Lecture. Ocean Crossings: Hudson’s Bay Company Seafaring in a Northern North Atlantic World

[These notes are for what is more accurately described as a ‘talk’, presented 16 May 2012, which I was invited to give to the Manitoba Historical Society, during a day-long conference organized to recognize the bicentenary of the Selkirk settlement 1812-2012.]

Slide 1. Ocean Crossings: Hudson’s Bay Company Seafaring in a Northern North Atlantic World

The following slide show presents a historical travelogue that is broadly representative of HBC ocean crossings, from England to the Bay. Arguably, there was no such thing as a ‘typical’ voyage, but, there was enough regularity to support a general description, even when ranging across a span of time as wide as from the late 1600s to the early 1900s.

The Northern North Atlantic (capitalized here, because I’m naming a portion of the wider ocean sea) was a space in which voyages were in many respects distinct. HBC ocean crossings in that space shared aspects of ‘North Atlantic’ merchant voyages just to the south — between European ports and those of the Eastern Seaboard of North America (to as far north as St. John’s, Newfoundland). Nevertheless, sailors and seafarers aboard HBC ships in the northernmost extent of the North Atlantic dealt with:

  • a different set of natural features,
  • ships that as workplaces were more crowded and in some respects more complicated to handle,
  • and a unique social experience — because of the first two factors — and because the people who made up a ship’s community were overwhelmingly ‘Company’ people; and these included individuals who were native to North America. They were mobile people, who circulated widely in North America, and around the world. Not a few ‘swallowed the anchor’ to settle as ‘landsmen’ in Red River, where they contributed to the mix of information about the wider world at that Settlement.

Slide 2. The Basic Argument: Seafarers mattered

The maritime component of the HBC was fundamental to its trade. It is an aspect of the Company’s influence in the North-West that has tended to be overlooked. The influence can be found when sought, however. For example:

  • the Company’s yearly ‘outfit’ was set when ships were outfitted to voyage to the Bay at the beginning of June.
  • The posts built on the Bay, were first of all ports — built by ship’s crews, and located where ships could go.
  • ‘Ship time’ marked the beginning of the trade season in the North West.
  • The master servant relationship on shore was a reflection of a longstanding master servant relation aboard ship —
  • and historically, masters ashore (at least those stationed bayside) were often mariners — people like Richard and Moses Norton, and Joseph Isbister — as were Company founders and Committee members.

[n.: Radisson was working passage from at least 1668; a midshipman in an expedition under Vice-Admiral d’Estrées, to capture the Dutch colonies along the coast of Africa and in the Caribbean (1677–78); Prince Rupert was of the Royalist Fleet, 1648-1653; Captain George Spurrel was a London Committee member.]

  • Inland surveyors of renown, were trained mariners as well – from Henry Kelsey, and Samuel Hearne, to David Thompson.

The maritime experience of HBC seafaring can be got at by studying: ships logs, that indicate where ships were, and what work was being done; and journals, that impart glimpses of the social life aboard ship;  and, by comparing data — about ships, routes, and sailors — with what is known about seafaring that took place elsewhere.

One thing that such examination makes clear, is that sailors and seafarers of the past were familiar with things that we of the 21st century are not — and perhaps never can be. “The past,” as it has been said, “is a foreign country,” they did things differently there.[1]

To explore those differences a little, the slides today:

  • begin by defining the geographical scope of a portion of the HBC maritime world;
  • then furnish an unrealistically brief view of an ocean crossing;
  • followed by a visual sampling of ships that were workplaces and social spaces;
  • and finishing with a glimpse of seafarers — mariners and passengers (including some associated with Red River).

Slide 3. Defining Scope: a) The North and the Northern North Atlantic

HBC ocean crossings took place primarily in the North — which Canadian historians commonly situate between 54° and 66°33′35″ North latitude (the two blue bands on the map: above the ‘fertile belt’ of the prairies, and below the ‘land of eternal ice and snow’ of the Arctic). Company voyages also dipped into Canada’s ‘Middle North’ in James Bay, or ‘the Bottom of the Bay’ as it was known.

Slide 4. Defining Scope: b) Northern Ocean Arc

And, at their eastern end, voyages crossed what Maritime Historians have designated the ‘North Atlantic’ (between the green lines on the map).

Geographically speaking, the ‘Northern North Atlantic space,’ of HBC voyages, is not properly a ‘region’ because that term applies to land. Rather, the space of Company voyages was an ‘ocean arc’ (shaded in blue on the map): a term for a continuous watery plain over which sailors repeatedly sailed their ships.

Slide 5. Making Place: a) HBC Ocean Arc

The sailors on transatlantic HBC ships to the Bay worked their way across a  HBC ocean arc, ‘making’ it a ‘known’ place, by virtue of their activity: naming it, mapping it, recording its features in  logs, journals, and pilot books.

Slide 6. Making Place: Surface Currents

Natural features also ‘made’ the HBC ocean arc a distinctive place. The East- and West-Greenland currents, for example, were convenient: carrying ships at the rate of 10 to 14 kilometres a day [6-9 miles], around the southern tip of Greenland, and from thence to the entrance of Hudson Strait.

Slide 7. [animation: prevailing wind chart glides up into view]

Sailors also took advantage of the wind of course. On the Northern North Atlantic, it blew more consistently as a ‘fair wind’ (sending a ship in the right direction) than did the highly variable winds just to the south.

Wind was nowhere near as reliable as currents, however. Charts that show ‘prevailing winds’ illustrate high altitude patterns, not the surface winds generated by local weather systems.

Slide 8. [animation: prevailing wind chart glides down out of view]

The ‘prevailing winds’ of such charts matter more to flight than to sail.

Slide 9. Making Place: Routes

Because sea winds could blow from any point ‘round the compass,’ voyages did not normally follow the sorts of lines laid down on maps that show routes (two are visible on this map — to the lower right).

Though sometimes a captain was lucky, the wind was regarded as a “fickle mistress” — and voyages were much more ‘zig-zaggy’ affairs (as in the red line), often with stalls, and even reversals.

Slide 10. Making Place: Location

One spot where stalls could occur was known as ‘The Stormy Forties’ (marked on the slide by the ship). The name, however, did not refer to weather, rather it signalled water conditions. The ‘40s’ was a longitudinal location where three major currents met (the West Greenland, Labrador, and North Atlantic Drift), in “aqueous mountains,” just below Cape Farewell, Greenland.

Slide 11. Making Place: Location

Although the Greenwich meridian (the yellow-orange line on the right side of the map) was established as 0° longitude, in 1750, up until about 1888, HBC captains customarily set longitude at Hoy Head, in the Orkneys, as 0° (the red line, right side).

At Hatten’s Headland, Resolution Island, Hudson Strait (somewhere around 62° —the other red line on the map), they would ‘resolve’ longitude, by re-setting it to 0°.

Whichever system was adopted (Hoy Head or Greenwich meridian), the ‘40s,’ as a point of transition, could be felt. If ships to Hudson Bay stalled there, due to ‘foul’ (meaning unfavourable) winds, or to no wind, all on board were subject to a ‘boisterous’ experience (one that Selkirk Settlers endured for 15 days in 1811).

Even on a rapid transit, in crossing the ‘40s,’ seafarers bid ‘farewell’ to the kind of sailing encountered elsewhere in the North Atlantic …

Slide 12. Making Place: Ice

… because they encountered ice.

Carried by currents, down from Arctic seas at spring break-up — as bergs, fields, and shattered remnants of both — through to late summer, ice was a primary determinant when it came to the distinctiveness of Northern voyaging.

Slide 13.

Ice bergs were eagerly looked for by passengers — as visual evidence of having entered decidedly Northern space. Sailors, on the other hand, by the time ice was encountered, were more interested in sighting land (to know where they were).


But, before getting too deeply into the ice, the slides will now shift focus, describing passages made along the ocean arc, prior to encountering water in its solid form.

Slide 14. Passages Outward: Home Port, London

‘The Pool’ below London Bridge marked the inland end of the Port of London that harboured deep sea ships [though with the tide, hulls could be floated as far inland as Richmond]. The nautically-minded called the river above the bridge the Thames; the lower stretch, to the river’s mouth, they called the ‘London River,’ after the port. The Port of London River was congested, and marked by very bad smells (emanating from sewage, rotting garbage, and drowned ‘river waifs’).

Slide 15.

Voyages on HBC ships bound for the Bay began at Gravesend Reach. Passengers were ferried by ‘tilt boat’ from London to the town, [illustrated here, in 1851, looking much as Joseph Conrad described it 1906: as “tumbled down haphazard from the top of the hill at the back” towards the three and a half mile long Reach] off of which Company ships anchored to be outfitted with crew, cargo, and supplies for the voyage.

Slide 16.

From Gravesend, depending on weather conditions, it could take from 2 days to 2 weeks to get down the river to its estuary, thread through the channels, and pass the sand bars into open seas.


Slide 17.

Sailing ‘North About’ — up the east coast of England to Stromness, [Cairstone Roads, Hamnavoe Inlet] on the Orkney mainland, took approximately 2 weeks, perhaps a few days more.  It all depended on whether a ship put into a port along the way, how long it stayed in port, and whether wind was blowing in the right direction.

Occasionally, ships instead went ‘West About’ through the English Channel; or departed from other harbours — such as Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, in the Hebrides archipelago (for example in 1811 with Selkirk Settlers aboard); or Lerwick, in the Shetland  Islands; and there were others.

[n.: At least one HBC vessel departed from Bristol, the Prince Rupert [V] in 1835.]

But, assuming a ship took the north-about passage: on reaching Stromness, it might anchor for 1 week or 3, depending on what sorts of tasks remained to be done — from loading supplies, to hiring additional crew, to waiting for consort vessels to arrive.

For safety, HBC ships crossed the Atlantic in convoys. During times when warfare was of concern (which was fairly often), Admiralty vessels would escort the convoy.

Slide 18.

Ships would take leave of the Orkneys at Hoy Head [about 58° 55′ North latitude], entering the Atlantic near the “Old Man of Hoy.”

Slide 19.

By this point, a Company ship might have been at sea for as much as a month-or-more of quite difficult sailing — crews contending with tides, rocks, and shoals that marked all passages around the British Isles.

Once on the Atlantic, however, the sailors could anticipate uninterrupted sailing ahead — holding to a course along the bands between 56 and 60 degrees north latitude for approximately 2,250 kilometres [1,400 miles] to Cape Farewell, Greenland. Covering an additional 1,125 kilometers [700 miles] would bring them to Hatten’s Head, Resolution Island.

Slide 20. HBC ship’s surgeon, Samuel Smith, self-portrait, tossed from berth, 1857.

While they might hope to make the entire crossing in as few as 19 days (as Captain William Kennedy managed in 1851), or in a record breaking 7 days (set by Captain David Herd in 1861), the passage was more likely to take 3 or 4 weeks.

In terms of visual points of interest, seafarers tended to record the Atlantic crossing as “long, monotonous and dreary.”  They also reported getting very wet, especially in the ‘Stormy 40s’  — in high seas, ships leak.

Slide 21.

On rounding Cape Farewell and approaching Hudson Strait, it also became “intensely” cold — which seafarers attributed to the presence of ice.

It was no mean feat to enter the strait, because currents carried massive amounts of ice southward across its opening. However, currents also dipped into the strait at Resolution Island. If collision with large bergs (and the island), was avoided, then drifting into the strait surrounded by the ‘small ice’ of late-July, was a relatively safe entrance to effect.

Slide 22.

Once into the strait, the passage through could take as long as 6 weeks or be as short as 4 days, depending on whether the strait was ‘closed’ by ice or ‘open.’

[n.: In 1749, Captain William Coats covered the “800 to 1,000 miles” before exiting into Hudson Bay in four days. In 1854, Captain David Herd was trapped in the Strait to the 25th of August.]

Slide 23.

From at least the early 1700s, ships would pause mid-way to trade with Inuit for ‘whalebone’ (primarily baleen) [n.: from Bowhead whales. Baleen, “the plastic of the 1800s,” was used for corsets, collar stays, buggy whips, and toys. Bones were ground for fertilizer and used in place of cement blocks “for structure foundations, or … sidewalks”]. Pausing to trade was not always possible, however — due to ice. It could limit manoeuverability, …

Slide 24.

but as well, it could prevent a ship from stopping, because the ice was always moving. It flowed westward along the north side of the strait, and eastward along the south. Thus, even ships thoroughly beset in ice would eventually manage to exit the strait.

[n.: Less than a handful of HBC ships failed to make it into Hudson Bay.]

Slide 25.

Once out into Hudson Bay, ships could take 3 days [as in 1867], to 4 weeks to cross to Churchill Harbour or Port Nelson, and longer still to get to the ‘Bottom of the Bay.’

Slide 26.

Here again, timing depended principally on the presence or absence of ice.

The voyage ‘home,’ in September, was usually — not always — shorter: a late arrival in the Bay, or an early onset of winter freeze up, could force a ship to over-winter.


Now, to turn to those ships …

Slide 27.

… they carried sail into the 20th century. Although they increased in size over time, Company ships began, and remained, small in comparison to merchant vessels in other ocean seas — ice sailing required tight turns, and rowing, and towing by crews. The ships had rounded bottoms to lift them up, and out, if ice crushed inward; and they were shallow in draught to deal with the shallowness of Hudson and James Bays. Consequently, they were tricky to handle in rough seas — they could roll alarmingly, and sometimes travelled sideways as readily as forward.

Slide 28. Sail with auxiliary engines and Steam

 Sail ships with auxiliary steam engines were not ‘typical’ HBC transatlantic vessels; instead, sail-steamers travelled a coastal circuit from Montreal to the Bay. With holds filled with coal, their cargo capacity was limited. By 1920, the company’s newer ocean-crossing ships were fully steam driven and significantly larger.

As workplaces, however — whether steam or sail — Company ships were crowded.

Slide 29.

They had confined quarters, with equipment, livestock, and people (and dogs), stored everywhere. And even though the ships were small compared to merchant vessels elsewhere, they carried a greater number of officers and crew — as many as a third more.

Partly to maintain order in crowded conditions, the space aboard ship was highly structured socially — depending on one’s job, there were places you were allowed to be and places you weren’t.

Slide 30.

But, even with these restrictions, there was opportunity, and time, to mingle with people from ‘all over the globe.’ Seafaring was ‘integrative’ in that sailors of different geographical and cultural origins worked together — a condition that was the norm throughout the ‘Atlantic World.’

On the foredeck — the sailors’ space for working and for relaxing and interacting with passengers — they would exchange stories, songs, and jokes. This exchange included Aboriginal seafarers, who were working or travelling from place to place in the Bay, or across the ocean.

Slide 31. Seafarers

Before the mid-18th century, men, women, and children, from Europe and from North America — working and non-working — mingled aboard HBC ships for months at a time.

[n.: Mary Adams was the “first known” child to have left Hudson Bay by sea for England, in 1737.  Charles, ‘the Slave’, was the first known ship’s boy native to North America to train as a ship’s boy, beginning 1738.]

Half of the 19th-century seafarers pictured here were native to North America. An equal proportion had homes at Red River Settlement.

[n.: Red River residents: John Bunn, James Sinclair, William Cowan, Harriet Cowan, and Jean/Jane Ross Hunter.]

Slide 32: William Kennedy

Among ‘former Company’ sailors to retire to Red River, there was, Captain William Kennedy. Born 1813 at Cumberland House, he was sailing seas off Labrador by 1838. By 1848 he was Master of his own vessel on Lake Superior. By 1856 he had voyaged twice to the Arctic in search of Franklin; criss-crossing the Atlantic and sailing ‘round the Horn.  As of 1861, he resided at Red River; building Kennedy House in 1866.

[n.: Born in 1813 [or 1814] to Chief Factor Alexander Kennedy and Aggathas, he sailed to Scotland at age 9 [or 13], for an education.[2] He sailed for the HBC from 1838 to 1846. From 1851 to ‘56 he commanded two sailing expeditions to the Arctic, during which he crossed from New York to Liverpool, Aberdeen, and London, wintered in the Arctic, and sailed round the Horn to Valparaiso.[3] He won a commendation from “the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” as “one of the intelligent travellers” of Northern waters. He died 25 January 1890, at home.]

Slide 33. Colin Sinclair

There was also Captain Colin Sinclair, born at Norway House in 1816. By 1830, he was working on transatlantic voyages through Hudson Strait, and out of Newfoundland. By 1840, he was Master and owner of a ship in the China and East India trade. He retired to Winnipeg in 1897, [age 81] and resided at his sister’s family home — Seven Oaks House.

[n.: Born to HBC Chief Factor William Sinclair and Nahoway, he sailed to Orkney for schooling about age 6.[4] At about 14 years of age, he apprenticed as a ship’s boy. At 18 he served as a sailor three years — apparently on North Atlantic voyages which included runs into Hudson Strait and Bay (probably on Sclater ships). He then ran sealing voyages out of Newfoundland for several years, after which he entered the India and China trades as part owner of a ship. By 1840 he was captain and sole owner of the ship, but in1849 gave up deep sea sailing to become harbour master of San Francisco when his crew deserted to join the California Gold Rush.[5]Died 1901.]

Slide 34: Ranald Macdonald

And then there was Ranald Macdonald (born 1824 at Fort George, on the Pacific Slope).  A grandson of Chief Comcomly, who was harbour pilot for the Company on the Columbia River, Ranald lived at Red River while attending school from 1834 to 1838.  By 1841, he had begun working his way to Japan — by sea. (An experience he set down, c. 1888, in a manuscript that was finally published in 1923).[6]

Slide 35. [HBCA biographical sheets animation: records of seafaring servants piling up]

Biographies worked up by the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, indicate there were many more — transatlantic sailors, coastal sloopers and boatmen, and servants ‘working-passage’ aboard ship — who moved from the Bay (and elsewhere) to live at Red River (and make an impression), beginning at least as early as 1815 and 1816, and continuing to well after Winnipeg was incorporated as a city in 1873.

[n.: early arrivals include ship surgeon and factor,Thomas Thomas in 1815; sailor/sloop master Joseph Brown, who retired to Red River in 1816; William Todd, ship’s surgeon, lived at Red River 1818-1819; James Omand, boatman at Moose, retired 1829[7]; and Wm. Sinclair who worked passage on several occasions and bought land in Red River but died before settling there. The house shown above belonged to William Scott (it used to have a porch)]

So, I will close with a small request: that when you contemplate the dynamics of historical process in Western Canada — particularly at Red River, but in other locations as well — that you think beyond shorelines, to take seafaring into account.

[1] L.P. Hard ey. The Go-Between (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953) ; David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[2] Jennifer S.H. Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980), 138; http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/kennedy_w.shtml

[3] William Kennedy, A short narrative of the second voyage of the Prince Albert, in search of Sir John Franklin (London: W.H. Dalton, 1853), iii, vii. See also William Kennedy, “Report on the Return of Lady Franklin’s Vessel the Prince Albert, under the Command of Mr. Wm. Kennedy, from the Arctic Regions,” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 23 (1853): 122–29; “The Polar Seas and Sir John Franklin,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art 1 no 6 (June 1853): 634; “The Arctic Search,” The North American Review 80, no. 167 (April 1855): 333; “Bellot,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 12, no. 67 (December 1855): 97; McKenna, The Hudson Bay Route, 6; Mary L. Kennedy, “Lieutenant Joseph René Bellot,” The Beaver 18, no. 1 (June 1938): 44; Edward C. Shaw, “Captain William Kennedy, An Extraordinary Canadian,” MHS Transactions 27, ser. 3 (1970–1971 season); E.C. Shaw, “The Kennedys – An Unusual Western Family,” MHS Transactions 29, ser. 3 (1972–1973 season); Edward Charles Shaw, “Kennedy, William,” DCB; [Edward Charles Shaw], Captain William Kennedy (Winnipeg: Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Recreation, Historical Resources Branch, 1985); and HBCA, “Kennedy, Alexander (1781–1832) (fl. 1798–1832),” Biographical Sheet. See also Obituary, “Kennedy, Dr. Roderick,” transcript, J.J. Watson Scrapbooks (1911), Deaths and Obituaries, South Fredericksburgh Heritage website, http://www.sfredheritage.on.ca/deathsobitsA.html (accessed 12 Dec. 2003).

[4] The popular view is that this separation from family must have been wrenching, especially for Colin’s mother. It is worth considering, however, that Nahoway would have known a number of people who had left for distant shores long before Colin sailed — including her husband, three other sons, as well as her son-in-law, daughter, and granddaughter. Nahoway had also experienced the return of loved ones from over the sea and may well have expected Colin to return in a few years.

[5] A.H. de Trémaudan, The Hudson Bay Road (14981915) (London and Toronto; J.M. Dent and Sons, 1915), 63; J.A.J. McKenna, The Hudson Bay Route: A Compilation of Facts with Conclusions (Ottawa: Department of the Interior, 1908), 4. See, also, Harry Shave, “The Armchair at Seven Oaks,” Winnipeg Free Press (5 Oct. 1963).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s