26 February 2021

Echoes of the Russo-Japanese War

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 389-390:

Britain and the United States grew apprehensive as to Japanese aspirations. Their mutual suspicions were confirmed when, in 1915, Japan issued China with her notorious 21 Demands, a plan for the annexation of China. Japan was blocked for the time being, but there was reflection as to how long she could be kept down....

It had been in 1918 that a combined force which had included British, American and Japanese troops had gone to the assistance of the White Russians but, seeing the permanence of the revolution, Britain and America withdrew from the half-hearted intervention. Japan remained in Siberia until 1922 and did not return northern Sakhalin to Russia until 1925. (Russia acquired all of Sakhalin in 1945 as part of the agreement with the allies for her last-minute entry into the war against Japan.)

The interested powers had no intention of giving Japan a free hand in developing her power, and arranged at the Washington Conference in 1921 to impose conditions. Under this treaty the ratio of capital ship tonnages between Britain, the United States and Japan was set at 5:5:3. In 1923 the Anglo-Japanese alliance was abrogated and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 imposed further limitations upon the Imperial Japanese Navy. Anti-British feeling grew in Japan as pro-German sentiments increased. The technical exchange between Britain and Japan had ceased with the abrogation of the alliance. Since there was no prospect of support from the United States, with whom a fatal rivalry was now developing, Japan sought a new partner to supply essential technical expertise.

Britain’s building of the Singapore naval base caused a furore in Japan where it was seen as an Anglo-American provocative measure to attempt to limit Japan’s interests in the Pacific. In 1937, when the Sino-Japanese War began, relationships deteriorated further. Japan took full advantage of her time in China to develop and refine tactics and machinery. While the Stukas were being tested in Spain, a similar experience was being enjoyed by the Zeros in China. After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Japan moved closer to Germany, culminating in September 1940 with the signing of the tripartite pact. Japanese confidence had developed into Japanese over-confidence.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a repeat performance of the attack on Port Arthur. As if to acknowledge that point, the lead carrier Akagi flew the same battle flag as Admiral Togo had flown on the Mikasa during Japan’s pre-emptive strike on Port Arthur. What was surprising was that on 19 February 1942 a smaller Akagi carrier group would make a similar, successful, surprise attack on the airfield and ships at Darwin in what was to be described in Australia as ‘a day of national shame’.

25 February 2021

Effects of Japan's Victory on the Yalu, 1904

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 90-91:

The battle of the Yalu was not only the decisive battle of this war, but was also a battle which ranks as one of the most important in the annals of warfare. The threat posed by Korea had been removed. Russia demonstrated her inability to go on the offensive, and her inability to match the fighting qualities of the Japanese at sea, and now on land. Russia had severely underestimated her enemy. The ‘monkeys’ had seen off her troops in a manner so impressive as to open the previously tied purse strings in London and New York to finance Japan’s further progress in the war. The psychological impact on Russia was immense; this disgrace was the beginning of her downfall, it was the beginning of many beginnings. From this point can be traced the inevitability of the end of the old colonialism, an impetus toward the development of world communism and its own attendant form of colonialism, and the euphoria which swept Japan into other wars, and the ultimate thermonuclear response. ‘The echoes of the battle will reverberate afar,’ wrote the military correspondent of The Times, ‘and distant is the day when the story will weary in the telling, among the races of the unforgiving East.’

24 February 2021

Finding a Russian Scapegoat for Tsushima

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 375-376:

Responding to the mood of a restless public, the authorities in St Petersburg sought to identify a scapegoat to account for the national humiliation at Tsushima. [Captain Nikolas L.] Klado [author of The Russian Navy in the Russo-Japanese War, 1905] derided Admiral Rozhdestvenski, accusing him of defeatism and failing to employ properly the reinforcements which Klado had been so instrumental in sending. Appearing in 1906 before the court in civilian clothes, Rozhdestvenski explained to the judges, ‘We were just not strong enough and God gave us no luck.’ The issue before the court was the surrender of the Bedovi. The Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, who had received a commiserative message from the Tsar, and his staff officer Semenov were exonerated on the grounds that they had not been informed of Commander Baranov’s decision to surrender in order to save the admiral, his officers and the remainder of the crew. Despite Rozhdestvenski’s insistence that the decision had been his, the court did not believe that his wounds would have enabled him to take a rational decision. Baranov, Clapier de Colongue and two other members on the Commander-in-Chief’s staff were sentenced to death. The Tsar intervened and those found guilty were dismissed the service and given varying periods of imprisonment. But these had not been major players in the battle. Someone more senior must be to blame. Rozhdestvenski had been exonerated, his deputy Felkerzam had died two days before the battle, so the next most senior was the commander of the decrepit but hard-hitting battleships, Admiral Nebogatov. Rozhdestvenski should be considered fortunate. His skill in bringing his ragbag fleet to within sight of Tsushima counted for little in relation to the mistakes made on the last leg. Naval strategists will continue to debate the issue as to which course he should have taken for Vladivostok but his significant failure was a failure to communicate. He never explained to his commanders his battle plan; the death of Admiral Felkerzam, the fleet’s second-in-command, was kept a secret, which contributed to the Russian fleet not being under command for three hours at the height of the conflict, and Rozhdestvenski made only two, ill-considered, orders to manoeuvre – both before the conflict.

Nebogatov was tried under Article 354 of the 1899 Russian Military Maritime Law for surrendering his four battleships, now repaired and commissioned into the Japanese fleet. Legally and morally he should have been exonerated but it had become expedient that someone should be identified as having been guilty for the defeat of the Baltic fleet. The quest to find a head was not extended to the corridors of Russia’s Admiralty nor to the Tsar’s noble advisers who had persuaded him to enter into this disastrous war in the first place. The court sentenced Nebogatov and his immediate subordinates to death, a punishment later commuted to ten years’ imprisonment.

23 February 2021

Tsarist Russian Officer Corps

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 383, 392:

The Japanese officer provided the essential link between the men and their Emperor. The majority of junior officers were of peasant origin and had been educated in the tradition of the samurai and the school of Bushido. With very few exceptions, the Russian officer did not enjoy such empathy with his men because the men were of lowly origin. That in itself is no reason why, as Britain’s armed forces proved in the twentieth century, they should not fight as an effective and harmonious whole. One reason why Russia’s officer corps lacked the common standards and professionalism enjoyed by the Japanese officer corps was noted by a military observer: ‘… the remarkable number of Guards officers, who were either promoted to commands, or else were appointed to the staff. A few were good men in the field but family influence was usually the deciding factor, and the officers of the line – and Russia – suffered accordingly.’ Another reason was the advanced years of many commanders, effectively blocking the progress of energetic, younger officers with new ideas.

In 1914, the Russian First and Second Armies were commanded by Rennenkampf and Samsonov, the former sparring partners at Mukden station in 1905. Colonel Max Hoffman had been one of the German observers during the Russo-Japanese War and used the possibility of a breakdown in communication and co-operation between the two Russian generals to offer Ludendorff and Hindenburg a plan to divide the two Russian armies. When German signals intercept units picked up the Russian future intentions being sent in clear and not coded, Hoffman was able to persuade his doubting commanders that this was not a deception plan but rather sheer, unsurprising incompetence.

22 February 2021

Japanese Army Logistics, 1904

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle p. 68:

A rough and rugged country, bad communications, a poor population with a seasonal shortage of supplies, and the limitations imposed by uncompromising weather, only served to exacerbate the problems of waging war. In few wars has the evidence of the relevance of the factors of military administration – simplicity, co-operation, economy of effort, flexibility and foresight – been so appropriately displayed. The Japanese advance northward was spearheaded by the commissary protected by the cavalry and infantry. Pyongyang, 150 miles north of Seoul, was entered first on 21 February by a transport officer who, with a party of twenty men, drove out the Cossacks. Along the route towards that town four further supply posts were established, enabling the cavalry screen of the Twelfth Division to enter Pyongyang on 23 February, followed by the main body arriving between 25 February and the first week of March. The logisticians had made good preparations for the division’s arrival. A palace was requisitioned and became the focal point for the collection of supplies. Blankets and mounds of rice appeared as if by magic. Herds of cattle, observed and noted by the Japanese agents living among the Koreans, were bought, collected and driven towards the depot. Quartermasters beavered away. Outside every village and suburb appeared noticeboards assigning areas and quarters to the still distant advancing troops. Maps, drawings and diagrams showed every local house and road in detail. When the tired troops arrived, their quarters had been prepared for them, fires were lit in the streets, and field kitchens supplied hot food.

While bargaining was going on for the purchase of pigs at a fair rate, coolie convoys would head southward out of the town in the direction of the approaching soldiers. With the exception of gun ammunition, no military package exceeded 75 lbs – the optimum weight for one coolie to carry. Further calculations would extrapolate these loads to so many for a pony, a cart, and so on. Uniformity of size was therefore important, as was the correct labelling of each packet. The coolie army had been instantly recruited and numbered 10,000. They were paid wages well above the market norm and the status of village leaders was recognised by decorating them with stripes of red to show that they held privileged positions in His Imperial Majesty’s Japanese Transport Corps.

20 February 2021

Foreign Observers of Russo-Japanese War

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 70-71:

The intention of foreign nations to learn lessons from the wars of others was demonstrated by the role of the foreign military observer, a role which became institutionalised during the American Civil War 1861–5 and the Franco–Prussian War 1870–71. The alliances which followed-on from these wars and the perceived impact of technological revolution upon modern warfare were responsible for a quantum leap in interest in the monitoring of the events on both sides of the Russo-Japanese War, on land and at sea. There were as many as one hundred foreign military observers from sixteen countries in Manchuria and Korea.

Britain provided the largest proportion of observers for she recognised that, as the ranking power, she had the most to lose in not keeping abreast with the developments and potential of modern warfare. The Royal Navy’s last serious battle had been Trafalgar, 1805, and her army’s last conventional war had been the Crimean War, 1853–6. Colonial conflict, as in the Boer War, 1899–1902, provided Britain with no compelling evidence as to how the next continental war would be fought but what it did do was raise worrying questions concerning the performance of her army. The Imperial Japanese Army had scant regard for the British Army, whereas the Imperial Japanese Navy (and Russia) rated the Royal Navy highly. Even though Captain William Packenham became a personal friend of Admiral Togo, he never felt sufficiently confident to test this friendship by going ashore. Geographical factors provided Britain with further reason to be interested in how the Japanese managed the war. It was the naval strategist Corbett who remarked: ‘What the North Sea and the English Channel are to ourselves, the Sea of Japan and the Straits of Korea are for the island empire of the Far East.’

Russia had good reason to regard as spies the three military observers she accepted from Britain, among whom was Brigadier W. H-H. Waters. Russia was no more relaxed with the Admiralty’s appointee, Captain Eyres, later captured in Manchuria by the Japanese.

19 February 2021

No Submarine Attacks in Russo-Japanese War

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 63-64:

The Japanese believed that the Hatsuse and Yashima had been struck by Russian submarines. The signal was made, ‘Look out for submarines’, at which point the Shikishima began firing into the sea. Submarines were in the process of being acquired and constructed in both countries but were not used. At the time there was little information in the public domain on the use of submarines. They were introduced into a 1900 Greenwich wargame but an air of uncertainty and caution overshadowed their operation. A contemporary British authority described the submarine as an ‘underhand method of attack’ and recognised it as being detrimental to a nation dependent upon sea trade. A Dutch submarine that featured in a film of 18 July 1904 was purchased by the Japanese. They had been less overt in 1902 when an order was placed for five Holland-design submarines on the American Fore River Company. These thirteen-man, petrol-engined submarines were equipped with one 18-inch torpedo. The boats, built in great secrecy, were sent, dismantled, by rail to Seattle and thence by sea to Yokosuka. They arrived on 12 December 1904, but their assembly was delayed until March–May 1905; eventual commissioning of the first boat on 1 August 1905 was too late for it to take part in the Russo-Japanese War.

The Russians were further advanced than the Japanese in the development of submersibles. The Drzewicki class numbered fifty-two miniature boats, of which the more numerous Type-3 had a crew of four. Employed in the 1877–8 Russo-Turkish War, the boats were designed to fix mines against the hulls of enemy ships. At war’s end, as is the wont of governments, further development came to an end. The boats were used in the close defence of defended localities until 1886, when the majority were converted to buoys. An exception was the three-ton submersible Keta, a modified Drzewicki designed for coastal patrol and fitted with a petrol engine. During the Russo-Japanese War it was beached on the Amur estuary during an abortive attempt to sink a Japanese destroyer.

18 February 2021

Reactions to Japan's Surprise Attack, 1904

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 49, 51:

Ships had barely reached full complement when the Japanese were seen again. At 8 a.m. a reconnaissance party of four light cruisers, the Third Division commanded by Rear Admiral Dewa, steamed some seven miles off the port without coming into range. Dewa saw the Russian fleet gathered under the protection of the forts. They had moved their positions but by only a few miles to the east. Dewa picked out the two battleships and cruiser aground. He sensed the Russians were in a state of shock and from his cruiser the Takasago recommended that the First and Second Divisions be brought up to consolidate the night’s work. Togo was concerned about the firepower of the forts, but hearing that the enemy appeared unprepared and disorganised he decided to take the risk. Just before midday the Russians saw the Japanese fleet. The lookouts in the forts sounded the alarm as they witnessed the Japanese bearing down on their own Boyarin making full speed towards the harbour and firing her stern guns to no effect. Chaos reigned in Port Arthur. Lighters had moved alongside the Retvizan and Tsarevitch to keep them afloat. Warships moved quickly to jettison inflammable material while enterprising coolies in sampans sifted through the jetsam for the more attractive souvenirs. Captains leapt about demanding to know why their ships were not ready, while all the time they could see the dark smudge on the horizon being blown towards them by the southerly wind in the clear blue sky. As the smudge grew larger, so did the frenzy of activity on the Russian warships. At 12.15 the flagship Mikasa, leading the First Division, opened fire with her 12-inch guns. Only the large calibre guns were used as the three divisions steamed in succession from west to east.


The Tsar was stunned by the news of the attack. He could not believe that Japan could initiate a warlike act without a formal declaration of war. Both he and the Emperor of Japan declared war on 10 February 1904. The rest of the world was by no means anti-Japan. The Japanese were masters of the psychological approach and secrecy. The Times summed up Britain’s attitude to her ally by dismissing the pre-emptive attack as being quite normal for wars in modern times. The Americans were not so quick to embrace the Japanese sense of realism, yet they reluctantly fell in line behind a sympathetic President Roosevelt who had become the centre for Japanese fawning and attention. The next few days were set aside for reflection and assessment. Togo was disappointed by the apparent lack of success of his torpedo attack. His real success, however, needs to be viewed in terms wider than that of pure shipping. In this action at Port Arthur, he had settled an old score and laid claim to his fleet’s recognition as being on a par with the best in Europe. He had won command of the sea and at the same time almost completely demoralised his enemy.

15 February 2021

George Simpson's Legacy at HBC

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 335-337:

Suspicious by nature, Simpson nosed his way into every aspect of the business looking for things others might have missed. The overarching theme of his governorship was control, and he believed that improving the Company’s efficiency involved not merely optimizing its operations but cutting expenses. Over the years, Simpson gradually phased out the use of transport canoes—apart from his own enormous and speedy executive canoe—and replaced them with the heavy but large York boats that the Company had been using on certain routes for decades. In keeping with Simpson’s philosophy of economy, it was just a matter of math. The inelegant and tubby boats had a greater manpower-to-cargo ratio. They were also cheap to make and maintain and required less skill to use. The real clincher for Simpson was that he could have the boats made larger while the number of men to crew them was kept the same. One of his devious schemes to cut wages was to pressure labourers and officers to renew their contracts during the winter, when, because of their isolation, they had no idea what the prevailing rates and wages were, and they usually agreed to less in the absence of a competitive market.

Taken as a whole, Simpson’s actions, including his preoccupation with the minutiae of people’s lives, confirm the conclusion that he wielded an unwholesome authority over those who lived in his domain. He enjoyed knowing that he held power over people, that they could be kept in check by having no agency over the bread-and-butter aspects of their lives. Displaying deference and loyalty to him was the surest way of securing a promotion—that and not being Indigenous or of mixed heritage. Simpson rarely promoted the sons of his officers and their Indigenous wives above the position of labourer or interpreter, preferring to bring in Scots from overseas for officer ranks. By the 1830s, many of his officers fumed at this discrimination against their children and sought alternative opportunities for them. “It appears the present concern has stamped the Cain mark upon all born in this country,” wrote trader Charles Mackenzie regarding his mixed-heritage son Hector. “Neither education nor abilities serve them. The Honourable Company are unwilling to take natives, even as apprenticed clerks, and the favoured few they do take can never aspire to a higher status, be their education and capacity what they may.” But native-born people—whether Indigenous or of mixed heritage—were the ones who best understood the Company’s operations and responsibilities, and they chafed at being relegated to positions of subservience beneath imported managers. It was an uphill battle, and by the 1860s the “half breeds” made up only a third of the officer ranks.

Simpson didn’t care if he was liked or hated—he worked for his own benefit and to keep the London Committee satiated with profit. Beneath the surface, his was an information empire as much as a fur empire. The more profitable and secure things seemed, the less anyone was inclined to interfere with his methods or his personal life. Seeing in Simpson an uncommonly astute operative who appeared content to dwell in the hinterland, the Company promoted him to be in charge of both the Northern and Southern Districts in 1824. Simpson became the head of a personality cult that ran a complex commercial, and increasingly political, empire. He was the boss of the only general store for half a continent.

13 February 2021

First American Mountain Men, 1820s

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 358-359:

WILLIAM ASHLEY, AN ASTUTE ENTREPRENEUR, gunpowder salesman and later politician based out of St. Louis, changed the fur trade forever in the Pacific Northwest and set in motion events that would change its politics as well. In the spring of 1823, Ashley and his partner Andrew Henry organized a band of one hundred ragged and unruly ramblers—some wastrels, some thugs, some adventurous youths from the east, and quite a few former Nor’Westers disgruntled after the amalgamation with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Ashley’s small band, based out of the ramshackle tavern town of St. Louis, poled their unwieldy flat-bottomed barges upriver along the mud-coloured Missouri River and into the mountains. From there they filtered into the valleys and gulches of western Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado to set traps for unwary beaver. They were the first American “Mountain Men,” and during the 1820s and 1830s they expanded their operations westward toward the Pacific, nibbling at the fringes of McLoughlin’s domain and encroaching on the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples.

Ashley’s “One Hundred Men” were not hauling into the wilderness back-breaking burdens of trade goods to exchange with the Indians for their furs. Instead they were laden with beaver traps and personal supplies. They had no intention of constructing a trading fort in the mountains. Ashley’s scheme was to have his men do the actual trapping—a role in the fur trade that had previously been the exclusive domain of Indigenous peoples, particularly in the north.

Not surprisingly, the invasion of traditional territories did not help relations between the two peoples. The various tribes didn’t appreciate hundreds of foreigners wandering around their territory trapping all the beaver. Within a few years, a more or less constant low-level war existed between the new trappers and the natives. Both the Mountain Men and the Indigenous warriors proudly displayed the scalps of their vanquished foes, sometimes wearing strings of the shrivelled flesh and hair as accoutrements to their outfits. The American senator Thomas Benton suggested that nearly five hundred American trappers perished in combat with the Rocky Mountain peoples by the close of the 1820s. He made no estimate of the Indigenous peoples that they had killed. The life expectancy of a “free trapper” could be short, and so for mutual protection as they invaded the traditional lands of proud and sometimes militant nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Snake (Shoshoni) or Nez Perce, the free trappers travelled in brigades, or companies, of twenty men or more. Two of the greatest of these brigades were the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the Missouri Fur Company, although both were later absorbed by the American Fur Company as John Jacob Astor tightened his grip on the American fur trade in the 1830s. Astor rapidly increased the trade along the upper Missouri River with the use of steam-powered ships. By the time the demand for fur had petered out by the 1840s, Astor had sold his interests in the fur trade, and the industry slipped into decline—the age of the Mountain Men was between 1822 and 1840. But the American Fur Company continued to flourish in the decades to follow, beginning the lucrative trade in bison hides that eventually drove the thundering herds to near extinction later in the century.

11 February 2021

Old Oregon No Man's Land

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 280-281:

The European colonial settlement of eastern North America had progressed quickly in the last decade of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. Cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia had mushroomed after the revolution, and farmland expanded to feed the influx of people and increasingly encroached on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. The British, anxious to maintain against the United States a legal claim to the Columbia River, the artery of the fur trade west of the Great Divide, proposed extending the 49th parallel west to the Columbia and then following the Columbia as the border to the sea. To the American negotiators who had their eye on the large, deep harbours of Puget Sound (the only viable harbours for large ships north of San Francisco) this was not ideal. But in 1818, weary from years of inconclusive conflict during the War of 1812, neither the British nor the Americans were willing to grapple over who would lay claim to the land on the far side of the Continental Divide. So they agreed to jointly “occupy” the region, deferring more complicated, and politically charged, questions to the future. (The terms of the Convention of 1818 were reaffirmed indefinitely in 1827, with the provision that either country could cancel the agreement with one year’s notice.)

In February 1819, the United States and Spain signed the Adams–Onis Treaty. In addition to selling the territory of Florida for $5 million, Spain also agreed to the northern boundary of California being set at the 42nd parallel and ceded any rights to the territory north of that to the United States. Russia, in two separate treaties—with the United States in 1824 and with Britain in 1825—bowed out of Old Oregon (but retained the right to trade in the region), agreeing to a southern boundary for Alaska roughly similar to the Canadian-American border today.

Old Oregon, now defined as the territory west of the Rocky Mountains, north of Spanish California and south of Russian Alaska, became a political no man’s land, jointly claimed on paper by Britain and the United States, and open to settlement and commercial development from either nation, although neither had any tangible presence there and they had neglected to inform the local inhabitants of their decision. Of course, the only commercial development was the fur trade, and the traders were more likely to follow the customs of their Indigenous hosts and customers than those of Londoners, Montrealers or New Yorkers. The vast territory remained unchanged for decades, until the 1830s, when the first wagon trains began rolling west along the Oregon Trail.

The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company faced other challenges east of the Rockies that proved to be more of a threat—their own internecine quarrels.

09 February 2021

Shifting Fur Trade Alliances & Enmities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 263-264:

THOMPSON QUICKLY LEARNED THAT THE PIEGAN, or Piikani, were in a general state of conflict with the people farther west on the other side of the mountains, the Kutenai, a Plains tribe that had only two generations earlier been pushed west by the Piegan and other tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika (Blackfoot) and the Kainai (Blood). Since Henday’s time nearly a half-century earlier, the confederacy of linguistically and culturally similar peoples had banded together to become the most powerful military force in the region. They were surrounded by many enemies, however, and consequently they were fierce warriors. The political situation was always in flux, with an ever-shifting series of alliances and enmities. There were the Crow, Cheyenne and Sioux (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) on the Great Plains. There were the Shoshone, Flathead, Kalispell, Kootenai and Nez Perce to the west and southwest in the mountainous regions. For a time, the Blackfoot Confederacy’s greatest challengers were the occasionally allied Plains Cree, the Nakoda or Stony (Assiniboine) and the Saulteaux or Plains Ojibwa of the loosely affiliated Iron Confederacy to the north and east. (The Iron Confederacy also traded European manufactured goods to the Mandan for beans, maize and tobacco.) Later in the nineteenth century the Blackfoot Confederacy’s adversaries included the Métis. The Piegan occupied the westernmost fringe of the Confederacy’s territory and were a fierce people tasked with guarding the frontier from enemies coming over the mountains.

The Piegan, like the Blackfoot and the Blood, never used canoes but rode horses, of which they were masters, and kept dogs to haul their goods. They tended to dwell in concentrated semi-permanent communities of at least one hundred lodges and lived by hunting bison herds and migrating with them, enlivening their diet with trout from the many cold streams that rushed down through the grassy foothills from the mountains. In the late summer and fall, after the chokecherries ripened and bison wandered west in search of better grasses, bands would congregate to drive vast numbers of bison over cliffs at places such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwestern Alberta.

The Piegan for a time occupied the position as middlemen in the trade with the Kootenay (also spelled Kootenai and Kutenai) and other culturally similar peoples to their immediate west, and were in direct opposition to the North West Company’s plan to expand the trade over the mountains. In particular they sought to maintain a monopoly on guns to preserve their military superiority. In one instance, a band of mounted Piegan warriors followed Thompson when he travelled from Rocky Mountain House into the mountains to meet a band of Kootenay and escort them back to the fort. The intimidation wasn’t entirely successful, and the Kootenay were able to trade pelts of wolverines, fishers, bears and over a hundred beaver. The Piegan did everything short of all-out war to prevent the commerce. Thompson persuaded the Kootenay to send a guide over the pass the following year to help him lead a pack train over the mountains, but the man was killed within a few miles of the fort.

08 February 2021

Nor'Westers vs. Hudson's Bay Company

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 205-207:

EACH OF THE TWO COMPANIES HAD competitive advantages and disadvantages. Working against the North West Company was the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company could get its goods by ship right into the heart of the continent, while the Nor’Westers had to transport their goods from Montreal, far to the south and east. But the Company suffered from a lack of manpower. The near-continuous wars that occupied Britain (the American War of Independence between 1775 and 1783 and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1792 and 1815) deprived the Company of easy access to young male workers when they were desperately needed to staff the new inland posts. The Napoleonic Wars in particular made it difficult for the Company to recruit young men into the overseas fur trade, and it increasingly hired the mixed-blood descendants of earlier employees to take on roles within the Company hierarchy. The Company still adhered to its policy of rarely employing Indigenous people for full-time careers because it wanted them out in the bush capturing beaver, fulfilling the supply side of the business equation, for which they were uniquely suited. Over time the connotation of “mixed-blood” or “Indian” denoted economic roles and placement in the hierarchy rather than purely genetic or racial background. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Company still had barely five hundred employees in North America, although it relied heavily upon the contract services of countless Indigenous hunters, guides and labourers.

The Nor’Westers, on the other hand, drew on Quebec’s seventy-thousand-strong local population, whether French or Mohawk-Iroquois. They fielded approximately twelve hundred people along their vast supply line. It was a more expensive and labour-intensive business model, but, as would be seen, the larger numbers would be useful in a fight. The Iroquois were particularly suitable for aggressive conflict, and even the Company began hiring them decades later when the two companies were at war. “I have frequently heard the Canadian and Iroquois voyagers disputed as regards their merits,” wrote Company agent Colin Robertson in 1819, “perhaps the former may be more hardy or undergo more fatigue, but in either rapid or traverse, give me the latter, for their calmness and presence of mind which never forsakes them in the greatest danger.” If you were in a scrape, you’d want a Mohawk-Iroquois companion, and these men were in great demand in the early nineteenth century.

The life of a voyageur could be harsh and often short, full of danger and extreme living, but many would never trade it for any other, signing on for the next season’s work each year for decades and only retiring when they were no longer capable of the rigours of the life. One old man, astonishingly over seventy, reminisced on his life travelling the land as a fur trader. “I have been 24 years a canoeman and 41 years in service; no portage was ever too long for me. Fifty songs I could sing. I have saved the lives of 10 voyageurs. Have had 12 wives and six running dogs. I spent all my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I should spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur life.”

The two companies’ different corporate structures also manifested in their interactions with local peoples. While the Company men were ordered to adhere to basic discipline and to respect various Indigenous customs and ceremony, the more chaotic arrangements of the Nor’Westers allowed for more individual discretion, which meant in some cases developing a greater facility with Indigenous languages and a deeper understanding of local customs. But the “pedlars,” as the Company men derisively called them in the early days before they became a dangerous and organized threat, also earned a reputation for bad living and poor relations with Indigenous peoples, the result of the behaviour of a minority tarnishing the reputation of many. As a consequence, they seldom stayed in the same place from year to year for fear of repercussions and kept building new outposts. It wasn’t a stable business plan.

07 February 2021

Hudson's Bay Company Policies vs. Realities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 118-121:

Spirits were in great demand as payment for hunting, in ceremonial exchanges and in payment for furs. Throughout the eighteenth century the Company made frequent attempts to restrict or regulate the dispensation of liquor, but these efforts were never uniform. The main obstacle to instituting a more consistent prohibition was that it was impossible to regulate alcohol completely within the factories for their own employees, and they feared that if denied alcohol completely the Indigenous traders would take their business to the French, in spite of the greater travelling distance and inferior trade goods. Potent alcohol was a recurring problem for all who congregated at the Company’s posts; this was a society struggling to develop the social infrastructure and accepted behaviours needed to regulate and control the actions of people under the influence of the new intoxicants. Isham later observed that a custom had evolved whereby men who planned on drinking would send away the women and children along with all the guns and knives. Most of the problems between the employees and officers at the factories also had to do with the abuse of or smuggling of liquor.

The most striking thing is that none of the decision makers on the London Committee ever visited the bay, apart from James Knight, and the yawning gap between reality and theory was also part of life at the outpost. Whether it be admonitions to grow more vegetables, to get more work done during each season, to trade for more furs by exhorting the Cree to work harder, or to get their employees to urge Indigenous peoples from farther inland to breach the Cree hegemony and trade directly at the fort, many directives had to be politely ignored. Life at the factories along the bay revolved around its own unique set of customs and activities, borrowing from Indigenous practices whenever convenient, accommodating Indigenous customs whenever possible and generally creating its own society that was derived from cultural and geographical necessity rather than rigid London imperatives.

One directive from the London Committee to John Nixon must have made his eyes roll when he read it at Fort Albany in 1680. A helpful suggestion on how to save money on food rations, it revealed just how little was appreciated in London of life along the bay: “Upon Hayes Island where our grand Factory is, you may propagate Swine without much difficulty, wch. is an excellent flesh, and the Creature is hardy and will live where some other Creatures cannot.” These types of directives were written by well-meaning dandies, upper-class financiers and aristocrats who had never been to Hudson Bay and experienced its primitive outposts, harsh climate and poor soil, but also had never worked outside the rarefied palatial offices and manors of upper-class English society—people, in short, who ought not be telling servants how to procure their food on a remote distant continent, where they were visitors in a bewildering and deadly land, perched precariously along the rim of a geographical and cultural terra incognita.

On the one hand, there was the London Committee, with its directors planning grand strategy and issuing orders that occasionally indulged in the penchant for micromanagement, and then there were the people who worked for the Company in the outposts with the geographical and climatic constraints of the Subarctic and who worked with, or were friends with or even married to, the Indigenous people of that land. The Company had official policies, but the people bayside interpreted those policies and adjusted them to reality.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE HOSTS OF THAT foreign land were at the heart of life and business at the posts. Not only were the local, or Home Guard, Cree often hired for jobs as labourers, hunters, guides, seamstresses, cooks and interpreters, but sexual and romantic relations between Indigenous women and Company men were common. In the earliest days of its operations in the late seventeenth century, the Company’s directors issued proclamations to its officers to prevent or obstruct these relationships. “We are very sensible that the Indian Weoman resorting to our Factories are very prejudiciall to the Companies affaires,” the committee wrote to John Nixon in 1682, “not only by being a meanes of our Servants often debauching themselves, but likewise by embeazling our goods and very much exhausting our Provisions, It is therefore our positive order that you lay your strict Commands on every Cheife of each Factory upon forfiture of Wages not to Suffer any wooman to come within any of our factories.” For obvious reasons, this directive from aristocratic directors, comfortable in their estates in London and surrounded by their families, was not only foolish but unenforceable, human nature and social needs being what they are.

There was always a difference between what London directors wrote in their letters as official policy and what chief factors enforced for themselves and their men. Money was usually at the crux of it. Workers who spent many years of their lives in what amounted to remote work camps wanted to improve their lot as much as possible, while the managers didn’t want responsibility for families. But, as Graham noted, “the Company permit no European women to be brought within their territories; and forbid any natives to be harboured in the settlements. This latter has never been obeyed.”

But the Company soon appreciated the benefit of having close ties with their Indigenous trading partners and quietly began supporting intimate liaisons. The shift in opinion was based on the realization that these relationships were not a financial drain but rather an asset. Unofficial diplomatic marriages between Indigenous women and Company employees became common, with Indigenous women seeking kinship ties for more favourable trading privileges, while single Company men sought female companionship and an introduction to the life and customs of the land. In a practical sense these were alliances for mutual aid, companionship and support, both social and economic, much like marriages today.

04 February 2021

Culinary Delights of Canada's Northwest

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle p. 195:

Hearne’s posthumously published A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the Northern Ocean is a charming and lively account of his years of adventure with Matonabbee, a classic of northern exploration literature and an unvarnished window into eighteenth-century life in the northern interior, a region on the cusp of great change. Hearne was a keen observer of the natural world, such as the seasonal behaviour of animals, the types of vegetation and the climate. He had a particular interest in Chipewyan customs and lifestyle. Food was another favourite topic, perhaps because the cuisine on the Barren Lands was so different from the food at the fort, and perhaps because on his adventures he often didn’t have enough of it. He detailed the many different methods of hunting and of preparing food, which animal parts were the tastiest or most coveted when herbed, boiled or roasted. He described with relish a common hearty caribou stew, and a venison dish called beeatee that was “a most delicious morsel.” Similar to the Scottish haggis, it was made using the animal’s stomach as a vessel, stuffed with blood, chopped fat, tenderized meat, kidneys and heart mixed with seasonal herbs. The beeatee was steamed and smoked over a fire into an aromatic pâté. Hearne found buffalo tripe to be “exceedingly good,” while warm caribou blood sucked directly from the bullet hole was “very nourishing.” Moose stomach, on the other hand, was “rather bitter.” Hearne also savoured raw fish of various types and cuts, which was a common meal of the Chipewyan and remained a mainstay of Hearne’s palate for the rest of his life, a fondly remembered delicacy that he would specially request when dining out in London, perhaps to unobtrusively raised eyebrows acknowledging the culinary peccadilloes of the eccentric traveller.

Hearne wrote in detail about the annual life cycle of the Dene-speaking peoples of the Barren Lands, and the difference between the sexes and their respective roles in society. Narrative examples give poignancy to his anthropological generalizations, and his fascinating insights are written in clear, descriptive and vibrant language.

03 February 2021

The Era of Beaver Pelts and Mad Hatters

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 46-48:

IT WAS A SEEMINGLY RANDOM flight of fashion that began the dramatic expansion in commerce between the English, French and many of the Indigenous peoples of North America. Furs have always had value in winter for warmth, and to a lesser extent had value for their water-resistant properties, but it was their use in the manufacture of felt that drove the demand in Europe. Felt was developed originally in central Asia as an excellent insulating and waterproofing material for tents and tarps; it was also used in ancient times by Roman legionaries as padding under their armour. In seventeenth-century Europe, felt was primarily used in the manufacture of hats, an ever-changing fashion accoutrement that became an indispensable signifier of prestige and social identity first for gentlemen and ladies and then, as the century progressed, for nearly every status of person. The style of hat signalled the level of prestige and the profession of the wearer. Picture the distinctive tricorne or Continental hat; or the cocked hat of the navy; the dignified stovepipe Regent, or top hat, of the financiers; and the somewhat amusing Paris Beau beloved of the young urban rake. Ladies’ hats had their own hierarchy of frivolity, complexity and expense—and attendant etiquette and social flourishes that governed how a hat was worn and with which accessories, how it was donned and with which distinctive and noble gesture it was removed.

In general, the waterproof and durable beaver felt hat, which could be dyed and moulded into a bewildering variety of shapes, was perfectly suited to symbolize and reflect the desires of an increasingly stratified and mercenary society. People were marked by their hats, the prices of which were well known and appreciated. Since it took about three to four worn beaver pelts to make enough felt for a single hat, some hats were so pricey that they were carefully tended and repaired for years and then passed down as inheritances. Even wealthy people kept inferior spares to be worn in inclement weather, saving their best beaver for notable occasions—or at least occasions when others might note the quality and make of their hat.

Felt was made using heat, moisture, pressure and mercury nitrate to shrink the fur fibres so that they matted together. Hatters spent long hours toiling away in their poorly ventilated tenements, inhaling clouds of mercury fumes as they bent over their felt-making apparatus, combing, pressing and steaming the pelts into the desired consistency and shape. Mercury was eventually discovered to have debilitating effects on the hatter, causing a type of poisoning called erethism, or mad hatter disease, which was characterized by tremors, depression, delirium, memory loss and hallucinations. Hatter wasn’t a profession or trade conducive to a long and healthy life, but nor were many other occupations of the era, and the dangers were poorly understood while the pay could be high.

By the early eighteenth century, London was not only the principal depot for the wholesale warehouses of prime beaver pelts from the best beaver preserve in the world, but by a coincidence of history it was also becoming the global centre for hat manufacture, which for centuries had been based in northern France. Seventeenth-century Europe was riven with religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Many of the felt and hat manufacturing trades were dominated by French Protestant Huguenots. In the mid-1680s, they began to flee their homes and cross the English Channel to escape religious persecution. They settled in the vicinity of London and brought with them the secrets of their trade, so that soon the best hats in Europe made from the best beaver pelts from North America originated in London. The most distinguished French nobility, and even Catholic cardinals, ordered their distinctive hats from Protestant hat makers in London.

02 February 2021

The World of the Coureurs de Bois, 1600s

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 18-20:

FRENCH MARINERS HAD BEEN TRADING FOR furs intermittently since the second half of the sixteenth century, but it was the founding of Quebec by Champlain in 1608 that marked the transition from a seasonal coastal trade to a permanent enterprise with routes that extended deep into the continent’s interior. With a population numbering only in the hundreds, the tiny French colony nevertheless became embroiled in the regional conflicts of the Montagnais, Algonquin, Huron and Iroquois-speaking peoples, with furs and firearms being the drivers of economic and political activity. Algonquian speakers lived primarily in the Ottawa Valley, the Huron farther west around Georgian Bay and in southern Ontario, and the Montagnais in the north of present-day Quebec and around the mouth of the Saguenay River on the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. The Huron were an Iroquoian-speaking people with similarly settled culture but were not part of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, to the south and east.

The land was covered in great deciduous forests of oak and maple and elm, interspersed with lakes and rivers. It was humid and hot in the summer and cold and deeply snow-covered in the winter. The more northern Montagnais and Algonquin lived semi-nomadic lives, moving between different regions of their territory according to the season and the availability of animals for food. The Huron and Iroquois, on the other hand, lived in villages of large communal longhouses around fields of corn, squash and beans. Corn was an important trade commodity to northern peoples like the Algonquin. The trade routes were well maintained and regularly patrolled. The lakes and rivers held an abundance of fish, and wild turkeys were plentiful, as were wild game such as deer and migratory geese and other birds. These were affluent societies made even more so in the early days of the fur trade when they had access to European trade goods at cheap prices and, thanks to their role as middlemen, trade with more distant groups.

The 1650s were a time of conflict and upheaval along the St. Lawrence region, the Hudson River and what is today southern Ontario. The Montagnais positioned themselves as the fur brokers, as successive Indigenous peoples would do in time, pushing the trade farther north and west, transporting French manufactured goods inland, trading and then carrying the furs back to auction off to the French. In exchange they demanded firearms to help them in their conflict with the Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy to the south—a pre-existing struggle that intensified as the beaver population diminished, causing increasing competition between the Iroquois, the Montagnais and the Huron over who would control trade with the peoples farther west and north. The Hudson River region was never the best beaver territory, and by the 1640s it was mostly trapped out, which led to the “Beaver Wars” of the 1650s and 1660s, as the Iroquois sought to become the only middlemen in the trade, controlling all access to the European fur markets. By 1650, the Huron were vanquished as a political force, the survivors abandoning their lands and fleeing to distant regions.

It was common for young Frenchmen to live, work, travel and learn Indigenous languages and customs to secure alliances and smooth commerce. They were called the coureurs de bois, or runners of the woods. The French settlements at Quebec, Trois-Rivières and Tadoussac were traditionally allied with the Huron and the Algonquian-speaking peoples and suffered the animosity and hostilities of the Iroquois. The tiny French colony was entirely dependent upon local peoples for survival—the settlers owed their existence to the conduit they presented to exchange furs for metal implements. These people showed the French how to survive—how to hunt food, avoid scurvy and use furs for winter clothes that were far superior to cloth. Many young men married women from the Indigenous societies to form alliances for protection and to gain access to hunting and trapping grounds. By 1660, the entire French presence in New France was barely 3,200 people, two-thirds of them men, but within a decade it had already doubled. Montreal was founded only in 1642 and for many years consisted of little more than a few dozen families, although it too grew along with the fur trade.

01 February 2021

Hudson Bay Company's Charter

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 2-3:

King Charles II had granted his cronies a grandiose charter and monopoly absurd in its scope and geographical misunderstanding—absolute mercantile authority in English law over a territory that encompassed the entire watershed of Hudson Bay, some four million square kilometres of land, over 40 per cent of the later territory of Canada, including all of northern Ontario and Quebec, all of Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta and a good portion of the states of North Dakota and Minnesota. The region held nearly half the world’s supply of fresh water in a vast lowland of swamps, ponds and lakes, and was home to at least ten million beavers, then extremely valuable for their pelts. The Company was not a colonizing enterprise—nothing in its charter had do with missionaries or conquest—but nor was it a purely business enterprise. While commercial transactions for profit were its primary objective for the first century and a half of its existence, it also had other responsibilities, such as searching for the fabled route to Cathay, “by meanes whereof there may probably arise very great advantage to us and our Kingdome.”

The interior of North America in the 1670s was bewildering and unknown, and it was decades before the Company began to appreciate the political and cultural complexity of its trading monopoly. Word of the Company’s arrival spread quickly, and people began canoeing the rivers to its forts or factories along the Hudson Bay coastline each year. The [Algonquian] Cree who dwelt closest to the Company outposts along the bay, and eventually the [Siouan] Assiniboine and [Athabaskan] Chipewyan, became the brokers of the trade, operating their own jealously guarded monopolies and using the Company as a wholesale distributor, while passing on goods to Indigenous peoples farther inland.

After generations of mutually beneficial trade, knowledge and technology had been shared both ways, and many Company employees, including people of mixed genetic and cultural heritage, had learned the secrets of inland travel and survival. When faced with competition from traders of the North West Company coming west from Montreal in the 1780s, the Company moved inland and competition intensified. For most of its life the Company competed most vigorously for the right to thrive without competition.