“especially in this free Country:” Webs of Empire, Slavery and the Fur Trade

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Lindsay, [Margaret] Anne
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Predicated on a narrative of mutuality and cooperation, what has come to be known as the Canadian fur trade has long been positioned as exceptional in its relationships between colonizers and Indigenous peoples. In this framing the fur trade in what would become Canada is represented as having experienced little of the colonial violence that manifested in other colonial encounters and has been constructed as devoid of the unfreedom of chattel slavery. In fact, this characterization is untrue. Located within the French and British empires, the Canadian fur trade reflected the violences of its empires. From the seventeenth, and well into the nineteenth centuries chattel slavery existed in the fur trade as it did in the empires of which it was a part. Here, as elsewhere, complex webs of family/business relationships carried the violence of empire to and between its colonies. The creation and maintenance of these webs offered spaces where women as well as men could participate in the success of their family/businesses, but also in the transmission of colonial violence. One example of this is the Wedderburn Colvile family, their involvement in both West Indian plantation slavery and in the Hudson’s Bay Company, and in the interventions of one of its members, Jean Wedderburn Douglas, Lady Selkirk in what has become known as the fur trade wars. A closer look at the Wedderburn Colvile family and their interests in the Northern North American fur trade offers insights into how colonial violence and changes in the laws relating to chattel slavery impacted the fur trade, as the effects of these changes traveled along family/business webs of networks of relationship. This research draws on primary sources gleaned from archives and libraries in Scotland, England, the West Indies, the United States and Canada. It brings together a wide range of secondary literature to argue that, just as in other parts of empire, colonial violence, including chattel slavery, connected through webs of family/business relationships, existed in the Canadian fur trade. At the same time, this project argues, the erasure of that story is something we are only now beginning to address.
Hudson's Bay Company, History, Webs of relationship, West Indies, Women, Family business, Fur trade, North West Company, slavery, Indigenous, Black, Empire, Colonialism, Imperial project, Canada, Race