COMPANY OF ADVENTURERS. Volume I. By Peter C. Newman. Viking. 336 pp. $25.
ONE would expect that our age would have produced a poration. Curiously, however, this has not occurred. Corporate historians have tended to bake dry loaves, and I rank the official history of the Weyerhauser Corporation, Timber and Men, as the most resolutely boring book I ever read. By definition freed from the vanities of transient flesh, corporations have generally preferred to forgo a place of honor in the memories of men for a temporal advantage in the here-and-now, which has generally meant silence, in a variety of forms.
It is therefore noteworthy that while preparing Company of Adventurers, Canadian journalist Peter Newman was granted "unimpeded access" to the archives and files of the Hudson's Bay Company,a concern with 1984 revenues of $4.8 billion that is also the world's oldest surviving English-language business corporation. Traditionally one of the most secretive of entities (the records of its explorers sometimes sat in vaults for decades before public release), the company chose with characteristic sagacity after 300 years to tell its story to Newman, who has here produced the stunning first volume of what will be a two-part history of the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay.
The former editor of Mclean's, the Canadian equivalent of Time and Newsweek combined, Newman writes with force and elegance. His intimate knowledge of the company's history ("the Hudson's Bay Company is probably the best documented institution in the world, next to the Vatican") fills Company of Adventurers with wonderful details about the evolving nature of venture capitalism. From its refusal to heat its northern stores during the winter to its insistence that items traded to the Indians be useful and sound, a picture of the Hudson's Bay Company emerges that is canny, vivid, deeply appreciative and critically astute. Best of all, Newman is alive to the contemporary implications in this story of a corporation that grew up to be both a multi-national conglomerate and a nation state.
At the outset in 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company represented a classic example of courtier financing married to the perceived interests of the monarchy. Based on the explorations of two French mercenaries, Prince Rupert convinced his cousin, Charles II, to authorize a Hudson's Bay trading venture. The king (who was given a stake in the corporation to insure his support), Rupert and a few others hoped to tap a new source of beaver pelts and copper (which the rise of the Dutch trading empire had made scarce in England), and in the process turn a tidy personal profit. Fortune smiled, at least briefly, and by the 1670s the company was returning a yearly profit of 200 percent on invested capital. A decade later, however, with harder times at hand, eight major stock holders, including Prince Rupert's successor, the Duke of Marlborough, fashioned golden parachutes for themselves by "stock jobbing," or declaring insupportably high dividends to lure purchasers for the stock they were trying to unload.
Not too long afterward, control of the Hudson's Bay Company passed from Whitehall courtiers to London financiers such as Bibye Lake, who Newman writes "perfected the creative somnambulism that would be the company's hallmark." While the East India Company and the South Sea Company were arching like comets across the English economic sky, the Hudson's Bay Company adopted an ultra-low key approach, refusing to pay exorbitant bribes to Parliament and pinching pence so assiduously that field officers were taken to task for spending too much on pickles and sauces to see their garrisons through the long Bay winters. According to Newman, just about the only fiscal flamboyance during the nearly 50 years of Lake's rule attended his 1720 effort to milk the company through a complicated stock watering scheme that would have multiplied the value of his holdings many times over while adding only a few thousand pounds to the company's treasury.
OF COURSE, there is much more to the Hudson's Bay Company story than the dealings of "choleric financiers with an appetite for fat dividends or titled nabobs with superannuated reputations," as Newman characterizes the London group. Thousands of miles away and often years distant in terms of communications, the company's men on Hudson's Bay wrote another sort of history that was as non-aristocratic as it was at times heroic. Faced with extreme weather conditions (winter temperatures measured 25 degrees below zero Fahrenheit on the inside of trading post walls, freezing port wine solid the instant it touched the glass) and intimate exposure to the Chipewayan Indians (who treated their women as sexual slaves, providing them to the whites as "sleeping dictionaries"), the Bay men had already begun the long march toward a New World sensibility.
Newman is in top form in his portraits of two of the Hudson's Bay Company's most distinguished early explorers, Samuel Hearne, the discover of legnedary Indian copper mines who followed the Coppermine River to its mouth on the Artic Ocean in 1772, and John Rae, the 19th-century discoverer of the grisly remains of the Franklin Expedition who appreciated nothing more than a good igloo, which he reported was translucent enough to allow the reading of Shakespeare by moonlight. And yet Newman also realizes that while the company's perseverance has been due to the combination of many factors, individual heroism was not a primary among them. The company lost virtually every military encounter with the French during their battle for the Bay, for instance, but still managed to preserve its cherished monopoly by dint of corporate constancy.
While Newman effortlessly integrates a wide range of peripheral material (such as the ecclesiastic lobbying necessary to get the beaver's scaly, hairless tail officially declared a fish, so that beaver could be eaten twice a week), there are a few factual lapses. For example, Newman asserts that the roofs of Orkney houses were traditionally thatched, when actually they were more often composed of stone or peat.
Although many important events and figures in the company's history have yet to make an appearance in the narrative, due to the two-volume approach Newman has adopted, I found the first installment of Company of Adventurers a delightful book. If the second volume is as good, I believe it may prove an important work as well, and one worthy of a concern that ruled an area 10 times the size of the Holy Roman Empire.