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The Hudson’s Bay Company and it’s ships’ logbooks

September 6, 2011

The ARCdoc project is drawing on three sources of ships’ logbooks: those kept by the Royal Navy, Whaling ships and the Hudson’s Bay Company. The latter represents a particularly interesting and important source because it provides marine meteorological observations for the far North Atlantic (60N+), a region which remains largely data deficient for the pre instrumental  (before 1850) period.

Who are the Hudson’s Bay Company?

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which is still in operation today, dates back to 1670. Following the successful voyage of the vessel Nonsuch to trade for beaver pelts with the Cree Indians near James Bay, the company was granted a Royal Charter by Charles II and for nearly 2 centuries the company expanded to control one third of present day Canadian territory, and, latterly, large areas of the present northwestern USA.

From its London headquarters, the HBC extended its communication and trade routes, using a fleet of merchant vessels. These frigates were described by Falconer’s Dictionary of the marine (1780) as ‘light, nimble’ ships, ‘built for the purposes of sailing swiftly, these vessels mount from twenty to thirty eight guns, and are esteemed to be excellent cruisers’.

These ships sailed annually between London and the HBC trading posts in the bay, leaving the Thames estuary around the  31 May. Once out of the Thames, they sailed northwards along the east coast of the British Isles to Stromness in the Orkney Islands, where Company servants were hired and fresh water and provisions were embarked. From here, the ships headed west, sailing a round Cape Farewell in Greenland and into Hudson Strait, south of Resolution Island. Once in the bay, the routes diverged, either south to Moose Factory or more westerly to Churchill or York Factory. On the return voyage, the majority of ships travelled back to London again via the Orkney Islands, but occasionally some took a more southerly route towards the English Channel and Thames Estuary; arriving late September or early October.

Hudson’s Bay Company logbooks

The original logbooks of the vessels are kept in the HBC archives of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada but microfilm copies, together with additional company records, are held at the National Archives in London. The ships’ logbook record extends from 1751 to 1920, with each logbook documenting the daily record of the vessel’s progress whilst at sea.  All the logs are hand-written with the majority authored by the chief mate or master, although by the nineteenth century, journals were composed by the chief officer, mate, second mate, third mate, chief engineer, engineer, purser and surgeon.

All the logbooks contain information on hours, speed, course, location (latitude and longitude) wind strength and direction, weather, and observations of sea ice. It’s these observations, when handled carefully, which can be used to extend our scientific knowledge of the climate of the far North Atlantic into the pre instrumental period.

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