Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Fur Country, or Seventy Degrees North Latitude (1873)

The Fur Country, or Seventy Degrees North Latitude is the second of four novels by Jules Verne set in the wild northlands of Canada. The titular mariner of The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1866), the first novel, merely skirts the nascent country in his quest for the North Pole. The final was written around 1896 but not published intact until 1989, entitled The Golden Volcano and discussing the Klondike Gold Rush. The penultimate was Family Without a Name (1889), about a pair of French-Canadian brothers fighting to redeem their family name by participating in the 1837-38 rebellion against British rule in what is today the province of Quebec. The Fur Country, the sophomore novel, bypasses Francophone loyalties and recounts the adventures and mysteries of the high Canadian Arctic.

The first half of the novel, and the first to be published in 1872, focuses on the Hudson's Bay Company and the attempts of a stalwart band of its traders to set-up a outpost north of 70 degrees. Founded in 1670, The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay is the oldest extant retail corporation in the world and therefore North America's oldest corporation. Furs were the inaugural target of the Bay's trading operations, fuelling the European demand for high quality animal pelts. Greatest demand was for the North American Beaver, whose luxurious undercoat of warm, soft fur was the best for felting and hat-making. Demand for Beaver felt hats did not wane until the middle of the 19th century, and the HBC did not finally retire from fur trading altogether until the 1990's.

In a strange movement of history, much of Canada's existence and identity is predicated on the actions of a handful of corporate entities. Anyone who had to endure the culture-wide angst of the National Hockey League lockout can attest to this. If not for the efforts of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a transcontinental railway would never have united the disparate colonies of British North America, leaving them vulnerable to American expansionism. The HBC has left its stamp as well. The Beaver is Canada's national symbolic animal because of its importance for the fur trade, which in turn symbolizes the fur trade's importance in the exploration of the country for Euro-Canadian expansion. Not that this endeavour was ever a major concern for the store now known as The Bay.

The impetus behind the formation of the HBC was that of the British mercantile empire. Ideas about White Man's Burden and the pride of a Divine empire on which the sun never set were not meaningful until the reign of Victoria. During the time of Charles the Second and the post-Cromwell restoration, merely staying economically afloat was enough. Rather than compete outright with the colonialism of the Spanish and Portuguese, the Crown chartered trading companies to carry the flag around the globe while absorbing the costs of doing so. The kickbacks deposited in Charles' purse certainly sweetened the deal.

In that respect, the HBC did not differ significantly from the Royal African Company or that bane of pirates everywhere, the East India Trading Company. Monopoly over trading was granted to the HBC to the tune of all the lands from which the waters drained into Hudson's Bay. At the time, no one had any idea how vast these holdings would be. Nor was the HBC particularly interested in finding out. It was a mercantile operation and expeditions held little value. Some Bay employees could validate themselves through the promise of mineral and ore discoveries, like Samuel Hearne seeking copper reserves in the Arctic. Some were squelched and forgotten, like Henry Kelsey, the first person of European descent to see the North American plains and its herds of bison. Others had such a drive that they jumped to the more ambitious competitor, the North West Company. In doing so, David Thompson was able to complete the first European-style map of Western Canada. Under the North West Company, Alexander Mackenzie ventured up to the Arctic on the great river named for him, and was the first to cross the Rocky Mountains and proceed down to the Pacific Coast. In those first few centuries, most employees were trapped on the dismal coast of Hudson's Bay, like R.M. Ballantyne, whose first book was named for that inland sea.

Jules Verne writes of the contemporary Hudson's Bay Company, with a newfound taste for exploration inherited from its 1821 merger with the North West Company. That merger expanded those unknown territories to nearly the entire breadth of modern Western Canada and much of the Oregon. The old Oregon border disputes with the United States were based on exploration claims laid out during the fur trade. Verne, however, sends his protagonists up to 70 degrees north latitude, far beyond the Arctic Circle. Taking place in 1859, he describes the overhunting of fur-bearing mammals and pressure by American fur trading companies (also the ones reliant on trading alcohol to Native Americans) that forces the company to look to the untapped reserves of the north. Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson and his crew are joined by renowned adventuress Paulina Barnett and the astronomer Thomas Black, who has dropped into the expedition in order to observe a total solar eclipse in the following year.

The first half, as previous mentioned, follows their struggles across the Arctic to Cape Bathurst, whereupon they build their outpost. That was only the beginning. Arctic winter and perpetual evening descend in all its horrors on the party. Verne lauds the ingenuity he has given his traders, who have taken nearly every possible precaution and technological solution to stave off frost, cold and the suffocating effects of long-term Arctic habitation in their log-hewn fort. Yet the cold gnaws at its victims, steadily, ceaseless, and hopeless situation piles upon hopeless situation. As storms buffet the outside and the thermometer drops to terrifying depths (actually not all that bad to anyone familiar with an average Canadian winter), food supplies dwindle, fuel for the fire goes along with it, and ravenous bears assault the barricades. When all hope seems lost, an earthquake marks a change in fortunes, and a turn into the fantastic.

An apocalypse of Arctic winter has ceased for the HBC crew, but things have become much stranger. Already they observed the strange phenomenon that, despite all the best observations and calculations, the tide only rises a foot along the promontory on which the fort is built. After the earthquake, it did not raise at all. In digging a pit-trap for caribou, the huntsmen noticed that beneath the snow lay the soil and gravel to which the fort was fixed, and beneath that lay another layer of solid ice. The last straw was the total solar eclipse that, impossibly, manifested only partially.

Verne is quite adept at building his mystery though it only lasts for the first half of the book. The second half, published the following year, deals with the outcome of the mystery and the mounting challenges faced by the troupe as they fight to return to civilization. Through both, Verne taps the Canadian consciousness of survival and duty in the extreme conditions of the High North.

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