Peter C. Newman
Reviewed by Robin Lewis.
Reviewed by Robin Lewis.
Volume 20 Number 2
Company of Adventurers, Caesars of the Wilderness and this volume comprise the Peter Newman trilogy on the Hudson's Bay Company.
A parallel volume, Empire of the Bay (Viking, 1989), is a slimmer, more lavishly illustrated work on the same subject. Although not as attractive as the Empire, the trilogy has more detail and more accuracy. Empire seems in places to have been badly edited. For example, neither Scott's ship The Discovery nor the town of Fort Chimo were in the locations where this reviewer last saw them. The three-volume series has corrected these inaccuracies and is more smoothly written.
Volumes I and II trace the development of the fur trading company from its beginnings, and in doing so also develop many of the grand themes of Canadian history. The "Company of Adventurers" once administered an empire larger than England itself. Fur trading consequently led to activity in banking, transportation and mineral development. It also affected native and metis communities - crucial components of our national heritage.
Volume III links this early Canadian history with the twentieth century and recounts how control of the company passed from its British partners to Canadian shareholders. It also tells how the company gave up fur trading altogether, selling its soul in order to become a modern retailing empire
Newman breathes life into cold, aloof "historical" figures such as trader Donald "Labrador" Smith, who married himself (to another man's wife) in the wilderness, then guiltily had the ceremony repeated at each new phase of his amazing seventy-five-year business career.
Peter Newman is rightly known for his superb accounts of modern power brokers. In this volume he drives the Hudson's Bay dog sled out of the snow drifts and into the board rooms. He gives us interesting accounts of Canadian merchandising, for example, the battle between Simpson's and The Bay. He includes exclusive interviews with people such as David Thompson, a low-profile Canadian and heir to Ken, whose wealth surpasses that of any individual Bronfman or Getty.
Newman is quite critical of the Hudson's Bay Company. He points out how low its return on investment really was and tells of the many lost opportunities that could have netted the company billions. If this seems heresy to those bred in the admiration of this great institution, they must read the book.
Although a sequential reading of all three volumes would be heavy going for the general reader, it would not be impossible. To read selectively would benefit anyone interested in Canadian history, geography, economics or politics.
This volume, like the others in the series, is sprinkled with black-and-white illustrations and clear maps. It includes appendices with a chronology, an index, a list of sources, and a bibliography.
says he has tried to write a popular history and 'To tell the tale as well as I could." His work is too thorough to be dismissed as popular history, although his wit and his facility with a memorable phrase ("collecting old masters and young mistresses") or anecdote would of themselves ensure its popularity.
Newman is too modest in assessing his style as "in the manner of an itinerant storyteller." He is a thorough researcher and a penetrating analyst. But it is true that ho is a wonderful spell binder in the ancient tradition. This final volume of his trilogy shows that his story has been told very well indeed.
Robin Lewis. Riverdale High School, Pierrefonds, Que.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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