Bearing Witness: Mutiny and the Bounty

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Hudson Bay was the geographic heart of what has become, over four centuries, the world’s oldest continually operated corporation, the Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC). But for its discoverer, Henry Hudson, the bay and its bitter winter added up to doom.

The explorer’s last voyage was in 1610, when he sailed the English ship Discovery to chart a northwest passage to Asia, one year after Hudson explored the river in New York that also bears his name. He and his crew were the first Europeans to push into the sea-size body of water now called Hudson Bay, where they found, instead of a route to China, a dead end. As autumn and the bay’s annual freeze-over quickly progressed, the ill-prepared crew (who had expected that the voyage would bring them to a warmer clime) was forced to winter at the southern tip of James Bay, about 80 miles from present-day Moose Factory.

When the ice finally broke up the following June, Hudson insisted that they continue wandering around the bay, instead of heading home. Six days after Discovery broke from the ice, the crew mutinied and threw Hudson, his young son, and six of his loyal crewmen into an open boat and cut it loose. Hudson and his companions were never seen again.

The mutineers who survived the voyage back to the British Isles were acquitted; two of the crew members even joined a later Discovery expedition back to Hudson Bay in 1612. When subsequent explorers eventually realized the income potential in the fur trade, the search for a northwest passage was abandoned until the following century.

About 50 years after Hudson’s fateful voyage, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a cousin of England’s King Charles II, organized a syndicate that outfitted a 45-ton ketch, Nonsuch, to venture to North America to establish a trading enterprise. The crew settled on nearly the same spot where Hudson had suffered through his final winter. However, these sailors were prepared to endure the climate, and all survived. In spring 1669, the British crew forged a trade agreement with about 300 James Bay Cree natives, enabling England to acquire a toehold in the tundra, in what is now Waskaganish, Quebec. Nonsuch returned home in October 1669 with a hold full of furs.

A jubilant Charles II awarded a 1.5 million-square-mile territory to Rupert and his fellow investors, also granting the “Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay,” or the Hudson’s Bay Co., a trade monopoly for a region that made up about 40 percent of Canada and included part of what is now Minnesota and North Dakota.

The HBC operates currently as one of Canada’s largest retailers. Its stores sell fur coats, but the company stopped acquiring pelts and sold its fur-auction business in 1987.

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