Looking toward a wooden sailing ship (the Nonsuch) from the stern as it is lit dramatically within a blue-hued gallery. The ship is displayed docked in part.
December 5, 2022

Shedding Light on the Darker History of Nonsuch

Shedding Light on the Darker History of Nonsuch

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.

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). 

Photograph looking past the stern of a large wooden sip (the Nonsuch) toward a painted background mural showing blue water and a hilly coastline 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

Looking up a walkway in the Nonsuch Gallery of the Manitoba Museum. On the left, a large wooden sailing ship (the Nonsuch) is “docked”. On the right are facades of old fashioned wooden buildings. The gallery is lit in reds and oranges.

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

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. 

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

Dr. Amelia Fay

Dr. Amelia Fay

Curator of Anthropology & the HBC Museum Collection

Amelia Fay is Curator of Anthropology and the HBC Museum Collection at the Manitoba Museum. She received her BA in Anthropology from the University of Manitoba (2004), an MA in Archaeology…
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