On The Labrador
Rigolet, to which he was sent, was then the ultima Thule of the service, the still more remote Fort Chimo on Ungava Bay having at this time been abandoned. Of the latter place one of his superiors wrote: "At this period I have neither seen, read or heard of any locality under heaven that can offer a more cheerless abode to a white man than Ungava. . . . If Pluto should leave his own gloomy mansion in tenebris Tartari he might take up his abode here and gain or lose but little by the exchange." Rigolet was a shade better than that. The post stood well up Hamilton Inlet, that great arm of the sea which almost cuts Labrador in two, and the climate there was milder than on the coast. The mountains even had trees on them; "trees," by his own account, "such as spruce and larch, birch and rowan, fir and willow, not at all scrubby, but many of a girth sufficient for a ship's timber. Then we have an abundance of berries of many varieties." But for all that the country was really an Arctic one with its long, iron winter and its brief summer, when by way of pleasant variety the men instead of being frozen were roasted and plagued with innumerable kinds of stinging flies.
There, clad in red flannel shirt and homespun trousers, he scribbled at the desk, handed blankets and tobacco over the counter to dirty Montagnais and Nascopies and Esquimaux, and presided over the melting, storing, and lading of much blubber—in a word, plodded through the most irksome round of sordid duties in the most cramped and forbidding surroundings. By way of amusements there were rides with dog teams over the untrodden snow, like being drawn over gravel in a sheet and liable to such infuriating complications from the inborn perversity of the animals that the old voyageurs used to pay specified sums to the inventors of strange oaths to admonish them with. Or else there were long snowshoe tramps up and down the coast, sometimes at the risk of being carried out to sea on a piece of floating ice, and always with the chance of blizzards, snow-blindness, the excruciating inflammation of the ankles called snowshoe evil, and actual starvation, and the certainty of scarcely tolerable exhaustion, hunger, and the misery of extreme cold when the mercury in the thermometer could be used as a bullet. He was a prudent and cautious man and though he never shrank from any duty no matter what might be the danger involved he took heed not to expose himself needlessly or for mere sport. There was no fear of his coming to grief for want of a good margin in his supplies of clothing and food. But in such surroundings a man so immovably grounded in the principle of putting his work first must often give up all thought of comfort, and could not always avoid facing the most serious perils.
The characteristic Scottish virtue of thrift, always strong in him, manifested itself both in the more familiar form of saving money and in that finer shape which consists in making the utmost possible use of every scrap of raw material. It was sometimes pushed a trifle far, although balanced, also in characteristic Scotch fashion, by imagination and public spirit, and quite capable of daring enterprise and splendid munificence. But after all it is an admirable trait, confounded with niggardliness only by fools; the quick eye, the active and sensitive brain, the vigilant sense of stewardship indispensable for dealing with the small change of opportunity which makes the larger part of life.
These gifts Donald Smith had. They stood him in good stead both then and afterwards. He never failed to have something up his capacious sleeve for the call of emergency. He was always "good at need." He was, besides, one of those invaluable persons who cannot be imprisoned in routine. He could never be content with things as he found them but was always haunted by the better uses they might be put to, the more satisfying shapes they might be made to take. Even in Labrador he saw golden possibilities and to quite a notable extent dug them out for all to see. Had he remained there it is quite possible that with the aid of Wilfrid Grenfell, whose work was always followed by him with warm sympathy and generous help, he might have made a different future for that poverty-stricken land. The profits of the fur-trade there had been gradually falling off, because furs were becoming more and more scarce, but until his time no one had thought of any alternative business that might prove more lucrative. No sooner had he risen above a mere clerkship than he pressed on the Company the potential riches lying before them in the seals of these frozen coasts. Seal-oil became one of his chief exports, and the posts began to pay. His next venture was the shipping of fresh salmon packed in ice, which paid well for a time, and when the price began to decline he was the first to think of canning the salmon, a project which the Company carried out through his agency with the happiest results. Observing the enormous waste of fish and fish offal he urged that it should be used as fertilizer, and proved by experiments of his own that what he advocated was quite feasible. As England at this time was annually importing from Russia large quantities of cranberries and wild sarsaparilla, both of which grew plentifully all over Labrador, he tried to persuade the Company to put these native products upon the English market. In these latter designs, however, he failed to interest the authorities, probably not without good reason on their part, and he had to give them up. At the same time his thrift and shiftfulness operated to his own private benefit. At a very early stage in his promotion he saved some money and invested it. One of his first ventures was in Puget Sound Agricultural Company, and he continued to put his money into that until he became the largest shareholder in the Company. That was thoroughly like him. What he once undertook he never let go. Observe, too, that already he was stretching out from the one extreme of the system, the coast of Labrador which he had made so thoroughly his own, to the other extreme on the Pacific. All of it lay in his head clear as a map. He had already begun to dominate the huge mass which his brain and will were destined to organize.
He was a really large and kindly patriarchal sort of person, too, genuinely interested in the welfare of the people about him even when they chanced to be Indians and Esquimaux. Among other things he loved to practise a rough but very effective kind of doctoring which depended largely on the medicative virtue of fresh air. By breaking a window and giving some mild antiphlogistic powers he once cured a family of scarlet fever which had already killed one of them and would probably have wiped most of them out. In an address to the medical students of the Middlesex Hospital he told with great gusto how the surgeons of Labrador had anticipated Lister in the antiseptic treatment of wounds by the application of a pulp made by boiling the inner bark of the juniper tree. When he rose to the dignity of a chief trader he became a Justice of the Peace and had the power to tie the bonds of a legal marriage. He was fond in after times of recalling these beneficent activities with a certain kindly garrulousness which well became his calm and vigorous old age, and of describing his offices in Labrador in the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism as those of a "prophet, priest, and king." Although doomed in many ways to the life of a wild nomadic Esau he was au fond a Jacob, a plain man dwelling in tents. All his tastes were mild and civilized. It was his pride and pleasure to make a garden in the wilderness. Hamilton Inlet had the unique distinction in that rigorous land of growing potatoes of almost normal size. Indeed, his establishment grew to be rather more than a common garden. Applying his fish fertilizer he succeeded in growing almost every kind of vegetable while he even ripened melons and other fruit under glass. He sent to Orkney for poultry and hardy grains and cattle, to Canada for horses and sheep. These all throve. Men coming out of the wilds after months of flour and pemmican must have been bewildered to taste beef and mutton at his table, to say nothing of vegetables and fruit, and perhaps to be taken for a drive along the rather pathetic two-mile stretch of carriage road he had constructed in that trackless land. One of a summer party of Americans claims to have discovered the greatness of Lord Strathcona long before the rest of the world on the indisputable evidence, taken from his Hyperborean garden, of the best cauliflower he had ever tasted in his life!
Such activities almost necessarily postulate a home. A few months after Donald Smith reached Rigolet, Chief Trader Hardisty was despatched to North-West River still farther up the Inlet, and took his family with him to that isolated post. Every summer he came up to Rigolet with the schooner from Montreal, which brought goods and took away the furs and oil, and one year his daughter came also to help her father with his books in the annual bustle. For those long solitary reflective hours of which we spoke came only in winter. In summer when the furs were coming in to be examined, stored and finally shipped, when blubber had to be melted and salmon were being packed in ice and hurried off to capture the early market, Smith, as he said himself, "never seemed to find time to sleep." He would supervise the men all day and check accounts all night, sometimes walking about in his clothes for forty-eight hours at a stretch. Help of any kind was welcome, but the assistance provided in this particular summer made an epoch in his life. The keen dark eyes of Hardisty's daughter transformed the stern monotony of Labrador for the fair-haired Donald. Greatly daring, he won her and made her his own in the face of what most people would have deemed insuperable obstacles.
It was a perilous adventure indeed when these two lovers joined their lives in indissoluble union. And yet it was successful. The lady had much charm and capacity and an unusual power of winning and retaining the affections of the few who came to know her well. A daughter of the Hudson's Bay Company herself, she was thoroughly acquainted with the life and duties of its officers and well fitted to take a helpful share in her lord nor blind to his little foibles, but knew how to play the part of critic at the hearth, a faculty priceless in all wives and especially in the wife of a much flattered and eminently successful man, liable to the dry-rot of self-complacency. On his part Donald Smith had a genius for domesticity and by his skill in gardening could contribute more than most men to the joint tasks of house-keeping under difficulties. Between them they began by making on slender resources a very spot they built up a well-ordered household, thrifty yet hospitable, not the least happy perhaps, though it was destined to be followed by many splendid mansions, of all the homes they occupied together during their long union, of more than sixty years. Even death did not divide them long. Two months after the departure of his wife the husband followed her and preferred a share of her grave in Highgate Cemetery to a place in Westminster Abbey. They "climbed the hill together," a high and arduous one indeed from the first icy slope at Rigolet in Labrador to the House of Lords in Westminster. He led her by the hand to the highest summit so far as this world's rank and splendour go, and now these two "sleep together at the foot." It was a wonderful partnership, and the contribution made to it by the steadfast manhood of Donald Smith ranked very high indeed in the list even of his achievements.
His marriage was in 1853. About that time the slowly-attained promotion came at last and he was made a chief trader, assuming authority over the entire Hamilton Inlet district while Mr. Hardisty retired to Lachine. The life that has been sketched in the preceding paragraphs went on for nearly ten years more, until in 1862 (after the death of Sir George Simpson) he was made a Chief Factor with control over the whole of Labrador. To most men in the Company this was a crowning achievement. His life-work, however, was only beginning, nor was the current of his existence to flow much longer in the same even course.
In 1838 the Hudson's Bay Company had been granted for twenty-one years a monopoly of trade and the most extensive powers of government over all the territory occupied by them which was not already covered by their ancient charter. This lease of power was due to expire in 1859. Some few years before that date they made application to have it renewed and by so doing precipitated a serious inquiry into their own conduct as governors. A Parliamentary Committee was appointed and the great Company was summoned to give an account of its stewardship. Much evidence was taken on all sides and in spite of Sir George Simpson's plea that they had done all that could be done to colonize such an inhospitable land the Committee were not satisfied with the Company's record in civil government and recommended that as soon as possible the habitable parts of the country, especially the plains along the Saskatchewan and the Red River, should be ceded to Canada. As fur-traders, however, grappling with all the problems incidental to such a trade in a savage country among Indian tribes, the Company, it was held, had done well, and they were confirmed in their exclusive right to trade in such portions as were unfit for agriculture.
For ten years the finding of the Committee made no practical difference. The time was not ripe for any changes. Not until after Confederation could Canada undertake such a task as was involved in annexing the habitable part of the West. But the whole discussion had the effect of turning men's minds more and more towards the possibilities of the Great Lone Land and the problems of its future. A syndicate of capitalists with Edward Watkin at their head proposed to build a road and a telegraph line across the continent. The Hudson's Bay Company, thinking of its game preserves as usual, flatly refused its permission. Negotiations ensued, and in 1863 it was announced that the syndicate, acting through the International Financial Society, had bought out the old company, lock, stock and barrel.
The measure had no immediate and tangible results. The road and telegraph came to nothing. But it had a very real result all the same in that it sowed a profound distrust and dissatisfaction in the minds of the wintering partners. These men, it will be remembered, were not merely the Company's servants but were true partners, each of them drawing his share of the annual profits, the interest on his capital of brains and skill. The system had been taken over from the old North West Company where there could be no doubt regarding their status. The sale of their Company behind their backs without advice or vote from them, a transaction taking place between two sets of London capitalists as if no one else were concerned in it, naturally occasioned bitter resentment among them. They conceived themselves entitled to a share in the purchase money. At the very least they held that their interests should have been safeguarded, for they were partners only in the fur-trade and if the scope of the fur-trade dwindled with the new projects of the new Company, as it was practically certain to do, their profits could not fail to dwindle with it.
Of all these doubts and fears Donald Smith partook, but his letters prove that even then he foresaw what was coming more clearly than any of his fur-trading correspondents and knew that they could not put back the hands of the clock. Away in his remote corner of Labrador he had read plainly the signs of the times which told him that the future was to be with the settler's ox-cart, not with the buffalo runners of the plains, and he had grasped the truth that the new order of things should mean not extinction but widely increased opportunity for them all. At the same time he sympathized in the grievances of his friends and waited anxiously to see what the next few years would bring.
In 1864 he had a holiday and went home to England, delighting his mother with his first visit since he had said good-bye to her twenty-seven years before, and spending much time in meeting the new London authorities of his Company and endeavouring to discover their probable policy. They, on their part seem to have realized that he was something out of the ordinary. After this visit he was a marked man in Fenchurch Street. Indeed, the force that was in him could not much longer be confined to Labrador. The time had come when he was to reach out beyond those icy solitudes and join hands with men who were working nearer the centre of things. His accumulated savings now amounted to a considerable sum, his investments brought him into close touch with Mr. Hugh Allan, Mr. Redpath, his own cousin Mr. George Stephen, and other well-known Montreal men, and these relations both financial and friendly became still more intimate when, in 1869, he was made head of the Montreal department, taking up his residence in the city which he ever afterwards looked upon as his home.
It was just one year later, in 1870, that the North-West was at length ceded to Canada, the Hudson's Bay Company receiving as compensation the sum of £300,000 in cash, in addition to sundry other considerations. At this fresh sale the smouldering discontent of the wintering partners broke into flame again. Determined not to lose their case this time for lack of an effort, they met at Norway House in July of this year and unanimously chose Donald Smith to go to London to represent them and prosecute their claims in Fenchurch Street. It was no small tribute these westerners were paying to a man from Labrador whom, until a few months before, they had never seen and of whom they had scarcely heard, but when he went over in the following spring he more than justified their confidence. It was a difficult mission. He found himself confronted by the most stubborn opposition. The attitude of the London Council was one of incredulous surprise at this unheard of invasion of their sacred and exclusive prerogative of capital. At a series of meetings and interviews he had to listen to vigorous and often rather contemptuous expositions of this point of view. He listened with unruffled patience, urging the claims of his clients with a bland persistence and a perfect knowledge of the situation which compelled an ever-increasing attention and respect.
In spite of the general reluctance to share with remote persons who had never once entered into their calculations a compensation which they had unquestionably regarded as entirely their own and had thought rather inadequate at that, there were among the shareholders and council many men of sense and justice who could not but acknowledge the soundness of his claims. And besides the strong plea of fair play to their officers, who were now, probably for the first time in the entire history of the Company, brought forcibly to the minds of those who profited by them, there was an unanswerable argument which finally determined the settlement of the question. The traders in the North-West could do without the English shareholders much better than the English shareholders could dispense with the traders. The last shadow of the old chartered privileges of the company, which indeed had never amounted to much against a vigorous adversary, had now vanished. A new North West Company could be formed in a few days which would leave the Hudson's Bay Company in the undisturbed enjoy of their £300,000 but might be pretty surely reckoned on to leave them very little in the way of furs, for it would be operated by their own revolting partners, the only men then living who really knew the business, headed by this extremely smooth-spoken and sagacious gentleman who had grown gray in their service.
Donald Smith scored a complete triumph, carrying off £107,000 to be divided among his clients. It was by no means an ignoble victory. To assault his superiors in this way, risking the loss of ** remove the word "from" here ** from the position which had cost him thirty of the best years of his life to win, was possible only to a man of great courage and of unswerving loyalty to his fellow-partners in the wilds. To bring the assault to a successful issue required the prudence which was equally strong in him. These strong qualities made a strong impression during these stormy meetings, with the result that instead of wishing to depose him everybody felt that he was the one man to deal with the altered situation. He was unanimously chosen Chief Commissioner of the Company in Canada, that being the less pretentious name now given to the officer who had formerly been known as the Governor or ** change this "or" to "of" ** Rupert's Land. It was as wise a choice for the English shareholders as it was a welcome one to the wintering partners.
Lord Strathcona was a good deal more than a fur-trader, but he was and never ceased to be that with all his mind and strength. His connection with the Honourable Adventurers of the Hudson's Bay terminated only with his death. He did not choose, it is true, to act long as Chief Commissioner. By 1874 he had tided over the delicate period of transition and had got things working soothly enough to enable him to retire from that post. He was at that time, as we shall see later, much exposed to the storms of public life in the Dominion Parliament, and it was clearly to the advantage of the Company as well as of his own peace that he should not be embarrassed by any official connection with it. But he still fought its battles vigorously and guided its policy with sound counsels. He never failed when it was at all possible to attend the Board meetings in London. As a link between the old North-West and the new he was invaluable. He had the wisdom to see that the general interests of the country and those of his own corporation had now become identical and laboured assiduously and shrewdly for both. Such signal services obtained their inevitable recognition. He had the confidence of every factor from Labrador to Vancouver. As for the London authorities, they appointed him deputy governor in 1888. In 1889 he was succeeded in that office by the Earl of Lichfield, and was elevated to supreme place in the oldest and proudest of all the Associations of the merchant princes of England. In that year he became Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, and retained that office till his death.
One thing at least in his life he did completely well. He knew the fur-trade, from the duties of the lowest clerk to the most far-reaching work of reorganization and supervision, as no other man ever knew it, with an insight born of actual painful contact with the facts at every stage and of a mind which could grasp the full lessons taught by that experience. To do one thing well in this sense means that a man's powers are developed and trained to a pitch at which they are readily capable of doing other things. Of this Donald Smith is a living example. But perhaps nothing would have pleased him better even to the end of his life than the knowledge that all those who had a right to an opinion acknowledged him to be the king of the fur-trade.