North to the Future: Warburton Pike’s Imperial Visions and Contested Places

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Jonathan Peyton and Matt Dyce


In this chapter we develop a life of Warburton Pike, an eccentric British industrialist and adventurer who, through imperial networks of information exchange and investment, had considerable influence on ideas about Northern Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pike was invested in a series of projects throughout his lifetime that brought a number of powerful forces to bear on British Columbia, particularly through resource extraction, infrastructure entrepreneurship, big game hunting and his many itinerant explorations of ‘unknown’ territories. His two great northern adventure accounts, The Barren Ground of Northern Canada and Through the Subarctic Forest, were considered classics of a genre that exposed readers to the fantastic places at the margins of empire. Pike gained considerable renown as a writer-sportsman from these works. However, we suggest that these should be read alongside his failed business endeavours and his ambivalent relationship to northern animals, Indigenous peoples and industrial development in order to gain a full understanding of his role in imperial networks and evolving northern environments.

Pike brought grand development dreams to the north. As such he was involved in the remaking of nature and place at the margins of empire, and was able to do so because he could mobilize forces of capital and enterprise at the turn of the century. Other scholars have worked on how these imperial subjects have drawn together networks to accomplish the work of empire, but in this paper we re-focus their ideas to understand how Pike worked on and from the margins. This means investigating the spaces where he found himself apart from the modern world, particularly in northern BC and his explorations in the sub-Arctic of Canada. Furthermore, it means engaging not only with marginal spaces where Pike conjured the absence of modernity but also with the charismatic inhabitants, both human and animals, of those regions. Here Pike formulated and moulded his ‘visions’ of empire through articulations on the nature of seeing and the act of seeing nature. These formulations were then exported (repatriated) to the empire in order to produce powerful narratives of place to justify and stimulate imperial networks to operate at the margins.

Pike was a marginal subject because he operated in both spaces, inside and outside modernity, inside and outside empire. He was a hunter who eschewed the rifle for his camera and an advocate of conservation who often performed as a champion of development in the very places he sought to preserve. He was a ‘manly’ modern and yet he severely doubted himself. He made his life on the margins of empire yet was compelled to return to England on the eve of the First World War to serve his country. He was a mining engineer, a railway promoter, a fox-farmer, a Klondike trader, a country gentlemen and, at the end of his life, an unsuccessful soldier. His life was full of successes and failures. To many he was known as ‘Crazy Pike’ or ‘Poor Old Pikey,’ to others he was Canada’s greatest sportsman and a literary titan. These add up to a complicated subject who shifted imperial understandings of the Canadian north and opened up conditions of possibility for its eventual exploitation and creeping settlement.

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Jonathan Peyton

Jonathan Peyton teaches cultural and historical geography at the University of Manitoba where he is an associate professor in the department of environment and geography. He is the author of Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia (UBC Press, 2017).

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