Manitoba History: Book Review: Ted Binnema, Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Scientific Networks, 1670–1870

by Marianne Stopp
Parks Canada, Ottawa

Number 79, Fall 2015

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Ted Binnema, Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Scientific Networks, 1670–1870. University of Toronto Press, 2014, 488 pages. ISBN 978-1-4426-4697-1, $37.95 (paperback)

What links the 1782 discovery of the freezing point of mercury, John Franklin’s first ill-fated expedition to the Canadian Arctic in 1821, and the Linnean naming of Picea sitchensis (the Sitka spruce) in 1830? One answer might be “scientific inquiry,” but the correct answer is—the Hudson’s Bay Company. Enlightened Zeal is the first broad-based study of how the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), a profit-based, non-scientific institution, came to play a key role in European scientific discoveries. The period covered is from the HBC’s founding in 1670 to when its territories became part of the Dominion of Canada in 1870. The core period of scientific endeavouring began in 1769 at Fort Prince of Wales (today a national historic site) on the western coast of Hudson Bay, where observations of the Transit of Venus contributed to establishing the diameter of the sun and its distance from the earth.

Enlightened Zeal is aptly named, referring to the energy and excitement that permeated Britain and Europe during the explosion of scientific research and discovery that took place from the mid-17th to 18th century. Binnema’s study provides a new layer of knowledge to the already broad subject that is fur trade history. Furs, it becomes clear, were not the sole focus of the HBC’s trade post employees, and Company concerns were not only with pelt profits but also with a public image tied to altruism and Age of Enlightenment high-thinking. Implicated were notably visionary business leaders of the London Committee who understood why collecting bird specimens might hold benefits on par with the finest sea otter skins. On the ground, collecting data at northern trade posts, were not only trained researchers, but often untrained but keen trade post employees. The recipients of the amassed field data were scientists and learned societies in London and Edinburgh, and later in Montreal, Washington, and Toronto. Along the way, the HBC became the backer for some of the most exciting scientific endeavours to flow out of Isaac Newton’s determination of the scientific method.

The breadth and commitment of the HBC effort and the networks it maintained on behalf of early science, are an eye-opener. Perpetually in fear of losing its territories whenever it came time to renew its charter, the HBC recognized that good public relations were an essential business practice. Binnema convincingly shows that the monopoly’s own particular zeal lay in the measure of its support for science. To this end the HBC, from its directors to its post employees, provided safe transport of researchers, instruments, and collections back and forth across the Atlantic and Canada; it hosted explorers and scientists at its posts for long intervals; provided guides; and even instructed its own employees to take observations, measurements, maintain records, and make collections of nearly everything. Franklin’s 1821 expedition to map the Arctic coast west of the Coppermine River, for instance, would not have happened without massive HBC commitment that included free passage from London to York Factory for mountains of gear and for Franklin’s men, followed by full logistical support for the overland journey to Fort Providence on Great Slave Lake, and then—perhaps most difficult of all for the HBC—partnering with the rival North West Company to ensure that Franklin reached the Arctic coast.

Enlightened Zeal contributes significantly to Canadian history and to an appreciation of the range of early scientific efforts that took place on Canadian soil. The volume is chronologically ordered into two main parts that follow an Introduction and precede an Epilogue and Conclusion. The period 1670–1821 covers the early years when the HBC maintained strict secrecy about its lands and its activities, followed by a transition marked by a growing relationship with the Royal Society beginning in the mid-1700s. The period 1821–1870 represents the heyday of HBC collaborations with the sciences. Binnema delivers on the vast subject of laying out the many ways in which the HBC remains forever tied to watersheds in cartography, geology, geography, natural history, physics, ethnography, linguistics, and astronomy.

Although it is clear that the HBC supported immense swaths of science, the Company was, at a fundamental level, in turn supported in all of its work by First Peoples and Métis—by their knowledge of the coasts and hinterland; by their skills as intermediaries and guides; by providing food for trade posts, clothing, the means of overwintering, medicines and technologies, in addition to the shiploads of furs that they supplied and that allowed it all to happen. Where the research materials allowed, the contributions of First Peoples are noted throughout the analysis. The colour plates of Paul Kane’s Cree chief in Figure 6, and Kane’s oil painting, Figure 7, of the same man but transformed with many imaginative additions, are, however, reminders of another, related history that requires its own critical study: namely the HBC’s role in early ethnography and in creating a narrative of First Peoples that suited the Company (and colonialist) project of expansion.

This is a carefully researched book that achieves what it sets out to do and is clearly the successful product of many hours spent amongst primary documents and more recent publications. Well written and well organized, the reading journey is enhanced by informative and high quality maps that appear throughout the text. Enlightened Zeal should have a place on any bookshelf of Canadian history texts. It is also relevant to university-level science curricula, because even scientists should know not only that mercury freezes at -38.9 °C, but that this was determined in the dead of winter on the rooftop of Fort Albany, western James Bay, by HBC surgeon Thomas Hutchins.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 24 July 2020