II: sailors and seafarers


Henry Farmer, pastel, “Boy in a Sailor Suit, possibly a member of the family of Robert Bell,” dated 1885. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1963-58-76.

With my Ph.D. dissertation I argued that sailors to and from Hudson Bay were “essential or indispensable” to Western Canadian development. In other words, they were ‘fundamental’ to historical process in the Canadian context.[1] I framed my support for this argument as a social history in order to address a historiographical gap that had left the nature and scope of the sailors’ individual and collective contributions to historical process unexamined. The problem was not that existing academic historiography about Western Canada denied the presence or contribution of sailors, but that it presumed the presence and contribution perfunctorily.[2] Conceptually, historians had reduced sailors to an abstraction with the limited, albeit necessary, function of linking, via ship, a historically significant point on one side of the Atlantic to a historically significant point on the other – the sailors appearing ancillary to goods and information ferried. By considering sailors as more complex agents of communication, I demonstrated that the possibility exists to appreciate more fully how individual agency figured within the history of seafarers to and from Hudson Bay, and the broader significance of their collective history to Western Canadian development.

For practical reasons, I imposed limits on the scope of my discussion. The first pertained to the selection and definition of the seafarers who served as subjects of my study. For two centuries, 1670–1870, a royal charter allowed the Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay, otherwise known as the HBC, ‘sole’ proprietorship of a ‘plantation’ comprised of approximately one-third of the North American land mass.[3] As an institution that actively pursued projects within that territory for its entire tenure, the Company played a significant role in the course of Western Canadian political economic development. Historically, the HBC was the largest incorporated institution to employ maritime workers on the seas that accessed the portion of the Company’s landward possession – initially designated as Rupert’s Land – that was later encompassed by the Canadian West. I therefore limited my analysis to seafarers on Company voyages. To allow a fuller illumination of their social experience, however, I used the term seafarers broadly, as in “a traveller by sea.” As recent studies of seafaring that examine the experiences of women who accompanied their husbands to sea have shown, the sailors’ world on water included people other than seamen. While recognizing that the term seafarer signifies “esp[ecially] one whose life is spent in voyaging, a sailor,” my application of the more inclusive sense acknowledged the contribution made by passengers, masters, and crewmembers such as carpenters, cooks, and surgeons to the collective experience of sailors.[4]


“There’s No Living in England, So Here’s Off For Canada,” dated 1833. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-3509 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

Some of the Seafarers I looked at while researching the dissertation:

Some of the things I noticed about HBC Seafarers:

Individual Seafarer pages:

(check the sidebar for additional entries, because it sometimes takes a while before I have time to update)

Joesph Adams

Mary Adams

Charles ‘the slave’

Captain Colin Robertson Sinclair

Captain George Comer

[1] My use of terminology in the dissertation was at times questioned. I have included footnotes of words that posed problems for various readers — knowing that in doing so other readers might level the criticism that such footnotes are pedantic because unnecessary. To my way of thinking, it is useful to be aware that words can mystify as readily as clarify in the communication chasm that exists between author and audience. Hence, the first problematic term: see “fundamental,” Oxford English Dictionary Online [OED] (accessed 2004–2009), as in “3. a. Serving as the foundation or base on which something is built. [especially as the term is applied] Chiefly and now exclusively in immaterial applications. Hence, forming an essential or indispensable part of a system, institution, etc.” – in this case a process.  See also Allan Pred, “Social Reproduction and the Time-Geography of Everyday Life,” Geografiska Annaler, ser. B, Human Geography 63, no. 1 (1981): 5, 6, 20.

[2] “historiography,” OED, defines the term as “The writing of history; written history.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. Online (accessed 26 February 2009), adds that the term also signifies “The principles, theories, or methodology of scholarly historical research and presentation,” as well as “The writing of history based on a critical analysis, evaluation, and selection of authentic source materials and composition of these materials into a narrative subject to scholarly methods of criticism,” and “A body of historical literature.” See also “Historiographer,” slippery words list. Throughout my writings the term accords with such understandings – including in its adjective and adverbial forms. My intended meaning is not consistent with the usage suggested by writers, such as Anthony Sebastian, “historiography,” Citizendium online encyclopedia (accessed 26 February 2009), who define historiography as “the study of historians.” See also comments on his definition on the discussion page (accessed 26 February 2009).

[3] See Hudson’s Bay Company, “The Royal Charter for Incorporating the Hudson’s Bay Company. A.D. 1670,” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Charter and Supplemental Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company, no. 6584 (September 2004) <http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=9258&amp; pageno=1> (accessed 25 April 2008).

[4] “seafarer,” OED. See Lisa Norling, “Ahab’s Wife,” in Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700–1920, ed. Margaret S. Creighton, and Lisa Norling (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 70–91; Haskell Springer, “The Captain’s Wife at Sea,” in Iron Men, Wooden Women, 92–117; Joan Druett, Hen Frigates: Passion and Peril, Nineteenth-Century Women at Sea (New York: Touchstone, 1998); and David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women: An Untold Maritime History (Westminster, MD: Random House, 2001).


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