Masters and servants: the Hudson's Bay Company and its personnel, 1668-1782

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Stephen, Scott P.
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During its long first century (1670-1782), the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) developed personnel practices not on the basis of abstract policy but by patching together experiments and expedients. Its initial vulnerability increased the value of loyal and experienced servants, and frequent shortfalls in wartime recruitment allowed old hands to demand and receive higher wages and gratuities. Peace after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 allowed the Company to prune its payroll and to resume the carefully optimistic expansion that French attacks had interrupted in 1686. This required a larger labour force, but recruitment processes remained relatively unchanged from previous years (although Orkneymen became increasingly prominent). Expanding operations in the mid-eighteenth century imposed greater regularity on existing ad hoc methods of recruiting and retaining personnel, but labour needs did not expand rapidly enough to unduly strain those methods. Increasing inland travel and trade after 1743 placed new demands on servants by requiring that ‘extraordinary’ labour become ‘ordinary’. The Committee discovered that this could only be done with ‘encouragement’, the slow pace of which hampered inland ventures into the 1780s. Inland operations changed the nature of HBC service and influenced the way master, factor, and servant interacted; they also illuminated the practices and assumptions which had been prevalent since Utrecht and probably before. The HBC drew its labour force from the competitive labour ‘market’ of early modern Britain: the movement of men to and from the Bay was an aspect of domestic labour mobility. The relationship between the Committee and their employees was that of master and servants, heavily influenced by the circumstances of trading in Hudson Bay. Labour relations within HBC posts were framed by the dominant social construct of early modern Britain, the patriarchal household-family, made up of a master (the patriarch) and a family of kin, apprentices, and servants. Men at all levels of the Company hierarchy could try to shape the reality of their HBC experiences, but did so in terms of commonly accepted ideals. Deferential behaviours and strong vertical ties existed alongside tension and negotiation: the Committee and their servants all understood the nature of ideal master-servant relationships, but they also had experience of the realities of life in various kinds of households. The Company’s servants internalized and practised the expected values of deference and submission, but did so without abandoning or deferring their own self-interest; indeed, they could use their mastery of the language to advance their own interests. The household-factory was the fundamental social unit of HBC establishments. Although membership changed, the institution maintained continuity over time. Furthermore, each household-factory was internally held together, and bound to other household-factories and to the London Committee by ties of patronage, brokerage, and friendship, that mediated the network of horizontal and vertical relationships.
servants, household