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Shedding Light on the Darker History of Nonsuch

View of the stern of the ship and sails illuminated in a dark gallery.

I recently wrote a fun little article with some facts about Nonsuch for the local newspaper, but I thought we should take some time to dive a bit deeper into the darker history of Nonsuch.  Don’t get me wrong, like many Winnipeggers I have a sentimental attachment to this ship, but sometimes we need to take a step back and critically reflect on history.  The history of our beloved Nonsuch is no different.

View of the stern of the ship and sails illuminated in a dark gallery.

Dark history calls for a view of Nonsuch’s stern during the night cycle of the audio-visual experience. Image credit: Ian McCausland/Manitoba Museum

The original Nonsuch voyage in 1668 was a scouting mission to see if a northern fur trade route through Hudson Bay would work.  This voyage was funded by a group of wealthy investors, including Prince Rupert, the cousin of England’s King Charles II.  The return of Nonsuch in 1669 with a hold full of furs proved it a worthy investment, and led to the establishment of what we now call the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670.

How did Prince Rupert and this group of investors amass their wealth to invest in such a risky mission?  Through their involvement with the Atlantic slave trade.  There is significant overlap in the investors, Directors, and Governors of two early British companies (both with very wordy names).  The Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, which would later become the Royal African Company (RAC), and the Governor and Company of Adventurers Trading to Hudson Bay, later, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The RAC had secured a monopoly in the West African slave trade, and for awhile, HBC had secured a monopoly in the North American fur trade. The connections between the two companies run deep.  There are 81 years out of 129, for the period between 1670 and 1799, where the governor of HBC had direct and visible ties to businesses involved in some way with slavery (Lindsay 2021).

Close up of the carvings on the stern, with the HBC Gallery entrance in the distance.

Note the entrance to the HBC Gallery, the old sign retains part of the lengthy old Company name. Image credit: Ian McCausland/Manitoba Museum

When people think of colonialism in Canada they often ignore this early period of European “exploration” and the fur trade, focusing more on the events after Confederation.  But it’s important to look at the long-term history of colonialism, and Nonsuch is part of that.  Does that mean we can’t still love boarding the ship and immersing ourselves in 1669 Deptford during visits to the museum?  I don’t think so. I find balance between my personal nostalgia for the ship with a respectful understanding of the role it played in the ongoing colonial process.

Nonsuch and the town of Deptford at dusk.

Wander the town of Deptford in 1669, while thinking about the history of this little ship and its connection to global colonialism. Image credit: Ian McCausland/Manitoba Museum

So come and visit the ship and embrace the memories and joy you may have for it, but also take time to acknowledge its darker history.

References Cited & Additional Reading

This inspiration for this blog post came from the wonderful dissertation of Dr. Anne Lindsay, who did immense archival research to bring these connections to light.  The reference for her dissertation is below, but also a recent article from the University of Manitoba on the broad impact of her work as it relates to slavery in Canada.

Lindsay, Anne   2021  “especially in this free Country”: Webs of Empire, Slavery, and the Fur Trade, unpublished Doctoral dissertation, Department of History, University of Manitoba.

Slavery as part of Canadian history

November 21, 2022 – Most histories of Canada include a description of the fur trade, where early European explorers exchanged beaver pelts and other items for information and assistance in developing the emerging colonized country.

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Dr. Amelia Fay

Curator of HBC Collection

See Full Biography

Amelia Fay joined The Manitoba Museum in September 2013. She received her BA in Anthropology from the University of Manitoba, an MA in Archaeology from Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), and recently completed her Doctoral degree from MUN. Amelia’s research has focused on Inuit-European contact along the Labrador coast, and her interests are continually expanding to explore Indigenous-European contact throughout Canada during the fur trade era.

Amelia’s job as Curator of the Hudson’s Bay Company Museum Collection involves building the collection, responding to public inquiries, preparing exhibits, and conducting her own research.  Her research interests centre on the interactions between Europeans (including HBC employees) and Indigenous peoples as they negotiated space, material culture, and their daily activities.  Amelia’s goal is to showcase this amazing collection, and highlight the important role that Indigenous people played in the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company.