Canadian Fur Trade Essay, Research Paper
The Canadian fur trade, which grew out of the fishing industry, began as a small business, but would expand and become not only the exploiter of a primary Canadian resource, but the industry around which the country of Canada itself developed. The fur trade started shortly after the discovery of the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. The fishermen who fished there were the first people who traded furs with the Indians; this trade was a secondary means of profit for the fishermen. Later this secondary industry became a profitable big business due to changes in European fashion, and fashion techniques. While the fur trade brought economic growth and land discoveries, it developed its very own complex trading network throughout the wild, which laid the groundwork for a nation both geographically and financially.
The Europeans and the Natives were both instrumental participants in the growth of the fur trade, but the fur trade had its ill effects on these two cultures. The fur trade not only negatively affected Native and settler life, but also had negative ecological effects, particularly on the beaver. The beaver flourished until the fur traders came after them. Because of the land discoveries and the profit made through the trapping and killing of the beavers, the animals were left nearly extinct. However the invaded habitat of the beaver would become the routes to the European settlements.
In the period when the fur trade flourished there were two major players: the European traders and settlers and the Natives with whom they traded. The descendants of these two groups have different opinions on the effects of the fur trade, especially on the Natives. The question remains whether what was done to the Natives was unjust, or merely an inevitable outcome of exploration and discovery. The Natives feel that the fur trade was unjust to them; they feel the trade stole their culture from them and with it their independence. The opinion of many non-Natives is that civilization naturally progresses. Just as the Inuit took over the Tunits who were in the Arctic before them, through force and superior technology, the Europeans took away the land from the Natives in Canada. However, with increased contemporary awareness of social and ecological injustices we can look back and see the adverse effects of the fur trade.
Is it more accurate to claim that the fur trade was the destruction of a nation or the birth of one? Although the fur trade is seen as the base upon which Canada was built, it is also seen as an instrument of destruction for the culture of the Canadian Natives and a threat to an ecological balance among the fur-bearing wild life.
The development of the fur trade accelerated as Europeans had more and more contact with the Natives in North America. The first known contact between Europeans and Natives is believed to have happened between Vikings and Inuits, in the area the Vikings called Vineland, the present site of Anse-aux-Meadows . These first contacts were uneventful and the relations between the two groups were fair. They continued to trade on a small scale until the Vikings attacked the Natives who retaliated and forced the Vikings to vacate their colony, thus ending the first European relations with the Natives of North America.
These Viking colonies remained unknown to the rest of Europe, which would not find the New World for another hundred years. The first “discovery” of North America after the Vikings was by Christopher Columbus, who was quickly followed by Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot). Cabot did not find the silks and spices of the Orient he was looking for, but he did find something that ended up being worth even more, the Grand Banks and its cod. The warm and cold currents that meet at the Grand Banks result in an extraordinary richness of fish in the area , and soon after Cabot?s discovery fishermen from all over Europe flocked to the Grand Banks.
These fishermen who came to the Grand Banks during the summer season became the first European fur traders in the New World. This trading was mostly done between the Micmac Indians, and the French, Spanish or Portuguese fishermen. The fur trade at this stage, remained secondary to the cod industry, with fishermen trading to earn extra money. It was profitable for them because they traded the ship?s supplies which were provided by the owner of the ship, by emptying the ship of its cargo; they also did not have to pay for the furs to be transported back to Europe; they were getting the furs for free and transporting them for free. The Indians also benefited from this trade relationship because the sailors were generous traders, since they were trading someone else’s goods .
Big business paid little attention to the early fur trade, for the fur trade was a crowded market, and few businessmen saw any real chances for profit in the New World fur trade. Late in the sixteenth century the fur trade was presumably concerned with fancy furs or fur which is left on the pelt whose value is determined by beauty, luster and warmth . As well, the Natives that the Europeans were trading with did not have access to the inland furs, and were not as skilled in treating the furs . These factors along with the casual trading of the European fishermen retarded the development of a trading organization on a large scale .
As the market for felted fur products in Europe increased so did the fur trade in North America and as the fur trade changed so did the relationship between the natives and the European traders. By the early seventeenth century the fur trade in North America was the staple resource for the French colonies. In the early days the trade arrangement was very prosperous for both sides; this was largely due to a stroke of good luck. When the French first settled they arrived and settled at the perfect time and place.
Vital to French relations with the various bands was the fact that none of these strategic bases where they settled were established on lands inhabited by Native peoples. The Laurentian Iroquois who had received Jacques Cartier in the sixteenth century had all disappeared and their territories had become no-man?s land open to unchallenged European occupation.
This hospitable situation aided the relations between the traders and the Natives, for there was no tension over territories between the two parties. These early, beneficial relations were only possible because when the French came they did not displace or threaten any Natives or Native territory. These early days of the fur trade were simple and almost pure, but soon the complications of exploiting a culture to exploit a resource began surfacing.
These amicable early times would come to an end for several reasons beyond the control of either the traders or the Natives. The market in Europe for felt hats was expanding at a phenomenal rate and the traders needed to keep up with the demand, putting strain on the original setup of the fur trade and forcing change. The indiscriminate slaughter of the beaver for its pelts also put a tremendous strain on the beaver population, and soon all the beavers in the area in which the French were trading were gone. This depletion of the beavers territory led to an encroachment by the Europeans onto Native lands in search of more furs and new tribes to trade with.
The expanding European fur market and its pressures on the Canadian fur trade affected the Natives on many levels. If one were to compare the rate of development and cultural change of the Natives before and after the European arrival in North America, one would note an incredible discrepancy. The Europeans introduced the Natives to an large array of luxuries, technologies and traditions that were completely foreign to them. This unnatural cultural and technological development forced the Natives to question even their most ancient and fundamental beliefs. All these fabulous new shiny things that these strange men brought to the Natives intrigued them, but soon they had developed a need for them to survive. Although it was not done on purpose, the Europeans had made slaves out of the Indians by forcing them out of the stone age into the iron age without teaching them how to produce the goods they had grown to need. This made the Natives dependent on the Europeans not only for goods, but for the hunting and agricultural technologies which sustained them:
Once they had secured access to a source of iron supplies, more primitive implements disappeared and the methods of making them were forgotten
This dependance was what destroyed the culture and freedom of the Natives of Canada involved in the fur trade. Once the Natives had forgotten their old ways they became dependent on European goods to survive. So long as the fur trade persisted, the Natives could survive, but by the mid nineteenth century the animals they hunted had almost disappeared. The Natives could not even rely on the fisheries for enough food to survive anymore: ?moose and deer had virtually been exterminated from the forest country, and fisheries were said to be unreliable? . These starving Natives started drifting into colonies, surviving on the charity of the colonists and occasionally working on farms during the harvest. Although the government hoped this continued contact with the colonists would “civilize” the Natives, its hopes would not be realized. When the Natives had no food or shelter they would wander into a colony and try to beg or look for work, but whenever some other opportunity arose they would drift out just as suddenly as they had come in. The Natives still preferred the old way of life but they had become dependent on the Europeans. They had not become civilized by European standards but they had grown dependent on their modern ways for survival.
The economy of the early fur trade changed with the increased demand of furs and the interest of big investors.The early fur trading relationship was one of mutual dependence, or one could even say European dependency because during the early eighteenth century the European market was desperate for furs. A new method developed by the Russians for combing away the long guard hairs from a beaver’s pelt , leaving the short barbed hairs, made felting much easier and cheaper. The availability of this new technique greatly increased the market for felt hats in Europe which in turn caused the fur trade in Canada to increase at a phenomenal rate. This increase in trade sparked interest in the fur trade from big investors who wanted to join the fur trade. The arrival of big investors revolutionized the fur trade into an industry that would shape a nation.
In order for a company to start a trading post in Canada it needed permission from the Crown. In granting the permission the Crown would usually give a monopoly over specific trade, in a certain area. Such a monopoly, however, did not come without conditions. Those investors who joined together to form trusts and companies were obliged to aid in the colonization of the new land. In order to maintain the monopoly, certain quotas of settlers had to be met, or the monopoly was rendered void ; and there was always another company or trust with new promises willing to take over the monopoly. Failure to meet the settlers’ quota occurred because the companies were primarily interested in the fur trade, and not in the development of colonies.
Until the late seventeenth century, the English had little stake in the fur trade, concentrating mainly on their thirteen colonies that were flourishing south of New France. England finally decided to get involved when two Frenchmen, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and M?dart Chouart, Sieur de Grosseilliers, proposed to Charles II of England to sail up to Hudson’s Bay to trade there for furs. Radisson and Groseilliers had already successfully made this trip once, but on their return to France the furs they had acquired were taken and they were put in jail for travelling without permission. On their release they went to England, where Charles II persuaded a group of rich Englishmen to invest in another voyage. This second voyage was so profitable that the investors decided to create a company that did this every year, and so The Company of Gentlemen Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay (the Hudson’s Bay Company) was formed. Thus the English had taken its place in the fur trade . This emerging fur industry would, however, become strained, as the fur supply grew smaller and could no longer meet the needs of the European market.
Though the fur trade brought economic growth for Canada, this growth had the opposite effect on the beaver, which, by the end of 1870, was on the verge extinction. The beaver shaped the development of our country more than any other single factor in those early days of exploration, earning its place on our coat of arms. The habits of this animal along with the great demand for its pelts influenced the exploration of Canada.
Before the coming of the Europeans the beaver had mastered its territory. It has been estimated that before the fur trade the beaver population increased twenty percent a year . But these same advantages the beaver had prior to the introduction of iron products into their ecosystem became their down fall. Beavers migrate little and move slowly on land. As they build permanent structures, dams, in which they live, they are easily found by hunters. Also they are a monogamous animal. When one beaver is killed its mate will not find a new mate. This means that if only one of a pair of beavers is killed even the beaver that manages to escape from the hunters will not reproduce ever again. All these factors combined to reduce the beaver population to almost nothing in areas that were heavily hunted. The reduction in the beaver supply forced the traders to travel farther and farther across the continent exploring most of Canada and laying the groundwork for the building of a nation.
The fur trade has played an important role in the shaping of Canada into the land we see today. However, this transition brought about by the fur trade also changed the lives of Native Canadians, from self-sufficient independent people to a minority depending on the fur trade for survival. The explosion in the fur trade was due to fashion in Europe, which revolutionized the fur trade into big business. This big business took advantage of the Indians and their stone age technology by giving them products of Europe?s iron age, and so making them dependant on the new products for survival.
The fur trade influenced the early shaping of Canada, for it opened up the country to later European development, and shaped the history of our country. Only at the end of the twentieth century has there been some recognition of the devastating consequences of the fur trade on the Native Canadian’s cultural ways of life and on the delicate ecological balance of the beaver and other endangered species with their environment. With this recognition one can only hope that the twenty-first century will bring about a responsible response to these problems that will lead to a stronger and more enriched Canada.
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