HC Deb 05 February 1857 vol 144 cc219-41

said, he rose to move for a Select Committee to consider the state of those British Possessions in North America which are under the administration of the Hudson's Bay Company, or over which they possess a licence to trade. In making the Motion it was his duty to state the reasons why Government at this particular time had thought it incumbent on them to call the attention of the House to the vast possessions of the British Crown referred to in the Motion. Those extensive regions, stretching away far beyond the limits of Canada, were for the most part little adapted for industrial pursuits, except in so far as they were connected with the chase of wild animals for the sake of their fur, or with fisheries. Nevertheless there were large districts fitted for the use and enjoyment of civilised men, some of them being rich in soil, some of great mineral wealth, and others, from their situation, of the greatest consequence to the commerce of this country. He believed that he should be able to convince the House, if they were not already convinced, that the question involved considerations of Imperial policy, of justice, and of humanity of no ordinary magnitude. It was not his intention to go into the past history of those regions. Those hon. Members who had attended to the subject were aware that the country was long divided between two hostile companies—the Hudson's Bay and the North-Western Companies; and that collisions occasionally took place between them, fraught not only with injury to our trade, but also productive of disgraceful scenes of confusion and bloodshed. The Companies some years since were amalgamated under the sole control of the Hudson's Bay Company. Under different tenures that Company possessed the exclusive trade and the exclusive administration over that immense tract of country which stretched from the borders of Hudson's Bay to the waters of the Pacific, comprising within its jurisdiction the important adjunct known as Vancouver's Island. It would be necessary that he should state, though very briefly, the nature of the tenures under which the Hudson's Bay Company exercised such vast powers. In the first place they possessed a charter granted to them by Charles II. in 1670. Under that charter they claimed rights of the most important description over all that portion of British North America which was known as Rupert's Land, and which had been described as the country which lies on the waters of those rivers that flow into Hudson's Bay. In stating the claims of the Company to this part of their possessions he would refer to the words used by the Company itself. Some years ago a Motion was made in that House for an Address to the Crown to investigate the title of the Hudson's Bay Company to those territories claimed by them. The Colonial Minister of the day (Earl Grey) asked the Company to state their claim, and it was referred to Sir John Jervis and Sir John Romilly, the law officers of the Crown at the time, for their opinion. After defining the country designated as Rupert's Land, the Company stated that they claimed the absolute administration and exclusive trade over all the territory described, and the law officers reported that they were of opinion that the rights so claimed by the Company over the territory in question did properly belong to them. It was thought by Earl Grey that it would have been more satisfactory if those rights and claims had been referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for their decision, but that had not been done, and so the matter rested. As, however, that proceeding would involve considerable expense, the persons opposing the Company declined to carry the matter further, and he was, therefore, justified in saying that those rights, having been enjoyed for so great a number of years, and though frequently challenged never disproved, must be regarded, so far as authoritative decisions went, as confirmed to the Company. But the authority and right of exclusive trade of the Hudson's Bay Company extended not only over the regions known as Rupert's Land, but over a far more valuable district to the west of the Rocky Mountains known as British Oregon. Their tenure over that district was the result of a Royal licence, granted some nineteen years ago, under which they enjoyed the exclusive trade with the Indians, and also the fur trade. That licence would expire in 1859, and he had felt it his duty to bring the subject before the House, because he had received some weeks ago a communication from the Directors of the Hudson's Bay Company, wishing to know whether the Government intended to renew the licence. As the question involved one of commercial monopoly he had felt it to be his duty to consult the House, and not to pledge the Government upon it until the House had a full opportunity of considering the matter. Although the licence would not expire till the year 1859 the nature of the trade (requiring long preparations) was such as to make it most unfair to leave the Company in ignorance of the intentions of the Government until the last moment. He had, therefore, replied to the Company that he would bring the whole subject before a Committee of the House during the present Session. In justice to the directors, he must say that they had expressed their perfect readiness and willingness for a complete investigation of their claims by a Committee of that House. Looking to the questions of policy and humanity necessarily connected with the inquiry, he was satisfied, if the Committee were appointed, that they would receive from the Hudson's Bay Company every assistance in the prosecution of the inquiry. He had stated the tenure by which the Company held Rupert's Land, and that more valuable territory lying between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific. Another part of their territory he could not pass over without notice—Vancouver's Island. That island was held by the Company under a tenure different from that by which they held their other possessions. The House wuld probably recollect—for the circumstances caused some discussion at the time—that when Lord Grey was Colonial Secretary he thought the best arrangement of the question was to grant a lease of Vancouver's Island to the Hudson's Bay Company for eleven years. That lease might be terminated by a year's notice at any time, but, necessarily, it expired in 1859; and it obviously would have been the duty of Government seriously to consider the condition of Vancouver's Island before renewing the lease of it. In his opinion it was, therefore, expedient for them to take a general view of the whole subject—to consider the condition of Rupert's Land, and of the territory between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific, held by Royal licence, which expired in 1859; and also whether they would renew the lease of Vancouver's Island, which also expired in 1859. He had framed the terms of his Motion in a most general way, because, to take a narrow view of the question to which it related, would, he felt assured, be to deal with it in a very imperfect and unstatesmanlike manner. Looking at the condition of those Indian tribes who inhabited the vast district under the control of the Hudson's Bay Company, the House would find that there were connected with the subject considerations of humanity which, consistently with the proper discharge of their duty, they could not neglect. He did not deem it necessary that he should enter into any detailed statement in reference to the mode in which the Company managed the territories entrusted to their care; but he might observe that the Company was presided over by a gentleman residing in London who possessed the highest character for sagacity; that its agents to the number of 1,200 were scattered throughout those distant tracts of country, and that those agents, being for the most part Scotchmen, conducted the affairs of their employers with a skill and shrewdness worthy of the land which gave them birth. He felt also bound to state that the Company, so far as he was aware, were not neglectful of the duties which they had to perform as persons who were in a certain sense the trustees of the English people. So far as his information went, he was of opinion that upon the whole their rule had been beneficial to the Indian population, and that they were actuated by a sincere desire to treat that population—amounting, as it did, to the number of about 300,000—with due regard to considerations of humanity. There might have been, and, indeed, must have been, occasional scenes and actions extremely to be regretted and deplored; but, on the whole, the principal members of the Company had acted in a considerate and humane spirit to the native tribes who inhabited their territory. The Company's agents were narrowly watched, their promotion depended entirely upon their good conduct—in short, they were subjected to a degree of discipline which the Colonial Office would find it difficult to maintain in those distant regions. He was happy to be able to add that by their exertions the sale of ardent spirits—that bane of the unfortunate Indians—had been to a great extent put a stop to. Of course that restraint became less perfect as the borders of civilisation were approached, but among the more distant tribes the Company had managed to exclude the sale of those ardent spirits which were usually their bane and destruction. There was also another circumstance which he felt bound to bring under the notice of the House, and that was, that while during the last few years internecine wars, with all their frightful scenes of carnage and confusion, had been waged between the white and the red races upon the frontier within the limits of the American possessions, the most complete tranquillity and goodwill had prevailed between those two races throughout the whole of the British possessions. That being the state of things, he should be very slow to believe that the conduct of the Company towards the native Indians, had been of a character so reckless, so regardless of justice, and so inconsistent with humanity as some of their opponents were wont to allege. He should only say in conclusion, that having made up his mind to institute an inquiry into the subject-matter of his Motion, he had communicated his intention to the Governor General of Canada, with a view that the inhabitants of that colony might be afforded an opportunity of putting forward such opinions and furnishing such information as they might deem desirable upon a question in which they very naturally took a deep interest. To that communication he had received a reply from the Governor General which led him to hope that the Select Committee, if appointed, would have the advantage of having the evidence of competent men from Canada to guide them in their labours; and he trusted that those Members of the House most conversant with the subject would not hesitate to lend their assistance to bring those labours to a satisfactory termination. He had borne his testimony to the humanity which was exercised by the Hudson's Bay Company towards the people under their protection; but while he was prepared to accede to them that merit, he must say that he could not accord to them the praise of being disposed to encourage colonisation. Indeed, it was not likely that as a trading corporation they should do so, inasmuch as it would be adverse to their interests to promote any scheme which, by diminishing the number of wild animals, would as a consequence diminish the quantity of the fur which formed the staple of their commercial speculations. That part of the subject would no doubt receive the careful consideration of the Committee. The nature of the country itself was such as to make its condition worthy of the serious attention of Parliament. Vancouver's Island, for instance, which formed a portion of the Company's territory, was a place which might become of the highest political importance. It possessed an excellent soil; abounded in minerals; had valuable fisheries around its shores, and occupied a commanding situation in the Pacific. There was also another district known as the "Red River Settlement," where there was to be found from 10,000 or 12,000 half-breeds, which was growing up into importance, and the management of which he believed was productive of serious embarrassment to the Company. How that settlement was to be dealt with—as well as the various other questions to which he had referred—constituted a fit subject for serious inquiry, and therefore it was that he felt it to be his duty to call upon the House to grant the Committee for which he had deemed it to be his duty to move.


said, he had no intention of opposing the Motion, but bethought the right hon. Gentleman might have taken a shorter course in attaining the end in view. He believed that the general principle with regard to this question might be settled without any specific inquiry. It appeared to him that the Hudson Bay Fur Company was in itself and by constitution opposed to colonisation, for where the axe of the settler rang, there the trapper must certainly disappear. The object of the Company was to keep their territory a solitude where wild animals would always be within their reach; settlers would terrify those animals, and therefore to establish a fur company in the North of Canada was to say, "Here must be the limits of cultivation; beyond that ye shall not go, keep the land a desert, we want to have it so because we are a fur company." Beyond the territory of the fur company, both the Canadas were merely strips of land up to the St. Lawrence, and what he wanted to see was that they should cover the whole, so that British North America might really have the preponderance of territory which it presented on the map. It was true, it was said that a great portion of the Company's territory was unfit for human habitation, but France—that was to say, Gaul—was in the time of the Romans what Canada was at present. Any one who read Gibbon would see that then the Danube and Rhine were frozen over every winter, and that reindeer were common over Gaul during nearly the whole of the Roman dominion down to about the time of Julian. The Paris of those days was what travellers describe the Quebec of the present to be, and therefore he said that with the same circumstances that had changed the face of Europe, Canada would be in the same degree ameliorated. Let it be remembered that Canada was south of a great portion of Europe, being about the latitude of Italy; and if we cleared the country and drained the morasses, it might possibly become as flourishing and fertile as the most favoured portion of the Old World. The rivers which ran into Hudson's Bay passed through the most fertile territories belonging to England. He believed that if England did her duty to the Canadian provinces, there would be created in the Hudson's Bay Company's territory the Germany of North America, and therein something to counteract the preponderance of the United States. He did not want to be an alarmist, but he did not like to see a nation growing so great as to become insolent to the rest of the world; and if the United States were permitted to effect the aggrandisement they now contemplated, they would most certainly dominate over the rest of the world. The only way to compete with that tendency successfully was to give Canada the fullest development. Between the St. Lawrence and Hudson's Bay there was a country as large as Europe, and becoming more temperate in climate every day. There were the elements of a great nation, and it was the duty of England to develope them. When he found, then, that such prospects were obstructed by the interests of a small number of men, under the pretext of a charter, he said at once that such interests, or such a pretext, should not be allowed for a moment to stand in the way of the great interests of humanity. The right hon. Gentleman had alluded to the charter of Charles II. Surely he knew that that charter was contradictory in itself, and also that it was in contravention of the rights of all British subjects, inasmuch as what was given by King Charles to the Hudson's Bay Company was what the king had no right to give. Any one who had ever read the charters of Virginia must know what James I. did. He gave to the colonists all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific with full sovereignty. He believed that the powers given in this case to the Company were wholly beyond the power of the king to give—he should be sorry if they were not, because they were wholly against right and equity, and were in opposition to the interests of humanity. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Labouchere) said that the Company had taken care of the Red Men. But of that statement he had his doubts. He knew the country, and he knew that war was carried on in it in a way to emulate the barbarous combats of Europe. Even in his time, Lord Selkirk went to oppose the Company at the Red River, and combats occurred which would not have disgraced the regular armies of Europe. The territory was beyond the pale of civilisation and the Colonial Office; the Company did as it pleased, and its pleasure was to slaughter any one that offered opposition. He believed that in this slaughter the Red Men were employed, and they all knew that their doings would he a disgrace to civilised men. It had been stated on different occasions that the Company took care of their peltries. What had they done in Vancouver's Island? To make it fit for themselves they kept it a solitude; they acted as peltry merchants, and fostered foxes, bears, wolves, and martens, instead of men. These facts must have led the right hon. Gentleman to the conclusion that the Company was inimical to colonisation, and that the proper course for Government to pursue would be to take away the powers of the Company. The right hon. Gentleman had, however, pursued a different course, and one that would perhaps be more satisfactory to the House. He (Mr. Roebuck) should say before he entered the Committee, what his purpose was in doing so. His purpose was to civilise that part of the world, and to make it a pleasant home for a happy population. He wanted to found there a great nation as a preponderating power to the United States, and by so doing, to do his duty to the people of England, in opening better prospects and newer fields for thousands of their numbers.


said, he should have thought that the inquiry proposed by the right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary might be needless, but some of the opinions expressed by the right hon. Gentleman had convinced him that a Select Committee should be appointed in order to remove any doubt which might remain on the right hon. Gentleman's mind as to the absolute necessity of opening this extensive territory to colonisation. He should have supposed that every one would anticipate with eagerness the expiration of the two years which must elapse before the Company's licence expired and the country could be opened for settlement. If England did not allow it to be opened it would open itself by means of squatting immigration and gradual annexation by the United States, and the real question, in his opinion, was whether it should much longer continue to belong to the Queen or become a new territory of that republic. Vancouver's Island, which had been annexed to the Hudson's Bay territory by the greatest blunder ever committed by a Colonial Minister, was not only peculiarly rich in minerals and whale fisheries, but it was upon the line which would connect the Atlantic and the Pacific, and the value of its great harbour, Nootka Sound, had been long ago foreseen by Mr. Pitt, who risked a Spanish war for its sake. It mattered little whether the charter of the Company was valid or not; it could not be maintained in opposition to the rights and the necessities of mankind. The charter, if valid, could only be matter for compensation. There was no precedent in history of an empire which had the power of declaring that a great continent should be locked up and kept as a preserve for wild animals, and produce nothing but fur. For all the important purposes of commerce, traffic, and colonisation, the world was shut out from this enormous territory on behalf of a small trading and exclusive Company, and the territory was consigned to the use and management of a set of absentee proprietors. He did not believe the Company's charter had the slightest validity, but if it had, it was impossible for the Crown of Great Britain to maintain such a claim in the face of the world. By the express letter of their charter the Company were trustees for the colonisation of the country, and were bound to introduce religion among the Indians, but, as the hon. and learned Gentleman who had just sat down observed, how was it possible for a Company trading in wild animals to execute such a trust? In order to execute it they must destroy their own trading concern. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Labouchere) said that the Company had better agents than Government could command for the purpose; but the question was not whether the Colonial Office agents were more or less efficient than the Company's, for no one thought of handing over the colony to the Colonial Office. If the territory should be freed from the grasp of the Hudson's Bay Company, it would not be handed over to the Colonial Department, but to Canada, or it would be formed into a colony to be maintained by its own administration. Unless something of this kind were done the inhabitants would again do what they had done before,—they would petition the United States to be annexed, rather than remain under the thraldom of this exclusive trading Company. He would venture to say that when the present Motion appeared on the paper of the House so little was the revival of the Hudson's Bay Company in any man's thoughts that nine-tenths of those hon. Members who read it conceived that there was some intention in the mind of the Colonial Secretary to raise the question whether this territory would be available as a penal settlement or not. He was happy, at all events, to find that there was no such idea in the right hon. Gentleman's mind; and he was perfectly convinced that no such idea would be entertained by any hon. Member who had had an opportunity of considering the question. That was a proposition loosely and unguardedly made by writers who had not taken pains to consider the subject. At all events, one good would arise from the inquiry, for it would show by plain and intelligible evidence that if new penal settlements were to be formed (which he doubted), of all spots in creation, the Hudson's Bay Company's territory was not only the least advisable, but the most impossible to be selected for that purpose.

MR. E. ELLICE (St. Andrew's)

said, that if anything was wanted to convince him of the necessity of the proposed Committee of inquiry it was the speeches of the two hon. Gentlemen who had just spoken, exhibiting, as they did, a total ignorance of the manner in which the Hudson's Bay Company had administered its affairs, and of the state of the population in their territory. He was not so much surprised that this should be the case on the part of the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Adderley), because his attention perhaps had not before been directed to the subject; but he was astonished at what had fallen from the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck), because he naturally supposed that that hon. Member, from his connection with Canada, would have taken the trouble to become acquainted with the real circumstances of the case. He believed it to be well known to all persons who had travelled in Northern Canada that a large portion of that territory was so unfavourable to colonisation as to render it extremely improbable that any settlers could be induced to fix their residence there, while to the south, in Canada and the States, lay as good soil with a better climate still unoccupied. The hon. Gentleman who had just sat down seemed to be astonished that a doubt could be entertained as to the expediency of relieving that part of North America from the government of the Hudson's Bay Company; but had the hon. Gentleman made up his mind as to the form of government which he would give the inhabitants of that country in its stead? Had he considered the nature of the country, or its geographical position? Had he reflected that one of the most difficult questions by which the whole subject was beset, was that which related to the intercourse between the red population and the white? Was he aware of what had become of those red men whose territories had been attached to the United States? Why they had all gradually dwindled away, while upon the territory, presided over by the Hudson's Bay Company east and west of the Rocky Mountains, there were in round numbers 200,000 of those native inhabitants. Before the Hudson's Bay Company had become the compact body that it now was, this country had been one scene of turmoil and of bloodshed. From the years 1815 to 1818, the period which had been referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield in connection with the name of Lord Selkirk—massacres the most horrible had taken place. But it should be borne in mind that the Hudson's Bay Company had not at that time a monopoly of the trade of the country, but were exposed to competition upon the part of free traders coming from Canada and the United States, who had introduced ardent spirits among the Indians—a circumstance which had led to the most lamentable results. Since, however, the Company had obtained a monopoly the condition of the Indians had, he should not hesitate to say, been materially improved. The laws were put in force with as uniform justice and impartiality as it was possible to administer through so wide an extent of savage wilderness. Taken as a whole the rule of the Company was a good rule and beneficial to the Indians, and in the proof of this he might state that while the number of the Indians in the United States had been gradually dwindling down, yet in the Company's territory the native population—in all except the Red River district, and immediately on the American frontier—was upon the increase. Such increase, he might add, to a great extent depended upon the sufficiency of the means of subsistence provided them. They were themselves careless in those matters, and to procure supplies of necessaries for them from this country constituted one of the chief employments of the agents of the Company. Indeed the exigencies of the case were so great that the Company were under the necessity of laying up at every one of their numerous posts a whole year's provisions in store in advance, in order that they might be prepared for any sudden emergency which might arise. With regard to one important point which had been raised in the course of that discussion, he should at once acknowledge that a trading company was not, except under extraordinary circumstances, the proper medium of colonisation, and that nothing but the necessity of the case could justify a Government in putting any part of its colonies under the superintendence of such a Company. But the country now under discussion was an exceptional case, and even there, under the rule of the Hudson's Bay Company, a colony containing 6,000 or 7,000 inhabitants had sprung up, and enjoyed a certain amount of prosperity, in the Red River territory. The great difficulty which a Government or any other body representing this country must experience, in dealing with such a community, would be to counteract its natural tendency to attach itself to the United States. The Red River territory was not at all united by position to Canada, and it had far less facility for communication with Canada than with the great North American republic. He believed that if the trade which was at present conducted by Hudson's Bay between the Red River colony and London were discontinued, the whole of it would be transferred to the United States. The fact was that the road from the Red River territory to the United States was an easy and a direct one, over hundreds of miles of perfectly level prairie, while the route between the Red River and Canada lay through almost impassable districts of morass. For the greater part of the year no communication whatever could be had with the Red River except through the United States. With regard to the charter of the Company he should observe that he did not think it would be fair to attempt to set aside its validity on the ground of any original informality in the manner or the terms in which it had been granted, after it had been allowed to pass unchallenged for nearly two centuries; at the same time he believed that, if tried, its validity would be fully established as regarded the principal rights claimed by the Company. Looking to the fact that this vast continent had been governed by the Hudson's Bay Company for so many years, without expense or trouble to the mother country—probably the only British dependency of which the same could be said—he thought the Company was entitled to the favourable consideration of the Government and of Parliament, on the ground that their authority had, on the whole, been efficiently and usefully exercised. A reference had been made in the course of the discussion to the cession of Vancouver's Island to the Company, and upon that point he would only say that he believed there would be no difficulty in effecting some satisfactory arrangement between the Company and the Government. The appointment of the proposed Committee met with the approval of the Company, who wished to afford every facility in their power for ensuring the best possible settlement of the questions which that Committee would have to consider.


Sir, it is one of the misfortunes arising out of the vast extent of this empire, and the multiplicity of its relations, that there is a class of subjects of the utmost importance and the deepest interest to which, under all ordinary circumstances, it is impossible to draw the attention of this House and of the country. Such a subject is the one now before us. But I hope that, as it has at length come under our consideration, it will be possible to obtain for it some portion, at least, of the attention which it deserves; and I feel bound to return my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary for the Colonies, who has been the first among the administrators of that department to take a step which promises to bring this question effectually under the consideration of the House. I concur generally in the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire (Mr. Adderley); but I cannot agree in the opinion which his language seems to me to have implied, that my right hon. Friend committed an error in referring this subject to a Committee, because although I think that a Minister may, upon his own knowledge and from the means of information at his disposal, adopt a plan and recommend it to Parliament, yet, considering the peculiarity and the strangeness of this question, I think that if my right hon. Friend had taken that course he would probably have found himself under the disadvantage of addressing unprepared minds; and in my opinion he did well to make a proposal in the first instance which will associate the House with his labours, and which gives us a guarantee that whenever any positive and definite plan is submitted to Parliament, it will be a plan for the reception and the discussion of which many Members at least of this House will be prepared. I therefore thank my right hon. Friend for the proposition which he has made, and turning to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Andrew's (Mr. E. Ellice), I am bound to say that although I do not join with him in the sweeping censure which he pronounced on the ignorance of the hon. Gentleman below me (Mr. Roebuck), and of my hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Adderley), I feel bound to thank him also for the disposition he has shown on the part of the Company to throw open the merits of the whole of this very considerable question, and to become himself a partner with the Government in enabling Parliament to discharge this, as I must call it, long-neglected portion of its duties. Having now said thus much with respect to the manner in which the question comes before us, and fully granting, as I do, that we cannot blame the Hudson's Bay Company for having taken advantage of the powers which we had been imprudent enough to leave in their hands, I must add that I do feel that it has been not only an error, but that it has been almost a scandal to this great assembly, that we never have considered with the seriousness which the case deserves, the condition and the fortunes of that large portion of the surface of the globe which is, or purports to be, under the jurisdiction of the Hudson's Bay Company. And I hope my right hon. Friend has fully measured the great scope of the subject he is about to submit to the proposed Committee: that Committee will, no doubt, have to inquire whether the measures of the Company, in the government of their territories, have been on the whole, and more especially in recent times, liberal and wise. Upon that portion of the subject I have not the slightest desire to anticipate a judgment unfavourable to the Company. That inquiry will, no doubt, be conducted with that justice which characterises every inquiry adopted under the sanction of this House. And, further, I have no doubt that if the Committee should come to the conclusion—a conclusion which, I think, not improbable—that it would he well to have the relations of the Company with this vast territory circumspectly and gradually wound up, a temperate course will be adopted by Government and by Parliament, and any claims which the Hudson's Bay Company may deem itself entitled to prefer will be fairly considered. There will remain two questions, besides that to which I have already referred, which the Committee will have to consider, and which they must not refuse to look fairly in the face. One is the legality of the title of the Company, and the other, the expediency and the prudence of continuing to that Company the government of this vast territory. With regard to the legality of the Company's title, I may observe that I myself about seven years ago succeeded to a certain degree in drawing the attention of the House to that subject. But I regret to say that the measure to which the House and the Government of that day agreed was entirely frustrated and made utterly barren of effect by the course which was adopted by the then Colonial Minister. Here is a case in which there is a charter of Charles II., which purports to grant to a certain Company of adventurers powers of government that may be called pretty nearly absolute, and powers of trading which are rigidly excluclusive. Now, Sir, it is material—material not only to pecuniary interests, but material, I will say, to constitutional principles and personal liberties—that it should be known whether a charter so granted by the Crown is or is not valid. And here I cannot quite subscribe to the doctrine of my right hon. Friend the Secretary for the Colonies. The charter was never, I believe, brought under judicial consideration, but it appears to me, as well as I recollect—I speak with less confidence upon the point, as some years have elapsed since I was led carefully to inquire into the subject—it appears that the records and the history of the case, and the important documents bearing upon it, so far as they go, are not favourable to the legality of the charter. The charter was granted in the year 1670. An essential object of that concession was, that the Hudson's Bay Company should expend their energies and their resources in the discovery of a "new passage to the South Sea." All those voyages of northwestern discovery which have been made by the adventurous navigators of England in the course of the 19th century, at an enormous cost to the country, ought, by right, therefore, to have been paid for out of the revenues of the Hudson's Bay Company. The moving consideration which induced Charles II. and his Government to grant those privileges to the Hudson's Bay Company was, that they would thereby be enabled to prosecute the discovery of a "new passage to the South Sea." But the Company, after they had obtained the privileges, entirely forgot that object, and left to other hands the duty of conducting that search, and to other purses the duty of paying for it. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Andrew's (Mr. Ellice) is not right when he speaks of this title as a title that has endured for ages, and passed unquestioned from generation to generation. The charter was granted in the year 1670, and in the year 1690 the Act of Parliament was passed. And now, Sir, I ask the House to observe the terms of that Act of Parliament, because I believe that from those terms there arises a strong presumption of the invalidity and the illegality of the charter. It is called "An Act for confirming the Governor and Company trading to Hudson's Bay their privileges and trade." The preamble of that Act recites pretty nearly the terms of the charter, and then proceeds to state that the Governor and Company have gone to great expense in the prosecution of the objects of the charter. The Act then provides, that the powers conferred by that document shall be valid, and that the Company shall be a body corporate; and then we find in it a phrase which indicates the suspicion of its powers that the charter was not at that time worth the paper or the parchment on which it was written. In that phrase it is stated that the "franchises, immunities, &c., shall be made good which were thereby given, granted, and demitted, or mentioned to be given, granted, or demitted to the said Company." But you will say that the Act made the Company at any rate a body corporate and settled the whole question. Far from it, however, for the last words of the Act are—"Provided always, that this Act shall continue and be in force for the period of seven years, and until the end of the then next Session of Parliament, and no longer." I think I have stated enough to show my hon. Friend the Member for St. Andrew's and the House, that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, when they ventured to cast a doubt on the validity of the Company's title, were not liable to a charge of gross ignorance such as that which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Andrew's hastily, as I think, threw upon them. The subject undoubtedly is one which it is impossible to discuss with advantage at the present moment. But at the same time I wish to show that the question of the legality of the charter is a matter which the Committee must take into their consideration. It may be said that that legality was never questioned during the whole of the last century. But I must remind the House that, during the whole of the last century, the affairs of the Hudson's Bay Company were a perfect bagatelle. The spirit of monopoly operated upon that Company with its usual effect, and reduced them to a state of lethargy and torpor. They never extended their settlements, except to short distances, and along a narrow line from Hudson's Bay. I have not seen the books of the Company, but my hon. Friend (Mr. Ellice) has the means of examining them, and I have no doubt he will find that the transactions of the Company at that period were extremely limited. They had not the enterprise to face a wintry sea, a hungry soil, and a most rigorous climate. They had not found their way into the heart of the country, nor began to eat—in the sense they now eat—of the fat of the land in the shape of large dividends and a vast accumulation of capital. The history of the country under their jurisdiction is a curious one. While the Hudson's Bay Company, paralysed by monopoly, were conducting their operations in the spirit in which the snail conducts his march, an opposite spirit—a somewhat bucaneering spirit, but also a free-trade spirit—sprung up among certain persons in Canada, who, without the assistance of the legislature, organised a company, to which they gave the name of the North-West Company. This latter body moved vigorously onwards, and founded almost all those stations at which the Hudson's Bay Company have for the last thirty or forty years been conducting so profitable a trade. Then came that state of lawlessness which overspread the territory, when bloody battles—for one ought to give them their right name—were fought for the valuable trade which had been established by the energy of the North-West Company, at that time it became worth while to inquire into the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company. If you ask why the question of the validity of the title of the Hudson's Bay Company was not raised in the earlier portion of the last century, my answer is, because the interest in the question was in the main a public interest, and it was not worth the while of anybody to incur the costs and anxieties of going into a court of law to raise against a comparatively powerful body a question in the issue of which he had no more interest than had the whole trading community. But when the North-West Company had commenced their operations the case was very different. That company, under the direction of its able and energetic managers, and with the assistance of its good advisers in this country, of whom my hon. Friend knows something, took opinions upon the legality of the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company. There was a long purse to pay for these opinions, and those of very eminent counsel were obtained, and some of the lawyers consulted—among whom, if my memory does not deceive me, were Lord Brougham and Mr. Serjeant Spankie—gave opinions extremely unfavourable to the validity of that charter. There stood, then, upon the one side the Hudson's Bay Company with its charter and its quasi legality, and on the other the North-West Company, with its energy, its developed trade, and its stations, but with no legal privileges. Under those circumstances that happened which commonly happens at the present day, when two railway companies, after having first quarrelled, lay their heads together. The North-West Company made over to the Hudson's Bay Company its stations and its energy, and the Hudson's Bay Company gave the North-West Company a share in its privileges; and upon that footing they have since carried on a flourishing trade, much to their mutual satisfaction. This is a brief, but I believe it is also a correct, sketch of those transactions. It will, undoubtedly, be the duty of the Committee to take measures for the purpose of ascertaining the real state of a question so interesting to the personal rights of Englishmen, and especially of Englishmen engaged in trade, as the extent of the power of the Crown to grant these exclusive privileges—privileges claimed by the Hudson's Bay Company. With respect to the prudence or the imprudence of entrusting to that Company, or to any Company whatever, the exclusive government of this vast territory, I confess that is a question on which I entertain the strongest convictions. It appears to me that there is an abnegation and a renunciation by England of no inconsiderable portion of her duty and of her inheritance when she consents to lock up from her children a vast territory like this—a territory which, in spite of all that we have heard of the rigours of its climate, and without allowing for the changes which, as the hon. Member for Sheffield justly says, might occur to the climate and soil with the progress of civilisation, offers, I believe, a very considerable scope for the commercial spirit of Englishmen. The question of the legality of the charter will, I trust, be sifted, and sifted to the bottom, by the Committee, but I also trust that it will be sifted by means into which partiality cannot enter. The true mode of deciding that question is, as I think, the mode adopted by our ancestors, and not the mode adopted in the year 1849, when the course taken was to receive an ex parte statement from the Hudson's Bay Company, and then to submit that statement to the law officers of the Crown, in order that they might give upon it their opinion. That can hardly be considered anything better than a mere childish proceeding. I apprehend that the proper course to pursue upon such a question is that which used to be taken 200 years ago. Even in the arbitrary days of the Stuarts, of James I., of Charles I., and of Charles II., when a charter was granted by the Crown in abrogation of the rights of the subject, means were taken to raise the issue fairly before the judicial tribunals of the kingdom, and if those tribunals found that the Crown had exceeded it powers, the charter was quashed, and the subject was relieved from the damage which the Crown would have inflicted on him. Some such proceeding might, I believe, be adopted with perfect justice to the Hudson's Bay Company, and to the great satisfaction of the country, for the purpose of ascertaining the legality of that Company's charter. I beg pardon of the House for having addressed them at such length upon this occasion; but with the feeling which I entertain of the importance of the question, and the recollection I still preserve of the extreme interest—the almost romantic interest—of the history of the struggle that had been carried on for the possession of this territory, I could not refrain from submitting these observations to the House, and expressing my opinion as to the extent and scope of the inquiry into which it will be the duty of the proposed Committee to enter.


Sir, I cannot help entertaining some apprehension that evidence of a one-sided character only may be brought before the proposed Committee. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Colonies has told us that he has communicated to the Governor General of Canada his intention of moving for a parliamentary inquiry in this case; but he has not told us that he has made that intention known to the people of Canada, so that they might have been able to prepare any evidence they might think it desirable to bring forward. The right hon. Gentleman has made a strong—and as I think a rather ominous—statement with respect to the manner in which the Hudson's Bay Company has been able to preserve order within, the territory under their jurisdiction. The right hon. Gentleman would almost lead us to the conclusion that in his opinion it would have been impossible to promote the interests of the inhabitants of that territory without having given to the Company a trading monopoly; and what I fear is that the Government are actuated by a foregone conclusion in entering upon it. I also apprehend that, though in these times intelligence is quickly communicated from one part of the world to another, considering the distance of the territory from this country, evidence may be brought before the Committee very much of a one-sided character, and therefore that there may not be a fair and dispassionate inquiry into the subject. I hope, however, that our apprehensions are groundless in this respect. It is quite clear, with regard to two portions of the territory, that they were open to be dealt with in any way that Parliament may see fit; but as to that portion held under the charter, I agree that the charter, which hitherto has received no judicial confirmation whatever, ought to be submitted to a tribunal properly invested with the power to decide the question of validity If the charter is valid and good it ought to be dealt with in a fair and equitable manner; but if it is not, the question stands in an entirely different position, and I hope it will be thoroughly investigated by the Committee. Unless it came out in the inquiry that the people could not, if otherwise circumstanced, have a better chance of spreading themselves and improving their condition, I do not think it desirable, or even possible, that they should be left in the hands, for good or bad, of a Company who, after all, must manage the territory with a view to their pecuniary advantage. They are a trading Company, and though I cannot doubt that they treat the people subject to them with a due regard to justice and humanity, still it is their main object to carry on their enterprise with a view to their own interests. I am glad this question is no longer to be kept in the background, and I trust it will be submitted to a fair and impartial investigation.


said: If I understood the Secretary for the Colonies rightly, the right hon. Gentleman pronounced the greater portion of the territory to be absolutely uninhabited. I wish to correct what appears to me to be a little misapprehension on that point—for I believe that the territory under the jurisdiction of the Hudson's Bay Company is more valuable than many persons imagine. That territory may be divided into three parts:—First there is the portion to the north of Canada; there is next the portion to the west of Canada; and finally, there is the portion to the west of the Rocky Mountains. With respect to the portion to the north of Canada, I believe that if it is not absolutely uninhabitable, it presents a very unfavourable field for the industry of man. The portion lying to the west of the Rocky Mountains, as I have understood from the accounts of travellers, is a much more favourable soil and climate; while, with respect to the remaining part, lying to the west of Canada, I am enabled to state, from personal communications I have had with gentlemen from Canada and with servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, that the climate of that district is not excessively severe, and that it is possessed of a rich prairie soil. It is situated in the neighbourhood of the great western lakes of North America, and the climate round those lakes is always found to be of a much milder character than that of other districts in the same latitude. It would seem as if Providence, which had placed that immense water-power at the disposal of man, had also provided that it should bring with it a climate in which he could avail himself of its advantages. It should, on the other hand, be remembered that the tide of emigration in the United States is setting now most strongly in the direction of the adjoining territory of Minnesota. Besides, of all the railroads in the north part of the United States there are none paying so well as those of the State of Wisconsin pointing towards the territory of the dudson's Bay Company, and if any attempt is to be made to shut out colonisation, the result will be that the border population of the United States will go over in spite of such attempt, and serious difficulties may arise with the United States. I consider the best course will be to make the territory a part of Canada, as I know a strong feeling upon the subject exists in that colony. I hope that in the Committee full opportunity will be given to members of the Canadian Legislature who felt great interest in this matter to explain their views, as well as to the Hudson's Bay Company, who, being on the spot, may be presumed to have some little advantage over them.


said: Sir, I beg leave to suggest that, in order to ascertain the legality or illegality of the Hudson's Bay Company's charter, of which a preconceived idea appeared to exist, a Committee of this House is not the best tribunal that can be selected. I think it would have been better had the Government ascertained the opinions of the highest legal authorities upon the point, and there can be no doubt of the competence of a Committee to deal with the other branches of the subject. It was, in my opinion, a great mistake to have placed Vancouver's Island under the authority of the Hudson's Bay Company, which had had the effect of frustrating all attempts at colonisation upon that island, notwithstanding its vast natural resources.


said: Sir, I desire to call attention to the powers which it is proposed to confer upon the Committee. In common with many other Members, I am anxious that the question of the legality of the Hudson's Bay Company should be brought under the consideration of the Committee—I mean the validity of the original grant; and also whether that grant, even if originally valid, has not been forfeited by an entire disregard to the considerations upon which it was made. The terms of the Motion seem to assume the validity of the charter, and I wish to point out that circumstance to the right hon. Gentleman in order that he may vary the terms of the reference to the Committee, if he should think it necessary, so that the whole question of the validity of the charter may be ascertained.


, in reply, said: Sir, I do not think the terms of my Motion are open to the construction which the hon. and learned Gentleman has placed upon them. I do not believe them to imply any opinion as to the legality or illegality of the Hudson's Bay Company's charter, and certainly I did not intend to convey any such impression. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. Gladstone) that the Committee itself would be a very improper tribunal to decide upon a legal question; but, if the Committee requires a decision upon that point, it will possess the power of sending it to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Some hon. Members appear to think that I have arrived at a foregone conclusion upon the subject; but I beg to assure them that my only desire has been to lay the matter fairly and impartially before the House, It has also been supposed that I said the government of the Hudson's Bay Company was essential to the administration of justice to the Indians; but I only said that, in the performance of that most important part of their functions, the Company have ever acted with the greatest humanity; and I expressed a hope that, in considering the subject the Committee would not confine itself to a commercial view, but would also consider the interests of those Indian tribes whose interest it is our duty to protect. Some hon. Gentlemen have argued as though the whole of the territories in question are of the same character; but it is not so, and, without throwing any impediment in the way of colonisation, it may be possible to continue the fur trade in those districts which are at present unsuited for the location of settlers. I only desire that this important and complicated question shall be fairly brought before the Committee, and I am glad to find that the course which the Government have adopted is one which has received the general approval of the House.

Motion agreed to.

Select Committee appointed, "to consider the state of those British Possessions in North America which are under the administration of the Hudson's Bay Company, or over which they possess a licence to trade."