Approaching St Laurent, The Immortality of Big Business

St Laurent. Green Line. Opened 1966.
St Laurent. Green Line. Opened 1966. (Click here for the overview post.)

Bite Size Canada has a great post on Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who, in August 1583, claimed Newfoundland for England. Great because it gives an insight into the mentality of the explorers who headed up the ventures as well as one of their major problems.

As the post tells it, Sir Humphrey’s ship went down on the return voyage with him looking up from his Bible only to urge good cheer among his crew for they were “as near to Heaven by sea as on land!” (This sentiment must have been current among the explorers of the age, to the point of satire: Thomas More has his fictional explorer, Hythlodaeus, declare a similar idea in the opening pages of Utopia.) Whether this easy acceptance of our final destination was fatalism or indifference, I cannot say, but Sir Humphrey and his explorations were also part of an emerging business culture which is given voice at the beginning of Samuel de Champlain’s Voyages, published in 1613.

According to the diversity of their dispositions, men’s inclinations vary, and in his calling has a particular object. Some aim at profit, others at glory, and others at the public welfare. The greater number take to commerce, and especially that which is carried on by sea. Thence springs the people’s principal source of comfort, with the wealth and honour of states. This it was that raised ancient Rome to the sovereignty and mastery of the whole world, and the Venetians to a height comparable to with that of mighty kings. In all ages it has made maritime cities abound in riches, among which cities Alexandria [in Egypt] and Tyre [in Lebanon] are so famous, and a host of others occupying the interiors of countries, while foreign nations have sent them whatever beautiful and remarkable things they possess. This is why princes have striven to find a route to China by the north, in order to facilitate commerce with the peoples of the East, in the hope that this route might prove shorter and less dangerous.

Far from sharing Sir Humphrey’s fatalistim, Champlain calculated the distance to heaven in future revenues as a way of gaining financial backing and royal support in the form of a monopoly and military protection. Sometimes we have quite precise figures for the expected source of revenue. In 1618, Champlain estimates 5.4 million livres per year from a variety of sources, the biggest being cod and mined metals at 1 million each. Fur, which became the main export, comes in at 400,000. When it comes to the customs revenue he is, wisely, more circumspect, but it will amount more than in all France.

Clearly these sometimes fantastic figures took quite a long time to materialize, if they did at all, a point underscored by Sir Humphrey who met his inevitable future in pursuit of the calculated one. The divergence between these futures was a problem which beset the early explorers of Canada. In short, the explorer has no answer to the obvious question of his backers: “What happens if you die before you make me rich?”

In view of the tendency of explorers to promise riches, only die while bringing them back, royal support and therefore military and legal protection was weak. Some of the licences Champlain worked under were limited to a year and, after giving a brief history of European exploration across the Atlantic published in 1613, he outlines the problem.

After them [other doomed explorers], notwithstanding all these vicissitudes and hesitations, the Sieur de Monts desired to attempt this desperate undertaking, and asked his Majesty for a commission for this purpose; for he realised that what had ruined the former undertakings had been a lack of assistance to the promoters, who, neither in a single year nor in two, had been able to become acquainted with the regions and people who inhabit them, or to find harbours suitable for settlement. He proposed to his Majesty a method of meeting the expenses without drawing anything from the royal exchequer, namely that he be given a monopoly of the fur trade of that country. This having been granted to him, he contracted large and excessive expenditure, and took with him a considerable number of men of divers conditions, and had constructed there the dwellings necessary for his men. This expenditure he continued for three years [late 1604 to 1608], after which, in consequence of the jealousy and importunity of certain Basques and Breton merchants, his grant was revoked by the Council, to the great detriment of the said Sieur de Monts, who, in consequence of this revocation, was compelled to abandon everything, with the loss of his labour and of all the implements wherewith he had provided his settlement.

Even without financial support from the royal exchequer, a temporary monopoly was useless. Without enduring legal and military support, no one could be assured of any return, already doubtful and constantly assailed by the promises of Basques and Bretons of a “shorter and less dangerous route”.
As it turned out, the answer to the problem of death, was easier than to the competition from Basques and Bretons. It was however radical: immortality.

This took a while, but had been seen in some form in the charter issued to Cabot by Henry VII in 1496. Although still awarded to a mortal individual, it bestowed his grant on his heirs and deputies as well. That said, immortality does not prevent the four horseman of the corporate apocalypse: politics, the law, which is weak, bankruptcy, and lack of interest.

Cabot’s venture fell victim to the last. One correspondant put it to the Venetian Senate in 1536, Henry VIII “who has become a Lutheran and worse” suggested that English king cared little for the enterprise”, but rather than religion, the truth might be that English were making so much money in the wool trade that overseas ventures were something of a joke, for which see Utopia.

If Cabot’s charter showed the way to immortality, its dynastic element might have caused some anxiety in the French court; the royal family were, after all, Medicis and so knew a thing or two about money and families. The answer here was to bypass individuals and work with groups, and so the French Crown began issuing the monopolies not to individuals, but to groups of individuals working together in a theoretically deathless, incorporated entity.

The first of these working in Canada was the Compagnie de Marchands, which traded from 1613 to 1621, when it failed due to a breach of its licence. (Death by law can happen but is rare). It was replaced by the Compagnie de Montmorency which Cardinal Richelieu abolished in 1627 (politics) and replaced with the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France, or the Compagnie des Cent-Associés – Champlain was investor, or associate, number 52.

The Cent-Associés lasted until 1663 when its lamentable state forced the colony into royal authority (death by bankruptcy and partial resurrection by nationalization). By this time though, Pierre-Éspirit Radisson was working his way towards creating the Hudson’s Bay Company, which, while now over three hundred years old seems to be doing fine tricking death, does not seem to be any closer to the heaven that Sir Humphrey had in mind.

Consulted for this post

James A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII with the Cartography of the Voyages, Second Series, no. 120 (The Hakluyt Society, 1961). Williamson provides the following information about Cabot’s charter: “Public Record Office, Chancery Warrants for Privy Seal, ser. II, 146.

The Works of Samuel de Champlain, ed. H. P. Biggar (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1922-1936)

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