Selkirk’s Ulterior Motives – Part 4

by Elizabeth Campbell

Ross concludes his list with the following entry:

4th. For various reasons, therefore, we and many others here are of opinion, that Lord Selkirk’s object was the good of the natives, and theirs alone. What else could it have been? It was not territorial acquisition: that the Company had already. It was not the exclusive right of trade: that they had already. It was not to relieve a redundant population, for that relief was but small; nor could it have been for the bubble reputation. No: he had purer motives. The only prominent objection we have to Red River Colony in a local point of view is its proximity to the boundary line on the south, and his lordship was too clear-sighted not to have foreseen, that eventually it might fall into the hands of the Americans, and should it not, the only outlet for its resources must be south, and not north. Beyond what the Company might require, its market, in the nature of things, must be south also. Hence it is quite evident that his lordship’s motives must have been what we have stated; namely, the civilizing and evangelizing of the natives: so that into whatever hands its government fell, he would have attained his end. For its value to Great Britain, if we except the interest of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was, and ever must be, small indeed; nor could the Americans expect to benefit much by it, either in a political or commercial point of view. The fears of the North-Westers were fully realized, the anticipations of the Hudson’s Bay Company fully borne out by the result, for the colony has become a nursery for its retired servants; but as to Lord Selkirk’s view of benefiting the Indians, forty years’ experience has proved it, as we shall hereafter be able to show, a complete failure.

~ Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement, p. 18-19.

If only Ross had given the colony another 20 years! He would have seen how wrong in several respects his conclusion was.

J. M. Bumsted, in his recent biography of Thomas Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Selkirk, talks a lot more about the Earl’s ideas on American expansion and the importance of Red River in countering U.S. expansion into what was in his time HBC territory. And one only needs to look at what happened to Britain’s claim to what is now Washington State and Oregon to see how important his foresight was!

The amalgamation of the HBC and NWCo. probably would have happened anyway, if either were to survive the depletion of fur stocks in the west. In fact, it was likely a hostile take-over planned by Sir Alexander Mackenzie of the North West Company with the aid of Lord Selkirk that brought the Earl into the Hudson’s Bay Company in the first place (Bumsted, Lord Selkirk: A Life. pp. 171-2)!

As for the retirement community theory, well, who were the ‘Canadians’ but the Métis families of French Canadian fur traders and bois brulés? They were settling at least part-time in the area already! So the colony was only giving structure to a population already in place to some degree, and augmenting its population. Yes, it was meant to re-enforce the HBC charter claims to an area already overrun by the NWCo. The HBC was fighting for survival, just as was the NWCo. This was undoubtedly a means of strengthening the HBC claim and lowering their operating costs.

At the same time, this goal could be achieved by aiding a population in dire need of assistance – the evicted highland tenant farmers. This is where Selkirk really failed, I think. He had plans to bring over a great many more Scots than he actually managed to transport to Red River. The shortfall was in part due to the machinations of NWCo. partners and their propaganda; and the dithering of English politicians, who also were under the influence of NWCo. propaganda, on the subject of Selkirk’s emigration proposals. The colony also lost large numbers of its colonists to migration after NWCo. interference; mismanagement of the colony and its interests by Selkirk’s officials; and floods, droughts and grasshopper plagues; and Selkirk’s premature death among other things. I’m not even sure that the failure was Selkirk’s. The idea was a good one. The timing could have been better, perhaps. But how could anyone have known that!

Ross, to the best of my knowledge, never met Selkirk. He was not an eyewitness to any of the colony’s earliest history – he was one of those retired HBC servants with a First Nations family, who had been working in the Columbia District first for the NWCo., then the HBC, prior to joining the colony in 1825 (Frits Pannekoek, Ross, Alexander. Canadian Encyclopedia). He was one of the colonists who fought hard for a Presbyterian minister, and was very active in the Presbyterian Church at Kildonan as an elder, once it was established. A good portion of his book deals with civilizing the Natives of Rupert’s Land, a process Ross tends to equate with conversion to Christianity. It was a cause that he seemed very concerned with, himself….

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