Reviewed by Norman E. Gough, South Staffordshire, UK
Dr Barry Gough, who lives in Victoria, British Colombia, is an eminent historian and the author of many critically-acclaimed books, mostly with a maritime theme related to history of the northwest coast of America. This one, with the sub-title The Collision of Empires in Northwest America, is a fascinating account of pioneers from many different countries who endured enormous hardships in their quest to open up a trading route to the Pacific Coast, so as to capitalise on the lucrative trade to China of beaver and sea otter skin. I must confess that I knew little about this when I started the book. But I did know about Captain Cook’s expeditions around 1778 and I had read an account of the famous exploration of Lewis and Clark. This book makes clear that in addition to Cook, numerous other explorers had already laid the groundwork for their expedition and the names of these remarkable pioneers – such Ledyard, Vancouver, Pond, MacKenzie, Bering and Malaspina – deserve to be more widely known.
James Cook and numerous sea captains reported their findings from voyages along the coast back to their national governments in Britain, America, Spain, France and Russia. It is amazing how many of these nearly came to grief in the dangerous waters of the Columbia River estuary before sailing to Canton and around the globe. Many other explorers who carried out dangerous scientific expeditions overland to the coast, were mostly interested in geographic and ethnic discoveries, although few observers believed their insistence that they were not promoting trade and political objectives. In general it was in their interests to be nice to the indigenous peoples and detailed reports and speculative maps could not have been produced without help from locals. Many of the early findings were made by traders, particularly the Nor’Westerners (later joined with The Hudson Bay Company), and they had close rapport with the native peoples, often marrying into a tribe. Sometimes tribes were at war with one another and this was exploited by offering them trading deals. Captain James Kenrick out of Boston, for example, managed to purchase from a Chief a harbour with all the lands, minerals, rivers, bays, sound, creeks and islands ‘all for two muskets, a boat’s sail and a quantity of powder’. Needless, to say, none of the agreements were worth the paper they were written on by the time the Canadians and Americans settled the war of 1812 and agreed the border between the two nations.
In the end, the efforts of these pioneers were, in one sense, unsuccessful because the “Northwest Passage” that politicians so much hoped for did not exist. But the trading companies did benefit and Barry Gough shows that they rarely allowed politics to get in the way of trade. The British East India Company clearly did not welcome competition in the lucrative trade with China and America and Britain refused to help the Astorian and Nor-Western companies when they appealed for financial and military help, so it not surprising if, at most times, these companies put profits above any national interests.
Whether you are interested in sea captains and overland explorers, or in the national political machinations that accompanied the opening up North West America to trade, I feel sure you will find something of interest in this marvelous account.
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