Monday, December 15, 2008

Ideas for the Hard-to-buy-for Historian #15

We have suggestions from two wise readers today. They suggested the same book.

George Fetherling, poet, memoirist, traveller, and man of letters of Vancouver, suggests both a book and a membership:
Book: "Lord Selkirk: A Life" by J.M. Bumsted (University of Manitoba Press, 2008).

Membership: The Vancouver Maritime Museum, a fine but too-little-known institution, with, among things, a truly extraordinary library.

The link there is to a lively article about Bumsted and his book from Tom Ford in the Winnipeg Free Press. And quite independently, as far as I know, aboriginal rights lawyer Murray Klippenstein of Toronto suggests the same book. He also provides a review - and perhaps even some fresh evidence about Selkirk:
My nomination for the best book on Canadian history of 2008 would be Lord Selkirk: A Life by J. M Bumsted of the University of Manitoba, published in November of this year by the University of Manitoba Press.

This life of the founder of the Red River colony appears to be the fruits of decades of work by Professor Bumsted, and it is fascinating and illuminating. There was more to Thomas Douglas, fifth earl of Selkirk, than we commonly know, although in the end his life had perhaps more frustrations than successes. This somewhat timid fourth son, who was never expected to become earl, had numerous remarkable youth experiences, leaving the reader to puzzle out their possible effects on our country's history. As a youth, Douglas was in the estate house on the coast of Scotland when American privateer John Paul Jones (who had actually been born on a nearby estate) raided the Selkirk house and, while chivalrously explaining matters to the stunned family, stole the family silver. Although Jones later regretted this, and tried to return the utensils, Douglas wrote that this experience created in him a lifelong antipathy to the United States.

Douglas' education included influence from leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Dugald Stewart, who, interestingly, later strongly advised Lord Selkirk to abandon his wild North Amercan projects (which advice Selkirk ignored). As a privileged twenty year old, the future earl travelled to France, then in the apogee of its Revolution, and spend months dining and discoursing with leaders of the Revolution, of the likes of Condorcet, Brissot, Sieyes and Thomas Paine.

Whether and how these ideas influenced his North American colonization attempts remains a puzzle which Bumsted describes, but which the historical evidence -- much of which was destroyed in a fire at the Selkirk estate during WWII -- does not allow to be fully answered.

The book describes in interesting detail much of the poor planning surrounding the Red River and other colonization attempts by Selkirk.
However, one glaring gap in the narrative is the absence of any real consideration of the Aboriginal perspective on what Selkirk was attempting to do. Bumsted includes one brief reference to Selkirk's strategizing about how a colony could help pacify indigenous people by
shutting off their access to European commodities as necessary.
Nevertheless, by mostly ignoring indigenous peoples' perspective, Bumsted has almost entirely missed half of the pageant being played out. I have in my files one of Selkirk's instruction letters to the leader of the first Red River settler party, which specifically describes how the settlers should pretend to the Indians that they are merely visiting traders, until the colonists have their first fort built and are militarily secure within its walls, upon which they can reveal their true land settlement intentions, when the natives can no longer do anything about it. Bumsted does not mention this.

Bumsted's account of Selkirk's "takeover" and manipulation of the Hudson's Bay Company is engrossing, as is Bumsted's description of the war -- political, economic, military and legal -- between the HBC and the North West Company, in which Selkirk was personally a central player. Of particular interest -- at least for the legally minded -- is the amazing description of the intricacies of the numerous monumental litigation battles with the North West Company that Selkirk engaged in for years in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, the United States, and elsewhere, which pretty much bankrupted him and which pulled into their vortex almost all the political and legal leadership of the then
Canadian colonies. The description of that legal war is a revelation
and in itself makes the book well worth reading.

Overall, a fascinating, intriguing and illuminating addition to Canadian history.
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