MERCHANT PRINCES by Peter C. Newman

MERCHANT PRINCES

KIRKUS REVIEW

 The final volume in Newman's three-part engrossing and epic record (1985, 1987) of how the Hudson's Bay Co. helped shape Canadian history as a royally chartered (in 1670) instrument of British empire. Here, Newman covers the 120-odd years through mid- 1991, during which HBC devolved into the Dominion's largest department-store chain. As before, the author again focuses on larger-than-life personalities who played major roles in the corporate drama. Among them are the rascally, self-serving Donald Alexander Smith, a longtime governor of HBC, as well as Kenneth (Lord) Thomson, the miserly heir to a newspaper/petroleum fortune who gained control of ``The Bay'' (as it's known up north) in 1979. Between the polar- opposite regimes of these two, Newman tracks HBC's expansion into the Arctic, the subsequent decline of the mainstay fur trade, and the boardroom battles that resulted in the shift of HBC's legal domicile from London to Winnipeg on the 300th anniversary of its founding. Along the way, he offers a wealth of anecdotal detail on The Bay's abortive involvements in filmmaking (37 features), wartime shipping (110 vessels sunk by German subs), bootlegging, and allied ventures that yielded few returns for investors. But despite its proving less than a financial success for backers over the years, HBC, Newman insists, has contributed immeasurably to the making of Canada's character--for instance, in the way the company's hinterland outposts established enduring commercial ties with the aboriginal inhabitants, stressing collective survival. By contrast, the author argues, fiercely independent individuals with little sense of community conquered America's frontier with shot and shell, slaughtering Indians for their furs or just to ``watch 'em spin.'' Newman concludes that the HBC has suffered irretrievable loss from the Faustian survival bargain that obliged it to exchange a many-splendored heritage for a mess of merchandising pottage. Absorbing and praiseworthy. The elegantly written text is profusely illustrated.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-670-84098-X
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1992