast D'Iberville's bravery when a shot from the Pélican struck Hampshire's powder magazine; the Hampshire exploded and quickly sank, putting a fatal end to Fletcher's toasting.

This northern war ended in an English victory. In the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht France the right of the Hudson's Bay Company to all the land granted in its charter, a vast region that eventually became a third of Canada.

A replica of D'Iberville's Pelican

Once again  I marvel at the fantastic greed and energy of our species. In search of great rewards we will go anywhere and do anything, if necessary fighting and killing and dying at the far end of the planet. If only our wisdom came anywhere close to our daring.

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