Jules Verne.

The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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the traveller.

" It is, Madam, but Jaspar Hobson has never yet drawn back
from a task imposed upon him, however formidable it may have

" I can quite believe it, Captain," replied Mrs Barnett, " and we
shall now see the Lieutenant at work. But what induces the Com-
pany to construct a fort on the shores of the Arctic Ocean t "

" They have a powerful motive, Madam," replied the Captain.
" I may add a double motive. At no very distant date, Russia will
probably cede her American possessions to the Government of the
United States. 1 When this cession has taken place, the Company
will find access to the Pacific Ocean extremely difficult, unless the
North-west passage discovered by M'Clure be practicable. Fresh
1 Captain Craventy's prophecy has since been realised.



explorations will decide this, for the Admiralty is about to send a
vessel which will coast along the North American continent, from
Behring Strait to Coronation Gulf, on the eastern side of which the
new fort is to be established. If the enterprise succeed, this point
will become an important factory, the centre of the northern fur
trade. The transport of furs across the Indian territories involves
a vast expenditure of time and money, whereas, if the new route be
available, steamers will take them from the new fort to the Pacific
Ocean in a few days."

" That would indeed be an important result of the enterprise, if
this North-west passage can really be used," replied Mrs Paulina
Barnett ; " but I think you spoke of a double motive."

" I did, Madam," said the Captain, *' and I alluded to a matter of
vital interest to the Company. But I must beg of you to allow me
to explain to you in a few words how the present state of things
came about, how it is in fact that the very source of the trade of
this once flourishing Company is in danger of destruction."

The Captain then proceeded to give a brief sketch of the history
of the famous Hudson's Bay Company.

In the earliest times men employed the skins and furs of animals
as clothing. The fur trade is therefore of very great antiquity.
Luxury in dress increased to such an extent, that sumptuary laws
were enacted to control too great extravagance, especially in furs, for
which there was a positive passion. Vair and the furs of Siberian
squirrels were prohibited at the middle of the 1 2th century.

In 1553 Russia founded several establishments in the northern
steppes, and England lost no time in following her example. The
trade in sables, ermines, and beavers, was carried on through the
agency of the Samoiedes ; but during the reign of Elizabeth, a royal
decree restricted the use of costly furs to such an extent, that for
several years this branch of industry was completely paralysed.

On the 2nd May, 1670, a licence to trade in furs in the Hudson's
Bay Territory was granted to the Company, which numbered several
men of high rank amongst its shareholders : the Duke of York, the
Duke of Albemarle, the Earl of Shaftesbury, &c. Its capital was
then only 8420. Private companies were formidable rivals to its
success ; and French agents, making Canada their headquarters,
ventured on hazardous but most lucrative expeditions. The active
competition of these bold hunters threatened the very existence of
the infant Company.


The conquest of Canada, however, somewhat lessened the danger
of its position. Three years after the taking of Quebec, 1776, the
fur trade received a new impulse. English traders became familiar
with the difficulties of trade of this kind ; they learned the
customs of the country, the ways of the Indians and their system
of exchange of goods, but for all this the Company as yet made no
profits whatever. Moreover, towards 1784 some merchants of
Montreal combined to explore the fur country, and founded that
powerful North-west Company, which soon became the centre of the
fur trade. In 1798 the new Company shipped furs to the value of
no less than 120,000, and the existence of the Hudson's Bay
Company was again threatened.

We must add, that the North-west Company shrank from no act,
however iniquitous, if its interests were at stake. Its agents
imposed on their own employes, speculated on the misery of the
Indians, robbed them when they had themselves made them drunk,
setting at defiance the Act of Parliament forbidding the sale of
spirituous liquors on Indian territory ; and consequently realising
immense profits, in spite of the competition of the various Russian
and American companies which had sprung up the American Fur
Company amongst others, founded in 1809, with a capital of a
million of dollars, which was carrying on operations on the west
of the Rocky Mountains.

The Hudson's Bay Company was probably in greater danger of
ruin than any other ; but in 1821, after much discussion, a treaty was
made, in accordance with which its old rival the North-west Company
became amalgamated with it, the two receiving the common title of
" The Hudson's Bay Fur Company."

Now the only rival of this important association is the American
St Louis Fur Company. The Hudson's Bay Company has numerous
establishments scattered over a domain extending over 3,700,000
square miles. Its principal factories are situated on James Bay,
at the mouth of the Severn, in the south, and towards the frontiers
of Upper Canada, on Lakes Athapeskow, Winnipeg, Superior,
Methye, Buffalo, and near the Colombia, Mackenzie, Saskatchewan,
and Assiniboin rivers, &c. Fort York, commanding the course of
the river Nelson, is the headquarters of the Company, and contains
its principal fur depot. Moreover, in 1842 it took a lease of
all the Russian establishments in North America at an annual
rent of 40,000, so that it is now working on its own account



the vast tracts of country between the Mississippi and the Pacific
Ocean. It has sent out intrepid explorers -in every direction:
Hearne. towards the Polar Sea, in 1770, to the discovery of the Cop-
permine River; Franklin, in 1819 to 1822, along 5550 miles of the
American coast ; Mackenzie, who, after having discovered the river
to which he gave his name, reached the shores of the Pacific at
52 24' N. Lat. The following is a list of the quantities of skins
and furs despatched to Europe by the Hudson's Bay Company in
1833-34, which will give an exact idea of the extent of its trade :

Beavers, .

Skins and young Beavers,

Musk Rats,

Badgers, .



Foxes, .

Lynxes, .

Sables, . '

Polecats, .

Otters, .

Racoons, .

Swans, .

Wolves, .

















Such figures ought to bring in a large profit to the Hudson's
Bay Company, but unfortunately they have not been maintained,
and for the last twenty years have been decreasing.

The cause of this decline was the subject of Captain Craventy's
explanation to Mrs Paulina Barnett.

" Until 1839. Madam," said he, " the Company was in a flourish-
ing condition. In that year the number of furs exported was
2,350,000, but since then the trade has gradually declined, and
this number is now reduced by one-half at least."

" But what do you suppose is the cause of this extraordinary
decrease in the exportation of furs ? " inquired Mrs Barnett.

"The depopulation of the hunting territories, caused by the
activity, and, I must add, the want of foresight of the hunters.
The game was trapped and killed without mercy. These massacres
were conducted in the most reckless and short-sighted fashion.
Even females with young and their little ones did not escape. The
consequence is, that the animals whose fur is valuable have become
extremely rare. The otter has almost entirely disappeared, and is


only to be found near the islands of the North Pacific. Small
colonies of beavers have taken refuge on the shores of the most dis-
tant rivers. It is the same with many, other animals, compelled to
flee before the invasion of the hunters. The traps, once crowded
with game, are now empty. The price of skins is rising just when
a great demand exists for furs. Hunters have gone away in disgust,
leaving none but the most intrepid and indefatigable, who now
penetrate to the very confines of the American continent."

" Yes," said Mrs Paulina Barnett, " the fact of the fur-bearing
animals having taken refuge beyond the polar circle, is a sufficient
explanation of the Company's motive in founding a factory on the
borders of the Arctic Ocean."

"Not only so, Madam," replied the Captain, "the Company is also
compelled to seek a more northern centre of operations, for an Act
of Parliament has lately greatly reduced its domain/'

" And the motive for this reduction 1 " inquired the traveller.

" A very important question of political economy was involved,
Madam ; one which could not fail greatly to interest the statesmen
of Great Britain. In a word, the interests of the Company and
those of civilisation are antagonistic. It is to the interest of the
Company to keep the territory belonging to it in a wild unculti-
vated condition. Every attempt at clearing ground was pitilessly
put a stop to, as it drove away the wild animals, so that the mono-
poly enjoyed by the Hudson's Bay Company was detrimental to
all agricultural enterprise. All questions not immediately relating
to their own particular trade, were relentlessly put aside by the
governors of the association. It was this despotic, and, in a certain
sense, immoral system, which provoked the measures taken by Par-
liament, and, in 1837, a commission appointed by the Colonial
Secretary decided that it was necessary to annex to Canada all the
territories suitable for cultivation, such as the Red River and Sas-
katchewan districts, and to leave to the Company only that portion
of its land which appeared to be incapable of future civilisation.
The next year the Company lost the western slopes of the Rocky
Mountains, which it held direct from the Colonial Office, and you
will now understand, Madam, how the agents of the Company, hav-
ing lost their power over their old territories, are determined before
giving up their trade to try to work the little known countries of
the north, and so open a communication with the Pacific by means
of the North-west passage."


Mrs Paulina Barnett was now well informed as to the ulterior
projects of the celebrated Company. Captain Craventy had given
her a graphic sketch of the situation, and it is probable he would
have entered into further details, had not an incident cut short his

Corporal Joliffe announced in a loud voice that, with Mrs JoliftVs
assistance, he was about to mix the punch. This news was received
as it deserved. The bowl or rather, the basin was filled with
the precious liquid. It contained no less than ten pints of coarse
rum. Sugar, measured out by Mrs Joliffe, was piled up at the
bottom, and on the top floated slices of lemon shrivelled with" age.
Nothing remained to be done but to light this alcoholic lake, and
the Corporal, match in hand, awaited the order of his Captain, as if
he were about to spring a mine.

"All right, Joliffe !" at last said Captain Craventy.

The light was applied to the bowl, and in a moment the punch
was in flames, whilst the guests applauded and clapped their hands.
Ten minutes afterwards, full glasses of the delightful beverage were
circulating amongst the guests, fresh bidders for them coming for-
ward in endless succession, like speculators on the Stock Exchange.

" Hurrah ! hurrah ! hurrah I three cheers for Mrs Barnett ! A
cheer for the Captain."

In the midst of these joyful shouts cries were heard from outside.
Silence immediately fell upon the company assembled.

"Sergeant Long," said the Captain, "go and see what is the

And at his chiefs order, the Sergeant, leaving his glass unfinished,
left the room.



.ERGEANT LONG hastened to the narrow passage from
which opened the outer door of the fort, and heard the
cries redoubled, and combined with violent blows on the
postern gate, surrounded by high walls, which gave access to the
court. The Sergeant pushed open the door, and plunging into the
snow, already a foot deep ; he waded through it, although half-
blinded by the cutting sleet, and nipped by the terrible cold.

"What the devil does any one want at this time of night]"
exclaimed the Sergeant to himself, as he mechanically removed the
heavy bars of the gate ; " none but Esquimaux would dare to brave
such a temperature as this ! "

" Open ! open ! open ! " they shouted from without.

" I am opening," replied Sergeant Long, who really seemed to be
a long time about it.

At last the door swung open, and the Sergeant was almost upset
by a sledge, drawn by six dogs, which dashed past him like a flash
of lightning. Worthy Sergeant Long only just escaped being crushed,
but he got up without a murmur, closed the gate, and returned to
the house at his ordinary pace, that is to say, at the rate of seventy-
five strides a minute.

But Captain Craventy, Lieutenant Jaspar Hobspn, and Corporal
Joliffe were already outside, braving the intense cold, and staring
at the sledge, white with snow, which had just drawn up in front
of them.

A man completely enveloped in furs now descended from it.

" Fort Reliance ? " he inquired.

" The same," replied the Captain.

" Captain Craventy ? "

" Behold him ! Who are you ? "

" A courier of the Company."

" Are you alone ? "


" No, I bring a traveller."

"A traveller ! And what does he want?"

"He is come to see the moon."

At this reply, Captain Craventy said to himself the man must be
a fool. But there was no time to announce this opinion, for the
courier had taken an inert mass from the sledge, a kind of bag
covered with snow, and was about to carry it into the house, when
the Captain inquired

"What is that bag ?"

" It is my traveller," replied the courier.

" Who is this traveller ? "

" The astronomer, Thomas Black."

" But he is frozen."

"Well, he must be thawed."

Thomas Black, carried by the Sergeant, the Corporal, and the
courier, now made his entrance into the house of the fort, and was
taken to a room on the first floor, the temperature of which was
bearable, thanks to a glowing stove. He was laid upon a bed, and
the Captain took his hand.

It was literally frozen. The wrappers and furred mantles, in
which Thomas Black was rolled up like a parcel requiring care, were
removed, and revealed a man of about fifty. He was short and
stout, his hair was already touched with grey, his beard was un-
trimmed, his eyes were closed, and his lips pressed together as if
glued to one another. If he breathed at all, it was so slightly that
the frost-work on the windows would not have been affected by it.
Joliffe undressed him, and turned him rapidly on to his face and
back again, with the words

" Come, come, sir, when do you mean to return to conscious-
ness 1 "

But the visitor who had arrived in so strange a manner showed
no signs of returning life, and Corporal Joliffe could think of no
better means to restore the lost vital heat than to give him a bath
in the bowl of hot punch.

Very happily for Thomas Black, however, Lieutenant Jaspar
Hobson had another idea.

" Snow, bring snow ! " he cried.

There was plenty of it in the court of Fort Reliance; and
whilst the Sergeant went to fetch the snow, Joliffe removed all
the astronomer's clothes. The body of the unfortunate man was


covered with white frost-bitteri patches. It was urgently neces-
sary to restore the circulation of the blood in the affected por-
tions. This result Jaspar Hobson hoped to obtain by vigorous
friction with the snow. We know that this is the means generally
employed in the polar countries to set going afresh the circulation
of the blood arrested by the intense cold, even as the rivers are
arrested in their courses by the icy touch of winter^ Sergeant
Long soon returned, and he and Joliffe gave the new arrival such
a rubbing as he had probably never before received. It was no
soft and agreeable friction, but a vigorous shampooing most lustily
performed, more like the scratching of a curry-comb than the
caresses of a human hand.

And during the operation the loquacious Corporal continued to-
exhort the unconscious traveller.

" Come, come, sir. What do you mean by getting frozen like
this. Now, don't be so obstinate ! "

Probably it was obstinacy which kept Thomas Black from deign-
ing to show a sign of life. At the end of half an hour the rubbers
began to despair, and were about to discontinue their exhausting
efforts, when the poor man sighed several times.

" He lives ; he is coming to ! " cried Jaspar Hobson.

After having warmed the outside of his body, Corporal Joliffe
hurried to do the same for the inside, and hastily fetched a few
glasses of the punch. The traveller really felt much revived by
them \ the colour returned to his cheeks, expression to his eyes, and
words to his lips, so that Captain Craventy began to hope "that lie-
should have an explanation from Thomas Black himself of his strange
arrival at the fort in such a terrible condition.

At last the traveller, well covered with wraps, rose on his elbow,,
and said in a voice still faint

" Fort Reliance ? "

" The same," replied the Captain.

" Captain Craventy ? "

" He is before you, and is happy to bid you welcome. But may
I inquire what brings you to Fort Reliance?"

" He is come to see the moon," replied the courier, who evidently
thought this a happy answer.

It satisfied Thomas Black too, for he bent his head in assent and

' ; Lieutenant Hobson ? "



-" I am here," replied the Lieutenant.

" You have not yet started 1 "

" Not yet, sin"

" Then," replied Thomas Black, " I have only to thank you, and
to go to sleep until to-morrow morning."

The Captain and his companions retired, leaving their strange
visitor to his repose. Half an hour later the fete was at an end, and
the guests had regained their respective homes, either in the different
rooms of the fort, or the scattered houses outside the enceinte.

The next day Thomas Black was rather better. His vigorous
constitution had thrown off the effects of the terrible chill he had
had. Any one else would have died from it ; but he was iiot like
other men.

And now who was this astronomer ? Where did he come from ?
Why had he undertaken this journey across the territories of the
Company in the depth of winter ? What did the courier's reply
signify 1 ? To see the moon! The moon could be seen anywhere;
there was no need to come to the hyperborean regions to look
at it !

Such were the thoughts which passed through Captain Craventy's
mind. But the next day, after an hour's talk with his new guest,
he had learned all he wished to know.

Thomas Black was an astronomer attached to the Greenwich
Observatory, so brilliantly presided over by Professor Airy. Mr
Black was no theorist, but a sagacious and intelligent observer ;
and in the twenty years during which he had devoted himself to
astronomy, he had rendered great services to the science of ourano-
graphy. In private life he was a simple nonentity ; he existed only
for astronomy; he lived in the heavens, not upon the earth ; and was
a true descendant of the witty La Fontaine's savant who fell into
a well. He could talk of nothing but stars and constellations. He
ought to have lived in a telescope. As an observer he had not his
rival; his patience was inexhaustible ; he could watch for months for
a cosmical phenomenon. He had a specialty of his own, too ; he
had studied luminous meteors and shooting stars, and his discoveries
in this branch of astronomical science were considerable. When-
ever minute observations or exact measurements and definitions
were required, Thomas Black was chosen for the service ; for his
clearness of sight was something remarkable. - The power of obser
vation is not given to every one, and it will not therefore be surpris



ing that the Greenwich astronomer should have been chosen for the
mission we are about to describe, which involved results so interest-
ing for selenographic science.

We know that during a total eclipse of the sun the moon is
surrounded by a luminous corona. But what is the origin of this
corona ? Is it a real substance ? or is it only an effect of the diffrac-
tion of the sun's rays near the moon ? This is a question which
science has hitherto been unable to answer.

As early as 1706 this luminous halo was scientifically described.
The corona was minutely examined during the total eclipse of
1715 by Lonville and Halley, by Maraldi in 1724, by Antonio de*
Ulloa in 1778, and by Bonditch and Ferrer in 1806 ; but their
theories were so contradictory that no definite conclusion could be
arrived at. During the total eclipse of 1842, learned men of all
nations Airy, Arago, Keytal, Langier, Mauvais, Otto, Struve, Petit,
Baily, &c. endeavoured to solve the mystery of the origin of the
phenomenon ; but in spite of all their efforts, " the disagreement,"
says Arago, " of the observations taken in different places by skilful
astronomers of one and the same eclipse, have involved the question
in fresh obscurity, so that it is now impossible to come to any certain
conclusion as to the cause of the phenomenon." Since this was
written, other total eclipses have been studied with no better

Yet the solution of the question is of such vast importance to
selenographic science that no price would be too great to pay for
it. A fresh opportunity was now about to occur to study the
much-discussed corona. A total eclipse of the sun total, at least,
for the extreme north of America, for Spain and North Africa
was to take place on July 18th, 1860. It was arranged between the
astronomers of different countries that simultaneous observations
should be taken at the various points of the zone where the eclipse
would be total. Thomas Black was chosen for the expedition to
North America, and was now much in the same situation as the
English astronomers who were transported to Norway and Sweden
on the occasion of the eclipse of 1851.

It will readily be imagined that Thomas Black seized with
avidity the opportunity offered him of studying this luminous halo.
He was also to examine into the nature of the red prominences
which appear on different parts of the edge of the terrestrial
satellite when the totality of the eclipse has commenced ; and


should he be able satisfactorily to establish their origin, he would
be entitled to the applause of the learned men of all Europe.

Thomas Black eagerly prepared for his journey. He obtained
urgent letters of recommendation to the principal agents of the
Hudson's Bay Company. He ascertained that an expedition was
to go to the extreme north of the continent to found a new fort.
It was an opportunity not to be lost ; so he set out, crossed the
Atlantic, landed at New York, traversed the lakes to the Red River
settlement, and pressed on from fort to fort in a sledge, under the
escort of a courier of the Company ; in spite of the severity of the
winter, braving all the dangers of a journey across the Arctic
regions, and arriving at Fort Reliance on the 19th March in the
condition we have described.

Such was the explanation given by the astronomer to Captain
Craventy. He at once placed himself entirely at Mr Black's
service, but could not refrain from inquiring why he had been in
such a great hurry to arrive, when the eclipse was not to take place
until the following year, 1860?

" But, Captain," replied the astronomer, " I heard that the Com-
pany was sending an expedition along the northern coast of America,
and I did not wish to miss the departure of Lieutenant Hobson."

" Mr Black," replied the Captain, " if the Lieutenant had already
started, I should have felt it my duty to accompany you myself to
the shores of the Polar Sea."

And with fresh assurances of his willingness to serve him, the
Captain again bade his new guest welcome to Fort Reliance.



NE of the largest of the lakes beyond the 61st parallel is that
called the Great Slave Lake ; it is two hundred and fifty
miles long by fifty across, and is situated exactly at 61

Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 2 of 31)