Canadian Journal of History Author, Michael Wagner, Shares his Fascination with the History of The Hudson’s Bay Company

September 25, 2014

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Photo Credit, Heather Wagner

Written by guest blogger, Michael Wagner.

Like most Canadians, I grew up with a sense that the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) played an important role in the exploration and development of the country.   My impression was that the really interesting period of the company’s history started when it began to compete with the Northwest Company in the late eighteenth century and expanded its operations in western Canada. The earlier part of the company’s history, when it appeared to be dominated by an extremely conservative and out of touch management in London, frankly seemed a bit boring. It was only when I began to study the history of British chartered trading companies at the University of Oxford that my view of the company’s early history began to change.

In the course of my research, I was struck by the connections between the HBC and other chartered companies. The governor of the HBC during the period 1712-43, Sir Bibye Lake, also effectively ran the Royal African Company for most of that period. Major customers of the HBC were members of the Russia Company, who exported much of their fur to European markets. The main defender of the HBC in the House of Commons in 1749, Sir John Barnard, had earlier defended the Levant Company. Finally, the HBC invested in a substantial portfolio of bonds of the East India Company. Looking at the historiography of the HBC, it appeared to me that, despite a huge body of work on the company, the vast majority of that work had taken the perspective of the company’s operations in Canada. This led me to question whether the unflattering view of the company typified by the phrase ‘asleep by a frozen sea’ would change if the company was viewed from the perspective of its British managers.

My approach to analyzing the HBC’s revenues, costs and cash flow owes a large debt to my earlier academic training (MBA from Concordia) and career in business. Based on my business experience, the way in which the HBC was managed in the first half of the eighteenth century seemed to be more recognizable and more modern than other chartered companies of the period. Several of the older chartered companies still resembled medieval guilds in some respects. The HBC was much smaller than the other companies but it was very much part of a dynamic commercial environment in Britain. In particular, I believe the way in which the HBC managed its finances was innovative and gave it a greater ability to withstand French competition in the fur trade than many have realized.

Michael Wagner’s article, “Asleep by a Frozen Sea or a Financial Innovator? The Hudson’s Bay Company, 1714-63” appears in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadienne d’histoire. Read it today by clicking here:

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