Crippling a Global Superpower

Josiah Spalding jolted violently awake as the merchant vessel he worked on skidded dangerously across a large piece of ice. Mere days before he had been in the Caribbean enjoying the equatorial sun, but now, despite the mid June timing, he and his crew faced perilously out of season ice and gale force winds off the coast of Canada in the HudsonBay[1]. Situated in Northern Canada, the Hudson Bay area knows the cold all too well and that forced the merchants and businessmen of Ontario and Quebec to learn when the waters of the bay stood passable and when they closed due to ice[2]. The Hudson Bay Company stood as the region’s premier commercial power dominating trade through a monopoly on furs, and stands as the North American equivalent of the famed British East India Company. To combat the difficult northern weather, the company developed specific shipping schedules and routings in order to ensure commerce would flourish and goods got delivered[3].

The Hudson Bay Company came to represent the epitome of British maritime trade and economic affluence. The below video offers a brief introduction and overview to the company. 

The Company, however, had not accounted for the Mount Tambora eruption. Authors such as the Klingamans offer historiographical insight into the significance of the Tambora eruption. A.J.W. Catchpoll, a historian and author for the university of Manitoba, published papers that detail both the weather patterns and shipping routes the Hudson Bay Company used for trade. Catchpole also offers insight into the Tambora related anomalies of the summer of 1816. Harold Innis who, during his lifetime, served as a professor of political theory at the University of Toronto published The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History that offers detailed insight into the economic successes and hindrances the fur trade held for the Hudson Bay Company and the British Empire. Author and archivist Deidre Simmons who works for the Manitoba Archive in Canada wrote, Keepers of the Record The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives that gives insight, analysis and context for the records and logbooks stored in the archive. These authors’ work paired with primary sources such as logbooks and financial information from the Hudson Bay Company allow for formation of an accurate analysis regarding how the eruption of Tambora disrupted the economic well-being of the Hudson Bay Company.

The cold weather spikes that resulted from the Tambora explosion ultimately hindered the flow of commerce of the Hudson Bay Company during the summer of 1816 due to unexpected ice formations in key shipping routes. The delay this caused on Britain’s

ice-on-the-ocean-along-baffin-island-in-the-hudson-strait-and-the-labrador-sea,2215973
Above is a modern day image of the Hudson Strait, and how it appears when closed due to pack ice. A similar situation waited for the merchants of the Hudson Bay Company during the summer of 1816.

lucrative fur trade ultimately detracted from the company’s economic value to the British Empire putting a financial strain on the Hudson Bay Company and the greater British Empire. By the end of the summer of 1816 the change in weather patterns altered shipping to the point that the Hudson Bay Company’s profitability decreased causing an economic crisis in the region.

 

The British Empire in the 1800’s represents the epitome of maritime power. The empire spanned from North America to Australia, and as a result, saw its primary source of income from over seas exploits. The estimated gross domestic product (GDP) for the British Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century stands at 43.2 million pounds sterling[4]. When the sum gets adjusted for modern day inflation, it stands at 3.43 billion pounds sterling[5]. This offers a baseline for comparison. The Hudson Bay Company controlled one of the British Empire’s most vast over-seas expanses. Their monopoly on the North American fur trade held them in high regard in their home country, and their fiscal contribution to the overall economic muscle of the British Empire becomes apparent when their monetary records are analyzed. In 1816, the Hudson Bay Company promised to remain an important economic contributor to the empire. Just one ship of the Hudson Bay Company’s flotilla of roughly thirty vessels (numbers differ year to year based on ship repairs and change in assignment as ships belonged to the government) could store upwards of 400,000 pounds sterling of cargo. The bulk of the cargo consisted of of beaver, moose, and fox furs. Each ship held significant monetary value to the empire and their maintenance and upkeep held a high priority to the proprietors of the Hudson Bay Company[6].

Harold Adam Innis discusses the Hudson Bay Company’s economic significance at length in his book, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. Innis discusses the disastrous impacts of the summerless 1816 on the Hudson Bay Company and the greater British Empire through thoughtful analysis of the company’s monetary records. Innis found that the total potential for the Hudson Bay Company’s fiscal year 1816 earnings would amount to 11.86 million pounds sterling[7]. When adjusted for inflation, this total jumps to the staggering amount of 968.78 million pounds sterling. Due to the inclement weather that plagued the Hudson Bay Area during the summer of 1816, the company did not turn a profit that fiscal year. Furthermore, the

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Grappling was a risky method used by sailors. It worked by fastening a ship to a nearby ice formation and floating with the ice in hopes of reaching clearer waters.

inability for the British Empire to collect on their overseas monetary trade exploits meant a loss of 27.4% of their total national GDP[8]. In other terms, this would see the United States’ 20 trillion dollar GDP reduced to 5.4 trillion dollars moving the United States from the leading economy in the world to the fourth largest[9]. In the 1800’s, the British Empire had one of the world’s largest economies. The temporary hit the empire received from the inaccessibility of the Hudson Bay Company pushed their economy to the seventh largest behind Germany and France[10]. The impact the closure of the Hudson Bay had on the British Empire goes beyond an analysis of their GDP. The Department of Economics of the University of Warwick published a thorough report of the British Empires economic history between 1700 and 1850. In the paper authors Stephen Broadberry and Bas van Leeuwen provide detailed graphs that reflect the severity the loss of profit from the Hudson Bay Company had on the British Empire in 1816. Notably, they discuss how in 1816, the GDP of the empire remained negative during the period of 1816-1830 due to the events of the summer of 1816. The summer of 1816 stood as the first time the economy of the British Empire did not break even since 1780[11]. Furthermore, 1816 represented the trough of the British Empire’s economic cycle between the years 1815 and 1816[12]. All these factors considered, the significance of the Hudson Bay Company to the greater British Empire becomes clear. With this understood, the severity of the summerless 1816 for the Hudson Bay Company and the British Empire comes full circle. The odd weather caused by a volcanic eruption a world away massively altered the economic juggernaut, the Hudson Bay Company, and its benefactor, the British Empire.

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Grappling often led ships to their demise as pictured above. Cargo ships such as the HMS Prince of Whales were forced to return to dry dock for repairs due to grappling related accidents during the summer of 1816.

Josiah Spalding’s encounter with the ice in mid-June paired with his subsequent snowed-in summer in the Hudson Bay represent just how drastic a change in weather 1816 saw. Spalding’s account represents one of many seen throughout the three month shipping window the Hudson Bay Company usually enjoyed. The company enjoyed its status as one of the British Empire’s premiere export and trade businesses. As a maritime power, the British Empire depended on the profitability of their overseas colonies for adequate sustainment of their vast empire. The eruption of Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia ushered in severe climate change the world over. The Hudson Bay represents one of the most prolific examples of this change during the summer of 1816. When the Hudson Bay became inaccessible during the summer of 1816 due to closed ice formations throughout the Hudson Strait, the Hudson Bay Company and larger British Empire felt the financial toll. The Hudson Bay Company’s yearly haul of furs held an estimated value over million pounds sterling. Due to the Hudson Bay’s closed nature, the British Empire would not reap this profit that accounted for over twenty-seven percent of their national GDP. Therein lies the critical significance of the inclement weather of the summer of 1816. The Hudson Bay Company relied wholly on three ice-free months to conduct their shipping. When these months became marred due to weather, the company could not turn a profit that ultimately hindered the economic potency of the world’s largest empire, Britain. The British Empire would not recover economically for five years and the reality that stands the test of time becomes clear. The eruption of Mount Tambora had a direct and lasting impact on the economic prosperity of both the Hudson Bay Company and the greater British Empire.

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Today, as pictured above, major oil pipelines end at shipping ports in the Hudson Bay. Were a climatic disaster akin to Tambora to happen, much of the world’s oil reserves would be in jeopardy. It is vital to understand our planet, and the greater implications climatic disasters have on our environment.

SOURCE MATERIAL:

[1] Spalding, R. W. 1816. Voyages of Josiah C. Spalding http://www.worldcat.org/title/voyages-of-josiah-c-spalding-1816-1847/oclc/654141248&referer=brief_results

[2] Catchpole, A.J.W., and Irene Hanuta. SEVERE SUMMER ICE IN HUDSON STRAIT AND HUDSON BAY FOLLOWING MAJOR VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS, 1751 TO 1889 A.D. . Manitoba, 1989: The University of Manitoba.

[3] “History of the Hudson Bay Company.” HBC Heritage . 2016. Accessed February 27, 2018. http://www.hbcheritage.ca/history.

[4] Roy, Tirthanar. “THE BRITISH EMPIRE AND THE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF INDIA (1858-1947).” London School of Economics and Political Science, January 29, 2017, 209-36. Accessed April 1, 2018.

[5] Inflation Calculator. 2017. Accessed April 2, 2018.

[6] Innis, Harold A. 1894-1952. (Harold Adams). 1962. The fur trade in canada: An introduction to canadian economic history. Vol. YW-6.;YW-6;. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[7]Innis, Harold A. 1894-1952. (Harold Adams). 1962. The fur trade in canada: An introduction to canadian economic history. Vol. YW-6.;YW-6;. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[8]Innis, Harold A. 1894-1952. (Harold Adams). 1962. The fur trade in canada: An introduction to canadian economic history. Vol. YW-6.;YW-6;. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[9]Innis, Harold A. 1894-1952. (Harold Adams). 1962. The fur trade in canada: An introduction to canadian economic history. Vol. YW-6.;YW-6;. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[10]Innis, Harold A. 1894-1952. (Harold Adams). 1962. The fur trade in canada: An introduction to canadian economic history. Vol. YW-6.;YW-6;. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[11] Broadberry, Stephen, and Bas Van Leuwen. “BRITISH ECONOMIC GROWTH AND THE BUSINESS CYCLE, 1700-1850: ANNUAL ESTIMATES.” University of Warwick Department of Economics, November 25, 2008, 1-49. Accessed March 27, 2018.

[12] Broadberry, Stephen, and Bas Van Leuwen. “BRITISH ECONOMIC GROWTH AND THE BUSINESS CYCLE, 1700-1850: ANNUAL ESTIMATES.” University of Warwick Department of Economics, November 25, 2008, 1-49. Accessed March 27, 2018.

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