The Walrus

Review — Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company

by Jeremy Keehn
Walrus Reads · From the November 2007 magazine
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Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company

by James Raffan
HarperCollins (2007), 473 pp.

Peter C. Newman once labelled George Simpson “a bastard by birth and by persuasion.” Fair to say Sir George did well by both. Driven to overcome the low status conferred by his out-of-wedlock birth in the tiny town of Dingwall, Scotland, Simpson became a key businessman and statesman in an era of Western Canadian history when company and country were one and the same. He remains an underappreciated figure, however, and a reviled one to those who believe no bastardly deed should go unpunished by history.

Onto this contentious terrain steps travel writer James Raffan. His narrative begins in earnest in 1820, when Simpson arrived in the Dominion with a mandate from the Hudson’s Bay Company to prevail in its fortyyear battle with the North West Company. After the companies merged, he was appointed governor of the northern territories, staying on through the fractious waning decades of the hbc’s monopoly on the fur trade — a time when the Columbia territory was being contested and demands for Metis selfrule were stirring.

Simpson was industrious and ruthless, much admired for being “more voyageur than viscount” thanks to feats such as record-setting canoe trips and a round-the-world odyssey. He was also as coarse as Coast Mountain granite, siring at least eleven children by at least eight women, referring to his Indian mistresses as “bits of brown,” and spurring the downfall (and, some suspect, the murder) of a cousin who might have discovered the Northwest Passage were it not for Sir George’s envious machinations.

Raffan tackles these raw details admirably, balancing his appeals to more enlightened sensibilities with respect for Simpson’s accomplishments. Emperor of the North suffers at times from scanty source material, but it succeeds as an unflinching yet sympathetic look at an important nation-builder. When Raffan reaches historical biography’s inevitable end, we are left to appreciate that Simpson was no angel, but that, lacking wings, he nonetheless travelled far.