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Manitoba History: Review: Edith I. Burley, Servants of the Honourable Company: Work, Discipline, and Conflict in the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1770-1879

by Frank Tough
School of Native Studies, University of Alberta

Number 37, Spring / Summer 1999

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Edith I. Burley, Servants of the Honourable Company: Work, Discipline, and Conflict in the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1770-1879. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997, v, 319 pp, ISBN 0-19-541296-6.

For those few of us still informed by historical materialism, Burley’s Servants of the Honourable Company, a social history of the skilled and unskilled contract employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), is a welcomed respite from contemporary discourse. In terms of labor history, this study makes a specific contribution to the social history of working people who were not part of the industrial proletariat. This study reminds us that the HBC was a business and that the relationships between employees and officers were important. Even for those that are primarily interested in Native aspects of the fur trade, Servants of the Honourable Company provides useful insights on how the system worked. Also Burley’s knowledge of European labor history is put to good use here. Information on political thinking in Europe is intertwined with problems recruiting servants. The author’s concern to portray the HBC servants as more than “cardboard figures” keeps company with English historians E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.

The book is organized into seven chapters: a brief introduction gives an overview of the study, a chapter on the “view from the top” outlines the problems of the master/servant relationship, a chapter is devoted to the problem of recruitment, the view from the bottom provides a survey of servant opposition to authority, while the next two chapters explore in more detail the denial of duty and combination and resistance. Essentially Burley has culled archival records to narrate the servants’ opposition to authority. The narrative is clearly written and it is evident that a large number of records were consulted.

By sampling the company’s archival records every ten years, Burley has attempted to consider the situation of the servants from the period 1770 to 1879. For fur trade scholarship today, this is a considerable span of time as these dates include the move inland by the HBC, the competition between the HBC and North West Company, and the monopoly era that followed the 1821 merger. The study’s terminal date of 1879 promises some account of the post-1870 changes. Equal to the temporal span is the geographical scope of the book, which includes the northern and southern departments, the company’s operations in British Columbia, and even the outpost on Sandwich Islands provide data. Thus Burley not only includes the employees of the subarctic posts but also tells us about sailors on the company’s craft and coal miners in Nanaimo. Nonetheless, with this sort of historical problem, more interesting graphics could have been used.

“At the portage, Hudson’s Bay Company employees on their annual expedition,” from Picturesque Canada, 188

“At the portage, Hudson’s Bay Company employees on their annual expedition,” from Picturesque Canada, 1882.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

Since the narrative is essentially organized around accounts of servant misbehavior and the company’s effort to contain opposition to its authority, readers will miss a basic description of the economic structure of the company’s operations. An explanation of the various types of post economies, the transport networks, the significance of the subsistence sector, or the spatial and environmental challenges are a few of the missing features needed to establish a specific context for the relations of production. To come to terms with production in the fur trade, a reconstruction of commodity flows is necessary in order to identify the diverse and changing roles of labor. Production, ultimately aimed at the delivery of a variety of prime furs to the London fur market, necessitated a modification of Aboriginal modes of production (which was not simply an exchange in furs and European goods), and required a vast infrastructure, with concomitant demands for resources and services. Posts, depots and transport were sustained by contract labor and the temporary engagements. With the absence of a concise geographical/economic context, the category “servant” becomes problematic. The craftsman laboring skillfully at a major post, the sailor traversing the north Atlantic, the seasonal employment of Red River boatmen for expressing freight over subarctic waters, and the regularly but temporarily employed Native fisherman provisioning a small remote post are economically and socially diverse situations. An analysis of the relationship of authority should have been built upon a description of the underlying economic relations. So the narrative portrays the servants as real people, but their context is obscure. Understanding that the fur trade was an industry would seem to complement the objective of establishing that the working people employed by the HBC were as much a part of history as David Thompson and George Simpson.

Without an initial description of this complex industry, there can be little sense of the changes occurring during this hundred-year period. The fact that the servant’s stories are not grounded in any overall picture, would not negate an interesting and valuable story, and it would not present a problem were it not for some of the conclusions reached by Servants of the Honourable Company. We thus recall Hobsbawm predicting that the social historian will not get very far by neglecting economics since “... whatever the essential inseparability of the economic and the social in human society, the analytical base of any historical enquiry into the evolution of human societies must be the process of social production.”

In Burley’s words, this is a study of “HBC’s employees as workers acting in their own interests and examines the ways in which they did so. It is based on the assumption that conflict was not unusual and breaches of discipline were not the result of irrational waywardness or manifestations of particular ethnic characteristics but that they were part of the struggle for control of the work process that makes every workplace contested terrain.” (pp. 15-16) Thus a description of conditions and the servant’s responses gives us views of daily life with the HBC. This is not a history of a great company, but an account of an organization that was constantly dealing with its servants, negotiating the terms and conditions of employment; a system that was not stable but in flux. Hence, Burley calls attention to the class dimension of the fur trade, a point so often ignored. She states: “Thus, when one considers fur trade society, one cannot assume that all members shared the same culture or that the judgement and observations of the officers and the London committee were accurate depictions of reality.” (p. 122)

Many of those who study the fur trade eschew any quantitative approach to the vast qualitative or quantitative records. This necessitates the selective use of anecdotes to narrate some aspect of fur trade history. In contrast, Burley has sampled the qualitative records at ten year intervals and counted incidents and events associated with behavior inconsistent with the “rightful” place of servants in the HBC organization. Incidents involving defiance to authority were selected and classified into the following categories: refusal to do as ordered, negligence, desertion, drunkenness, refusal to work, theft, absent without leave, insolence, private trade, and combination. Two tables summarize these data. The main thrust of the text is to provide details about these events. For example, the chapter on combination and resistance looks at the Brandon House mutiny of 1810-11. The significance of this data is that: “The company’s workers were really only attempting to control the pace and conditions of their work, as they had always done, although when they denied duty ... they were not only refusing to perform a particular task, they were also denying their duty as servants to obey unquestioningly their master’s orders.” (p. 158) The stories of these events are interesting.

By definition any misdeed, whether overtly political or broadly anti-social can be classified as opposition to authority and work. Slackness and a preservation of pre-industrial work patterns are also evidence of resistance. Drinking in the fur trade was not necessarily or simply recreational, since it put pleasure ahead of business; according to Burley: “By drinking, the servants were also exerting control over the pace of their work.” (p. 139) Unauthorized absences and desertions are further evidence of opposition. Understandably, many craftsmen did not take to the subordination that came with the status of HBC servants. Burley explains that,

Like such transgressions as private trade, drunkenness, and negligence, desertion was a sign that the relationship between the company and its workers was not controlled by the former ... They possessed their own interests and identities, which they did not abandon when they joined the HBC. Nor was the fur trade society they thereby entered free of class and cultural division. Most of the men who performed the work of the fur trade were relegated to the bottom of that society and, although they shared in the mores unique to it, they also practiced customs their superiors disapproved of and tried to stamp out. This conflict was part of fur trade society and also at the heart of the company’s relationship with its workers. (p. 155)

How much of this disruptive opposition needs to occur before the company loses effective control is not explained. The use of numerical data requires operationalization and conceptualization so that credible conclusions can be reached without relaying on the inflections of language.

Even allowing for a very encompassing definition of resistance, the data is not overly persuasive. In all there are 260 events associated with “misbehavior” but when the turbulent years of 1820-21 and 1870-71 (associated with forces not intrinsic to the master/servant relationship, are removed) the records show only 147 events. Still, with the turbulent years, there are 57 incidents of “refusal to do as ordered,” the largest category of misbehavior and a good category to capture the problem of discipline and power in the eleven years sampled. But this amounts to an average of 5.18 refusals per year. Given the scope of the company’s operations, dozens of posts and hundreds of men, it does not really appear that very much terrain was “contested” by the servants. These refusals would not look very persuasive relative to what must have been many more incidents of compliance. Information concerning the numbers of posts, boats and ships, contract employees, temporary employees and officers (managers) would provide some sort of contextual base from which to appreciate the numerical significance of 260 misbehaving events. The conclusion that servants “... frequently took advantage of the opportunities so provided to neglect their duty or engage in private trade” (p. 246) is doubtful. Consequently the corollary that “officers had little real power” because they were constrained “from below by the men’s indifference and defiance, not to mention their numbers” (p. 192) is not well founded. In the absence of criteria of significance, the jump from 5.18 refusals per year to “frequent” is not problematic and thus the claim that officers had little real power easily follows.

Since a number of the examples compiled as evidence of resistance relate to exceptional circumstances—mean officers and recalcitrant trouble makers—or to some degree a conflict of personalities, and also to the failure of the HBC to live up to its side of the master/servant relationship, the clashes between servants and officers are not usually or necessarily a struggle for control over the workplace, which by definition, is about acquiring power, or at least to initiate a trend that materially advances their interests. But these events do prove that there were limits. If the existing history books portray HBC workers as empty, complacent and always dutiful, then Burley has overthrown that misconception.

HBC servants portaging a York Boat, circa 1880

HBC servants portaging a York Boat, circa 1880.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

For a study of a 19th century organization with officers and servants, the concept of paternalism is pertinent. And certainly paternalism, associated with the traditions of pre-industrial society, created expectations on the part of the HBC servants. (p. 193) Burley stresses the social dimensions of paternalism: “... the essence of paternalism: the desire to be even-handed and humane, tempered by a belief in the rightness of a stable social order based on the rule of the Elite and the deference of everyone else and by the assumption that the lower orders were unruly and insubordinate and needed to be controlled.” (p. 24) In this usage, paternalism reflects the social practices of the Old World. However, paternalism was a central dimension of the mode of production of fur trade society, a hybrid of Indian and European, and represented not simply the importation of Old World social traditions. The object of commodity production for mercantile markets was achieved through a pervasive paternalism, which mixed the conventions of Indian reciprocity and European customs of the moral economy creating in the process an economic structure suitable for the geographical and economic realities of the lands under the influence of the HBC. As such, the fur trade had a sui generis quality: giving gifts, writing off of bad debts, blurring reciprocity with credit, aiding the sick and destitute, encouraging marriage contracts, providing rations to dependents, etc. were aspects of system in which a homogenous economic mode is not evident and the structure as a whole could absorb the subsistence activities of Indian trappers or a profit sharing scheme with the Chief Factors. Without a description of post economies as integral parts of a regional systems of resource exploitation, the technical relations of production are obscured. Simply put, the relations of production, or if one prefers, the social connections of economic life, can not be understood incisively by even the most sensitive narrative of disruptive behavior. An appreciation of fur trade paternalism would provide insights about the nature of HBC contracts with its employees.

In terms of the historical problem of an incomplete development of a capitalist mode of production in peripheral areas, H. Clare Pentland’s ideas have been very useful. For some reason, Burley sets Pentland up as something of a strawman. Burley engages Pentland only once when she quotes: “the Company’s dependence on its men was great: but the dependence of the men, in their isolated posts, upon the good faith and wisdom of the Company, was still greater” in order to drub by arguing that: “This view implies a negotiated relationship, but it is one negotiated by unequal partners, one of whom is deferential and submissive. In fact, of course, this was not the case ...” (p. 156) Here quite a bit is being read into Pentland’s insights concerning the sort of relations that develop between employers and employees when a market for free labor cannot exist and accommodations by both parties are required. (The use of the expression “partnership” for example.) Apparently, infrequent and episodic denial of duty confirms that at even isolated posts, the HBC was not more powerful than its servants. But later we learn that “... the servants accepted their subordinate position in the hierarchy. They never demanded a more equitable share of the profits or a narrowing of the gap that yawned between their own meager wages and the salaries of their officers.” (p. 245.) Here the use of subordination does not connote unequal relations. And even later Burley remarks that relations of pre-industrial society were negotiated and not imposed. (p. 246) We are not sure why Burley takes issue with Pentland, but this tack seems to lead to self-contradiction. Such conflicts might be anticipated. Many inconsistent inductive leaps are possible when economic relations of production are neglected and when criteria to assess the significance of numerical indicators of historical agency are omitted.

In fact, Pentland looks at the problem of shortages of employers and employees as a barrier to the existence of a capitalist type of labor market. In isolated areas, connected by a transport system owned by a monopolist, the social overhead is a vital aspect of the relationship between labor and management. The provision of these social overheads by the company, and the fact the employee’s daily needs could only be provided by the bush (dependent upon the company’s tools) or by the post certainly entered into the relations of authority. With these severe geographical conditions, the very existence of the servants is intertwined with the company’s operations. Given that much of the work performed by servants around posts secured their own existence (acquiring food, firewood), a heavy handed supervision was not normal. In an effort to forcibly assert that servants were historical agents, important economic dimensions of paternalism—as discussed by Pentland—and which have been employed successfully by Arthur Ray to reconsider the relationship between HBC posts and Native trappers, are removed. Paternalism is a concept that can provide some coherence to both the company’s relations with Native trappers/provisioners and European contract employees. This approach provides a coherence but avoids the pitfalls of a mechanistic application of the industrializing center’s model of a capitalist mode of production to the periphery. And while Servants of the Honourable Company recounts many interesting details about the experience of paternalism, the effect is offset by an absence of political economy.

While Burley has marshaled considerable information and has been tireless in an effort to portray the ordinary servant of the HBC historically, thereby adjusting the imbalance of official histories, the problems of social history disconnected from political economy are evident in the sweeping assertions made in the conclusion. Consider one of her conclusions: “Pre-industrial social relations were not imposed from the top; they were negotiated, and those at the bottom were prepared to defend themselves against injustice and oppression from their superiors. As a result, the London committee never achieved exactly what it had set out to do.” (p. 246) Previously Burley noted that the London committee “... demanded absolute obedience, but had no desire to be either cruel or unreasonable” (p. 245) and that “The HBC was a mercantile enterprise organized according to traditional, paternalistic principles.” (p. 245) Separately these assertions might seem reasonable, but as a series of related statements the problem of finding historical significance is exposed. How could the London committee be so constrained in its objectives when Burley acknowledges the fact that “the conflict that did occur rarely called into question the relations of authority upon which the company was based.” (p. 245) Paternalism required a system of authority where disruptive problems were associated with transgression of the moral economy and not a challenge to the existence of authority as such and means that history can not be revised by denying the paramount economic powers of the HBC to secure its own future and to regulate the lives of its servants.

The assertion that the HBC could not impose unilaterally relations does not establish that the HBC did not achieve its purposes, especially from the point of view of political economy. Impractical intentions of a party can easily be falsified—contributing little to sorting out the how and why of history—and the persuasiveness of an interpretation can be bolstered by the exaggeration of intentions. The expression “never achieved exactly what it had set out to do” is an absolute category; but did the company ever get what it wanted? To paraphrase, it may not have got what it wanted, but did it get what it needed? Mercantile investors did not set out to bring a bunch a people together as a group of servants so that it could demand and achieve “absolute obedience” in order to reproduce some sort of self-satisfying, social hierarchy. Discipline and obedience were not an end, but a means to a different end. Requiring that those on top have to possess a complete and absolute control over every aspect of the other’s existence is an unreasonable burden for historical causation. It means that any smattering of resistance is adequate evidence of a greatly diminished capacity of those with power. Burley noted that servant disruptions were “expressions of an indifference to authority rather than overt challenges to it.” (p. 157) which indicates to me that the HBC objectives were not and could not be seriously thwarted. The successes of the HBC are not measured by occasional incidents of servant drunkenness, refusals to work, thefts, insolence, and the like, but by its ability to accumulate wealth and pay dividends to its shareholders.

Buying furs at York Factory, 1923

Buying furs at York Factory, 1923.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

Common sense can assess what constitutes economic achievement; the London Committee may have unrealistically wanted a 100 percent profit on the fur market, but what sort of critic would deem a 50 percent markup a commercial failure? Yet even the commercial success of the HBC can be curiously negated: “The success of its business depended on the fact that the servants did their work well enough to ensure its survival, but the workers did not necessarily throw aside all personal and private interest to subsume themselves in this organization.” (p. 247) Is the historical importance of the HBC really diminished by the discovery that the servants did not necessarily throw aside all personal and private interest? But then, did even Donald A. Smith (a.k.a. Lord Strathcona), governor of the company, throw aside all personal and private interests for the HBC? Again a point can be stretched: “As a result, although the servants did not threaten the relations of authority within the company, they undermined the ability of the committee to use its authority effectively. The committee and its officers were outnumbered and there were too many opportunities for servants to indulge in illicit behaviour in secret.” (pp. 246-7). It is true that the servants outnumbered the officers and the tiny corporate executive in London—in exactly the same way that young Indonesian women working in shoe factories outnumber all the Nike executives. The problem of such absolute and inapposite criteria is that it risks exaggerating “the view from the bottom” thereby negating genuine historical outcomes, such as the accumulation of wealth by the HBC.

Incidents of conflict illuminate the nature of the relations and Burley’s effort to count and extract from qualitative records provides some rigor. But even a good sample of events are confined to a point in time whereas conclusions about ongoing relationships require an analysis of trends. To what extent did the non-compliance of the servants to the authority result in any trend in the improvement of working conditions, remuneration or benefits? This is the real benchmark of any claim that the HBC did not achieve what it set out to do. Empirically, this can be measured by the relative distribution of income. However trends over time that capture the relative strength or position of the servants in the system would include data on wage rates and renewals of contracts. A series of annual records for the 19th century known as the Servants Engagement Registers (Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, B.239 /u) provides data on engagements, renewals of contracts, whether the employee died, deserted, or went home, and their wages. Starting in 1830, the Accounts Current for the Northern Department (HBCA B.239 /v) provide data on wages relative to other costs and profits. These and other sorts of quantitative data would not only have filled some gaps between the sample years but also could have been used to provide more reliable insights on servants as historical agents Surely if the disruptive behaviour of the servants as a “class” of workers really constrained the London committee’s effectiveness, financial records would be the best evidence. If this sort of data is consulted, then we find that the HBC did more than survive.

A brief examination of the conditions of boat work suggests that for Native workers, there was precious little decency negotiated in the system. Until transportation innovations, the fur trade needed York boats, but working in the boats remained a brutal form of labor. After hauling on heavy oars each man usually carried several loads of 200 pounds across each painful portage. Sturdy York boats were then hauled and dragged across portages aided by ropes and log rollers. All this had to be achieved under the time pressure of the subarctic’s short open water season. Rev. F. G. Stevens described the work done on northern Manitoba portages: “One day in camp I was concerned to see a man having a bad lung hemorrhage. Next day he was working as usual. Right there I discovered that there were worse conditions of labour than negro slavery.” He recalled that at the Robinson Portage: “When carrying began the road was dry. When the work was done the way was muddy, wet with sweat dropped from the faces of the carriers.” Thus Burley’s statement that the tripmen “... controlled the conditions under which they carried out their duties.” (p. 247) seems odd against the descriptions of boat work not found in the HBC Archives. Any moral claim on the part of the workers to the historical achievements of the fur trade can be undermined by a focus which over emphasizes the disruptive behaviour of the servants, drunkenness, laziness, denial of duty, etc.

Because this study has compiled considerable detail on little known aspect of fur trade history, Burley’s Servants of the Honourable Company will have a lasting impact. The desire to move beyond the anecdotes of the qualitative records should be acknowledged. Three inter-related problems are evident: 1) the neglect of an economic analysis to provide a framework for the social history; 2) the analysis of the ten year samples of the qualitative records does not prove that agency of servants negated the effectiveness of the HBC authority; and 3) the absence of an analysis of other quantitative data to provide a more complete coverage of the hundred years and to verify and refine the assertions. If one does not want to approach historical causation by considering positivistic criteria of statistical significance, then some hard thinking about the dialectics of quantity and quality is required. The strength of Servants of the Honourable Company is Burley’s effort to get the “view from the bottom,” but without methodological and theoretical standards for significance, such views can get transmogrified into historical fallacies. A focus on the “view from the bottom” might balance the establishment histories, but the problems of historical causation are more complex. In order to recognize a place for the servants in the history of the HBC is it necessary to deny the relations of wealth and power? The conclusion to what is generally a fine and interesting study of servants in the HBC exemplifies the limits of induction in history.

Page revised: 27 March 2022

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