R&D or PR at HBC: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Science

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This post is part of a limited series called HBC at 350, which focuses on the environmental history of the Hudson’s Bay Company in light of the 350th anniversary of its founding in 1670.

Think about the relationship between corporations and science. You probably think “R&D,” or Research and Development: secretive proprietary research conducted to outmaneuver competitors and increase profits. But science serves other purposes too. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s sponsorship of science is part of a long history of companies engaging with science for another reason:  public relations.

            The Hudson’s Bay Company certainly did use scientific knowledge to improve profits. For example, traders and naturalists early on figured out that there was a distinct ten-year cycle of snowshoe hare and lynx that they used to their advantage. Being able to predict that cycle allowed its traders in the field to anticipate when the collapse of hare populations might trigger food shortages, and its managers in London to time the release of lynx furs onto the European market. But the HBC was particularly adept at using its support for science to enhance the company’s reputation among politicians and potential critics.

It was particularly after 1821, when the HBC merged with the North West Company and the merged company no longer faced any competition in much of its territory, that the company increasingly cooperated with scientists. Before that point, the HBC was generally too stretched of resources and too afraid that strategically valuable information would get to its competitors to employ scientists and fund their research.

After 1821, however, the greatest threat to the health of the company was anti-monopolists in the British government and British society more generally. How better to counter criticism than by showing that it backed exploration and scientific research networks throughout its territories? Before the dawn of large research grants, HBC assistance could give scientists in Britain, Canada, and the United States access to data and specimens that scientists elsewhere could not hope to acquire. So, when thankful explorers and scientists published their work in the 19th century, they habitually poured praise on the HBC for the assistance that the company gave them. For example, when John Richardson published his richly illustrated four-volume Fauna-Boreali-Americana (1829-37), which was widely read by British scientists, politicians, and the public, he published a prominent thanks to “Captain Pelly, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Garry, Esq., Deputy Governor, for the liberality with which they have always promoted my endeavours to illustrate the zoology of the fur-countries.” Such tribute, especially the many tributes that described the HBC a liberal, was the kind of coin the company needed when its officers dealt with politicians and bureaucrats. After all, the survival of the company’s (illiberal) monopoly was not inevitable, especially through the free-trade era after 1845.

           Even in the twentieth century, the HBC continued working with scientists. That ten-year cycle of snowshoe hare and lynx I mentioned earlier? Thanks to his access to the HBC’s voluminous records, some of the most famous contributions of British zoologist Charles S. Elton were his publications in the late 1930s and early 1940s on animal population cycles, including the lynx-snowshoe hare patterns.

            Before 1821, providing information to a scientist might have risked a trader’s career. After 1821, the HBC actually provided some scientists with all-expenses paid travel through its territories, and free room and board at its posts. It also responded to requests for assistance by encouraging, or even instructing, its traders to collect specimens, provide meteorological journals, or other data to scientists in London, Edinburgh, Montreal, and the United States. The company, of course, was rewarded in the currency of tribute.

            But why would a trader want to help a scientist?  The reasons could vary: escaping boredom, enjoying the friendship and correspondence of an influential scientists, experiencing the satisfaction of providing a useful and valued service, having species and subspecies named after them, and receiving tangible rewards. For example, normally HBC traders were not permitted to have alcohol at remote posts, but in early 1861, Spencer Baird, a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution, was assured that if he wanted to ship trader and naturalist Bernard Rogan Ross some drinkable liquor along with the alcohol in which Ross was asked to preserve scientific specimens, the company would turn a blind eye. And so, at Christmas 1861, Spencer Baird and his wife sat back in their home in Washington, D.C. with the knowledge that in the far distant Mackenzie River District, Ross (after whom Ross’s Goose is named) was drinking to their health.

            When we note that a large forestry company subsidizes the publication of a series of books on environmental history, and when the last slide of a water scientist’s PowerPoint presentation pays tribute to the mining company that subsidized her research, we are observing something with a long history. Amateurs have far fewer opportunities to contribute to science today than they did before science was professionalized, but citizen-contributors still assist scientists, particularly in the fields of ornithology and meteorology, probably for many of the same reasons that motivated HBC traders two centuries ago.

The Hudson’s Bay Archives are a tremendous repository of meteorological and climatological records for Canada’s subarctic. However, some HBC traders also shared meteorological records with scientists. This is a page of a meteorological journal kept by Peter Fidler at Île-à-la-Crosse in 1809. After learning, at about Christmas of that year, that his father had died in the spring, Fidler when on furlough to visit his mother in 1810-11. At that time he must have handed over this journal to the Royal Society in London. Source Royal Society Collections, MA/14.

            While the HBC traders may never have anticipated that their work might continue to contribute to scientific research into the 21st century, it has. Thanks to the abundant meteorological and phenological observations preserved in HBC documents, scholars can study the history of climate change in subarctic North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s important, since the subarctic is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change today. Wildlife biologists and botanists can add historical dimensions to their studies of ecosystems and food webs from Labrador to the state of Washington. Fisheries biologists can explore the history of salmon runs in the Pacific watershed, or the population history of whitefish and endangered sturgeon elsewhere. Foresters might be surprised that the HBC’s records of insect infestations go back to the early 19th century. The HBC’s sponsorship of science goes back many years; the opportunities for today’s and tomorrow’s scientists, environmental historians—and resource companies—are endless.

Cover image: Canadians tend to think of the Hudson’s Bay Company as a Canadian Company, but for most of its 350 years, it was headquartered on Fenchurch Street, in the commercial district of London, England. In fact, HBC traders in North America, often used “Fenchurch Street” as shorthand for the Governor and Committee in London. It was from this building that the company managed its trade of furs in Europe, but it is also the place from which it orchestrated many of its connections with scientists, politicians, and bureaucrats. Source HBCA P-220.

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Ted Binnema

Ted Binnema is a Professor of History at the University of Northern British Columbia. He is the author of “Enlightened Zeal”: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Scientific Networks, 1670 to 1870 (University of Toronto Press, 2014), but his most recent is Ted Binnema and Gerhard Ends, eds., The Hudson’s Bay Company Edmonton House Journals: Including the Peigan Post, 1826-1834 (Historical Society of Alberta, 2020).

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